Monday, May 9, 2016

Jon Snow's Oath (spoilers: assumes you're current to episode 6.3)



In episode three of the new season (6) of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow says, "My watch is over," walks out of Castle Black, and abandons his post as Lord Commander. Service to the Night's Watch is for life, and the words that Snow says on his way out the gate are usually pronounced only over a dead Watchman at his funeral, "His watch is over," he is released from his life of service. This is why so many criminals in Westeros who would otherwise be sentenced to death get sent to Castle Black: it's a life sentence. Snow's departure raises an interesting legal question: since he died, and the rules do not account for the possibility of someone being raised from the dead, has he by dying fulfilled his contract?

I'm reminded of a class in Roman Declamations that I took when I was fulfilling the requirements of a minor in Latin at university (something I barely squeaked by with the help of a merciful professor or two). Declamations are moot legal exercises that raise a usually fascinating legal question for discussion. The process of understanding and debating a question is a wonderful educational device, and it was central to Roman education and, later, to Western classical education up to the 1900s. Declamation provided the roots of what became forensics—debating.

The declamation I have in mind concerns a certain vestal virgin. Although Vestal Virgins are sworn to chastity and a lifetime of purity, this one Virgin is caught in flagrante delicto with a kindling partner. Per the law, she is thrown off a certain cliff, which has in the past been invariably fatal. But she survives, which sets in motion a legal debate over what to do with her:

  • Has she suffered the prescribed sentence so she is free to go?
  • Or has she not suffered the spirit of the sentence, which is death, so that she must be thrown off the cliff again? (Or, implicitly, thrown off the cliff repeatedly until she dies.)

We had a lively discussion about this in class, and I personally preferred that she be released, much as Jon Snow walks out the gates and away from the Wall. Although many declamations are about imaginary cases, some are real, as was the case of the vestal virgin. I asked the professor if anyone had ever reached a formal or official conclusion to this question about the virgin, and he said that Cato, the keenest legal mind in Rome at that time, had said she had to be thrown from the cliff again. The intention of the law, Cato said, had to be fulfilled.

But I'm not going to tell anyone on the Watch about this, are you?