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The term aequitas in the Corpus Iuris Civilis (and in rhetoric) forms the origin of the notion of equity, both in the field of law and in other social sciences. Its contents are, however, very contentious. Rather than following the two extremes in modern reconstructions, which consider aequitas either as unitary or as a vague and indefinite notion, this paper considers aequitas as an historically complex notion that kept its original semantic nucleus, but saw the addition of further meanings. This paper is based on a close examination of aequum, from the earliest attestations in the Republican Age until Cicero. We will see that it was a concept already profoundly rooted and elaborated in Roman culture before its reformulation in terms of Greek philosophy, which considerably enriched it, exploring its limits. In this respect, particular attention is paid to distinguishing aequitas from epieikeia as theorized by Aristotle. This paper examines then the development of the concept in the thought of the Roman jurists. As a whole, this study shows that aequitas involves, at its core, an attitude towards decisions that is founded on the criterion of the aequum, i.e. the “equal”; this conclusion is confirmed by iconographic evidence. Yet, at least from the Late Republic, aequitas is part of a wider conception of man and his relations to others in society, i.e. it is part of a political anthropology that expands and articulates the meanings of aequitas (and without which it might give the impression of being a vague notion).
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