Corpus Juris Civilis Law: Created by a Byzantine Emperor and Still Relevant in Courts Over 1,500 Years Later
By the time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s reign in the 6th century AD, the Western Roman Empire was kaput, lost to waves of Germanic invaders from the North. Justinian was determined to recapture lost Roman Empire territory and glory. One way he sought to make the empire greater and easier to rule was with the Corpus Juris Civilis law – the Justinian Code - that compiled the laws and legal philosophy of the Byzantine and earlier Romans and instituted them over his subjects far and wide.
Justinian I ruled the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565. His lands were in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. Originally, the Roman Empire included those lands and Western Europe and Britain. The empire was later divided into the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman Empire) and the Western Roman Empire, but by 476 the West had collapsed under the weight of Germanic invasions.
Emperor Justinian is depicted in the center with a halo around his head in this mosaic from Ravenna, Italy. (Michleb/CC BY SA 3.0)
Emperor Justinian waged a campaign to get back Western territory. He won back Italy and parts of Spain. He sought to unify his empire and make it more controllable with his Corpus Juris Civilis. Corpus Juris Civilis means Body of Civil Law. It is also known by the Latin name Codex Justinianus.
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When was the Corpus Juris Civilis Developed?
Justinian began the project early in his reign, in the year 528. His goal was to extend the practical legal jurisdiction of the Byzantine Empire to all parts of his empire with the new Corpus Juris Civilis.
Two manuscript fragments making up a single strip used around the spine of a binding. Text is part of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, issued from AD 529-534 by order of Emperor Justinian I. (Public Domain)
The documents of the code covered every aspect of law and society, from criminal codes and punishments, to powers of the emperor and other high officials, private law, ecclesiastical law, and administrative codes. The code dealt with taxes, local government powers, the civil service, and martial laws. It also spelled out rules for contract, marriage, divorce, inheritance, succession, and property ownership.
And it was all rooted in past legal thinkers’ theories, expositions of the law, and in the old laws that could be preserved and updated for the empire under Justinian and his successors.
What is the Corpus Juris Civilis?
The Corpus Juris Civilis is actually a compilation of four main bodies of work, not just the legal code of the empire. The actual ordinances or laws were just one aspect. The compilation was in three parts:
The Digest, a summary of all classical jurists’ writings on justice and the law; The Code, which gave the laws of the empire including legislation, imperial constitutions, and pronouncements; And the Institutes, a small work that summarized the Digest. It was intended as a textbook for law students.
Later, the Novella, which was not part of Justinian’s work, was created by legal scholars to update the Code with new laws from after 534, when the Corpus Juris Civilis compilation was complete. The Novella was also a summary of Justinian’s constitution.
Corpus Iuris Civilis. (Yale Law Library/CC BY 2.0)
A few centuries earlier, in the 200s, Roman citizenship had been extended outside of Italy to other parts of the empire. Inhabitants of the empire across Europe, the Near East, and northern Africa became citizens of Rome and were made subject to the laws of the empire.
Who Developed the Code of Justinian?
Justinian convened a commission of 10 jurists and legal scholars and 39 scribes to compile the laws into one body of work to spread the historical tradition, language, and culture of the Roman laws to every corner of the empire. It was an enormous job and it involved studying hundreds of documents and Roman laws, some of which were repetitive or obsolete. The scholars considered sources, including Byzantine imperial edicts and Latin Roman laws, in about 2,000 books.
Many laws from old sources were contradictory and some weren’t pertinent to the times. The results of the new code, Justinian hoped, would be to make the law clearer to all involved in the legal system and increase the speed with which legal cases were heard in the courts.
An illustration for the book ‘The General History Edited by Satyricon.’ Justinian holds a volume of the Corpus Juris Civilis, a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence issued by order of Justinian the Great. (Public Domain)
The body of work that Justinian commissioned is called his greatest contribution to Western society’s history. It was the basis of law in the Byzantine Empire for about 900 years.
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Roman law had been forgotten for several centuries after the empire fell, but there was a revival of the Corpus Juris Civilis law beginning at the University of Bologna, Italy, in the 11th century that spread across Europe. Manuscripts of the Corpus Juris Civilis were rediscovered and disseminated. The code and the other parts of the compilation became the foundation of law in the Western tradition.
Irnerius (c. 1050 – after 1125) an Italian jurist and founder of the School of Glossators and thus of the tradition of Medieval Roman Law. (Public Domain)
Subsequent regimes borrowed from the Justinian Code in Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa. The Corpus Juris Civilis was less influential in English common law, but still had some impact. American law is derived largely from English common law.
Finally, it should be noted that slavery was a common occurrence in the Byzantine Empire, and slaves presumably had little or no recourse to the protections of the law.
Top image: A 1593 edition of the Corpus Juris Civilis. Source: Burns Library, Boston College/CC BY NC ND 2.0
By Mark Miller
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018) ‘Code of Justinian.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Code-of-Justinian
The Regents of the University of California, The Robbins Religious and Civil Law Collection, School of Law (Boalt Hall), University of California at Berkeley. (n.d.) ‘Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian.’ The Robbins Collection, School of Law (Boalt Hall), University of California at Berkeley. Available at: https://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/robbins/RomanLegalTradition.html