Kyle Edward Williams

Kyle Edward Williams

Corporation words

The principal sources for the development of the corporation in the ancient world come from ancient Roman law. There are a handful of key terms.

One is collegium. It was used to refer to guilds, social clubs, religious groups, burial societies–things like that. If Plutarch’s life of Numa Pompilius has any merit, it seems as if this could be traced back to the beginnings of Rome itself. The collegia become more significant much later when the emporers surpressed and regulated them. Small corporations concerned even with such innocuous things as putting out a city’s fires had become known to rulers like the emporer Trajan and Pliny the Younger as sources of rival political power. Roman collegia seem to have possessed some legal personality. (See Jonathan S. Perry, The Roman Collegia: The Modern Evolution of an Ancient Concept (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 6-7.)

Another word is societas, which Lewis & Short define as a fellowship, association, union, community, society (implying union for a common purpose; cf.: conjunctio, consociatio; and not a mere assembly; cf.: circulus, coetus; conventus, sodalitas;). There is some obvious overlap between these words, but the distinctive emphasis of societas is that it primarily refers to a partnership.

The final word was universitas, which as the English cognate implies meant simply “the whole.” Another meaning in Roman law was, according again to Lewis & Short, “A number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation, etc.”

These different Latin terms took on layers of meaning in the Middle Ages, particularly in ecclesiastical canon law, and played a role in disputes over political theory in the early modern period.