Emperors and Lawyers

by Tony Honoré

The first edition of this book came out in 1981, the second, thoroughly revised, in 1994. It analyses the rescripts issued by the emperor in reply to petitioners who consulted him on points of law. When the rescripts are read chronologically it becomes clear that the replies were drafted not by the emperor himself but by officials (secretaries a libellis, later magistri libellorum) who were lawyers and whose drafts were nearly always accepted by the emperor, since it was his duty to give judgement according to law and not according to his personal inclination. Even under a powerful emperor such as Diocletian three drafters can be distinguished with very different outlooks. One is conservative and looks to return to the mores of the past. Another is pragmatic and seeks just solutions in the particular case with which he is confronted. A third is firmly attached to certain general principles, in particular those respecting private rights, from which decisions in concrete cases are seen to follow.



The work, which distinguishes the contributions of twenty lawyer-secretaries to rescripts issued betwen 193 and 305 AD has been widely acclaimed. “It is the achievement of Tony Honoré to have pioneered a new approach to the imperial constitutions, seeking to treat them not as uniform chancery products issued in the name of an imperial college, but as literary texts produced by individual authors.” (Simon Corcoran, The Empire of the Tetrarchs (1996) p.75). “He has succeeded (in Emperors and Lawyers) in nothing less than the complete integration of imperial rescript practice into the history of Roman jurisprudence and thereby its prolongation for three-quarters of a century.” (Liebs, 1983). But some scholars, such as Watson (1982), have rejected the entire method. A chronological reconstruction (Palingenesia) of the 2,609 rescripts, that the book assigns wherever possible to their drafters, is recorded on a disk inserted inside its back cover.