Wythe's Greek and Latin Classics

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It’s no surprise that Wythe collected British legal classics such as Matthew Bacon’s New Abridgment of the Law, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England, and Matthew Hale’s The History of the Pleas of the Crown. The widely read jurist and teacher also collected classics on British, American, and Virginia history (David Hume’s The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington, and William Stith’s The History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia), poetry (John Milton’s Paradise Lost), plays (The Plays of William Shakespeare) and fiction (The Works of Jonathan Swift).

But Wythe also read—and often quoted in his decisions—the Greek and Latin classics. Richard Hoffman’s article "Classics in the Courts of the United States, 1790-1800”[1] does a great job discussing citations to the classics in decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Virginia High Court of Chancery in the first decade after ratification of the Constitution. While looking at cases from the Supreme Court seems obvious, one might reasonably ask “why the Virginia High Court of Chancery?”

In 1777, two years before Wythe began teaching at William & Mary, he became a judge on the Commonwealth’s new High Court of Chancery. (Wythe later turned down opportunities to serve as a justice on the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and as a federal district court judge). As Hoffman writes, “the classical references collectively played a critical part in the struggle at the beginning of the Republic over the form and function of law and the judiciary,”[2] and no judge cited the classics as much as Wythe.

Hoffman notes that “Chancellor Wythe makes 85 classical references in a total of 21 reported cases” ... while “[t]welve classical references are made in five cases by four Supreme Court justices, one Attorney General, and several lawyers arguing before the court.”[3] Although the number of citations may appear small numbers—especially for the Supreme Court—Hoffman notes that the classics were cited in about one of every five cases decided by each court.

Saving this author the need to search for classical references in Wythe’s opinions, Hoffman does it for us, and offers this summary:

While Wythe draws from 24 ancient authors, he is partial to literature in Latin or on Rome. His favorites are the Corpus Juris Civilis, quoted or cited 21 times; Virgil, six times; and Cicero, seven times. Other authors from the Roman era include Caesar, Q. Curtius Rufus, Horace, Juvenal, Livy, Lucretius, Petronius, Plutarch, Quintilian, Suetonius, Tacitus, Terence, and Valerius Maximus. From the Greeks, Wythe utilizes Aeschylus, Demosthenes, Euclid, Herodotus, Homer, Sophocles, and Thucydides.[4]

As for Roman law, W. Hamilton Bryson’s article “The Use of Roman Law in Virginia Courts”[5] is extraordinarily helpful. Bryson writes that “[t]he English ecclesiastical courts, which dealt with marriage and divorce and wills, among other things, continued to use the Roman-based law of the Roman Catholic Church even after the break with the pope.” [6] He also notes that Roman law influenced the English law of “commerce, maritime and naval matters, diplomats, war and peace, and treaties.”[7]

Because the laws of the Colony—and then the Commonwealth—of Virginia were founded upon English law, they too were influenced by Roman law. It is no surprise, then, to see references to Roman law in Virginia cases in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And “the most frequent use of Roman law was made by George Wythe (died 1806), without question one of the most erudite and distinguished jurists which Virginia has produced.”[8]

The George Wythe Collection at William & Mary’s Wolf Law Library has many of the Greek and Latin classics that Wythe read and cited in his judicial opinions.

Cases with Greek and Latin References

Greek and Latin Works Cited

  • Cicero
  • Homer


  1. Richard Hoffman, "Classics in the Courts of the United States, 1790-1800," American Journal of Legal History 22 (1978):55-84.
  2. Ibid, 57.
  3. Ibid, 57-58.
  4. Ibid, 59.
  5. W. Hamilton Bryson, “The Use of Roman Law in Virginia Courts," American Journal of Legal History 28 (1984):135-146.
  6. Ibid, 136.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, 141.