A Corpus Approach to Roman Law Based on Justinian’s Digest

Marton Ribary, Barbara McGillivray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Traditional philological methods in Roman legal scholarship such as close reading and strict juristic reasoning have analysed law in extraordinary detail. Such methods, however, have paid less attention to the empirical characteristics of legal texts and occasionally projected an abstract framework onto the sources. The paper presents a series of computer-assisted methods to open new frontiers of inquiry. Using a Python coding environment, we have built a relational database of the Latin text of the Digest, a historical sourcebook of Roman law compiled under the order of Emperor Justinian in 533 CE. Subsequently, we investigated the structure of Roman law by automatically clustering the sections of the Digest according to their linguistic profile. Finally, we explored the characteristics of Roman legal language according to the principles and methods of computational distributional semantics. Our research has discovered an empirical structure of Roman law which arises from the sources themselves and complements the dominant scholarly assumption that Roman law rests on abstract structures. By building and comparing Latin word embeddings models, we were also able to detect a semantic split in words with general and legal sense. These investigations point to a practical focus in Roman law which is consistent with the view that ancient law schools were more interested in training lawyers for practice rather than in philosophical neatness.
Original languageEnglish
Article number44
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2020


  • Roman law
  • Digest
  • computational linguistics
  • corpus linguistics
  • clustering
  • distributional semantics
  • word embeddings
  • Python
  • Latin
  • LatinISE

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