Latin language and Roman law

Roman law and Latin legal language occupy a prominent place in the Roman cultural and intellectual history. Additionally, the history of legal Latin coexists with the history of Latin itself: apart from the extracts from the Twelve Tables and inscriptional material from 2nd century bc onwards, legal Latin is attested throughout the classical period and it exerted influence on the literary language (Powell 2011: 465). Despite several studies (Daube 1956, Pascucci 1968, De Meo 2005, and Kalb 1888 for the Digest, among others), legal Latin is a topic that still deserves attention: on the one hand, linguistic means typically used in legal texts have not been systematically investigated; on the other hand, identification of quotations of or allusions to the legal language in literary texts would make it possible to evaluate the influence of Roman law on the Roman literature. The purpose of this workshop is to invite both linguists and specialists of Roman law to explore in detail various aspects of the language used in Roman legislation. Legal elements are found in Plautus’ and Terence’s comedies, in Cicero, Quintilian, Pliny the Younger, Horace, Ovid, Petronius, among others, as well as in curse tablets. For example, in Plautus, there are both direct testimonies of the legal language (in particular, the conclusion of contracts Poen. 1157) and allusions to Roman legislation (such as Amph. 64-74), especially for comic effects. In Cicero, apart from the famous passage of Cicero’s proposal of legislation (Leg. 2.19-22 and 3.6-11), there are various quotations of rogationes (proposals of law, such as Dom. 44) or other legal documents. Judicial oratory (Rhetorica ad Herennium 2 and Cicero, De inventione 2) is a particular source, especially for legal concepts and terminology.

1. Lexicon

Latin legal language is a kind of technical language using a special register of the language and an appropriate terminology. Apart from words that have a legal lexical meaning (verba iudicialia), such as stipulor ‘to engage’, spondeo ‘to promise’, accuso ‘to accuse’, the core of legal terminology consists of ordinary words used in a special sense (Powell 2011: 466). For example, manum inicere meaning ‘to lay one’s hand on’ (Cic. Q. Rosc. 48) acquires a special technical sense ‘to summon before a judge’ (and also, ‘to take possession of’, Liv. 3.44.6); manu mittere ‘to release’, in technical sense ‘to emancipate’; causam dicere ‘to tell the reason’, in technical sense ‘to defend oneself’; or phrases such as pater familias ‘father as head of the household’ or patria potestas ‘legal power of the father’.

Latin legal language features a cumulative development: as the law evolves in practice, new concepts and distinctions arise which call for new terminology. In ancient times, legal concepts, like responsibility or validity, were not yet elaborated clearly, as emphasized by Fritz Schulz in his Principles of Roman Law (Schulz 1936: 40-41). Moreover, he stated that it is hardly possible to prove that the Romans would have formulated such principles of law on the level of abstraction as we observe them today. Consequently, the Romans used various nouns and verbs with a broad scale of interpretation (Gebhardt 2009: 19-20). This aspect of legal terminology can also be a promising research field.

In comparison with modern times, Latin legal practice was not professionalized to the same degree. Latin legal language was not only in hands of legal experts (iuris experti) but it was dealt with by magistrates, judges, and advocates of the court, who were not from their rank (Powell 2011: 465).

2. Formal properties of Latin legal texts

In general, legal texts—such as statutes or decrees—represent a particular text type distinguished by a formal register and an impersonal style (Tiersma 1999: 55-69). They aim at unambiguous precision and, at the same time, a broad applicability of the established norm (cf. Mattiello 2010). These two aspects are also observable in Latin legal texts; they are seemingly contradictory but in reality they are complementary. They have consequences for the choice of linguistic expressions: on the one hand, legal texts typically contain repetition of verbs in different tenses (fecit fecerit ‘he did or would do’), repetition of head nouns in relative clauses (qui ager ‘which land’), accumulation of synonyms and frequent use of resumptive expressions. On the other hand, there is a frequent use of indefinite expressions (si quis ‘if someone’, ne quis ‘that no one’), relative clauses with a general meaning (qui petit ‘the accuser’), use of the passive voice, and nominalisation. Apart from these two features, formal register and impersonal style, Latin legal texts are authoritative. Hence conservatism in the use of various archaisms to increase authoritativeness (Crawford 1996: I.16-19): archaisms typical of Early Latin, such as diphthongs (nei) and archaic or archaising spelling (pequnia), as well as specific legal archaisms (siremps) and antiquated morphology (such as the sigmatic nominative plural in –es or –eis).

3. Identification of legal elements

Features characteristic of legal Latin have been discussed several times, especially in context of “correspondences” between spoken language and legal language, notably Pascucci (1968) and De Meo (2005: 87-118). However, it is necessary to distinguish legal elements from other features, especially from features that characterize Early Latin in general and colloquial Latin in particular. In order to provide an adequate account of legal elements, it is important to adopt a rigorous methodology. Identification of elements that can be labelled as “features of legal texts” poses problems similar to the features of the so-called “vulgar” or substandard Latin. J. Adams (2013: 331, 376-377 and passim) has developed a clear method for dealing with such elements: if an element only occurs in substandard texts, it can be taken as a feature of substandard Latin; if an element also occurs in other types of text, such as literary or didactic texts, there is no reason to consider it as substandard (cf. also the identification of regional features by Adams 2007: 378ff.). A similar method could also be used for identifying features of legal Latin:

i) if an element occurs in legal texts only and is not found in other types of texts, it can be considered as a “legal element”;

ii) instances in literary texts should be analyzed in context; for example an occurrence in a passage in Plautus or Terence concerning Roman legislation can be taken as “legal context” and count as i).

An example of unde in a legal context where other legal elements are present would be(Ter. Eun. 10): in Thensauro scripsit causam dicere prius unde petitur, aurum qua re sit suom, quam illum qui petit … ‘in his Treasure he made the defendant speak first to show why the money was his before the plaintiff made his speech …’              

In this passage, there are several other elements pointing to a legal context: causam dicere, petit/petitur, re. Unde (instead of a quo) can be considered as occurring in a legal context.

iii) if an element in a legal text is not restricted to this text type, it can be a feature of the Latin language in general, which is just frequent or preferred in legal texts (an example is asyndetic coordination).

4. Additional research questions

1) Typology of legal elements in Latin literature.

2) How to identify allusions and what kind of explicit signs help to identify legal passages?

3) To what extent does the structure of Latin legal formulae help with the identification of legal passages? For example, are there patterns clearly recognisable as such?

4) Are there degrees of formality in legal allusions or quotations? For example, one would expect true formal legal language in Cicero when quoting official documents but a milder, less formal legal language in Plautus’ comedies.

5) What kind of errors do philologists usually make in interpreting or translating passages containing allusions to or quotations of legal language?