State of the Field before my research
For centuries, the excerpted constitutions collected in the Theodosian and Justinian Codes have been a preferred object of research for jurists and historians alike. However, numerous fundamental questions remain blurred. Cases in point are the criteria of selection, the completeness of our sample, and the scope of individual laws (Were they valid just in one part of the Empire? Or even just in the jurisdiction of the receiving dignitary?). The findings of available research do not appear consistent, and even a superficial reading of extra-juristic texts often disproves widely held ideas. Worse yet, a majority of scholars working on specific topics (such as “family law under Constantine”, etc.) fail to disclose their methodological assumptions. Accordingly, a reader might stumble over casual remarks such as “this law was valid only in Africa” or “between this and that year, no further legislation occurred”, both of which are based on implicit suppositions (namely on recipient-dependent validity, and on the idea that the excerpts offer a fairly complete picture of the actual legislation). In most cases, it must be suspected that such assumptions are not only unsaid, but not even thought through and rather casually picked up in other publications (which themselves are not based on systematic research of the evidence).
My approach and results
Many of today’s prevalent ideas on late antique constitutions do not actually combine to produce a consistent theory (e.g., recipient-dependent and imperial part-dependent validity—both popular notions among specialists—are mutually exclusive, if you think about it!). Accordingly, one of my methodological principles was to approach things globally, in order to arrive at a unified model. In addition, too often researchers only take the juristic sources proper into account. This has led them to notions which can be immediately falsified when checked against the evidence provided by non-juristic sources (one such chimerical idea is the alleged requirement of publication, which can be once and for all brought to naught by referring to a single Libanius passage, so far completely overlooked). Thus, making as much as possible out of casual remarks in late antique authors was key to my approach.
Furthermore, a model is only convincing if it proves itself in practice; and “practice” in the case of late antique constitutions means work on these texts with a specific interpretative goal. This is why my book has a double character: after the circumstantial discussion of the fundamental questions of imperial constitutions, it features a comprehensive analysis of one specific legal issue, namely the testamentary and related sanctions against various heterodox groups. On this sample of about 20 constitutions, the model described in the first part is applied. It can be demonstrated that my vision of the constitutions is not only intrinsically consistent, but also functions when applied to the discussion of individual laws.
As for the findings, it is not an easy task to summarize the results of a 900 pp. book in a few text lines. In short, however, my guiding principle is the legal pandemonium of late antiquity: nobody—neither subject nor lawyer nor judge nor emperor—had an overview of the totality of constitutions. This explains the numerous repetitions (as every skeptical judge preferred to make sure with the emperor whether there was some constitution in existence or, to be more precise, if any such law was known to the emperor), the concern about fakes, the contradictions (unlike us, the emperors of the age did not have a Code at hand!) and many more of the phenomena that seem so inexplicable to any modern observer.
Concerning the testamentary restrictions, it can be shown that all explanations put forward so far are flawed. The real backdrop in the case of one sanctioned group (the Donatists) is clear beyond doubt, thanks to remarkable non-juristic sources; for the other groups, the history can be reconstructed in quite a plausible fashion.
The Prolegomena were awarded the 2020 edition of the Premio Internazionale ‘Giuliano Crifò’ by the Accademia Romanistica Costantiniana for the "best thesis in late antique Roman Law or History.” It indeed was my purpose to bridge between these two disciplines which are sadly too often at odds and ignoring one another’s results. Up to now (January 2023), the Prolegomena have garnered 14 reviews, highly positive in their large majority. Reviewers underline:
- the highly provocative results, based on a rock-solid methodological footing
- the outstanding quality of the translations and interpretations of Latin texts
- the cross-disciplinary approach, taking into account results from law, history, patristics, and philology
- the internal referencing system, making the sprawling subject matter accessible
Here are a few snippets taken from some of the reviews:
- "Materiell enthält das Buch zwei Monographien, die beide nach Umfang und Gehalt auch als Habilitationsschriften durchgehen könnten. […] Die Arbeit ist ihren beiden […] Teilen ab sofort ein unentbehrliches Standardwerk zur spätantiken Gesetzgebung im Allgemeinen zum Umgang der Kaiser mit religiösen Dissidenten im Besonderen." (Thomas Rüfner, IVRA)
- "Dass an vielen Stellen weiterzuarbeiten ist, zeigt der Verfasser in beeindruckender Weise, und nun sind es seine Thesen, an denen man sich abarbeiten wird. Wer konkrete Rechtsinstitute durch die oft vernachlässigte Zeit zwischen Diokletian und Justinian verfolgt, kommt an Riedlberger nicht vorbei. […] Den Diskurs zwischen Historikern und Rechtshistorikern hat Peter Riedlberger sehr gefördert, und so sollte es bei Schriften weitergehen, die auf der seinigen aufbauen werden." (Christian Baldus, Historische Zeitschrift)
- "R.’s writing is clear […] His knowledge of Latin is strong, and he has engaged deeply in late Roman law (and the scholarly literature). […] Many of the chapters could have been volumes in their own right […]. There is much that is useful and provocative within this large volume, and I enjoyed reading it." (Robert M. Frakes, Scripta Classica Israelica)
- "In this authoritative study, Peter Riedlberger […] provides us with a consistent, thoroughly documented and well-argued vision of the legislative process in Late Antiquity." (Almudena Alba López, Gnomon)
- "P. Riedlberger […] propose […] une réflexion riche et ordonnée, appelée à marquer une étape significative des études consacrées à l'histoire du droit tardoantique. […] l'ouvrage … se distingue-t-il par la clarté du raisonnement qu'il énonce. En outre, comme en attestent les en-têtes et les renvois internes, ingénieusement disposés, il vise à toujours ménager au lecteur de sûrs repères au gré d'un parcours parfois exigeant." (Philippe Blaudeau, sehepunkte)
- […] der Gedankenreichtum, die konsequente Quellennähe und die intellektuelle Eigenständigkeit der Darstellung [machen] das Werk zu einer in jeder Hinsicht anregenden und überaus gewinnbringenden Lektüre. (Ulrike Babusiaux, Rechtsgeschichte/Legal History)
Complete list of reviews
- Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 23 (2020) 1091-1097 (Dirk Rohmann)
- Legal Roots 9 (2020) 583-600 (Filippo Bonin)
- Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte: Romanistische Abteilung 138 (2021) 771-776 (Matthijs Wibier)
- Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2021.09.07 (Michał Stachura)
- Scripta Classica Israelica 40 (2021) 210-213 (Robert M. Frakes)
- IVRA - Rivista internazionale di diritto romano e antico 69 (2021) 614-625 (Thomas Rüfner)
- Roman Legal Tradition 17 (2021) 113-118 (Daniëlle Slootjes)
- Interpretatio Prudentium 5.2 (2020) 390-399 (Simona Tarozzi)
- Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 89 (2021) 536-577 (Boudewijn Sirks)
- Gnomon 94 (2022) 88-90 (Almudena Alba López)
- Sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2022] (Philippe Blaudeau)
- Rechtsgeschichte - Legal History 30 (2022) 218-220 (Ulrike Babusiaux)
- Laval théologique et philosophique 78 (2022) 149-150 (Paul-Hubert Poirier)
- Historische Zeitschrift 315 (2022) 752-755 (Christian Baldus)