Olivia Robinson

When I was appointed to the Department of Civil Law in the Faculty of Law in the University of Glasgow in 1966 not much more than 10% of the undergraduate body was female. Two anecdotes on the position of women at that time. First, Elspeth Attwooll, my colleague in the Department of Jurisprudence, of much the same age as me, was legally required to get her male colleague of the same age and academic status, to guarantee her hire-purchase of some furniture. Second, I had the previous year applied for a job in another department, whose Head had written a private letter to my supervisor which read: ‘It is a great pity; she was the ideal candidate for the job, but unfortunately it is not our policy to appoint women.’ I saw this letter because the name of my supervisor was Professor Rosalind Hill. She thought it outrageous, but there was nothing illegal. 

Because of my Irish background life in Glasgow was not too much of a culture shock, but I was amazed at the immaturity of the average Glasgow student, continually asking what was the right answer. Law in Scotland at this time was still in the throes of turning into an academic discipline. Previously, whether as a graduate subject after an Arts degree or as a part-time course while doing an apprenticeship, law students were all thinking in terms of a professional career. 

Once I had settled in to my teaching, the area that seemed to me least satisfactory in this new world was the advising of students. All Advising – and I think Admissions, but cannot remember for sure – was done by John Neil, a practising solicitor who taught Public International Law part-time. I liked  John and admired him in several ways, but I began to speak up in Faculty on this issue. Not surprisingly I was appointed assistant Adviser, and then from 1972 the Senior Adviser, and also Admissions Officer. I served as an elected member of Senate during this period. 

When I resigned these offices in 1981, wanting to spend time on research, the proportion of female students was over one third, and rising. I took on a much lighter administrative load as an Associate Schools Liaison Officer, a University not Faculty job, but it still offered plenty of opportunity to encourage female applicants and to point out the widening job opportunities for law graduates. The ERASMUS exchange scheme began in the mid to late eighties and I was in at the start of that on behalf of the Law Faculty. We were mostly European lawyers, or even more we were Roman lawyers, because romanists were a group throughout Europe who actually knew each other, and were in a good position to smooth out the inevitable problems in setting up the scheme. I had considerable difficulty in persuading some of my colleagues that there was any other reliable evaluation than a three-hour essay-based examination paper. By the time I gave this up in 1995 there was, at least from my perspective, no real gender-gap in the student body. 

In 1981 I spent a month in the University of Warsaw, which had an exchange scheme with Glasgow, and immersed myself in Roman law in their library. The following year I had a sabbatical, splitting my time between Munich and Rome, aided by German and British Academy grants. Scholarship was what I had always thought to be really what I wanted; my Readership was local recognition. Rosalind Hill was delighted, so I can reasonably describe her as my role model, although my romanist heroes are Dieter Norr, Theo Mayer-Maly, and Alan Watson, who brought me to Glasgow, now, alas, all dead. 

Unsurprisingly, as a romanist, I am better known in Europe than in Britain, and I was elected as a corresonding member – ie foreign Fellow – of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 1993, but not to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (a very similar body) until 2006.  As well as the books (listed below) I have published some 60 articles in learned journals, encyclopaedias. etc. and given (a few of them in German, Italian or French) some 40 guest lectures, and many others at conferences, etc. and there are also the reviews. I have been told by quite a few young women, from Austria, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and particularly Italy, that I have been a role model. I am conscious that my publications list is not particularly long, but I am a slow worker. My first proper book, and the most original, took more than fifteen years in the making, my last – or perhaps I should say the most recent -  around ten. 


Olivia Fiona O’Brien born 1938, Dublin. Graduated BA 1960, University of Oxford, II1 in Modern History. (‘Modern’ History in contrast to Ancient; my Foreign Period was the Later Roman Empire from Diocletian to Pope Gregory the Great, and my Special Subject St Augustine.) Married Sebastian Robinson 1960, daughter Amanda, 1961, son James, 1962, PhD London 1965 (the register of a thirteenth century bishop). She became one of the first female Professors of Law at the University of Glasgow,  when she was appointed the Douglas Professor of Civil Law in 2001.


The Digest of Justinian, ed Mommsen, Krueger, Watson (Pennsylvania 1985); translated Books 48 and 49

The Institutes of Gaius (London/Ithaca 1988) tr. with notes W.M.Gordon & O.F.Robinson

Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration (London, 1992, revised paperback 1994)

The Register of Walter Bronescombe, Bishop of Exeter 1258-80, vol.I (Canterbury & York Society, vol.82, 1995)

The Criminal Law of Ancient Rome (London, 1995)

The Sources of Roman Law (Routledge 1997)

The Register of Walter Bronescombe, Bishop of Exeter 1258-80, vol.II (Canterbury & York Society, vol.87, 1999)

European Legal History (1985, 3rd edn Butterworth, now OUP, 2000) O.F.Robinson, T.D.Fergus,       W.M.Gordon

Critical Studies in Ancient Law, Comparative Law and Legal History, edd. J.W.Cairns & O.F.Robinson (Richard Hart, 2001)

The Register of Walter Bronescombe, Bishop of Exeter 1258-80, vol.III (Canterbury & York Society, vol.94, 2003)

Penal Practice and Penal Policy in Ancient Rome (London, 2007)

Sir George Mackenzie: The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal (Stair Society, vol.59, 2012)