Alan Watson (1933-2018)
Professor Alan Watson died this week at the age of 85. Nobody comes to Roman law without reading his work, or goes away without its effects. And as a scholar you simply don’t commit yourself to anything without first seeing what Alan had to say. He was a rare figure in the field: the dissentient who makes a good case. His older contemporaries got to know him as a meticulous opponent of accepted opinion on the law of the republic. His contemporaries (and their descendants) will always know him as a defender of the uniqueness of the Roman law tradition.
The last point needs explanation. In the 1970s Alan decided to reply to a new current in Roman law scholarship, in which Roman law was (Alan would say) getting lumped together hastily with other aspects of Roman life, and then being analysed by (Alan would say) people without the background to do it properly. This provoked him into a kind of ‘character study’ of the law, which on examination he found to be aloof and isolated from its surrounding realities. His proof was partly in the nature of the lawmaking practised by Roman jurists, and partly in the facility with which Roman law, in so many places and times, had pushed aside native law and been adopted. He chose transplantation as a metaphor, and it proved to be apt and lasting.
Alan was a graduate of the University of Glasgow, taking an MA in 1954 and LLB in 1957. He held many academic appointments during his lifetime (at Oxford, Edinburgh, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Georgia), and held the Douglas Chair of Civil Law in this University from 1965 to 1969. I was never taught by him, other than one occasion when he came as a guest to my Roman law honours seminar. Our friendship came first from professional events and correspondence, but latterly, and more memorably, from dinners and other ‘outings’. It’s impossible to describe what a joyful companion he was: you couldn’t say goodbye.
Absent from our times together, to my relief, was any trace of the sharp disagreements Alan had had in print with my doctoral supervisor, Peter Birks. In university life, you really don’t know how these things will play out later. But my worries were wasted. Some years ago, a group of us met at the ‘Jeremy Bentham’, a pub near UCL. We had all come to hear the inaugural lecture of a colleague, and Alan and Peter found themselves sitting close together. Alan told me years later, over dinner in Glasgow, that he and Peter spoke together with great warmth and feeling. To those who were there, the meeting was quite moving, but Alan’s obvious delight in recalling the memory was, to me, more moving still. Peter died soon after that occasion at UCL. I’m grateful that good feelings attended them both from the world.