Thursday, December 27, 2012


Detlef Liebs, Summoned to the Roman Courts: Famous Trials from Antiquity. Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 274. ISBN 9780520259621. $60.00. Contributors: Translated by Rebecca L. R. Garber and Carole Gustely Cürten.

Reviewed by Leanne Bablitz, University of British Columbia (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of this review.]

Liebs has devoted more than forty years to the study of Roman law, many of those at the at the prestigious Institut für Rechtsgeschichte an der Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg. Although he retired in 2005, Liebs continues to publish extensively and in this volume we find the latest contribution of an eminent Roman legal scholar.

Liebs states that this book arose from a course entitled "Seminal Trials in the Roman Empire" in which he "acknowledged the contributions of Roman judicial practices to the evolution of Roman law" (p. vii). For the course, and for this book, trials were selected on the basis of their "ability to illuminate specific legal precedents that were essential to the development of law in Roman antiquity and quite possibly beyond" (ibid.). Liebs notes that while scholarship to date has given much attention to the acts of politicians, the decisions of jurists, and the development of law by civil authorities, less attention has been given to case law, the judges and advocates themselves, and the emperor. His volume therefore presents "sixteen trials that ended in trail-blazing decisions" and examines "to what extent these participants in the public discourse on law were also able to effect change that contributed to the development of Roman law" (p. 2).

The book consists of sixteen chapters devoted to different legal incidents. Twelve legal hearings receive Liebs' attention for a chapter each (1-9, 13, 14, and 16 – see the Table of Contents below, to which I have added the subtitles included in each chapter heading but not listed in the actual Table of Contents). In Chapter 12, Liebs focuses upon two passages of Ulpian and Gaius that discuss the abuse of slaves. These thirteen chapters follow a somewhat similar pattern of organization. Liebs opens each by summarizing the story leading to the hearing and the hearing itself. The texts from which he derives his account are included in the early notes of each chapter in Latin and English (excepting Chapters 6, 8 and 9). The English translations in the notes are not those of Liebs but are drawn either from the Loeb Classical Library series or other translations. Liebs next discusses the source or sources from which our knowledge of the legal hearing is drawn under the heading of "Textual Transmission." This typically is followed by a section or sections in which Liebs dissects the issues at the heart of the case be they historical, legal, or procedural. It is in these sections that we benefit most from Liebs formidable legal knowledge. Most of these chapters are concluded with a section entitled "Effect" in which Liebs reflects upon how the outcome of the case affected the subsequent trajectory of cultural or legal thought in the short term, or upon how the case raises broader legal issues that continued in the long term to warrant debate.1 Three chapters (Chs. 10, 11, and 15) do not focus on a single trial, but rather on a group of trials connected with the persecution of the Christians and the role of the emperor. Beyond that they conform to the pattern of the others in that the story is told, transmission is discussed, attention is given to specific legal and historical issues arising from the affair, and the lasting effect concludes the chapter.

Liebs examines these cases with two themes in mind. First, he believes that these cases had an impact on the development of law and thus he looks not only at the case itself but also at the lasting effect or precedent it established. In this respect, on occasion he gives individual cases too much credit either with regards to their immediate impact or the impact they had on subsequent history. For example, Liebs states that the Horatius case shows that "it was possible to appeal to the people's assembly in critical cases, and their decisions were considered sovereign" (p. 197). To see this as an effect of the case is to assume that the situation was not so before the case. Yet, the story does not suggest that this was the first occasion for such an appeal. Likewise in the "Effect" section of Chapter Two, when discussing the case of Gaius Furius Cresimus, Liebs comments that "there are no records of prosecutions for black magic over the next two hundred years." Yet he then turns to discuss the accusation of Titus Statilius Taurus of engaging in magical ritual acts in 53 CE, Agrippina's use of the charge of maleficium, Apuleius' trial in 158/9 CE, and concludes with some general remarks about how charges of maleficium came to used with dire effect again in the fourth century (pp. 20-23). This is a valuable and interesting discussion, something only a scholar with a strong understanding of the history of the law could do successfully. Unfortunately, because this discussion appears under the subtitle "Effect," readers may receive the impression that the Cresimus case directly led to these subsequent cases. and may not see the distinction that must be drawn. I believe this is merely a problem of labeling. Perhaps the subtitle "Further developments" used only in Chapter Four for this section would better serve Liebs' purpose.

Second, and perhaps of more interest to the expert reader, Liebs draws particular, though brief, attention to the judge(s) hearing the dispute. He notes how diverse was the legal training of those serving as single judges, and the impact this could have on the outcome of disputes. In several of the cases under discussion the emperor served as the judge and Liebs examines several aspects of his role, including the very creation of this jurisdiction, the personal interest several emperors took in the proceedings they were presiding over, and the influence of jurists upon the emperor's decisions.

How diverse an audience will benefit from this book is difficult to predict. The book's subtitle clearly will entice readers to pick it up. Liebs makes a concerted effort to support the non-expert reader by providing glosses on all specialized terminology, both administrative and legal,2 brief biographies on important jurists and authors, and longer explanations on topics such as the types of republican assemblies, the role of the accuser in the criminal justice system, the legal nature of the household account entries, and the functioning of the emperor's petitions office.3 Such helpful aids to the reader encourage accessibility. However, Liebs' discussion ranges widely in time and subject matter (sometimes even within the same chapter), requiring a broad familiarity both with Roman history and law. The student reader may find this scope too demanding. At the other end of the spectrum, academics familiar with Roman law may become frustrated. For them, the story of each case does not need to be retold and they likely would rather Liebs had spent those pages giving more space to his thoughtful discussions of the legal problems presented.

In conclusion, Liebs provides an interesting mixture of detailed examination of several legal problems and consideration of more broadly conceived legal change over time. Only a scholar of Liebs' breadth of knowledge could undertake such work. Commendation also should be given to Rebecca L. R. Garber and Carole Gustely Cürten for the excellent English translation of a text made all the more difficult by the legal terminology. In less than a handful of sentences was there any sign that the text was a translation. It is good that Liebs' views can reach a still wider audience.

Table of Contents

1. Killing a Sister for Mourning a Fallen Enemy – The Horatius Trial (allegedly c. 670 BCE)
2. Temporary End to Trials Involving Black Magic – Furius Cresimus Defends Himself (c. 191 BCE)
3. A Dowry Hunter Loses Out – Fast-living Fannia (100 BCE)
4. A Naïve Buyer – Publius Calpurnius Lanarius Seeks Recourse (c. 98-95 BCE)
5. The Party's Intention vs. The Pedantry of Jurists? – The Trial of Curius (93 BCE)
6. Cicero Thwarts the Intrigue of a Powerful Man – The Rescue of Sextus Roscius the Younger (80 BC)
7. Defense against a Lover's Malice - Otacilia vs. Gaius Visellius Varro (c. 65 BCE)
8. Corrupter of Morals through Poetry, or Accessory to a Conspiracy? – Ovid's Banishment (8 CE)
9. A Precautionary Crucifixion – The Trial of Jesus (7 April 30 CE)
10. "They Hate Mankind" – Nero Prosecutes Christians (64 CE)
11. A Criminal Organization? – Pliny the Younger Judges Christians (c. 110 CE)
12. Brutal Slave Owners – Umbricia, Julius Sabinus, and Alfius Julius on Trial (c. 130-152 CE)
13. Self-Help Is Punished –Marcianus before Marcus Aurelius (c. 170 CE)
14. Protecting a Ward Prevails over Standard Payment Practices – The Dispute over the Rutilian Country Estate (c. 200 CE)
15. A Dispute among Christians – The First Trials of the Donatists (313-316 CE)
16. The Execution of Heretics – Priscillian and His Followers before the Court of Emperor Maximus (386 CE)


1.   Liebs (p. 2 and the first page of the conclusion, p.195) and Harries (in her statement on the dust jacket) describe the book as examining 16 famous trials. The term "trial" does not seem an adequate descriptor, though it is difficult to think of an alternative.
2.   E.g. cursus honorum, p. 17; dowry, p. 27; rescript, p. 139.
3.   Respectively, pp. 19, 53-54, 72, 141.

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