Roman Law and Economics (Video)


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  • [Music]
  • I'm Dennis Kehoe, professor in the department of classical
  • studies at Tulane, where I've taught since 1982.
  • The focus of my research is on the society and economy of the Roman empire
  • and in particular on the complex role in these played by Roman law
  • and legal institutions. We can see the products of the Roman economy
  • and the spectacular archaeological remains from ancient Rome
  • including temples in the Roman forum, amphitheaters in Rome and other cities,
  • aqueducts, imperial villas, and the impressive houses at Pompeii.
  • Underpinning these material remains was an economy
  • that as in all pre-industrial societies was dominated by agriculture.
  • Consequently, most of my own research has been on
  • agrarian relationships to see how upper class Romans engaged in
  • economic planning, and how the Roman imperial government
  • formulated policies in an economy subject to constraints imposed by
  • population and technology. One basic question concerns whether
  • Roman law played a positive role in the economy
  • by providing incentives for investment and greater productivity.
  • The Roman government would have accomplished this purpose
  • by developing a system of law that defined
  • and property rights precisely and by maintaining authoritative legal
  • institutions to facilitate the resolution of disputes
  • in a timely, straightforward, and predictable manner.
  • The alternatives are that the law and legal institutions serve
  • primarily to promote the interests of well-connected groups
  • even at the expense of society as a whole, or that they were weak
  • and thus exercised little influence on how people
  • organized their economic lives. These questions are, in my view, crucial
  • for understanding the nature of Roman rule.
  • Whether it simply fostered the interest of the privilege,
  • or whether and to what extent it provided benefits more broadly.
  • Answering these questions requires ingenuity
  • in teasing out information about economic relationships
  • from a variety of sources of evidence. For my part, I've written on land tenure
  • in Roman north Africa largely on the basis of inscriptions
  • on the management of estates in Roman Egypt
  • using documentary papyri, and on the economic planning of a Roman senator
  • using literary sources. In recent years, the focus of my research has been on
  • reconstructing economic relationships from the ways in
  • which the Roman legal authorities developed rules for
  • various aspects of private property and commercial
  • activity including: land tenure, risk in
  • agriculture, the bequeathing of land and other
  • property, and various forms of agency. The Roman legal authorities include the
  • classical Roman jurists, who over time developed rules for Roman
  • private law, and the Roman emperors and their legal
  • advisors who modified the law or even created new
  • law as they responded to petitions from
  • people across the empire. This legal material is preserved in the
  • digest and the Codex of Justinian.
  • The field of ancient history has long been open
  • to interdisciplinary approaches and ancient historians have drawn on
  • scholarship in anthropology, economics, law, and even sociology and
  • political science. The new institutional economics and the
  • related field of law and economics have enriched my own research by
  • providing a theoretical perspective for investigating the economic
  • implications arising from various types of property rights
  • and contractual relationships. The new institutional
  • economics suggests ways to understand the incentives guiding economic planning
  • in light of basic constraints on our decision making
  • such as the costliness of information and the influences of overarching social
  • values on our behavior. In recent years, there's been a new trend
  • in interdisciplinarity involving the ancient world as scholars
  • from both the fields of economics and law have become interested in the
  • ancient world. For economists, the relatively simple
  • economy of the Roman empire provides a way to test theories about
  • economic relationships while legal historians see in Roman law
  • the roots of the ways in which later societies,
  • including our own, have addressed basic economic issues.
  • My most recent publication, a two-volume collection of essays titled
  • Roman Law and Economics and published by Oxford University Press,
  • brings together scholars from classics, economics, and law
  • to tackle a wide range of issues in Roman society such as: slavery and
  • manumission, the organization of businesses in the
  • ancient world, agency in the roman economy, and the
  • economic consequences of both Roman legal policies
  • and individual legal rules. The collection was the idea of
  • Giuseppe Dari Mattiacci, the co-editor, an Italian economist
  • who has studied classics and maintained an interest
  • in the ancient world. Giuseppe invited me in 2009
  • to participate in a seminar held at the University of Amsterdam Center for Law
  • and Economics, where he was then teaching. He has since
  • moved to Columbia University School of Law.
  • When I arrived in Amsterdam I learned that my invitation was on the
  • recommendation of a mutual dear friend, Elio Lo Cascio,
  • now emeritus professor of the University La Sapienza in Rome.
  • Professor Lo Cascio ranks as one of the foremost authorities in Roman history
  • in the world today. Professor Lo Cascio also provided me with a springboard for
  • my own contribution to this collection- an essay on the Roman contract of
  • mandate, which defined the legal rights and
  • obligations of the parties when one-person voluntary voluntarily
  • carries out significant financial transactions
  • on behalf of another without being paid to do so.
  • I first started researching mandate when professor Lo Cascio
  • invited me to participate in an annual seminar on Roman law
  • at the University of Pavia in Italy in 2013.
  • My assignment was to talk about the ways in which the Roman jurists
  • treated legal problems when people were managing property on behalf of others.
  • To turn to the Roman law and economics volumes,
  • my colleague Giuseppe Dari Mattiacci, had the vision for the project
  • and he invited an array of scholars from fields ancient and modern to participate.
  • My original role was as a contributor, but I soon began helping with the
  • editing and eventually became co-editor. I will
  • have to say that this was a lot of work, but it was worthwhile because I learned
  • a great deal. We both hope that the collection will
  • help draw together scholars in many fields
  • into a richer dialogue. Thank you.
  • [Music]