Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER VI.: THE EARLY HISTORY OF TESTAMENTARY SUCCESSION. - Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas
Return to Title Page for Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER VI.: THE EARLY HISTORY OF TESTAMENTARY SUCCESSION. - Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas 
Ancient Law, its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas, with an introduction and notes by Sir Frederick Pollock. 4th American from the 10th London edition (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1906).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE EARLY HISTORY OF TESTAMENTARY SUCCESSION.
If an attempt were made to demonstrate in England the superiority of the historical method of investigation to the modes of inquiry concerning Jurisprudence which are in fashion among us, no department of Law would better serve as an example than Testaments or Wills. Its capabilities it owes to its great length and great continuity. At the beginning of its history we find ourselves in the very infancy of the social state, surrounded by conceptions which it requires some effort of mind to realise in their ancient form; while here, at the other extremity of its line of progress, we are in the midst of legal notions which are nothing more than those same conceptions disguised by the phraseology and by the habits of thought which belong to modern times, and exhibiting therefore a difficulty of another kind, the difficulty of believing that ideas which form part of our every-day mental stock can really stand in need of analysis and examination. The growth of the Law of Wills between these extreme points can be traced with remarkable distinctness. It was much less interrupted at the epoch of the birth of feudalism, than the history of most other branches of Law. It is, indeed, true that as regards all provinces of jurisprudence, the break caused by the division between ancient and modern history, or in other words by the dissolution of the Roman empire, has been very greatly exaggerated. Indolence has disinclined many writers to be at the pains of looking for threads of connexion entangled and obscured by the confusions of six troubled centuries, while other inquirers, not naturally deficient in patience and industry, have been misled by idle pride in the legal system of their country, and by consequent unwillingness to confess its obligations to the jurisprudence of Rome. But these unfavourable influences have had comparatively little effect on the province of Testamentary Law. The barbarians were confessedly strangers to any such conception as that of a Will. The best authorities agree that there is no trace of it in those parts of their written codes which comprise the customs practised by them in their original seats and in their subsequent settlements on the edge of the Roman Empire. But soon after they became mixed with the population of the Roman provinces they appropriated from the Imperial jurisprudence the conception of a Will, at first in part, and afterwards in all its integrity. The influence of the Church had much to do with this rapid assimilation. The ecclesiastical power had very early succeeded to those privileges of custody and registration of Testaments which several of the heathen temples had enjoyed; and even thus early it was almost exclusively to private bequests that the religious foundations owed their temporal possessions. Hence it is that the decrees of the earliest Provincial Councils perpetually contain anathemas against those who deny the sanctity of Wills. Here, in England, Church influence was certainly chief among the causes which by universal acknowledgment have prevented that discontinuity in the history of Testamentary Law which is sometimes believed to exist in the history of other provinces of Jurisprudence. The jurisdiction over one class of Wills was delegated to the Ecclesiastical Courts, which applied to them, though not always intelligently, the principles of Roman jurisprudence; and, though neither the Courts of Common Law nor the Court of Chancery owned any positive obligation to follow the Ecclesiastical tribunals, they could not escape the potent influence of a system of settled rules in course of application by their side. The English law of testamentary succession to personalty has become a modified form of the dispensation under which the inheritances of Roman citizens were administered.
It is not difficult to point out the extreme difference of the conclusions forced on us by the historical treatment of the subject, from those to which we are conducted when, without the help of history, we merely strive to analyse our primâ facie impressions. I suppose there is nobody who, starting from the popular or even the legal conception of a Will, would not imagine that certain qualities are necessarily attached to it. He would say, for example, that a Will necessarily takes effect at death only,—that it is secret, not known as a matter of course to persons taking interests under its provisions,—that it is revocable, i. e. always capable of being superseded by a new act of testation. Yet I shall be able to show that there was a time when none of these characteristics belonged to a Will. The Testaments from which our Wills are directly descended at first took effect immediately on their execution; they were not secret; they were not revocable. Few legal agencies are, in fact, the fruit of more complex historical agencies than that by which a man’s written in tentions control the posthumous disposition of his goods. Testaments very slowly and gradually gathered around them the qualities I have mentioned; and they did this from causes and under pressure of events which may be called casual, or which at any rate have no interest for us at present, except so far as they have affected the history of law.
At a time when legal theories were more abundant than at present,—theories which, it is true, were for the most part gratuitous and premature enough, but which nevertheless rescued jurisprudence from that worse and more ignoble condition, not unknown to ourselves, in which nothing like a generalisation is aspired to, and law is regarded as a mere empirical pursuit—it was the fashion to explain the ready and apparently intuitive perception which we have of certain qualities in a Will, by saying that they were natural to it, or, as the phrase would run in full, attached to it by the Law of Nature. Nobody, I imagine, would affect to maintain such a doctrine, when once it was ascertained that all these characteristics had their origin within historical memory; at the same time, vestiges of the theory of which the doctrine is an offshoot, linger in forms of expression which we all of us use and perhaps scarcely know how to dispense with. I may illustrate this by mentioning a position common in the legal literature of the seventeenth century. The jurists of that period very commonly assert that the power of Testation itself is of Natural Law, that it is a right conferred by the Law of Nature. Their teaching, though all persons may not at once see the connexion, is in substance followed by those who affirm that the right of dictating or controlling the posthumous disposal of property is a necessary or natural consequence of the proprietary rights themselves. And every student of technical jurisprudence must have come across the same view, clothed in the language of a rather different school, which, in its rationale of this department of law, treats succession ex testamento as the mode of devolution which the property of deceased persons ought primarily to follow, and then proceeds to account for succession ab intestato as the incidental provision of the lawgiver for the discharge of a function which was only left unperformed through the neglect or misfortune of the deceased proprietor. These opinions are only expanded forms of the more compendious doctrine that Testamentary disposition is an institution of the Law of Nature. It is certainly never quite safe to pronounce dogmatically as to the range of association embraced by modern minds, when they reflect on Nature and her Law; but I believe that most persons, who affirm that the Testamentary Power is of Natural Law, may be taken to imply either that, as a matter of fact, it is universal, or that nations are prompted to sanction it by an original instinct and impulse. With respect to the first of these positions, I think that, when explicitly set forth, it can never be seriously contended for in an age which has seen the severe restraints imposed on the Testamentary Power by the Code Napoléon, and has witnessed the steady multiplication of systems for which the French codes have served as a model. To the second assertion we must object that it is contrary to the best-ascertained facts in the early history of law, and I venture to affirm generally that, in all indigenous societies, a condition of jurisprudence in which Testamentary privileges are not allowed, or rather not contemplated, has preceded that later stage of legal development in which the mere will of the proprietor is permitted under more or less of restriction to override the claims of his kindred in blood.
The conception of a Will or Testament cannot be considered by itself. It is a member, and not the first, of a series of conceptions. In itself a Will is simply the instrument by which the intention of the testator is declared. It must be clear, I think, that before such an instrument takes its turn for discussion, there are several preliminary points to be examined—as for example, what is it, what sort of right or interest, which passes from a dead man on his decease? to whom and in what form does it pass? and how came it that the dead were allowed to control the posthumous disposition of their property? Thrown into technical language, the dependence of the various conceptions which contribute to the notion of a Will is thus expressed. A Will or Testament is an instrument by which the devolution of an inheritance is prescribed. Inheritance is a form of universal succession. A universal succession is a succession to a universitas juris, or university of rights and duties. Inverting this order we have therefore to inquire what is a universitas juris; what is a universal succession; what is the form of universal succession which is called an inheritance? And there are also two further questions, independent to some extent of the points I have mooted, but demanding solution before the subject of Wills can be exhausted. These are, how came an inheritance to be controlled in any case by the testator’s volition, and what is the nature of the instrument by which it came to be controlled?
The first question relates to the universitas juris; that is, a university (or bundle) of rights and duties. A universitas juris is a collection of rights and duties united by the single circumstance of their having belonged at one time to some one person. It is, as it were, the legal clothing of some given individual. It is not formed by grouping together any rights and any duties. It can only be constituted by taking all the rights and all the duties of a particular person. The tie which connects a number of rights of property, rights of way, rights to legacies, duties of specific performance, debts, obligations to compensate wrongs—which so connects all these legal privileges and duties together as to constitute them a universitas juris, is the fact of their having attached to some individual capable of exercising them. Without this fact there is no university of rights and duties. The expression universitas juris is not classical, but for the notion jurisprudence is exclusively indebted to Roman law; nor is it at all difficult to seize. We must endeavour to collect under one conception the whole set of legal relations in which each one of us stands to the rest of the world. These, whatever be their character and composition, make up together a universitas juris; and there is but little danger of mistake in forming the notion, if we are only careful to remember that duties enter into it quite as much as rights. Our duties may overbalance our rights. A man may owe more than he is worth, and therefore if a money value is set on his collective legal relations he may be what is called insolvent. But for all that, the entire group of rights and duties which centres in him is not the less a “juris universitas.”
We come next to a “universal succession.” A universal succession is a succession to a universitas juris. It occurs when one man is invested with the legal clothing of another, becoming at the same moment subject to all his liabilities and entitled to all his rights. In order that the universal succession may be true and perfect, the devolution must take place uno ictu, as the jurists phrase it. It is of course possible to conceive one man acquiring the whole of the rights and duties of another at different periods, as for example by successive purchases; or he might acquire them in different capacities, part as heir, part as purchaser, part as legatee. But though the group of rights and duties thus made up should in fact amount to the whole legal personality of a particular individual, the acquisition would not be a universal succession. In order that there may be a true universal succession, the transmission must be such as to pass the whole aggregate of rights and duties at the same moment and in virtue of the same legal capacity in the recipient. The notion of a universal succession, like that of a juris universitas, is permanent in jurisprudence, though in the English legal system it is obscured by the great variety of capacities in which rights are acquired, and, above all, by the distinction between the two great provinces of English property, “realty” and “personalty.” The succession of an assignee in bankruptcy to the entire property of the bankrupt is, however, a universal succession, though as the assignee only pays debts to the extent of the assets this is only a modified form of the primary notion. Were it common among us for persons to take assignments of all a man’s property on condition of paying all his debts, such transfers would exactly resemble the universal successions known to the oldest Roman Law. When a Roman citizen adrogated a son, i. e. took a man, not already under Patria Potestas, as his adoptive child, he succeeded universally to the adoptive child’s estate, i. e. he took all the property and became liable for all the obligations. Several other forms of universal succession appear in the primitive Roman Law, but infinitely the most important and the most durable of all was that one with which we are more immediately concerned, Hæreditas or Inheritance. Inheritance was a universal succession occurring at a death. The universal successor was Hæres or Heir. He stepped at once into all the rights and all the duties of the dead man. He was instantly clothed with his entire legal person, and I need scarcely add that the special character of the Hæres remained the same, whether he was named by a Will or whether he took on an Intestacy. The term Hæres is no more emphatically used of the Intestate than of the Testamentary Heir, for the manner in which a man became Hæres had nothing to do with the legal character he sustained. The dead man’s universal successor, however he became so, whether by Will or by Intestacy, was his Heir. But the heir was not necessarily a single person. A group of persons, considered in law as a single unit, might succeed as co-heirs to the Inheritance.
Let me now quote the usual Roman definition of an Inheritance. The reader will be in a position to appreciate the full force of the separate terms. Hæreditas est successio in universum jus quod defunctus habuit (“an inheritance is a succession to the entire legal position of a deceased man”). The notion was that though the physical person of the deceased had perished, his legal personality survived and descended unimpaired on his Heir or Co-heirs, in whom his identity (so far as the law was concerned) was continued. Our own law, in constituting the Executor or Administrator the representative of the deceased to the extent of his personal assets, may serve as an illustration of the theory from which it emanated; but, although it illustrates, it does not explain it. The view of even the later Roman Law required a closeness of correspondence between the position of the deceased and of his Heir which is no feature of an English representation; and in the primitive jurisprudence everything turned on the continuity of succession. Unless provision was made in the will for the instant devolution of the testator’s rights and duties on the Heir or Co-heirs, the testament lost all its effect.
In modern Testamentary jurisprudence, as in the later Roman law, the object of first importance is the execution of the testator’s intentions. In the ancient law of Rome the subject of corresponding carefulness was the bestowal of the Universal Succession. One of these rules seems to our eyes a principle dictated by common sense, while the other looks very much like an idle crotchet. Yet that without the second of them the first would never have come into being is as certain as any proposition of the kind can be.
In order to solve this apparent paradox, and to bring into greater clearness the train of ideas which I have been endeavouring to indicate, I must borrow the results of the inquiry which was attempted in the earlier portion of the preceding chapter. We saw one peculiarity invariably distinguishing the infancy of society. Men are regarded and treated, not as individuals, but always as members of a particular group. Everybody is first a citizen, and then, as a citizen, he is a member of his order—of an aristocracy or a democracy, of an order of patricians or plebeians; or in those societies which an unhappy fate has afflicted with a special perversion in their course of development, of a caste. Next, he is a member of a gens, house, or clan; and lastly, he is a member of his family. This last was the narrowest and most personal relation in which he stood; nor, paradoxical as it may seem, was he ever regarded as himself, as a distinct individual. His individuality was swallowed up in his family. I repeat the definition of a primitive society given before. It has for its units, not individuals, but groups of men united by the reality or the fiction of blood-relationship.
It is in the peculiarities of an undeveloped society that we seize the first trace of a universal succession. Contrasted with the organisation of a modern state, the commonwealths of primitive times may be fairly described as consisting of a number of little despotic governments, each perfectly distinct from the rest, each absolutely controlled by the prerogative of a single monarch. But though the Patriarch, for we must not yet call him the Pater-familias, had rights thus extensive, it is impossible to doubt that he lay under an equal amplitude of obligations. If he governed the family, it was for its behoof. If he was lord of its possessions, he held them as trustee for his children and kindred. He had no privilege or position distinct from that conferred on him by his relation to the petty commonwealth which he governed. The Family, in fact, was a Corporation; and he was its representative or, we might almost say, its Public officer. He enjoyed rights and stood under duties, but the rights and duties were, in the contemplation of his fellow-citizens and in the eye of the law, quite as much those of the collective body as his own. Let us consider for a moment, the effect which would be produced by the death of such a representative. In the eye of the law, in the view of the civil magistrate, the demise of the domestic authority would be a perfectly immaterial event. The person representing the collective body of the family and primarily responsible to municipal jurisdiction would bear a different name; and that would be all. The rights and obligations which attached to the deceased head of the house would attach, without breach of continuity, to his successor; for, in point of fact, they would be the rights and obligations of the family, and the family had the distinctive characteristic of a corporation—that it never died. Creditors would have the same remedies against the new chieftain as against the old, for the liability being that of the still existing family would be absolutely unchanged. All rights available to the family would be as available after the demise of the headship as before it—except that the Corporation would be obliged—if indeed language so precise and technical can be properly used of these early times—would be obliged to sue under a slightly modified name.
The history of jurisprudence must be followed in its whole course, if we are to understand how gradually and tradily society dissolved itself into the component atoms of which it is now constituted—by what insensible gradations the relation of man to man substituted itself for the relation of the individual to his family and of families to each other. The point now to be attended to is that even when the revolution had apparently quite accomplished itself, even when the magistrate had in great measure assumed the place of the Pater-familias, and the civil tribunal substituted itself for the domestic forum, nevertheless the whole scheme of rights and duties administered by the judicial authorities remained shaped by the influence of the obsolete privileges and coloured in every part by their reflection. There seems little question that the devolution of the Universitas Juris, so strenuously insisted upon by the Roman Law as the first condition of a testamentary or intestate succession, was a feature of the older form of society which men’s minds had been unable to dissociate from the new, though with that newer phase it had no true or proper connection. It seems, in truth, that the prolongation of a man’s legal existence in his heir, or in a group of co-heirs, is neither more nor less than a characteristic of the family transferred by a fiction to the individual. Succession in corporations is necessarily universal, and the family was a corporation. Corporations never die. The decease of individual members makes no difference to the collective existence of the aggregate body, and does not in any way affect its legal incidents, its faculties or liabilities. Now in the idea of a Roman universal succession all these qualities of a corporation seem to have been transferred to the individual citizen. His physical death is allowed to exercise no effect on the legal position which he filled, apparently on the principle that that position is to be adjusted as closely as possible to the analogies of a family, which in its corporate character was not of course liable to physical extinction.
I observe that not a few continental jurists have much difficulty in comprehending the nature of the connection between the conceptions blended in a universal succession, and there is perhaps no topic in the philosophy of jurisprudence on which their speculations, as a general rule, possess so little value. But the student of English law ought to be in no danger of stumbling at the analysis of the idea which we are examining. Much light is cast upon it by a fiction in our own system with which all lawyers are familiar. English lawyers classify corporations as Corporations aggregate and Corporations sole. A Corporation aggregate is a true corporation, but a Corporation sole is an individual, being a member of a series of individuals, who is invested by a fiction with the qualities of a Corporation. I need hardly cite the King or the Parson of a Parish as instances of Corporations sole. The capacity or office is here considered apart from the particular person who from time to time may occupy it, and, this capacity being perpetual, the series of individuals who fill it are clothed with the leading attribute of Corporations—Perpetuity Now in the older theory of Roman Law the individual bore to the family precisely the same relation which in the rationale of English jurisprudence a Corporation sole bears to a Corporation aggregate. The derivation and association of ideas are exactly the same. In fact, if we say to ourselves that for purposes of Roman Testamentary Jurisprudence each individual citizen was a Corporation sole, we shall not only realize the full conception of an inheritance, but have constantly at command the clue to the assumption in which it originated. It is an axiom with us that the King never dies, being a Corporation sole. His capacities are instantly filled by his successor, and the continuity of dominion is not deemed to have been interrupted. With the Romans it seemed an equally simple and natural process, to eliminate the fact of death from the devolution of rights and obligations. The testator lived on in his heir or in the group of his co-heirs. He was in law the same person with them, and if any one in his testamentary dispositions had even constructively violated the principle which united his actual and his posthumous existence, the law rejected the defective instrument, and gave the inheritance to the kindred in blood, whose capacity to fulfil the conditions of heirship was conferred on them by the law itself, and not by any document which by possibility might be erroneously framed.
When a Roman citizen died intestate or leaving no valid Will, his descendants or kindred became his heirs according to a scale which will be presently described. The person or class of persons who succeeded did not simply represent the deceased, but, in conformity with the theory just delineated, they continued his civil life, his legal existence. The same results followed when the order of succession was determined by a Will, but the theory of the identity between the dead man and his heirs was certainly much older than any form of Testament or phase of Testamentary jurisprudence. This indeed is the proper moment for suggesting a doubt which will press on us with greater force the further we plumb the depths of this subject—whether wills would ever have come into being at all if it had not been for these remarkable ideas connected with universal succession. Testamentary law is the application of a principle which may be explained on a variety of philosophical hypotheses as plausible as they are gratuitous; it is interwoven with every part of modern society, and it is defensible on the broadest grounds of general expediency. But the warning can never be too often repeated, that the grand source of mistake in questions of jurisprudence is the impression that those reasons which actuate us at the present moment, in the maintenance of an existing institution, have necessarily anything in common with the sentiment in which the institution originated. It is certain that, in the old Roman Law of Inheritance, the notion of a will or testament is inextricably mixed up, I might almost say confounded, with the theory of a man’s posthumous existence in the person of his heir.
The conception of a universal succession, firmly as it has taken root in jurisprudence, has not occurred spontaneously to the framers of every body of laws. Wherever it is now found, it may be shown to have descended from Roman law; and with it have come down a host of legal rules on the subject of Testaments and Testamentary gifts, which modern practitioners apply without discerning their relation to the parent theory. But, in the pure Roman jurisprudence, the principle that a man lives on in his Heir—the elimination, if we may so speak, of the fact of death—is too obviously for mistake the centre round which the whole Law of Testamentary and Intestate succession is circling. The unflinching sternness of the Roman law in enforcing compliance with the governing theory would in itself suggest that the theory grew out of something in the primitive constitution of Roman society; but we may push the proof a good way beyond the presumption. It happens that several technical expressions, dating from the earliest institutions of Wills at Rome, have been accidentally preserved to us. We have in Gaius the formula of investiture by which the universal successor was created. We have the ancient name by which the person afterwards called Heir was at first designated. We have further the text of the celebrated clause in the Twelve Tables by which the Testamentary power was expressly recognised, and the clauses regulating Intestate Succession have also been preserved. All these archaic phrases have one salient peculiarity. They indicate that what passed from the Testator to the Heir was the Family, that is the aggregate of rights and duties contained in the Patria Potestas and growing out of it. The material property is in three instances not mentioned at all; in two others, it is visibly named as an adjunct or appendage of the Family. The original Will or Testament was therefore an instrument, or (for it was probably not at first in writing) a proceeding by which the devolution of the Family was regulated. It was a mode of declaring who was to have the chieftainship, in succession to the Testator. When Wills are understood to have this for their original object, we see at once how it is that they came to be connected with one of the most curious relics of ancient religion and law, the sacra, or Family Rites. These sacra were the Roman form of an institution which shows itself wherever society has not wholly shaken itself free from its primitive clothing. They are the sacrifices and ceremonies by which the brotherhood of the family is commemorated, the pledge and the witness of its perpetuity. Whatever be their nature,—whether it be true or not that in all cases they are the worship of some mythical ancestor,—they are everywhere employed to attest the sacredness of the family relation; and therefore they acquire prominent significance and importance, whenever the continuous existence of the Family is endangered by a change in the person of its chief. Accordingly, we hear most about them in connection with demises of domestic sovereignty. Among the Hindoos, the right to inherit a dead man’s property is exactly co-extensive with the duty of performing his obsequies. If the rites are not properly performed or not performed by the proper person, no relation is considered as established between the deceased and anybody surviving him; the Law of Succession does not apply, and nobody can inherit the property. Every great event in the life of a Hindoo seems to be regarded as leading up to and bearing upon these solemnities. If he marries, it is to have children who may celebrate them after his death; if he has no children, he lies under the strongest obligation to adopt them from another family, “with a view,” writes the Hindoo doctor, “to the funeral cake, the water, and the solemn sacrifice.” The sphere preserved to the Roman sacra in the time of Cicero, was not less in extent. It embraced Inheritances and Adoptions. No Adoption was allowed to take place without due provision for the sacra of the family from which the adoptive son was transferred, and no Testament was allowed to distribute an Inheritance without a strict apportionment of the expenses of these ceremonies among the different co-heirs. The differences between the Roman law at this epoch, when we obtain our last glimpse of the sacra, and the existing Hindoo system, are most instructive. Among the Hindoos, the religious element in law has acquired a complete predominance. Family sacrifices have become the keystone of all the Law of Persons and much of the Law of Things. They have even received a monstrous extension, for it is a plausible opinion that the self-immolation of the widow at her husband’s funeral, a practice continued to historical times by the Hindoos, and commemorated in the traditions of several Indo-European races, was an addition grafted on the primitive sacra under the influence of the impression, which always accompanies the idea of sacrifice, that human blood is the most precious of all oblations. With the Romans, on the contrary, the legal obligation and the religious duty have ceased to be blended. The necessity of solemnising the sacra forms no part of the theory of civil law, but they are under the separate jurisdiction of the College of Pontiffs. The letters of Cicero to Atticus, which are full of allusions to them, leave no doubt that they constituted an intolerable burden on Inheritances; but the point of development at which law breaks away from religion has been passed, and we are prepared for their entire disappearance from the later jurisprudence.
In Hindoo law there is no such thing as a true Will. The place filled by Wills is occupied by Adoptions. We can now see the relation of the Testamentary Power to the Faculty of Adoption, and the reason why the exercise of either of them could call up a peculiar solicitude for the performance of the sacra. Both a Will and an Adoption threaten a distortion of the ordinary course of Family descent, but they are obviously contrivances for preventing the descent being wholly interrupted when there is no succession of kindred to carry it on. Of the two expedients Adoption, the factitious creation of blood-relationship, is the only one which has suggested itself to the greater part of archaic societies. The Hindoos have indeed advanced one point on what was doubtless the antique practice, by allowing the widow to adopt when the father has neglected to do so, and there are in the local customs of Bengal some faint traces of the Testamentary powers. But to the Romans belongs preeminently the credit of inventing the Will, the institution which, next to the Contract, has exercised the greatest influence in transforming human society. We must be careful not to attribute to it in its earliest shape the functions which have attended it in more recent times. It was at first not a mode of distributing a dead man’s goods, but one among several ways of transferring the representation of the household to a new chief. The goods descend no doubt to the Heir, but that is only because the government of the family carries with it in its devolution the power of disposing of the common stock. We are very far as yet from that stage in the history of Wills, in which they become powerful instruments in modifying society through the stimulus they give to the circulation of property and the plasticity they produce in proprietary rights. No such consequences as these appear in fact to have been associated with the Testamentary power even by the latest Roman lawyers. It will be found that Wills were never looked upon in the Roman community as a contrivance for parting Property and the Family, or for creating a variety of miscellaneous interests, but rather as a means of making a better provision for the members of a household than could be secured through the rules of Intestate succession. We may suspect indeed that the associations of a Roman with the practice of will-making were extremely different from those familiar to us nowadays. The habit of regarding Adoption and Testation as modes of continuing the Family cannot but have had something to do with the singular laxity of Roman notions as to the inheritance of sovereignty. It is impossible not to see that the succession of the early Roman Emperors to each other was considered reasonably regular, and that, in spite of all that had occurred, no absurdity attached to the pretension of such Princes as Theodosius or Justinian to style themselves Cæsar and Augustus.
When the phenomena of primitive societies emerge into light, it seems impossible to dispute a proposition which the jurists of the seventeenth century considered doubtful, that Intestate Inheritance is a more ancient institution than Testamentary Succession. As soon as this is settled, a question of much interest suggests itself, how and under what conditions were the directions of a will first allowed to regulate the devolution of authority over the household, and consequently the posthumous distribution of property. The difficulty of deciding the point arises from the rarity of Testamentary power in archaic communities. It is doubtful whether a true power of testation was known to any original society except the Roman. Rudimentary forms of it occur here and there, but most of them are not exempt from the suspicion of a Roman origin. The Athenian Will was, no doubt, indigenous, but then, as will appear presently, it was only an inchoate Testament. As to the Wills which are sanctioned by the bodies of law which have descended to us as the codes of the barbarian conquerors of imperial Rome, they are almost certainly Roman. The most penetrating German criticism has recently been directed to these leges Barbarorum, the great object of investigation being to detach those portions of each system which formed the customs of the tribe in its original home from the adventitious ingredients which were borrowed from the laws of the Romans. In the course of this process, one result has invariably disclosed itself, that the ancient nucleus of the code contains no trace of a Will. Whatever testamentary law exists, has been taken from Roman jurisprudence. Similarly, the rudimentary Testament which (as I am informed) the Rabbinical Jewish law provides for, has been attributed to contact with the Romans. The only form of testament, not belonging to a Roman or Hellenic society, which can reasonably be supposed indigenous, is that recognised by the usages of the province of Bengal; and the testament of Bengal, which some have even supposed to be an invention of Anglo-Indian lawyers, is at most only a rudimentary Will.
The evidence, however, such as it is, seems to point to the conclusion that Testaments are at first only allowed to take effect on failure of the persons entitled to have the inheritance by right of blood genuine or fictitious. Thus, when Athenian citizens were empowered for the first time by the Laws of Solon to execute Testaments, they were forbidden to disinherit their direct male descendants. So, too, the Will of Bengal is only permitted to govern the succession so far as it is consistent with certain overriding claims of the family. Again, the original institutions of the Jews having provided nowhere for the privileges of Testatorship, the later Rabbinical jurisprudence, which pretends to suply the casus omissi of the Mosaic law, allows the power of Testation to attach when all the kindred entitled under the Mosaic system to succeed have failed or are undiscoverable. The limitations by which the ancient German codes hedge in the testamentary jurisprudence which has been incorporated with them are also significant, and point in the same direction. It is the peculiarity of most of these German laws, in the only shape in which we know them, that, besides the allod or domain of each household, they recognise several subordinate kinds or orders of property, each of which probably represents a separate transfusion of Roman principles into the primitive body of Teutonic usage. The primitive German or allodial property is strictly reserved to the kindred. Not only is it incapable of being disposed of by testament, but it is scarcely capable of being alienated by conveyance inter vivos. The ancient German law, like the Hindoo jurisprudence, makes the male children co-proprietors with their father, and the endowment of the family cannot be parted with except by the consent of all its members. But the other sorts of property, of more modern origin and lower dignity than the allodial possessions, are much more easily alienated than they, and follow much more lenient rules of devolution. Women and the descendants of women succeed to them, obviously on the principle that they lie outside the sacred precinct of the Agnatic brotherhood. Now, it is on these last descriptions of property, and on these only, that the Testaments borrowed from Rome were at first allowed to operate.
These few indications may serve to lend additional plausibility to that which in itself appears to be the most probable explanation of an ascertained fact in the early history of Roman wills. We have it stated on abundant authority that Testaments during the primitive period of the Roman State were executed in the Comitia Calata, that is, in the Comitia Curiata, or Parliament of the Patrician Burghers of Rome, when assembled for Private Business. This mode of execution has been the source of the assertion, handed down by one generation of civilians to another, that every Will at one era of Roman history was a solemn legislative enactment. But there is no necessity whatever for resorting to an explanation which has the defect of attributing far too much precision to the proceedings of the ancient assembly. The proper key to the story concerning the execution of Wills in the Comitia Calata must no doubt be sought in the oldest Roman Law of intestate succession. The canons of primitive Roman jurisprudence regulating the inheritance of relations from each other were, so long as they remained unmodified by the Edictal Law of the Prætor, to the following effect:—First, the sui or direct descendants who had never been emancipated succeeded. On the failure of the sui, the Nearest Agnate came into their place, that is, the nearest person or class of the kindred who was or might have been under the same Patria Potestas with the deceased. The third and last degree came next, in which the inheritance devolved on the gentiles, that is, on the collective members of the dead man’s gens or House. The House, I have explained already, was a fictitious extension of the family, consisting of all Roman Patrician citizens who bore the same name, and who on the ground of bearing the same name, were supposed to be descended from a common ancestor. Now the Patrician Assembly called the Comitia Curiata was a Legislature in which Gentes or Houses were exclusively represented. It was a representative assembly of the Roman people, constituted on the assumption that the constituent unit of the state was the Gens. This being so, the inference seems inevitable, that the cognisance of Wills by the Comitia was connected with the rights of the Gentiles, and was intended to secure them in their privilege of ultimate inheritance. The whole apparent anomaly is removed, if we suppose that a Testament could only be made when the testator had no gentiles discoverable, or when they waived their claims, and that every Testament was submitted to the General Assembly of the Roman Gentes, in order that those aggrieved by its dispositions might put their veto upon it if they pleased, or by allowing it to pass might be presumed to have renounced their reversion. It is possible that on the eve of the publication of the Twelve Tables this vetoing power may have been greatly curtailed or only occasionally and capriciously exercised. It is much easier, however to indicate the meaning and origin of the jurisdiction confided to the Comitia Calata, than to trace its gradual development or progressive decay.
The Testament to which the pedigree of all modern Wills may be traced is not, however, the Testament executed in the Calata Comitia, but another Testament designed to compete with it and destined to supersede it. The historical importance of this early Roman Will, and the light it casts on much of ancient thought, will excuse me for describing it at some length.
When the Testamentary power first discloses itself to us in legal history, there are signs that, like almost all the great Roman institutions, it was the subject of contention between the Patricians and the Plebeians. The effect of the political maxim, Plebs Gentem non habet, “a Plebeian cannot be a member of a house,” was entirely to exclude the Plebeians from the Comitia Curiata. Some critics have accordingly supposed that a Plebeian could not have his Will read or recited to the Patrician Assembly, and was thus deprived of Testamentary privileges altogether. Others have been satisfied to point out the hardships of having to submit a proposed Will to the unfriendly jurisdiction of an assembly in which the Testator was not represented. Whatever be the true view, a form of Testament came into use, which has all the characteristics of a contrivance intended to evade some distasteful obligation. The Will in question was a conveyance inter vivos, a complete and irrevocable alienation of the Testator’s family and substance to the person whom he meant to be his heir. The strict rules of Roman law must always have permitted such an alienation, but when the transaction was intended to have a posthumous effect, there may have been disputes whether it was valid for Testamentary purposes without the formal assent of the Patrician Parliament. If a difference of opinion existed on the point between the two classes of the Roman population, it was extinguished, with many other sources of heartburning, by the great Decemviral compromise. The text of the Twelve Tables is still extant which says, “Pater familias uti de pecuniâ tutelâve rei suœ legâssit, ita jus esto”—a law which can hardly have had any other object than the legalisation of the Plebeian Will.
It is well known to scholars that, centuries after the Patrician Assembly had ceased to be the legislature of the Roman State, it still continued to hold formal sittings for the convenience of private business. Consequently, at a period long subsequent to the publication of the Decemviral Law, there is reason to believe that the Comitia Calata still assembled for the validation of Testaments. Its probable functions may be best indicated by saying that it was a Court of Registration, with the understanding, however, that the Wills exhibited were not enrolled, but simply recited to the members, who were supposed to take note of their tenor and to commit them to memory. It is very likely that this form of Testament was never reduced to writing at all, but at all events if the Will had been originally written, the office of the Comitia was certainly confined to hearing it read aloud, the document being retained afterwards in the custody of the Testator, or deposited under the safeguard of some religious corporation. This publicity may have been one of the incidents of the Testament executed in the Comitia Calata which brought it into popular disfavour. In the early years of the Empire the Comitia still held its meetings, but they seem to have lapsed into the merest form, and few Wills, or none, were probably presented at the periodical sitting.
It is the ancient Plebeian Will—the alternative of the Testament just described—which in its remote effects has deeply modified the civilisation of the modern world. It acquired at Rome all the popularity which the Testament submitted to the Calata Comitia appears to have lost. The key to all its characteristics lies in its descent from the mancipium, or ancient Roman conveyance, a proceeding to which we may unhesitatingly assign the parentage of two great institutions without which modern society can scarcely be supposed capable of holding together, the Contract and the Will. The mancipium, or, as the word would exhibit itself in later Latinity, the Mancipation, carries us back by its incidents to the infancy of civil society. As it sprang from times long anterior, if not to the invention, at all events to the popularisation, of the art of writing, gestures, symbolical acts, and solemn phrases take the place of documentary forms, and a lengthy and intricate ceremonial is intended to call the attention of the parties to the importance of the transaction, and to impress it on the memory of the witnesses. The imperfection, too, of oral, as compared with written, testimony necessitates the multiplication of the witnesses and assistants beyond what in later times would be reasonable or intelligible limits.
The Roman Mancipation required the presence first of all the parties, the vendor and vendee, or we should perhaps rather say, if we are to use modern legal language, the grantor and grantee. There were also no less than five witnesses; and an anomalous personage, the Libripens, who brought with him a pair of scales to weigh the uncoined copper money of ancient Rome. The Testament we are considering—the Testament per æs et libram, “with the copper and the scales,” as it long continued to be technically called—was an ordinary Mancipation with no change in the form and hardly any in words. The Testator was the grantor; the five witnesses and the libripens were present; and the place of grantee was taken by a person known technically as the familiæ emptor, the Purchaser of the Family. The ordinary ceremony of a Mancipation was then proceeded with. Certain formal gestures were made and sentences pronounced. The Emptor familiæ simulated the payment of a price by striking the scales with a piece of money, and finally the Testator ratified what had been done in a set form of words called the “Nuncupatio” or publication of the transaction, a phrase which, I need scarcely remind the lawyer, has had a long history in Testamentary jurisprudence. It is necessary to attend particularly to the character of the person called familiæ emptor. There is no doubt that at first he was the Heir himself. The Testator conveyed to him outright his whole “familia,” that is, all the rights he enjoyed over and through the family; his property, his slaves, and all his ancestral privileges, together, on the other hand, with all his duties and obligations.
With these data before us, we are able to note several remarkable points in which the Mancipatory Testament, as it may be called, differed in its primitive form from a modern will. As it amounted to a conveyance out-and-out of the Testator’s estate, it was not revocable. There could be no new exercise of a power which had been exhausted.
Again, it was not secret. The Familiæ Emptor, being himself the Heir, knew exactly what his rights were, and was aware that he was irreversibly entitled to the inheritance; a knowledge which the violences inseparable from the best-ordered ancient society rendered extremely dangerous. But perhaps the most surprising consequence of this relation of Testaments to Conveyances was the immediate vesting of the inheritance in the Heir. This has seemed so incredible to not a few civilians, that they have spoken of the Testator’s estate as vesting conditionally on the Testator’s death, or as granted to him from a time uncertain, i. e. the death of the grantor. But down to the latest period of Roman jurisprudence there were a certain class of transactions which never admitted of being directly modified by a condition, or of being limited to or from a point of time. In technical language they did not admit conditio or dies. Mancipation was one of them, and therefore, strange as it may seem, we are forced to conclude that the primitive Roman Will took effect at once, even though the Testator survived his act of Testation. It is indeed likely that Roman citizens originally made their Wills only in the article of death, and that a provision for the continuance of the Family effected by a man in the flower of life would take the form rather of an Adoption than of a Will. Still we must believe that, if the Testator did recover, he could only continue to govern his household by the sufferance of his Heir.
Two or three remarks should be made before I explain how these inconveniences were remedied, and how Testaments came to be invested with the characteristics now universally associated with them. The Testament was not necessarily written: at first, it seems to have been invariably oral, and even in later times, the instrument declaratory of the bequests was only incidentally connected with the Will and formed no essential part of it. It bore in fact exactly the same relation to the Testament, which the deed leading the uses bore to the Fines and Recoveries of old English law, or which the charter of feoffment bore to the feoffment itself. Previously, indeed, to the Twelve Tables, no writing would have been of the slightest use, for the Testator had no power of giving legacies, and the only persons who could be advantaged by a will were the Heir or Co-Heirs. But the extreme generality of the clause in the Twelve Tables soon produced the doctrine that the Heir must take the inheritance burdened by any directions which the Testator might give him, or in other words, take it subject to legacies. Written testamentary instruments assumed thereupon a new value, as a security against the fraudulent refusal of the heir to satisfy the legatees; but to the last it was at the Testator’s pleasure to rely exclusively on the testimony of the witnesses, and to declare by word of mouth the legacies which the familiæ emptor was commissioned to pay.
The terms of the expression Emptor familiæ demand notice. “Emptor” indicates that the Will was literally a sale, and the word “familiæ,” when compared with the phraseology in the Testamentary clause in the Twelve Tables, leads us to some instructive conclusions. “Familia,” in classical Latinity, means always a man’s slaves. Here, however, and generally in the language of ancient Roman law, it includes all persons under his Potestas, and the Testator’s material property or substance is understood to pass as an adjunct or appendage of his household. Turning to the law of the Twelve Tables, it will be seen that it speaks of tutela rei suæ “the guardianship of his substance,” a form of expression which is the exact reverse of the phrase just examined. There does not therefore appear to be any mode of escaping from the conclusion, that even at an era so comparatively recent as that of the Decemviral compromise, terms denoting “household” and “property” were blended in the current phraseology. If a man’s household had been spoken of as his property we might have explained the expression as pointing to the extent of the Patria Potestas, but, as the interchange is reciprocal, we must allow that the form of speech carries us back to that primeval period in which property is owned by the family, and the family is governed by the citizen, so that the members of the community do not own their property and their family, but rather own their property through their family.
At an epoch not easy to settle with precision, the Roman Prætors fell into the habit of acting upon Testaments solemnized in closer conformity with the spirit than the letter of the law. Casual dispensations became insensibly the established practice till at length a wholly new form of Will was matured and regularly engrafted on the Edictal Jurisprudence. The new or Prætorian Testament derived the whole of its impregnability from the Jus Honorarium or Equity of Rome. The Prætor of some particular year must have inserted a clause in his Inaugural Proclamation declaratory of his intention to sustain all Testaments which should have been executed with such and such solemnities; and, the reform having been found advantageous, the article relating to it must have been again introduced by the Prætor’s successor, and repeated by the next in office, till at length it formed a recognised portion of that body of jurisprudence which from these successive incorporations was styled the Perpetual or Continuous Edict. On examining the conditions of a valid Prætorian Will they will be plainly seen to have been determined by the requirements of the Mancipatory Testament, the innovating Prætor having obviously prescribed to himself the retention of the old formalities just so far as they were warrants of genuineness or securities against fraud. At the execution of the Mancipatory Testament seven persons had been present besides the Testator. Seven witnesses were accordingly essential to the Prætorian Will: two of them corresponding to the libripens and familiæ emptor, who were now stripped of their symbolical character, and were merely present for the purpose of supplying their testimony. No emblematic ceremony was gone through; the Will was merely recited; but then it is probable (though not absolutely certain) that a written instrument was necessary to perpetuate the evidence of the Testator’s dispositions. At all events, whenever a writing was read or exhibited as a person’s last Will, we know certainly that the Prætorian Court would not sustain it by special intervention, unless each of the seven witnesses had severally affixed his seal to the outside. This is the first appearance of sealing in the history of jurisprudence, considered as a mode of authentication. The use of seals, however, as mere fastenings, is doubtless of much higher antiquity; and it appears to have been known to the Hebrews. We may observe, that the seals of Roman Wills, and other documents of importance, did not only serve as the index of the presence or assent of the signatary, but were also literally fastenings which had to be broken before the writing could be inspected.
The Edictal Law would therefore enforce the dispositions of a Testator, when, instead of being symbolised through the forms of mancipation, they were simply evidenced by the seals of seven witnesses. But it may be laid down as a general proposition, that the principal qualities of Roman property were incommunicable except through processes which were supposed to be coëval with the origin of the Civil Law. The Prætor therefore could not confer an Inheritance on anybody. He could not place the Heir or Co-heirs in that very relation in which the Testator had himself stood to his own rights and obligations. All he could do was to confer on the person designated as Heir the practical enjoyment of the property bequeathed, and to give the force of legal acquittances to his payments of the Testator’s debts. When he exerted his powers to these ends, the Prætor was technically said to communicate the Bonorum Possessio. The Heir specially inducted under these circumstances or Bonorum Possessor, had every proprietary privilege of the Heir by the Civil Law. He took the profits and he could alienate, but then, for all his remedies for redress against wrong, he must go, as we should phrase it, not to the Common Law, but to the Equity side of the Prætorian Court. No great chance of error would be incurred by describing him as having an equitable estate in the inheritance; but then, to secure ourselves against being deluded by the analogy, we must always recollect that in one year the Bonorum Possessio was operated upon by a principle of Roman Law known as Usucapion, and the Possessor became Quiritarian owner of all the property comprised in the inheritance.
We know too little of the older law of Civil Process to be able to strike the balance of advantage and disadvantage between the different classes of remedies supplied by the Prætorian Tribunal. It is certain, however, that, in spite of its many defects, the Mancipatory Testament by which the universitas juris devolved at once and unimpaired was never entirely superseded by the new Will; and at a period less bigoted to antiquarian forms, and perhaps not quite alive to their significance, all the ingenuity of the Jurisconsults seems to have been expended on the improvement of the more venerable instrument. At the era of Gaius, which is that of the Antonine Cæsars, the great blemishes of the Mancipatory Will had been removed. Originally, as we have seen, the essential character of the formalities had required that the Heir himself should be the Purchaser of the Family, and the consequence was that he not only instantly acquired a vested interest in the Testator’s Property, but was formally made aware of his rights. But the age of Gaius permitted some unconcerned person to officiate as Purchaser of the Family. The Heir, therefore, was not necessarily informed of the succession to which he was destined; and Wills thenceforward acquired the property of secrecy. The substitution of a stranger for the actual Heir in the functions of “Familiæ Emptor” had other ulterior consequences. As soon as it was legalised, a Roman Testament came to consist of two parts or stages,—a Conveyance, which was a pure form, and a Nuncupatio, or Publication. In this latter passage of the proceeding, the Testator either orally declared to the assistants the wishes which were to be executed after his death, or produced a written document in which his wishes were embodied. It was not probably till attention had been quite drawn off from the imaginary Conveyance, and concentrated on the Nuncupation as the essential part of the transaction, that Wills were allowed to become revocable.
I have thus carried the pedigree of Wills some way down in legal history. The root of it is the old Testament “with the copper and the scales,” founded on a Mancipation or Conveyance. This ancient Will has, however, manifold defects, which are remedied, though only indirectly, by the Prætorian law. Meantime the ingenuity of the Jurisconsults effects, in the Common-Law Will or Mancipatory Testament, the very improvements which the Prætor may have concurrently carried out in Equity. These last ameliorations depend, however, on more legal dexterity, and we see accordingly that the Testamentary Law of the day of Gaius or Ulpian is only transitional. What changes next ensued we know not; but at length just before the reconstruction of the jurisprudence by Justinian, we find the subjects of the Eastern Roman Empire employing a form of Will of which the pedigree is traceable to the Prætoriar Testament on one side, and to the Testament “with the copper and the scales,” on the other. Like the Testament of the Prætor, it required no Mancipation, and was invalid unless sealed by seven witnesses. Like the Mancipatory Will, it passed the Inheritance and not merely a Bonorum Possessio. Several, however, of its most important features were annexed by positive enactments, and it is out of regard to this threefold derivation from the Prætorian Edict, from the Civil Law, and from the Imperial Constitutions, that Justinian speaks of the Law of Wills in his own days as Jus Tripertitum. The New Testament thus described is the one generally known as the Roman Will. But it was the Will of the Eastern Empire only; and the researches of Savigny have shown that in Western Europe the old Mancipatory Testament, with all its apparatus of conveyance, copper, and scales, continued to be the form in use far down in the Middle Ages.