What Did the Romans Ever Do for Us?

Römisches Staatsrecht, by Theodor MommsenProfessor Raymond Geuss teaches in the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Cambridge, and is co-editor (with Quentin Skinner) of Cambridge University Press’s distinguished series, ‘Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought‘. He has been reading our reissue of Mommsen’s Römisches Staatsrecht, and has sent us these comments on the continuing significance of Mommsen’s works.

‘Greek literature and Greek philosophy have always been the heart and soul of Western civilisation, but, for a variety of reasons, and despite the influence of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle on later thinkers, ancient Greek politics has not been a continuing object of careful study, much less, a source of universally accepted paradigms. Although most contemporary political regimes show an obsessive interest in describing themselves as ‘democracies’, this is an extremely recent phenomenon — until well into the nineteenth century ‘democratic’ was overwhelmingly a term of abuse — and in fact no contemporary regime, save perhaps that of the small forest cantons of Switzerland,  has much similarity with anything a fifth- or fourth-century Greek thinker would have recognised as ‘democracy’.  On the other hand, the memory of the Roman Republic and the Principate — its structures, institutions, procedures, and legal principles — remained a constant presence in European life, and provided a shared framework of reference within which politics could be located, analysed and discussed. To understand politics in Europe is to understand Rome and its consequences.

Theodor Mommsen, an early recipient (in 1902) of the Nobel Prize for literature, was one of the most intellectually powerful and erudite nineteenth-century interpreters of Roman society, politics, and law, and his Römisches Staatsrecht, first published in 1871, remains a remarkably lucid, comprehensive and interesting treatment of the institutional and legal framework of Roman politics.

‘Any university library which aspires to cater for the needs of students of politics, law, or European history needs to contain a copy of this work.

‘These five volumes are carefully produced to a technically very high level. Not only is the main text as easy to read in this digital reproduction as in bound copies of the original printing, but even every accent  in the Greek quotations found in the footnotes (in 8pt. type) is fully and readily legible.’

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