Adam Smith and Roman Servitudes

Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis, Vol. 72, 327-57, 2004

32 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2008 Last revised: 12 Jan 2016

See all articles by Ernest Metzger

Ernest Metzger

University of Glasgow - School of Law

Date Written: November 1, 2008


This article concerns Adam Smith's historical jurisprudence, and his efforts to produce an explanation for why certain civilizations produce certain laws. Smith's historical jurisprudence is based on the idea that a civilization passes through certain 'ages' (determined by its mode of subsistence at the time), and that each 'age' provokes the creation of certain legal ideas. Several 18th-century thinkers were following a similar line of thinking. Smith proceeds empirically, rejecting the rationalizations of his natural law predecessors in favour of data-gathering and causative explanations.

One of his principal sources of data was Roman law: the literature is rich with examples. Unfortunately the law does not always fit Smith's mode-of-subsistence theory. This sometimes results in real intellectual contortions on Smith's part. His treatment of Roman burdens-on-land (servitudes) is an example: he argues that they were originally person-to-person, like contracts, which is manifestly wrong.

These difficulties notwithstanding, it is not a fair conclusion that Smith's historical jurisprudence was 'unworkable'. A fairer conclusion is that completing his task with the aid of Roman law would have been an enormously time-consuming task, but not impossible.

This essay provides the text and translation of Samuel L.B. von Cocceji, Introductio ad Henrici L. B. Cocceii Grotium Illustratum, continens dissertationes prooemiales, Halle 1748, Diss. XII ('Systema de iustitia naturali et romana'), 4.3.6 (ss. 302-305).

Keywords: Adam Smith, natural jurisprudence, historical jurisprudence, Roman law, Cocceius, Cocceji

Suggested Citation

Metzger, Ernest, Adam Smith and Roman Servitudes (November 1, 2008). Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis, Vol. 72, 327-57, 2004, Available at SSRN:

Ernest Metzger (Contact Author)

University of Glasgow - School of Law ( email )

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