Professor at home among the classics

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Bruce Frier originally set his sights on a legal career.

"I wanted to be a lawyer from as early as I can remember," he says.

But after enjoying four years of Latin in high school, he switched to academics, earning a bachelor's degree in classics and history from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and a Ph.D. in classics from Princeton University.

"I had an increasingly strong interest in the sources of stability within the Roman Empire," he says. "Gradually, this drew me to Roman law as a primary center of interest."

Frier, the John and Teresa D'Arms Distinguished University Professor of Classics and Roman Law at the University of Michigan Law School, joined U-M Law in 1981 and teaches Roman Law, Persuasion and the Law, and Contracts.

"My students here are extremely intelligent, and they assimilate knowledge about the ancient world with speed even when they are initially ill-informed," he says.

"My 1-Ls, to whom I teach contracts, quickly find themselves drawn into contemporary debates on topics such as the basic fairness of our contract rules."

A Chicago native, Frier was a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and taught at Bryn Mawr College before joining the U-M Department of Classical Studies in 1969, where he served in 2001-02 as the interim chair. He still holds a joint appointment in that department in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Frier, who last year received the Distinguished Faculty Governance Award, has taught Roman law to undergraduates, in translation, since the mid-'70s.

"At first, my approach was broadly cultural --Roman law as a slice of Roman life--but gradually I've narrowed in on the structures of legal thinking as exemplified in Roman texts," he says. "Most undergraduates otherwise have little opportunity to think about law itself.

"I make no extravagant claims; different people find it interesting for different reasons. My law students find it useful in presenting an alternative organizing principle for basic common law institutions; they also enjoy the effort of 'legalizing' wholly alien social institutions like slavery."

In 2007, Frier was one of six U-M faculty members to receive a $5,000 Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award, recognizing his contribution to the development of a culturally and ethnically diverse campus community. He championed a range of issues, including departmental participation in Martin Luther King Jr. symposia and events, brought African scholars to U-M, oversaw salary hikes for female faculty to correct gender pay disparities, and chaired the Task Force on the Campus Climate for Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Faculty, Staff and Students.

A member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Frier has authored numerous books and articles on economic and social history, including "Landlords and Tenants in Imperial Rome," "The Rise of the Roman Jurists," "A Casebook on the Roman Law of Delict," "A Casebook on Roman Family Law," and, most recently, "The Modern Law of Contracts," written with law faculty colleague J.J. White.

Frier, whose fields of study are Roman law, Roman social and economic history, Hellenistic and Roman historiography and political science, ancient architecture, and numismatics, is a frequent speaker in the United States and abroad. In June, he was a guest lecturer at the University of Oxford, where his presentation "What Good Did Roman Law Do the Romans?" was part of a workshop "The Foundations of Law: Legalism in the Ancient World, Europe and Asia" at St. John's College.

Last year, he presented the 22nd annual Edmund G. Berry Lecture on "Constantine Cavafy and the Rise of Rome," at the University of Manitoba, about the Greek poet Cavafy; and in 2009, he spoke on rational choice and the Roman dowry law to the American Society for Legal History in Dallas, 2009. That same year, he participated in a panel on Clarence Darrow and the Henry Sweet case, at Wayne State University, and spoke on Roman incest law at the Association of Ancient Historians in Vancouver.

Frier is also a financial trustee of the American Philological Association, a society for the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures, and civilizations.

Frier, who admires the Greek philosophers, starting with Plato and Aristotle, and the jurists, starting with Quintus Mucius Scaevola in the first century BCE, enjoyed the HBO series "Rome"--"although the historical errors were really egregious," he says. In his spare time, he enjoys collecting prints and photographing lighthouses.

Published: Tue, Nov 1, 2011