Roman Law and Comparative Law

Alan Watson

The University of Georgia Press 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
Roman Law and Comparative Law is divided into two parts: the first third is a description of Roman law and the remainder considers various topics in comparative law, and in particular the historical influence of Roman law. The first part is a reworking of an earlier book and the second is based on a variety of previously published book chapters and papers. This is quite sensible: the reader can get the necessary grasp of Roman law and then pick and choose from the second section depending on their interests.

Watson's description of Roman law is symmetrically organised. The first chapter introduces Roman law, and the second describes its early history. Seven chapters then describe different areas of classical law — the sources of law, family law, slavery, property, contracts, delicts and succession. The final two chapters cover the postclassical period and the subsequent history of Roman law.

Although the material in the second half seems to have been rewritten for this book, there is some overlap and a little repetition between chapters. Some deal with issues within Roman law itself, and others with general issues such as the culture of judges and communication of the law, but most of the chapters deal with aspects of the influence of Roman law on later legal texts and codes, mostly within Western Europe (particularly England and France, but also Holland, Spain, Italy and Germany). One central theme runs through all the chapters: the idea that legal texts and codes can only be understood within the historical context in which they were written, and that to understand this often means looking at other legal systems. This is what Watson means by "comparative law", writing that "comparative law is a branch of legal history", a usage that may seem odd to anthropologists. Though Watson also argues that the "culture of judges" is important, he sees this too in the context of legal history, and perhaps goes too far in treating legal tradition and history as autonomous from broader society.

Though I can vouch that Roman Law and Comparative Law is accessible to those without a legal background (it is the first book on law I have ever read), it is really aimed at those who do have some knowledge of the law and who want an introduction to Roman law and its influence. That someone who already has a solid knowledge of Roman history and literature can learn some basic law from it is accidental, but also an indication of how clearly Watson explains his material.

November 1994

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%T Roman Law and Comparative Law
%A Watson, Alan
%I The University of Georgia Press
%D 1991
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0820312614
%P xx,328pp