Obituary: Prof Alan Watson, Scots-born legal scholar who wrote groundbreaking texts on Roman law

Alan Watson
Alan Watson
Have your say

William Alexander Jardine (Alan) Watson, legal scholar. Born: 27 October 1933 in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire. Died: 7 November 2018 in Athens, Georgia, aged 85

One of the outstanding legal scholars of the last hundred years, Alan Watson was recognised around the world. With his death we lose yet another link that took us back to the now long departed scholarly world of men such as Maurice Bowra, for long Warden of Wadham, College, Oxford, Arnaldo Momigliano, Isaiah Berlin and Watson’s mentor, David Daube. This was a world that rightly recognised the study of the classics as a key to knowledge and the understanding of modern society. It was a small academic world, with significant British axes around Oxford, Cambridge, the London Colleges and the ancient Scottish universities. But memory of it is vanishing.

Alan Watson’s fame was initially based on his groundbreaking series of books on the law of the later Roman Republic; though he never lost interest in Roman law, in later years he worked more on comparative law and comparative legal history. What linked all his work was a capacity for acute observation combined with close reading, a sceptical mind about received traditions, an exemplary knowledge of languages and a prodigious memory combined with a vivid imagination.

Watson was born in Hamilton on 27 October 1933, the younger son of James Watson, a railway worker, and Jessie (Janet) Watson. He considered himself shaped by the poverty of his childhood; but it was an untypical working-class childhood, with a father who was an amateur poet and committed socialist, and a mother who was a keen member of the Plymouth Brethren. After initial schooling at St John’s Primary School, he was educated at Hamilton Academy, a highly selective and very successful secondary school.

From there he went to study at the University of Glasgow, graduating MA (1954) and LLB (1957). These were the days in Scotland when law was studied part-time while serving an apprenticeship in a firm of solicitors, a system Watson contemptuously thought resulted in a substandard legal education. But he was already showing his brilliance, because a viva voce examination by David Daube, then Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford, led to the invitation to come to Oxford to teach and to study for a doctorate in Roman law.

David Daube, a refugee German Jew, was one of the most important scholars of the period. His influence on Watson was profound. Charismatic and imaginative, traits that also came to define the pupil, Daube had developed the use of form criticism in Roman law. Watson developed his own path in scholarship, but the influence of Daube was evident and warmly acknowledged, even evident in Watson’s later work on law and the Bible. At Oxford, Watson served as a lecturer at Wadham College from 1957-59, and then as a lecturer and, from 1960, Fellow of Oriel College. In the then rather closed society of Oxford, Watson successfully negotiated his position as both outsider and insider, an emotional, social, and intellectual stance he thereafter regularly achieved.

In 1965 he left Oxford to take up the Douglas Chair of Civil Law at Glasgow. He enjoyed his return to his alma mater; but in 1968, he crossed the Central Belt to become Professor of Civil Law at Edinburgh. He was coming to the end of his series of books on the laws of the later Roman Republic. In 1970, as a Visiting Professor at the University of Virginia, he had taught jurisprudence. Out of this visit developed his book Legal Transplants: An Approach to Comparative Law, first published in 1974. Now regarded as a classic, the work initially attracted very few – and one very hostile – review, as it was seen, probably wrongly, as attacking received sociological views about the nature of law. If initially without significant impact, the interest of the argument on the development of law through borrowing, and the richness and range of the documentation, eventually promoted considerable scholarly engagement with its ideas, leading to the concept of legal transplants becoming one of the central approaches to comparative law.

The book also reoriented Watson’s research away from a relatively exclusive focus on Roman law, and through the 1970s and 1980s he pursued research on comparative legal history. By the late 1970s he had organised the translation into English of Justinian’s Digest, the collection of writings of Roman lawyers. Supported by the Commonwealth Fund, the existence of an English translation of high quality has had a major impact.

In the later 1970s Watson started to worry about the long-term future of the British universities, which he saw being progressively starved of funding and support. He decided to move to the USA, believing he would there find more resources to support research. He accordingly moved to the School of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, initially as a visitor, in 1979. Though he in many ways enjoyed life in Philadelphia, as he was a man who thought it important to find pleasure in life, the move may not have initially lived up to expectations. He made some good friends in the School, though a principled stance on animal rights and concern for the treatment of untenured colleagues led him into conflict with deans, provosts and administrators. Meanwhile, he had bought a converted mill in Argyll, and took to spending only the semesters in Philadelphia.

In 1986 Watson remarried, this time to a Southerner, also a law professor, Camilla Emanuel. He had always found the severe Pennsylvania winters trying, and he and his wife sought jobs further south. In 1989 they moved to the University of Georgia in Athens.

Though Watson remained in many ways a Scottish contrarian, he enjoyed life in the South, particularly spending time at his wife’s family’s farm in South Carolina, the place where latterly he most loved to be. He remained an active scholar, writing an interesting series of books about law and the Bible (though personally irreligious, his childhood had given him an encyclopaedic knowledge of its text). Always one to find his pleasure enhanced by others’ disapproval, he enjoyed teaching a secular course on the subject to students who expected something different from his detailed, philosophical and literary, indeed humanistic, approach.

Watson loved to teach; and this made his students love him. Nothing was ever dumbed down–the approach was always rigorous; but his enthusiasm, charisma, and desire that his students should understand made his teaching a success. There was little he enjoyed more than a debate with a student over a point of difference. One of his few regrets about the move to the USA was that it removed the possibility of having doctoral students, but he nonetheless influenced many who now hold faculty appointments in the USA. He was disappointed when failing health meant he could no longer teach.

Watson had many interests outside of academia, both country – fishing, shooting, bird-watching – and more sedentary, such as collecting small antiquities, chinese snuff bottles and silver vinaigrettes. He was a voracious reader, and a collector of antiquarian law books. He liked to entertain, and was an enthusiastic, if erratic, cook. Watson was an emotional man, easily moved, with a zest for life and all that it brings. He was also very witty and a great raconteur, who enjoyed sharing with his friends harsh reviews he wrote of his own books under the name “Sandy Jardine”.

He is survived by his wife Camilla Watson, his former wife Cynthia Reekie, and his three children, David, Annie and Sarah.

John W Cairns