The way we nowadays think about “immoral” contracts is based on a number of assumptions. One of those assumptions concerns the relative isolation of law and extralegal standards. This view, however, is not new or even modern: to a large extent, it can be traced back to Roman law that has been both praised and condemned for this relative separation. In this paper we venture into the problematic of immoral transactions by combining historical, doctrinal and economic analysis. Focusing on cases and doctrines in ancient Roman law, our goal is to show how Roman lawyers found reasonable answers to issues which, in spite of obvious differences in economic and cultural context, can teach some lessons for modern contract law. After a brief preliminary on methodological problems of the economic analysis of legal history, we reconstruct the dynamics of how and why the term immorality (contra bones mores) became a general clause of Roman contract law in a relatively short time; discuss what kind of cases were solved with reference to this clause; and analyse how this clause shows the practical rationality of Roman lawyers. Finally we discuss some substantive and methodological insights this historical case can provide for the economic analysis of the interactions of law and morality.
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