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Institute of Advanced Study

Imperial Power, Legislation, and Water Management in the Roman Empire


The intellectual rigour of the legal system created by the Romans had no parallel in the ancient Mediterranean world nor in the Near East. A large body of legal texts and interpretations by jurists covered practically every aspect of human life. In this contribution the focus is on legislation on water use.  The article begins by giving a general overview of the various ways in which legislation was created. I am concerned in particular with the role of the Roman emperor. He was powerful, but there was scope also for local decision making. As the imperial period progressed (from 31 BCE), the emperor took over more and more of the legislative functions, although he had trained lawyers or jurists to assist him. Eventually, the mass of Roman legislation (going back to the beginning of the current era or beyond) became too difficult to master, and in Late Antiquity compilations of relevant legislation were made on imperial order. It is almost exclusively thanks to these collections that Roman law survived. The Codex Theodosianus came into force in 438 CE, and the Codex Justinianus and the Digest in 534 CE. Roman private law had always been concerned with the use of water in agriculture (especially for irrigation), but the Codex Theodosianus contains nothing in this regard; the few clauses on water management it contains show concern only for the aqueducts supplying major cities. There is more on agricultural water use in the code of the emperor Justinian, and especially so in the Digest. This article asks whether these differences derive from certain technical factors that regulated how in particular the Theodosian code was compiled, or if we are dealing with real differences in imperial policy.

Insights Paper