Jerome Lecturer Aldo Schiavone Traces Ancient and Modern Equality

March 11, 2014
Anna H. Celenza, Christopher Celenza, Aldo Schiavone and Kim Bowes
Aldo Schiavone and Anna H. Celenza
Aldo Schiavone and Christopher Celenza
Jerome Lecturer Aldo Schiavone
Reception at the Villa Aurelia
Kim Bowes, Christopher Smith and Peter Benson Miller
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Endowed by American lawyer and lover of Roman history Thomas Spencer Jerome (1864-1914), the Jerome Lectures are one of the most prestigious international lecture series for the presentation of new work on Roman history and culture. This year’s lectures were delivered by eminent historian of Roman law and Italian culture Aldo Schiavone of the Scuola Normale Superiore, who spoke on the notion of equality as it emerged within ancient Greco-Roman models and evolved within modern systems of governance. Lectures were offered in Italian and English entitled correspondingly, “L’invenzione greca della democrazia,” “The Roman Invention of Law,” “Economy and Inequality,” and “Il mondo globale: nuovi problemi e vecchie risposte.” The Jerome Lectures are jointly administered by the American Academy in Rome and the University of Michigan.

Speaking at the Villa Aurelia in his inaugural lecture on Greek democracy, Professor Schiavone elaborated his intention to recuperate the basic values and meanings of human equality in the Western tradition. Returning to the ancient Greek polis, Professor Schiavone revisited the voices of Antiphon, Plato, Aristotle and Herodotus for an understanding of isonomia, or equality under the law, which emerged as a fundamental principle of Greek political thought. Despite being rooted in a collectivist ontology, Greek democracy ultimately required that theory be translated into praxis, one in which equality came to be demarcated by the male, land-holding body politic.

The political paradigm of the Greek polis was followed by the juridical paradigm of the Roman republic. Professor Schiavone began his second lecture by articulating that while the Greek model was democratic, the Roman model was aristocratic, and if Greek politics was rooted in theory, Roman law was rooted in usus, or use. Rome privileged citizenship above individualism creating a disciplined rationality of equality in the private sphere - and private law - as the basis from which to enforce social order in the public sphere.

Changing ideas about equality born of the experience of empire were the subject of the third lecture. As Schiavone postulated, several centuries of imperial expansion, of slave owning and an increasing cosmopolitan and diverse society would eventually result in new, formulation of equality by third-centurry. A.D. jurists. Now it was again possible to imagine an ideal natural state of equality, in which all persons whatever origin or legal status, were equal. The jurists understood that this state of equality was only ruptured by the laws of nations and chance, which might capriciously turn a freeman into a slave, a rich man into a pauper. These nascent notions of the third-century jurists would only be fully realized in the modern period, when philosophies of natural law materialized alongside economies of a rising middle class to produce a modern interpretation of Roman law that increasingly blurred the lines between juridical, political, social and economic equality, until the intercession of Karl Marx.

In the face of a contemporary society that seems increasingly concerned with individualism, can notions of equality that derive from ancient precedents still inspire models for an egalitarian future? In his fourth and final lecture Professor Schiavone imagined a common human ethics for the future, one predicated on a global definition of citizenship rooted in the notion of natural equality. This new kind of equality represents a future beyond anything understood by the ancients, and one which, for the first time, would be based in nature and beyond the laws of nations.  Such a future, suggested Schiavone, requires a deep understanding of how we have framed equality through the ages if we are to supersede those notions and create new, truly just societies.