Roman Law and Its Lasting Influence On the Legal System of Europe
During the creation of the mighty Roman Empire, between 753 BC and 1453 AD, the Romans not only created the political institutions of Roman governance, but they also set up a series of legal principals and procedures. These set out the system of ancient Roman law, which would come to form the foundations of what would be used in both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire as their civilization expanded.
There was at least one part of the Roman Empire that would not embrace these laws - the island of Great Britain, but otherwise most of Western Europe adopted the Roman legal system. These laws created by the Romans are known as Roman law and Civil laws. Such was the success of the Roman legal system, and the accompanying Latin legal terminology, that it later formed the basis of law in most English-speaking countries. It would also go on to be incorporated into many of the legal systems within the United States.
So in setting down the principles of their laws, the ancient Romans brought great influence to so many in the world. One part of the law that has been of great importance within society since the Roman times is that of the practice of Common law. Based on rules derived from Roman law, civil law systems, such as the French civil law code of practice, have been used throughout the world. An example of this, due to its colonial past as a former French territory, is the State of Louisiana.
The Roman Laws of the Twelve Tablets
In the early stages of Roman Law development, the Romans began to codify all the principles that their citizens could use in matters that required legal guidelines. In 450 BC, they inscribed a set of laws onto twelve tablets, created using both bronze and wood. These became known as the Twelve Tablets, and the Roman law makers put the Twelve Tablets on display in the Roman Forum for all Roman citizens to see.
Roman citizens reading the Twelve Tablets at the Roman Forum. (Public domain)
The display of the rules of law, allowed anyone with a complaint to be able to invoke the law in their search for legal remedy. Sadly, the actual texts of the tablets have not survived the passing centuries. Nevertheless, historians today believe that it was from these that today’s law of torts, a tort being a civil case when someone commits a wrong against another person, was derived.
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Roman Civil Law
Between the years of 753 to 31 BC the Roman Republic put in place a series of writings known as the jus civile which today we know as the Civil Law. This legislation was based on the Roman customs and practices of the era, but only applied to those who were Roman citizens
In the third century BC the ancient Romans developed the jus gentium, which were new rules of law that they applied to legal disputes between Romans and those they deemed as foreigners. Over time, jus gentium grew and became a huge compendium of Roman law that both Roman magistrates and governors could use when discussing and dealing with disputes.
Emperor Justinian I set up a commission to review the entire body of Roman law, resulting in the Corpus Juris Civilis. (Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA 4.0
The Creation of Roman Law and the Corpus Juris Civilis
The laws of the Romans considered every type of issue that could require knowledge of legal procedures. These included knowing about contracts, family law, business companies or organizations, dealing with inheritance of property and not least with all criminal acts brought before them.
The Romans split the law into the written law, which they called jus scriptum, and the non-written law, known as jus non scriptum. The difference lay in the fact that the written law had been established from legislation based on many other sources. These included proclamations and edicts, which were issued by the Roman magistrates, resolutions passed by the Roman Senate, and laws given out by the Roman emperor and legal guides from the prominent lawyers. Unwritten law was based upon both custom and its everyday usage.
As the Roman Empire expanded, Roman law also grew steadily and accumulated over time. In fact, it grew so much that the Romans found that many of their laws were now becoming both confusing and contradictory. When the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, was in office during the early sixth century AD he even set up a commission to review the entire body of Roman law and come up with recommendations as to what should be kept or discarded.
The resulting collection came to be known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, also known as the Code of Justinian. Written in Latin and intended to be the sole source of the law, the Corpus Juris Civilis gave the Romans a new codification of their law. Completed in 529, the first part was known as the Codex or code and it replaced all previous Roman law. The second part was known as the Digesta and was completed in 533. Legal opinions by jurists from previous centuries were included, and were given the power of law. The third part was known as the Instututes and was a student textbook for training jurists from 533 onwards. The fourth part was known as the Novellae and was made up of new laws passed after 534.
A 1593 edition of the Corpus Juris Civilis. (Boston College / CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The Spread of Roman Law Throughout the Empire
Most of the current legal systems in practice in European nations have at the heart of their legislation categories and structures taken from Roman law. Scholars who study this show that there are many reasons for this joining of Roman law with the laws of European countires. In the south of France for example, Roman law has survived right until today and there are still remnants in use.
The Corpus Juris Civilis has greatly assisted the legal explanations that were already to be found in existence. The Corpus Juris Civilis also ensured the continued application of Roman law, alongside the political rules and principles it contained. Roman law had been created not only by the Roman emperor, but also by the existence of a centralized state. It could be used as needed for any legal arguments brought up by rulers in Europe as they in turn sought to prove their right to govern the feudal nobility through their own sovereignty.
Rulers also tried to use the law to consolidate their own power and expand their own royal administration. Knowledge of the law created opportunities and positions within government ended up being filled by men with a good training and understanding of Roman law. They would then compile collections of unwritten customs, preside over courts and draft statues. In this way Roman law penetrated legal systems throughout the Roman Empire.
But the Romans were careful not to replace local customs with Roman law. They chose another way to bring about their influence by using both selective and subtle means. One German who compiled these customs and laws set about arranging them in such a way that they combined both local customs with local principles. If a notable judge was faced with an issue for which local customs differed from the principles of Roman law, then the judge would follow the commonly used rules of law from local custom. But if no resolution was found to settle the issue, the judge would or could turn to Roman law.
Image shows the Napoleonic Code on display in Speyer, Germany. (DerHexer / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Vestiges of Roman Law in Modern Legislation
From around 1600 AD, the influence of Roman law had decreased in many countries, but it certainly didn’t disappear. The Corpus Juris Civilis was still inspiring legislation in Europe as late as the 19th century. One most notable example is that of the Napoleonic Code, or Civil Code of the French, in 1804. It was by the use of these codes that much of Roman law began to be used outside of Europe and around the known world.
Many countries chose to use the Napoleonic Code, which is why its remnants can be found in parts of America, Canada and in Latin America. Countries like Hungary, Japan and Brazil were influenced by German law. The laws of countries as diverse as Scotland and South Africa derive from Roman law. In America where common law is followed, they enact statutes and form their codes, while in nations that have civil laws these have come about from being developed through the courts and not by legislation. These were issues that Roman law had to contend with in their reflections of what were differences between codification and judicial interpretation.
In Western Europe, Roman law was denoted by the legal system and this continued in most European lands up till the 18th century. One of the most important aspects of Roman law is that it stood in place much longer than the state of the Holy Roman Empire. Due to this longevity, it became one of the most frequently used laws in so many countries.
The Evolution of Roman Law
Particular laws of note from the Roman era included the 445 BC Lex Canuleia which allowed for marriage between plebeians and patricians. In 367 BC they passed laws which placed restrictions on the possession of land that owned by the public. They also used the law to ensure that one of the elected consuls was from the plebeian class. In the year 300 BC, Lex Ogulnia ensured that vacancies within the priesthood had also to be opened to plebeians. Meanwhile, since 286 BC, provided compensation to property owners from damage or theft of property. This became the basis for the present-day law of tort.
In around the year 300 BC, the Roman law scholar and politician Gnaeus Flavius published the rules of legal procedure which had previously been inaccessible to the plebeian class. Up till this point it appears that these were available only to certain priests (the pontifices) or patricians (aristocrats). With his publication of Jus Flavianum, Flavius popularized the law. One most prominent famous jurist was called Quintus Mucius Scaevola who wrote down many treatises on a broad range of aspects on Roman law. By the time of the Principate in 27 BC, Rome had developed a very comprehensive legal system which also brought about a refined legal culture when the earlier Roman Republic was replaced.
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The 250 year period known as Classical Rome saw Roman law and the comprehensive study of the Roman law reach its apex. This was a time when jurists covered a huge range of matters. Jurists guided the magistrates, who were in turn responsible for the administration of both the law and justice. They also advised the praetors and helped them draft their edicts. This informed the start of their tenure, and how to handle the many formations that came with their duties. Many jurists themselves went on to hold high offices in administration, alongside their judicial duties.
While ancient Roman law is not strictly applied around the world, many legal systems in modern times have been based on the old Roman codes, Roman laws and traditions. In this way, many aspects of Roman law were absorbed into more coherent legal systems and are still expressed in judicial language today. These days, a good working knowledge of Roman law during the Roman Empire is fundamental to understand the systems of law that exist in the present. For many law students, the study of ancient Roman law is mandatory to help them gain a full knowledge and understanding of the civil law and its jurisdictions.
Top image: Modern-day legislation has been heavily influenced by Roman law. Source: Anneke / Adobe Stock
By John S. Richardson
John Richardson is the author of The Romans and The Antonine Wall of Scotland, available on Amazon.
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Stein. P. 1999. Roman Law in European History. New York: Cambridge Uni Press.
Watson. A. 1970. The Law of the Ancient Romans. Southern Methodist Uni: Press Dallas.