A Thought on the Law

9 July 2009

Thursday


Justinian digest

Byzantium was the Roman Empire translated — literally and metaphorically — into Greek; the Byzantine Empire was a Greek empire. As a Greek empire that flourished for a time but whose greatest achievement was mere survival, Byzantium was a glass case in which the Greek language and its Greek literature was preserved almost intact.

Constantinople, capital of Byzantium (the eastern Roman empire), last bastion of classical learning.

Constantinople, capital of Byzantium (the eastern Roman empire), last bastion of classical learning.

While the Western Christian emperors had officially closed the greatest schools because of their association with pagan traditions and pagan philosophy, in Byzantium the schools continued to function and continued to teach up until the Turks took the city in 1453. With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, many Byzantine Greek scholars made their way to Italy with as many books as they could carry and contributed not a little to the nascent renaissance.

The Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, as imagined in western Europe. This was painted in Paris in 1499, a world and an age away from the actual events.

The Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, as imagined in western Europe. This was painted in Paris in 1499, a world and an age away from the actual events.

We should not call the scholarship of these Byzantine schools dynamic; it was not. The great achievement of Byzantine learning, like that of the Byzantine state itself, was mere survival. The intellectual tradition of antiquity was preserved, however imperfectly, and that is far better than the alternative of complete loss of the tradition.

One way to preserve ancient learning is to put the books in a jar and bury them in the desert for a couple thousand years. In the interim, however, no one gets to read them.

One way to preserve ancient learning is to put the books in a jar and bury them in the desert for a couple thousand years. In the interim, however, no one gets to read them.

The ancient world had created a substantial body of literature and thought; in order to transmit this thought to later generations, a need was felt to give some kind of systematic form to this knowledge. But the urge to system deteriorated in an uncreative age into oversimplification. It is significant that most of the summaries of late antique and Byzantine scholarship are dull, pedantic, and largely without interest. Some of them are simply crude, and constitute an intellectual offense against the works they presume to summarize and to present to us in an easily accessible form.

The medieval university curriculum of the Seven Liberal Arts derives from late antique summaries of classical thought.

The medieval university curriculum of the Seven Liberal Arts derives from late antique summaries of classical thought.

It is this effort that created the rigid scholastic curriculum of the great medieval universities, with its seven liberal arts further subdivided into the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric followed by the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Anyone who knows the slightest bit about the achievements of ancient science knows how inadequate this schema is to express that body of knowledge.

A lesser known mosaic of Justinian (also from Ravenna, like the most famous image of Justinian), the Byzantine emperor who commissioned the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

A lesser known mosaic of Justinian (also from Ravenna, like the most famous image of Justinian), the Byzantine emperor who commissioned the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

There is an exception to this, and the exception is one of great interest: Roman law. The greatest tradition of law that comes to us from the ancient world is the Corpus Iuris Civilis commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian who entrusted the work of systematizing the accumulated tradition of Roman law to one Tribonian.

Corpus_Iuris_Civilis

The Corpus Iuris Civilis must be understood in the cultural context of the summarizing of ancient knowledge that is pervasive through this period, and which produced such silly works as the influential Marriage of Mercury and Philology (De Nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae) by Martianus Capella.

CIC

While the Corpus Iuris Civilis came out of this tradition, it cannot be reduced to the status of the other productions of this tradition. This suggests a number of questions. Did the late antique period view law differently than other bodies of knowledge? Was there a greater surviving expertise, that remained vital and critical, in the law than in other areas of thought? Was the late antique Weltanschauung particularly suited for the systematic exposition of law? Or was the law especially suited to be given a cribbed, summarized, and rationalized account such as typifies the scholarship of this period?

CIC2

There are other exceptions to the “dumbed-down” works of late antiquity. The Greek Anthology, an enormous collection of poetry assembled by Byzantine scholars, is usually credited with establishing a high standard for poetry anthologies, but the work of intellectual synthesis, integration, and summarization in regard to the law is of another order than exercising good taste in the selection of poetry.

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Greek Anthology

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