Thursday, March 17, 2016


Roland Färber, Römische Gerichtsorte: räumliche Dynamiken von Jurisdiktion im Imperium Romanum. Vestigia, Bd 68. München: Verlag C.H. Beck, 2014. Pp. 418. ISBN 9783406666698. €70.00.

Reviewed by Kaius Tuori, University of Helsinki (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This is a hugely informative book on a highly relevant field. The spaces of justice in the Roman world have been the focus of growing scholarly interest during the last decade.1 The reasons for this are twofold, the first is the increasing sophistication in the study of Roman topography and its connection with the social and political history of Rome, the second is the general spatial turn in the human sciences, the resurgence of issues of space and spatial arrangements as objects of study.

The spaces of justice in the Roman world were numerous and distinct, famous historical examples range from Cicero speaking in the Forum Romanum, surrounded by the corona of audience to the throngs of people attempting to get a hearing from a Roman governor at a provincial praetorium, where hundreds of cases may have been resolved in a single day. Even in Rome, the trials took place in both very public fashion and in secrecy: one may take for example Pliny's description of noisy crowds of the centumviral court and the challenges of speaking in it, and contrast it with Tacitus' depiction of Claudius judging Valerius Asiaticus intra cubiculum in the imperial palace, edged on by Messalina.

Roland Färber's book on the Roman spaces of jurisdiction is thus a most timely contribution to a rapidly developing field. The book derives from the author's 2012 Munich dissertation, and its roots in the dissertation form are quite apparent in ways good and bad. The good is that it is throughout, exhaustive and almost too inclusive. The bad, in typical dissertation form, is the way that the book skims through much of the interesting bits in order to cover everything.

The work spans a very long period, from the late republic to late antiquity, roughly from Cicero to Justinian. It is divided into seven thematic chapters, beginning from the courts of the city of Rome, continuing into the imperial jurisdiction, the jurisdiction of imperial and provincial magistrates, the tribunals and the secretaria. A final chapter seeks to make summary or analysis into the differentiation of various spaces of justice.

The main achievement of the book is that it provides the first general overview of the spaces of justice in the Roman world, an expansive treatment of the subject matter. In many instances, the book covers territory not treated elsewhere and, as such, it is a valuable reading for all students of legal archaeology. This expansiveness and attempt at comprehensiveness is simultaneously the biggest drawback of the work: because it seeks to treat everything between Cicero and Justinian in the whole Roman world, the treatment of interesting and often contentious matters remains short, and regrettably, too shallow. Whenever one gets to the interesting bits (at least for people who have already read much of the same literature as the author), the narrative hurries on to cover more ground in a completely different area. Part of the problem perhaps due to the roots of the work in a doctoral dissertation: like so many dissertations, the current volume has extensive apparatus of citations and references, listing all literature that has been published on the matter. What is missing, however, is the differentiation of what is truly relevant and what is not in the treatment.

What this entails is that the book races along on a very general level, listing sites and practices one after the other. This is good for the overview, but bad for the scholarly enterprise. The fact is that linking activities such as trials to physical places is hugely problematic in the Roman world, because it entails the combination of two distinct and difficult to combine source materials, the archaeological remains and the written sources. Thus while we know that trials would have taken place in a distinct location, linking it with the patchy physical remains is and will be wrought with conjecture and uncertainty. The solution chosen in this book has been to prioritize the written sources and taking the existence of the physical remains as something of an afterthought.

What is unfortunate is that the volume contains relatively few illustrations and pictures of the spaces that the author thinks were used for trials. This would have made it possible to illustrate the issues that are at stake when one discusses the places of justice, such as the physical arrangements of the litigants, audience and judges or magistrates, the architectural features and so forth.

To summarize, this is a pioneering work that covers much virgin terrain with diligence and care. It presents an overview of the spaces of justice in the Roman world, an overview that will hopefully be the starting point of much needed further research in the subject matter.

Table of contents (roughly translated from German)

1. Introduction: jurisdiction, power and space
2. Rome
- between republic and principate
- criminal and civil procedure
- praetor urbanus and praetor peregrinus during the republic
- quaestiones perpetuae
- omnia in foro
- forum of Augustus and the Campanian wax tablets
- the exedrae as the seats of the praetors?
- tendencies in the early imperial period

3. The emperor
- Augustus
- the Julio-Claudian dynasty
- from the year of the four emperors to Trajan
- from Antoninus Pius to the Severans and the third century
- late antique imperial court and the consistorium
- procedure in the consistorium: with or without the emperor
- Justinian: iurisdictio renovate
- rulers-times-spaces

4. High officials in the capital and the provinces
- praefectus urbi and praefecti praetorio in Rome during the imperial period
- Rome in the late antiquity
- high courts in Constantinople
- provincial capitals and praetoria
- conventus
- governors on the move and the seat of power in late antiquity
- between mobility and permanence

5. The tribunal
- terminology and the functional spectrum
- a formal legal necessity?
- outer characteristics and physical shape
- under open skies
- the built space: porticoes, baths and others
- the issue of the basilica: written and archaeological sources
- praetoria
- poles of legal space
- pertinence and persistence

6. The secretatium – a space beyond public
- the concept examined
- the papyrological evicence
- the interior view: facilities, procedures and actors
- not just spaces of justice
- the outer view: the context of the built space and location
- secretarium and tribunal: a duality of space and function
- architecture and archaeology
- lines of development

7. Barriers, partitions and the differentialization of the spaces of justice
- closing off and controlling access
- Johannes Lydus on cancelli and cancellari
- the order and hierarchy of spaces
- the acts of Pilatus
- curtains in the court halls of late antiquity
- curtains in the imperial court ceremonies
- iconography: emperor, magistrate and curtains in images
- not only a phenomenon of the late antiquity
- imitatio Caesaris?
- temporality of space

8. Results: spatial dynamics
9. Bibliography
10. Indexes
- sources
- spaces and persons
- things


1.   Leanne Bablitz, Actors and Audience in the Roman Courtroom, Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies, London/New York: Routledge, 2007; Francesco de Angelis (ed.), Spaces of Justice in the Roman World, Columbia studies in the classical tradition 35, Boston: Brill, 2010. [Full disclosure: the reviewer has contributed to the volume].

1 comment:

  1. Dem Verfasser der "Gerichtsorte" sei zum vorletzten Absatz dieser Kurzrezension eine Richtigstellung erlaubt: Den interessierten Leser wird es sicher freuen, dass der Text - anders als hier behauptet - durch immerhin 43 Karten, Pläne, Umzeichnungen und Fotografien bereichert wird, die zum Teil selbst angefertigt, aufbereitet oder mit nicht minder hohem Aufwand von den Rechteinhabern aus aller Welt eingeholt wurden. Im Durchschnitt kommt damit alle zehn Seiten eine Illustration - für eine primär althistorische Arbeit sicherlich nicht die schlechteste Quote.


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