Roman Law

The ancient world took it for granted that different peoples organized themselves in the ways that were best for them.  Guys like Herodotus might’ve admired the Egyptians, by and large, but he’d never suggest that Egyptian society had anything to teach the Greeks.  Or vice versa, which is why Greeks could actually rule Egypt for centuries without being “Egyptianized” for any but the grossest propaganda purposes.  Even the one pharaonic custom they did adopt, royal incest, was largely to keep the dynasty Greek.

Ruling the different peoples according to their customs was the cornerstone of Roman imperial law, too, which is why the pax romana was so successful for so long.  The Jews are a good example.  The Romans ruled them through client kings for as long as it was politically feasible.  Pontius Pilate wasn’t being cowardly when he washed his hands of Jesus; he was playing imperial politics.  He clearly had the power to execute Jesus on his own authority, but doing so would’ve put him at odds with traditional imperial legal practice.

Indeed, the Christians screwed up Roman imperial jurisprudence in two major ways.  The first was their refusal to sacrifice to the Cult of the Divine Augustus.  That alone probably wouldn’t have been so bad — it could’ve been worked out, or quietly dropped, by governors on the spot — if it weren’t for the second thing: Their refusal to be subject to the laws of their ethnic group.

The Romans didn’t care if you were an Isis-worshiping Gaul, any more than they’d care if you were an Egyptian who worshiped Cernunnos.  They’d try the Gaul as a Gaul, and the Egyptian as an Egyptian.  And, of course, they’d try a Roman as a Roman, which is the only reason Paul lived long enough to write all those epistles — though ethnically a Jew, he was a Roman citizen, entitled to a hearing in front of a Roman magistrate (in this case, Seneca’s brother).  But as a Christian, Paul emphatically renounced his Roman citizenship, which threw their entire system of justice out of whack.  To them, “renouncing” your Roman citizenship would be like an African “renouncing” his black skin — impossible, bizarre, unthinkable.

The important thing to realize is that the Roman system, for all its flaws, worked in practice.  It took a revolution in human relations to undermine it.  There is, in short, nothing special about our current belief in universal legal principles.  In fact, it’s just that — a belief, subject to modification at any time, for any reason.  “Judging each man by his group’s standards” is one of only two ways to achieve lasting piece in a multi-ethnic society.  You know what the other one is….

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8 thoughts on “Roman Law

  1. Pickle Rick

    And now, we’re edging damn close to feudal law in the United States. A “sanctuary city” and it’s defiance of Federal immigration law any different than the local lords in feudal Europe enforcing their laws and not the King’s justice and daring anyone else to stop them? That Fairfax cop just got fired for turning in an illegal non-citizen over to Immigration.
    By the way, the refusal of Northern law enforcement and judges to obey the Fugitive Slave Act was a big step to 1860. Sound familiar?

    1. Pickle Rick

      There weren’t many. Britannia was full of Britons. Gaul had tons of tribes, but they were all Gauls. The provinces were, by and large, monocultural. The only outsiders were the Roman (or Romanized) colonial overlords, who brought down the hammer on rebellious locals. Roman law (and Roman privileges) was only for Roman citizens, and most inhabitants of the provinces were not citizens until very late in the empire’s slow sad decline when Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men in the empire. Prior to that, the only path to citizenship was serving 25 years in an auxiliary cohort or being granted it by special circumstances.

  2. MBlanc46

    A growing minority are coming to the realization that American black neighborhoods should be policed differently than white or Asian neighborhoods. It’s not just whites who are beginning to see this. Many blacks see it as well. The blacks don’t frame the issue in the same way as the whites—especially evil old “racist” whites such as I—but the practical outcome is the same. The enforcement of the laws—which is in practice what the laws are—should differ according to the population upon whom they are enforced.

  3. Publius

    Seems to me the practical result of this is natural self-segregation. You stay with your group so you know what rules to follow.

    Diversity + Law = Apartheid.

    1. Pickle Rick

      The problem with that is, we don’t want or need to go to Martin Luther King Boulevard to the pawn shop, liquor store, or the Kentucky Fried Chicken. However, Quantavarious and Mo’Squeeshia are continually causing havoc in areas we by necessity have to transit, work or shop in major cities.

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