Roman law and its digital life

Scholars working in the field of Classical Antiquity have wholeheartedly embraced the use of digital tools. Some portals concerning aspects of the ancient Mediterranean are even among the very best current websites. It is a sheer joy to figure out for example how to travel from Asia Minor to Italy using the Orbis interactive map created at Stanford University. In this post I would like to look at the possibilities to work with Roman law texts in digital versions.

Banner of the Amanuensis program

Are websites or tools available which can help to achieve the aims of both traditional and more advanced aims in classical philology when dealing with the texts of the great Roman lawyers and the compilations created in the sixth century AD? The answer might surprise some younger readers, but in fact one of the earliest computer programs dealt already with this subject. One can only admire the foresight and wide view of Hofrat Josef Menner (Universität Linz) to create the program Romtext not just for Justinian’s Digest, but also for his Codex and Institutes, for the Institutiones Gaii and the Codex Theodosianus as well as the Breviarium Alarici (Lex Romana Visigothorum) and even less well-known texts, for example the Tabula Heracleensis. The program functioned since the early seventies on a standalone computer. His program has now been converted by Peter Riedlberger and Günther Rosenbaum into a modern program, called Amanuensis. This tool was launched in March 2014 and is available both for the main personal computer systems and also as an application for smartphones. Amanuensis has been out already for some time now, and version 1.5.2 certainly merits attention here. In the Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 101 (2015) 793-794 the creators announced their tool in print to the scholarly world.

The search screen of Amanuensis

The origins of Amanuensis from a computer system with only bare essentials is still immediately visible in the austere search screen, both on your pc and on a smart phone. However, in this new incarnation Romtext still scores above the various websites with Roman legal texts where you can perform only searches in one singular text, not within the complete corpus of Roman law texts. The list of resources even includes three early medieval Germanic law codes, the Völkerrechte. You can set the search interface in sixteen different languages. You can tune the search mode to include exact phrases, skip occurrences or include various endings of a word, and by clicking on a paragraph you get the context into view. It is also possible to search for particular texts using the normal abbreviations for Roman legal texts. Amanuensis does deal also with assimilation in words to make searching for different spellings easier. In other words, you can perform the kind of searches you expect of similar tools. Long fragments in Greek have been excluded from the corpus.

Logo The Roman Law LibraryOn my own legal history portal Rechtshistorie I have listed at the page for Roman law links to a number of digital version of the Corpus Iuris Romani. At the Latin Library the texts for Roman law compiled under the authority of emperor Justinian have been put together in one section, the Theodosian Code and the Institutes of Gaius appear separately. Surely The Roman Law Library at Grenoble can boast the largest variety of Roman legal texts, but here, too, you have to search within individual sections. Yves Lassard and Aleksandr Koptev include at their magnificent portal when possible two or even more editions of a text, something to keep in mind when using Amanuensis and other resources, such as the very good searchable versions of the Institutiones Iustiniani, the Codex and the Digest at the Intratext Digital Library. At Intratext you can for example also search for words in alphabetical listings and benefit from the KWIC presentation (keyword in context).

A plethora of texts

Lately I have looked at several online text corpora, and it is rewarding to mention here at least some of them. The Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum guides you for Roman legal texts to the versions at the Latin Library. DigilibLT, Biblioteca digitale dei testi latini tardoantichi (Università degli Studi di Piemonte Orientale (Vercelli)), does not include any Roman law text among its Latin texts from Late Antiquity. The Bibliotheca Polyglotta created at the Faculty of Humanities at Oslo University is awe-inspiring for its sheer scope and range, from Arabic texts to the Bible in several languages, and from Ashoka inscriptions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, Roman law is absent. At Monumenta, a Swiss portal created by Max Bänziger, you have access to a large number of texts in classical and medieval Latin, but legal texts have not been included.

In another Swiss project, the Corpus Corporum – Repertorium operum Latinorum apud universitatem Turicensem at the Universität Zürich, you will find a wealth of Latin resources, among them for medievalists Migne’s Patrologia Latina. This portal builds on the strengths of some digital corpora which figure in this paragraph. I would have expected to find Roman legal texts in the section Latinitas Antiqua, but instead you will find Justinian’s Digest and the Institutes of Gaius among the Auctores scientiarum varii as the only Roman legal texts. For a different slant – and a very different layout – you can visit the Bibliotheca Augustana created by Ulrich Harsch (Augsburg) who has not only the Iustinian codification and Gaius’ Institutes, but also the Laws of the Twelve Tables, Diocletian’s price edict and other short texts.

Banner Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University

Let’s conclude this brief tour of major textual corpora for digital humanities with the Perseus Digital Library (Tufts University, Medford, MA). You might wonder why I did not start with this digital library, doubtless the richest online resource for Greek and Latin texts, and you will not be disappointed here when looking for the Qur’an, Icelandic sagas or texts on American history, too. Roman law is conspicuously absent. On a separate domain the Perseus Catalog does bring you to external versions of Justinian’s Digest, even in the 1909 translation by Charles Monro and William Buckland, the Institutes and the Codex, and to the edition by Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krüger of the Corpus Iuris Civilis at the Internet Archive, with the Institutiones and the Digesta (5th ed., Berlin 1888), the Codex Iustinianus (5th ed., Berlin 1892) and the Novellae (Berlin 1895). The Perseus Catalog does not bring you to the Codex Theodosianus also present at the Internet Archive in the edition by Mommsen and Paul Meyer (Berlin 1905). The Perseus Digital Library exists also in a special version for advanced philological research, Perseus under PhiloLogic, using the PhiloLogic technology developed at the University of Chicago available for text collections, encyclopedias and dictionaries, in many cases in open access. It would be great to approach Greek and Roman legal texts, too, with modern digital tools.

Knowing more is more than just fun

Today I received a flyer of a Dutch newspaper advertising with the slogan “Meer weten is wel zo leuk” [Knowing more is really nice]. I immediately combined their advertisement with the matters at stake here. The ideal of an all-embracing Altertumswissenschaft can still bring a smile on our faces. It would be great to connect aspects of ancient civilizations seamlessly and effortlessly with each other, and indeed the online availability of so many resources and their rich variety makes achieving the aim of histoire totale less far away than before. Why does Roman law get such a marginal place in the text corpora described in the middle of this posting? I had better not speculate on any answer. Perhaps Romtext and its current form simply have not yet been noticed very much outside the German-speaking world.

In last month’s posting about law and pocket books I noted an Italian pocket edition of the Digesta, but now you can actually have the Corpus Iuris Civilis and some supplementary texts literally in your pocket. It is not just that the Romans paid particular attention to legal matters, it is not even the perfection of their laws and commentaries nor the brutal exclusion of whole groups in society, it is the impact on Roman society and the reception of Roman law that matters crucially in understanding the Roman world and its significance during two millennia. Leaving out law when talking about the Romans might make things seem easier, but it does leave out something that mattered very much to them.

In fact scholars in the field of Roman law might sometimes yearn to achieve what others working in fields such as Assyrian and Egyptian history have already done with computers and digital tools. One can only admire the way ancient inscriptions and papyri have been made accessible online. The way things work for studying Roman law are changing, too, even if you can only find a trickle of news about Roman law on the deservedly famous blog of Charles E. Jones, AWOL – The Ancient World Online. Thanks to Sarah E. Bond’s blog about law in Classical Antiquity and her links I arrived at Paul Du Plessis’ (Edinburgh) very useful online companion to Borkowski’s Textbook on Roman Law (5th ed., Oxford, etc. 2015) who alerted me to the services of Amanuensis, and made me work to update my webpage on Roman law.

Logo Ius Civile

In most cases the Ius Civile portal of Ernest Metzger (University of Glasgow) is one of the surest places to look for online information about Roman law, for example his clear listing of online versions of the various parts of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, but evidently Amanuensis has yet escaped his attention. On the blog of the online scholarly journal Roman Legal Tradition Metzger alerted on September 8, 2015, to a recent article by Thomas A.J. McGinn on Roman law and the expressive function of law. It is worth citing Metzger’s opening words:

Those who study Roman law don’t “collaborate” with other disciplines: they live in them. Romanists who aren’t part philologist and social historian don’t exist, and without some acquaintance with philosophy and the history of ideas they’re just left behind. So they don’t talk about “interdisciplinarity.” Like the old joke: “What’s water?” said the fish. The corollary is that Roman law is the perfect mirror for all manner of studies, and that includes relatively new ones, like the expressive function of law.

Metzger succeeds in making his readers really awake! To do justice to the role and importance of Roman law legal historians should do their best to bring this fact to bear on the study of Classical Antiquity, and make other scholars more aware of and wary about Roman laws, lawyers and institutions. Roman law is indeed a mirror of all aspects of the Roman civilization. In my view the mirror of ancient society is distorted when Roman law in its turn is not clearly visible. Of course the laws of the Romans can be biased, disgraceful or wrong, but a mirror should show such characteristics, too. Specialists of Roman law might be versatile scholars in other disciplines as well, but it is up to scholars in these disciplines to turn an eye to Roman law. You are at your own peril when you turn a blind eye to this central element in Roman life and culture. Having a nifty tool as Amanuensis at your disposal, if you want at your finger tips, can be most useful to make your mind up about Roman law. We have to thank scholars such as Josef Menner, Yves Lassard, Aleksandr Koptev and Peter Riedlberger who took and take the trouble of paving roads to electronic access to Roman legal texts.

logo-Index Iuris

This week I noticed also the launch of Index Iuris, a portal at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. Its creators, Colin Wilder (University of South Carolina), founder of the portal The Republic of Literature, and Abigail Firey (University of Kentucky), leader of the team for the Carolingian Law Project, have as their aim the development of a portal for all kind of historical legal texts. Including resources such as those now available in Amanuensis will be a major asset for this ambitious project. Hopefully it will not detract too much energy from their other projects, and exactly for this reason the co-operation of other scholars is most welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s