How did Rome influence other countries?

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The Roman Empire left countless traces in the western world. Perhaps the greatest influence is found in the law. This is the opinion of Pascal Pichonnaz, Professor of Roman Law at the University of Freiburg.

This content was published on September 4th, 2013 - 11:00 am

When talking about the legacy of the Romans in Switzerland and Europe, one often thinks of the large amphitheater or aqueduct. In the countries where Latin languages ​​are spoken, these also point to the Roman past.

Elements of Roman society can also be found in the fields of art, architecture, philosophy and the state. There is one area where the Roman legacy weighs particularly heavily: in the law.

swissinfo.ch: Your thesis is that the greatest Roman legacy is the law. Why do you think that?

Pascal Pichonnaz: Because Roman law had a very large influence on the development of law in western civilization. It is still referred to. It is no coincidence that Roman law has remained a compulsory subject in our faculties.

Law and Latin are also the only original achievements that Rome brought to Western culture. In the other areas there were mixed influences, such as in philosophy and architecture, where the Romans also took up Greek currents.

swissinfo.ch: The Romans weren't the only ones who developed a legal system in ancient times. King Hamurapi of Mesopotamia drew up a code, as did Solon, a statesman and poet in Athens. Where does the great Roman influence come from?

P. P .: The Romans were the first to develop real jurisprudence. Roman law is special: it allows a problem to be summarized in one sentence or two sentences, from which a rule is then derived. This is strongly reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon law.

Case in point: someone sells a cow to a farmer. But the animal is sick and contaminates the whole herd of the farmer, so that it dies. Who is responsible for the damage: the seller or the farmer as buyer?

Roman law distinguishes three cases: the seller knew that the cow was sick and is therefore responsible. Second, if the seller is a professional who has done everything possible to check that the cow is healthy, he is not responsible. Third: If the seller is not a professional, i.e. does not know anything about cows, he is also not liable.

swissinfo.ch: Interesting story, but where does it relate to today?

P.P .: There is one, and it is much more direct than you could imagine. Six years ago the Federal Supreme Court dealt with a very similar case.

An animal dealer imported six parrots, which he sold to a breeder with a large aviary for 4,500 francs. He had previously quarantined the birds to make sure they were healthy. But one parrot was infected with a virus that broke out when the animal was under stress. The result: all birds in the aviary died, two million francs damage.

In its assessment, the Federal Supreme Court referred directly to Roman law. As a result, the seller was not to blame for taking all the necessary measures. The federal judges, however, did not come to the same conclusion, either because they did not understand Roman law correctly or for insurance reasons. Nevertheless, they used Roman law as a reference.

swissinfo.ch: Another example?

P.P .: You can return defective goods in the shop if the guarantee has not yet expired. This right also goes back to Roman law. It was already used in the markets of ancient Rome, but it applied to slaves and animals. If these had a defect, the buyer could terminate the contract within one year or at least claim a reduction in the purchase price. This principle was extended to all contracts by Emperor Justinian I, a regulation that was adopted into Swiss law.

The Roman Empire and Switzerland

In antiquity, most of the Swiss plateau was inhabited by Celtic tribes, mainly the Helvetians.

They wanted to conquer Gaul in order to settle there and so escape the pressure of the Teutons.

Their advance was 58 BC. stopped by Julius Caesar in the memorable battle of Bibracte. The Helvetii then had to return to the Central Plateau.

After that, today's territory of Switzerland was incorporated into the Roman Empire. The Mittelland belonged to Upper Germany (Germania superior), while Ticino and Graubünden belonged to Raetia.

In the middle of the 3rd century barbarians invaded. The murder of the military leader Aetius in 454 ushered in the fall of the Romans, and the Roman troops withdrew to Italy.

The Swiss territory was left to the Germanic tribes of the Burgundians and Alemanni. The former became civilized, quickly became Christians, and adopted the Gallo-Roman language and customs. The latter kept their Germanic lifestyle longer.

The Romans left many traces in Switzerland. The most important places were Aventicum (Avenches, Canton Waadt) as the capital of the Roman cities and places in the Swiss Mittelland, Augusta Raurica (Augst, Basel-Landschaft) and Vindonissa (Windisch, Aargau).

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swissinfo.ch: Ancient Rome went under in 476. Are you amazed that its influence is still so great for almost 2000 years?

P.P .: If you study history, you immediately understand why that is so. After the fall of the empire, remnants of Roman law remained, which existed parallel to the customary law of the barbarians. In the Roman Empire in the east, however, it remained completely intact. In the first half of the 6th century Justinian I then collected all legal opinions from the previous centuries (Codex Iustinianus, Codification of Roman Law, the ed.).

This collection was rediscovered in Bologna, Italy, at the end of the 11th century. The foundation of the first university and the first law faculty in Europe is based on this. From there, Roman law spread to all European countries that were Catholic. Between 1265 and 1300, 225 Swiss studied in Bologna, and by 1320 there were 85. From this point of view, Bologna was the intellectual matrix of all of Europe.

Of course, the law has evolved since then. Roman law, however, remained the main source of inspiration on the continent. In Great Britain the situation was a little different due to the splendid isolation. But the Code of Napoleon in France and the historical school of Friedrich Karl von Savigny in Germany relied directly on it.

swissinfo.ch: So it was Roman law that shaped Europe?

P.P .: Without a doubt. It is said that the identity of Europe rests on three pillars: Christianity, Aristotelian philosophy and Roman law.

However, the influence extends far beyond Europe, as countries such as Turkey, China or Japan rely on the European legal systems, which, as mentioned, are strongly influenced by Roman law. There is even a chair in Roman law in Japan.

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