History of Law: Roman Law


Figure 1.--.

One of the great gifts of Rome was that of law. Roman law played a major role in the eventual emergence of the West. Of all the great inheritances of Roman civilization, none were more important to Western Civilization that the heritage of Roman law. And today the imprint of law is one of the primary forces that mark the Western world. Roman law developed for about a milenia. The earliest Roman law was secretly administered as the law of the privileged classes. Over time it became the destinctive basis of civilized life throughout the Empire. Roman jurisprudence evolved into a legal system based on natural-law theory as the fundamental test of the reasonableness of positive law. The first major step toward a sophisticated legal system was the law of the Twelve Tables (449 BC). The cilmination of Roman lrgal development was Emperor Justinian I's Corpus Juris Civilis of (about 530 AD). Roman law, as preserved in Justinian's codes continued to be practiced in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire until its fall (1453). The classical tradition was lost for centuries after the fall of Rome to the Germanic invaders and Huns. The Eastern Empire did not fall to the Barbarians. Thus it was largely through the Eastern or Byzantine Empire that Roman legal practice was passed to continental Europe during the medieval era.

Development

Roman law developed for about a milenia. The early history of Rome and thus if Roman law is lost. We know that Rome's origins were as an Etruscan town (eighth century BC). Roman law is the legal system prevailing from the founding of the city (753 BC). The earliest Roman law was not codified and secretly administered as the law of the privileged classes. Over time it became the destinctive basis of civilized life throughout the Empire.

Natural Law

Roman jurisprudence evolved into a legal system based on natural-law theory as the fundamental test of the reasonableness of positive law.

Twelve Tablets (449 BC)

Rome was at first governed by kings who administered justice. The nobles led by Lucius Iunius Brutus rose upagainst the arbitary rule of King Tarquin and declared Rome a republic (510/509 BC). Following the overthrow of the kings, two consuls and the Senate governed Rome. Very few people knew anything of the law. Educated members of well-to-do families, mostly patricians and senators, gave legal advice privately. From this impromtu informal beginnings, the profession of lawyers developed. The Senate proposed laws or voted on proposals of the consuls. The first major step toward a sophisticated legal system was the codification of law in the Twelve Tables (449 BC). They were written in early Latin for all to read. .

Late-Republic (200-30 BC)

Much more is known about the Roman legal system by the time of the late Republic. The praetor, one of the Roman magistrates, would publish an edict each year explaining how he would announce how he would apply the laws. The censors had legal responsibilkties, especially the upholding of public mores. Cicero provides us fascintating insights inti the Roman legal system. In his pleads and letters he describes in realistic terms the administration of justice in his day. Not only were lawyers active, but some expers began to write the first law books. By this time Rome had grown from a small town to a large city admiidtering a vast empire.

The Principate

The Princiipate followed the fall of the Republic. The great jurists of Rome appeared during vthis period. Some were employed by the the emperors. Some of the most noted were Ulpian, Papinian, Paul, and Julian. Some sources survive providing fragmentary insights into the administration of justice. The poorly understood Gaius wrote an introductory law book, the Institutes. This is the only completely surviving Roman legal manual. What we do not know is how important this particular mannual was at the time, but as Justinian woukd later use it, we suspdct it was very influential. Surviving letters from governor Pliny describe legal questions he posed to the emperor. The praetorial edict became a fixed institution. Emperor Theodosian attempted to establish some legal order among the vast corpus of law that had developed over time through his legal code.

Justinian I's Corpus Juris Civilis (6th century BC)

The culmination of Roman legal development was Emperor Justinian I's Corpus Juris Civilis of (about 530 AD). This occurred in difficult times. The Western Empire had fallen and Justinian was trying to rebuild it. Justinian sought to create a unified legal system by codification all levels of law. Justinian's legal experts collected Imperial decrees and edited a new Code, followed by later decrees, the 'Novellae'. Justinian also ordered a committee of experts to prepare an anthology of the classical Roman lawyers, the 'Digestae' or 'Pandectae'. And finally, Justinian had a manual of law be prepared and decred that it be compulsory for all legal education. Justinian's 'Institutes' are written using Gaius' 'Institutes'. Roman law, as preserved in Justinian's codes continued to be practiced in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire until its fall (1453). The classical tradition was lost for centuries after the fall of Rome to the Germanic invaders and Huns. The Eastern Empire did not fall to the Barbarians. Thus it was largely through the Eastern or Byzantine Empire that Roman legal practice was passed to continental Europe during the medieval era. It was the Justinian codification that would be the the starting point for the development of medieval law. It was used in the study, renewal and revival of Roman law during the Middle Ages and thus the foundation for our modern Western law.







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Created: 8:12 PM 11/5/2011
Last updated: 8:13 PM 11/5/2011