Roman Law: Reading Group

Harvard Law School: 2223

Fall 2017

Charles Donahue

Meeting Time: Tue. 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM, WCC Room 5050

Professor Charles Donahue
1 classroom credit

Roman law had great influence on the legal systems of Continental Europe and less, but still significant, influence on the Anglo-American legal system. This reading group is “An Introduction to an Introduction to Roman Law”, in lieu of the three-hour course “An Introduction to Roman Law” (which cannot be offered this year). It will meet, basically every week, in the first half of the semester. We will read in translation Gaius’ Institutes, a textbook for first-year law students written in the second century of our era. We will use Hans Julius Wolff’s Roman Law: An Historical Introduction for background. No previous knowledge of either Latin or of Roman law will be presumed.


The books are H.J. Wolff, Roman Law: An Historical Introduction (Norman, 1951) and Gaius’ Institutes. Wolff is available in a paperback reprint which is quite cheap and worth buying. I thought that I asked the Coop to stock it, but apparently that went awry, but there are plenty of both new and used copies available online, and used copies should be available at local book sellers. Gaius was, of course, written in Latin, and of the many translations, I suggest that we use the one by Francis de Zulueta. I have posted it on this website. The posting is divided into two parts: Book 4 (‘procedure’) and Books 1–3 (persons, property, succession, obligations). They are in PDF format. If someone would prefer to have them in Word format, let me know; I can give you a link. For those who would like take a crack at Gaius in Latin (which is certainly not required, but if you have any Latin, Gaius’ pretty straight-forward), I’ve posted the entire text here.


Normally with reading groups, I have an organizational meeting at the beginning of the semester. At that meeting we discuss what we might do and what times would be convenient, and I go back and make up a schedule. This year, the registrar’s office wanted me to tie down proposed meeting times in advance, but one of the nice things about reading groups is that we can be flexible. I have prepared a proposed schedule and a series of topics, but both can changed if that’s what the group wants. The topics are bit different from the way in which I have sometimes done it in past in that we start Gaius in the first session and use Wolff as background reading. So far as the dates are concerned, I find that folks have difficulty keeping up with the reading if we meet in November.

Tue., 5 Sep. — Organizational Meeting. We’ll spend some time talking about the attached outline, which one wag has called “Everything that Professor Donahue knows reduced to one page.”

Tue., 12 Sep. — Gaius, Institutes, bk. I, §§ 1–7 (generalities about law and sources of law); Wolff, 1–48, Wolff, 91–126.

Tue., 19 Sep. — Gaius, Institutes, bk. IV (procedure); Wolff, 49–90, Wolff, 127–225.

Tue., 26 Sep. — Gaius, Institutes, bk. I §§ 8–199 (personal status).

Tue., 3 Oct. — Gaius, Institutes, bk. II §§ 1–96 (the law of ‘single things’ (roughly property)).

Tue., 17 Oct. (October 10 is a holiday.) — Gaius, Institutes, bk. II §§ 97–289 (testaments and legacies); bk. III §§ 1–87 (intestacy).

Tue., 24 Oct. — Gaius, Institutes, bk. III §§ 88–225 (obligations arising from contract and delict).