Milstein East Conference Room Wall – Right Panel

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Javolenus Priscus (born 60-70 CE)

“Every definition in civil law is dangerous; for it is rare for the possibility not to exist of its being overthrown.”

Detail of a mosaic floor from the Vatican Museum


Few details are known about the life of Javolenus Priscus, a leading jurist of the late first and early second century CE.  Born around 60-70 CE, he served the Roman Empire as a soldier, a provincial governor in Syria, Germany and Africa and as an advisor to three emperors, Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian.  He eventually became leader of the Sabinian school, one of classical Rome’s two leading schools of legal thought.  As a jurist, he furthered the development of Roman law by writing and teaching on legal issues, issuing legal guidance to judges and magistrates and assisting with practical legal matters such as drafting agreements and guiding litigants.  He also compiled a number of books of Epistulae (written legal opinions) and wrote commentaries on the works of earlier jurists. In the sixth century CE, the Emperor Justinian continued this tradition of commentary and compilation as part of his larger goal of clarifying and unifying the law of the Empire.  He appointed a commission to synthesize the works of the classical jurists into a single work that is now known as the Digest. Numerous excerpts from the writings of Priscus and other classical jurists were compiled into fifty books on various legal topics. In many cases, these excerpts are all that remains of the earlier works. The excerpt quoted here survives in the section of the Digest “Concerning the Different Rules of Ancient Law.”  The Digest forms a major part of Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis, one of the founding sources of civil law.



Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (March 8, 1841 –  March 6, 1935)  Photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. by Hardy, 1897

“It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.  It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1945), was a Supreme Court justice, as well as a Harvard Law School professor and alumnus. He also served on the Massachusetts Supreme Judical Court. This quote is from his seminal Harvard Law Review article, The Path of the Law, one of the most quoted works in legal scholarship.  Holmes, himself one of the most quoted Supreme Court justices, had a profound impact on American legal thought and jurisprudence.  Known for ushering in the concept of legal realism, he is thought to be an early supporter of law and economics theory and empirical legal studies.  A criticism of strict adherence to common law concepts of stare decisis and precedent, this quote suggests that law should be viewed as a living, breathing body, responsive to changing times, reflecting Holmes’ practical view of the law.  It represents a rejection of strict blackletter law (and legal formalism) and appreciation for statistics and economics as the rationale approach to studying law.

The Harvard Law School Library has undertaken a project to digitize its holding related to Holmes and his family. Some materials are already available at


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