National Geographic : 1997 Aug
written law as a shield-to protect individuals against one another and against the awesome power of the state-was a concept the Romans took from the Greeks. But it was Rome that put this abstract notion into daily practice, and the practice is today honored around the world. A Latin inscription at Harvard Law School conveys the idea precisely: "Non sub homine sed sub deo et lege-It is not by men but by God and the law [that we are governed]." The rule of law is so central to Western civ ilization that most of us take it for granted. Of course we are governed by laws, we say-it's natural. In fact, though, the rule of law is not a necessary aspect of the human condition. Another great ancient empire, China, arranged things precisely the opposite of the Roman way. Confucius and his disciples down through the centuries distrusted written laws. A dusty statute book was too inflexible to handle the infinite variety of human experience, the Chi nese sages felt. They chose to trust people, not laws-to rely on innate human goodness as the best guarantee of a civil society. Even today the concept of written law and written contract is fairly weak in China and other East Asian nations within its cultural ambit. The 20th century Chinese historian Hsiao Kung-chuan observed that if the early emperors had been exposed to Roman statecraft, and particularly Roman law, "the Chinese of necessity would have undergone an absolutely different course of development in the thousand or more years thereafter." (The world is just now witnessing a great clash of these different courses, as Hong Kong ends a century and a half of rule by Brit ish law and switches to Chinese control.*) THE ROMANS too felt some ambiguity about the preeminence of law. "Cor ruptissima republicae,plurimae leges," the historian Tacitus observed "The worse the state, the more laws it has." But in the ongoing struggle between the ordinary people of Rome and the governing elites, the plebeians decided they would much rather rely on laws than the all-too-human whims of their rulers. Under pressure from the plebs, the gov erning class was repeatedly forced to issue written codes. The first of these, the Twelve Tables, came out in 450 B.C., and the Romans *See "Hong Kong: Countdown to China," by Mike Edwards, in the March 1997 issue. GOLDEN OASIS Caravansbearingperfumes from Arabia,spices and rarewoods from India, and silkfrom Chinapassed through the colonnadedstreets of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, its ruins bearingwitness to one of the great crossroads of the empire. To the mus cular Roman look of the city, artisans added opulent, Persian-styletouches. Intricatefloral carvings appearon fallen cornices and on the richly dressed tomb figures of the merchant Malko andfamily (right). Roman forces sacked Palmyrain A.D. 273 after its powerful queen Zenobia challenged imperial rule. Her captors supposedly led her into Rome on a golden chain.