The Graeco-Roman Antecedents of Modern Tort Law


It was not very long ago that Western law was formed from the rib of Graeco-Roman law, and our modern Western legal systems, civil code-based and common law alike, demonstrate that lineage, and the contributions of both societies, to surcease. While other cultural influences, including those from even more ancient sources may be identifiable, this article segregates Greco-Roman law for separate analysis for purposes of manageability. This article tracks the law of early Greece and early Rome from their respective origins in myth and legend to their comprehensive codifications. For the disparities in form and content, there are nonetheless significant similarities. These include (1) the cohering of laws giving security to society; (2) the movement from vengeance as a remedy to compensation; (3) the identification of a great array of personal injury and dignitary wrongs, as well as wrongs to property interests for which civil remedies might be sought; (4) the introduction of fault-based liability for certain harms; and (5) the introduction of equity so as to permit the rendition of justice in circumstances in which existing law or its absence might preclude it. The article concludes with the proposition that the law of ancient Greece, and that of ancient Rome, each contributed a necessary, but not by itself sufficient, foundation of the Western law that would follow. To the Hellenic contribution of ethics, dialectical reasoning and rudimentary codification would be added Roman systematization and a millennium of cultural and legal tradition that resulted in the great Graeco-Roman law traditions that have left a lasting imprint on the terrain of modern Western law.



Date of this Version

October 2005