Clifford Ando


On his book Law, Language, and Empire in the Roman Tradition

Cover Interview of January 15, 2012


First, I’d very much like the book to draw attention to the astonishing creativity of Roman lawyers. Indeed, Roman legal writing seems to me to capture and convey something essential and unique about Rome as a society and Latin as a language. Likewise, to my mind, Roman legal thought represents the most remarkable and certainly the most essentially Roman achievement of intellectual life under the empire.

Second, the book draws attention to an understudied problem in the history of the Roman law, namely, the historical priority of private law at Rome, in contrast to all other forms of legal thought (constitutional law, international law, and so forth). What is more, because in different ways at different times, Roman law served as the foundation for law in continental Europe, this problem persists. One doctrine of property used by European powers to seize land elsewhere—the doctrine of “res nullius,” or “property of no one”—was not in origin a concept in international law at all. It arose in private law to cover such problems as rivers changing their course: when that happens, stretches of riverbed became dry land, and as a matter of logic, Roman lawyers asserted, they cannot have been private property before.

As I see it, the implication of international law in private law—and specifically in the private law of an imperial power—laid the ground for huge problems in the history of law in the late middle ages and early modern Europe. I’ll be turning my attention there by and by.