Law, Justice, and Empire in Comparative Perspective Series: "Rule of Law for What?: Crime and Punishment in Classical China and Rome"

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Location: Zoom

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About the Event: 

The rule of law continues to serve as a fundamental marker of modern Western democracies, even when all too often ignored in practice.  Legal scholars since classical times in the “West” have debated the merits of formal laws over the discretionary vision of judges, but few would argue against the premise that a viable government must subordinate human judgements, including those of elites, to a set of uniform rules.  Most importantly, procedural integrity, particularly in criminal cases, legitimates the state’s right to decide and implement punishments. It is generally believed that these ideals emerged from Aristotle’s famous declaration in the Politics: “The rule of law…is preferable to that of any individual,” and codified later by Roman legal actors. Thus, with a few caveats, a commitment to a government ruled by laws is believed to be one of the positive legacies of the Western classical tradition. Yet, one will read as a dictum of Roman jurisprudence that “the prince was not bound by the laws, princeps legibus solutus”.

Early China, on the other hand, as Max Weber famously claimed, eschewed rational, standardized governance, and instead relied on the authority of  officials indoctrinated in Confucian values. While patrimonial forms of elite dominance have remained important  throughout Chinese history, excavated legal materials from the past half century in China demonstrate that a bureaucratic tradition promoting uniformity and standardization became evident in the era that witnessed the construction of the first empires, the Qin and Western Han Dynasties. Some sinologists, including myself, have argued that ideals and practices related to the rule of law took root during this time

But, as we will question in this session, did the rule of law actually curb elite misconduct in the Roman Republic and later empires? Were Roman elites reluctant to develop a criminal code, as some historians  have claimed?  Is it the case that the influence of powerful and wealthy actors trumped decision making at all levels? First and foremost, Roman law developed in the service of the empire and undergirded the strengthening of social hierarchies. On the Chinese side, did standardized laws and predictable punishments in fact protect commoners, or did they aim instead to harvest human and material resources to support the state and its loyal bureaucrats?


Karen Turner

Speaker: Karen L. Turner 
Distinguished Professor of Humanities and  History, emerita, College of the Holy Cross
Senior Research Fellow, East Asian Legal Studies, Harvard Law School


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Speaker: Peter F. Bang 
Associate Professor, SAXO-Institute - Archaeology, Ethnology, Greek & Latin, History, the University of Copenhagen


Zhang Taisu

Discussant: Taisu Zhang 
Professor of Law at Yale Law School, Yale University


Liang Cai Headshot Resize

Chair: Liang Cai 
Assistant Professor of History, University of Notre Dame


Event Details: 

Rule Of Law Reading List

This roundtable is the first in a series titled, Law, Justice, and Empire in Comparative Perspective. The series is sponsored by the Liu Institute for Asian and Asia Studies, Department of History, Notre Dame International, Hong Kong Baptist University Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology 香港浸會大學饒宗頤國學院

This roundtable will be held May 06, 2021 10AM Eastern Time (US and Canada), 7AM Pacific Time, 2PM London Time, 10PM in Beijing Standard Time, and 11PM in Korea/Japan Standard Time. 

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