September 7, 2004

Behrends Discusses Roman Law

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Okko Behrends, one of Cornell’s A.D. White Professors-at-Large gave a lecture entitled “The Roman Friend of Rome’s Least Mortal Mind: The Author of the Classical Roman Law” on Friday in Kaufman Auditorum in Goldwin Smith Hall. One of Europe’s leading experts in classical Roman law, Behrends holds the chair of Roman Law, Civil Law, and the History of Modern Private Law at the University of Gottingen, Germany.

His talk explored Servius Sulpicius’s powerful influence on Roman law, and discussed the overshadowing of the great orator by his better-known counterpart Cicero. Behrends outlined the two law schools of their era: the humanistic law of Servius and the pre-classical natural law, illuminating how Servius’s ideas represented a major break from the latter’s imposing influence on legal thought.

Servius, Behrends said, believed that law was manmade. He understood that “the rules are laid down by human understanding … not part of natural reason which only needs detection.” Behrends likened this debate to the phenomenon of language: is language given to mankind, or does man create it himself?

“He no longer accepted floating legal principles; law, Servius believed, should be definite. Law is realized in civil equity or distinct moral qualities inherent in man’s consciousness,” Behrends said.

Behrends went on to describe the nature of the debate: civil equity is law in the strict sense, and definite. And natural equity, he added, “is not precisely law; it refers to human behavior, not structured relations.”

Behrends also spoke extensively on Cicero. Our main source for Servius’s life and accomplishments, Cicero was a lawyer, orator, and philosopher in the first century B.C. The revered Cicero, Behrends said, believed that man honors human knowledge most when he can criticize it and defend it at the same time.

“Cicero was a very rich person, an ambiguous person, but in the end, an authentic person,” Behrends said.

John Wynne grad, had already seen Behrends speak at an earlier seminar.

“I specialize in ancient philosophy, both Greek and Roman, so it was interesting for me to see how ancient philosophic tradition influenced Roman law,” Wynne said.

“He’s interesting in that he straddles legal tradition,” said Prof. Jeff Rusten, classics. “We do classical literature, especially Latin texts, and he relied very much on classical analysis of texts in Latin. It’s interesting to see how cleverly he uses the literature and the language. Also, we’ve got more and more students doing Latin here, and in my classes, students always wonder how Cicero relates to anything practical.” He described the move beyond the pre-classical tradition Behrends had discussed as “a law code that you actually live by — you don’t just debate what God wants you to do.”

Behrends gave presentations at the law school in his first week at Cornell, and has spent his second week with the Classics department. His expertise encompasses surveying land and legal rights, the quartering system, defeated non-citizen barbarians, mercenaries, grave robbery and tomb desecration.

Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer