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Myth-Busting: The “Roman Condominium” Myth

2013-0414 RGN

Much of my scholarly research is designed to set the historical record straight—essentially myth-busting.

For reasons I’ll explain another time, most legal writers are terrible historians. They tend to cherry-pick history to promote a case, and when there aren’t enough historical facts, they sometimes make them up.

My efforts to correct the record are best known in the realm of constitutional law, but my first big project of the kind was actually about condominiums.

In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, legal writers were uncritically repeating the story that the ancient Romans invented condominiums, or at least used them widely. This story made no sense at all: Ancient writers don’t mention condominiums, and Roman law actually prohibited schemes whereby one person owned airspace above another person. (The word “condominium,” meaning “co-ownership,” is Latin, but it is of relatively modern, not Roman, coinage.)

So after taking my first academic job—at Oklahoma City University in 1985—I set out to discover where the story started and how it was propagated. Like many other scholarly mold-breakers, I worked and wrote under severe practical disadvantages of the kind not suffered by more favored folk: For example, although the OCU law school is a great place in many ways, in those days its library had little of the historical and multi-national hard copy I needed in that pre-Internet era. The editors who agreed to publish my findings (bless their souls) were certainly out of their depth.

Nevertheless, the article was a lot of fun to write, and I think it is also a lot of fun to read. It got considerable attention. A more-widely published magazine even reprinted it. As a result, you don’t hear the “Roman origin” story much today.

You can read this early Natelson effort here.

Rob Natelson