The Lex of the Earth? Arendt’s Critique of Roman Law

Journal of International Political Theory 17 (3):394-411 (2021)
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How political communities should be constituted is at the center of Hannah Arendt’s engagement with two ancient sources of law: the Greek nomos and the Roman lex. Recent scholarship suggests that Arendt treats nomos as imperative and exclusive while lex has a relationship-establishing dimension and that for an inclusive form of polity, she favors lex over nomos. This article argues, however, that Arendt’s appreciation occurs within a general context of more reservations about Rome than Roman-centric interpretations admit. Her writings show that lex could not accommodate the agonistic spirit and Homeric impartiality that helped the Greeks achieve human greatness and surpassing excellence. Arendt also points out that Roman peace alliances occurred at the expense of disclosive competition among equals and assumed some form of domination. Indeed, although Arendt appreciates lex’s relationship-establishing aspect, she is undoubtedly critical of anti-political practices accompanying lex, manifested when the Romans required enemies’ submission to terms of peace the Romans themselves set. In the end, Arendt’s statements regarding nomos and lex highlight the fundamental challenge in free politics: balancing the internal demand of agonistic action with the external need to expand lasting ties.

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Shinkyu Lee
Oberlin College


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