Paralegal Guide: History of Roman Law
The Roman legal system evolved over more than a thousand years of active jurisprudence in the ancient empire. Through its development, Roman law established many of the legal practices used today. As the empire grew and class struggles intensified, ancient Romans worked to justly regulate and mediate social and civil discourse. Some of the primary disputes surrounded issues of inheritance or succession, property and contracts.
Ancient Rome was split into social and economic castes, and the elite patrician families were primarily in charge through the ruling of magistrates, similar in some ways to modern judges. The court also incorporated jurists into the decision making process, tough some emperors bypassed the system entirely to enforce their own decrees.
As an ongoing effort to provide the best resources on legal studies, compiled below are a list of useful sites that offer information on the history, literature and scholarship of Roman law.
- Roman Law: An Historical Introduction follows the development of Roman jurisprudence and the place of Roman law on today’s legal system.
- The Encyclopedia Britannica offers a broad summary of Roman law alongside a list of important documents and developments in the evolution of the field.
Overview of Roman Law
The structure of government in ancient Rome was similar to the United States government today. The emperor was the leader of the entire empire but the members of the three branches of government limited his power. The executive branch included two consuls, leaders elected for a single year by the patricians (the upper class). It also included mayors, police, tax collectors and powerful officials throughout the empire. The legislative branch included a Senate comprised of 300 male landowners appointed by the consuls who wrote laws and decided how much money the consuls could spend (a potential conflict of interest). The legislative branch also included the People’s Assembly, representative Tribunes from the common class who could veto the Senate’s laws. Lastly, the judicial branch included the six judges in charge of meting out punishment. All three branches of government were involved in developing and voting on laws, though it was primarily the lob of the legislative branch. Beyond the government, only male landowners were allowed to vote on laws.
The Twelve Tables (451-450 B.C.E.) is both the earliest surviving Roman document, and the first attempt by the Romans to codify the rules of law. It was a plebian (a member of the lower class), C. Terentilius Arsa, who proposed the idea of a code of law that would prevent arbitrary judgments. According to the historian Livy, the patricians selected a commission of ten men to write out the Twelve Tables. At first they only wrote ten, but the plebians were unsatisfied. The commission added another two tables to satisfy the People’s Assembly.
In addition to the Twelve Tables, there were many specific laws on the books. New laws were added constantly, while others were removed. It was a fluid legal system with checks and balances designed to keep the laws fair, though, as we see today, politics often got in the way. Some early representative laws include: Lex Canuleia (445 B.C.E.) which permitted inter-marriage between plebians and patricians; Lex Ogulnia (300 B.C.E.) which permitted plebians to become priests; and Leges Licinae Sextiae (367 B.C.E.) which restricted ownership of public land.
The Classical Period of Roman law, the first 250 years of the Common Era, is considered the period in which the Roman legal system was most fully formed. It was during this time that the Roman legislators established standard contracts and drew distinctions between ownership and possession. It was in 160 that Gaius developed his system of private law that divides material into persons, things and actions.
- The Archive on Roman Law provides primary source documents and historical commentary on Roman Law.
- Read W.W. Buckland’s A Text-Book of Roman Law: From Augustus to Justinian for a thorough overview of the development of Roman jurisprudence.
The legal system in Rome changed dramatically from the earliest establishment of a legal system with the Twelve Tables to the eventual dissolution of the carefully constructed system in the 3rd century. Compiled below are sources focusing on each of the periods of Roman law, from early law, the pre-classical period, the classical period and the post-classical period.
- Edwin Charles Clark’s Early Roman Law: The Regal Period discusses the intricacies of the development of the legal system from the earliest known information.
- Fordham University offers the Ancient History Sourcebook, a large resource that includes full-text from the Twelve Tables.
- Mariamilani offers a survey of history alongside a detailed description of early Roman law and the Twelve Tables.
- George Mousourakis’ The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law includes a chapter entitled “The Pre-Classical Period of Roman Law.” He discusses the chronology with extensive footnotes.
- F. Pringsheim discusses the particulars of Roman law in the Classical period in his article “The Unique Character of Classical Roman Law.”
- Hans Julius Wolf’s book Roman Law includes a chapter entitled, “The Postclassical Period.” He discusses the legacy of the legal system and the beginning of its dissolution.
- Adolf Berger’s Encyclopedia of Roman Law includes a dictionary of Roman legal terminology, elucidating the connotations of the words in Roman culture.
The study of Roman law is both a legal and literary pursuit. Titus Livius (Livy) one of the only Roman historians who lived in ancient Rome (59 B.C.E. – 17 C.E.), wrote in a flowing prose style that is studied in both literature and history programs. Livy wrote 142 books on the history of Rome, though only 35 survived. Primary sources like Livy’s provide first-hand accounts of the legal system in action. Additionally, modern scholarship is often literary by necessity since it is based so heavily on second-hand accounts and archaeological artifacts of the era.
- Read excerpts from a Tulane symposium entitled: Relationships Among Roman Law, Common Law, and Modern Civil Law.
- A. Arthur Schiller’s book Roman Law: Mechanisms of Development compares Mosaic and Roman Laws, detailing the minutae of legal changes through the centuries.
- Ancient Roman Law is a lengthy essay in pdf format discussing the structure of the Roman legal system with photographic recreations of the Senate chambers.
- Robert Felix Jolowicz and Barry Nicholas discuss the history of Roman law from a literary perspective in their book Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law.
- W.H. Lloyd’s article “Roman Law in English Literature,” explores the appearance of Roman legal practices and its derivatives in English literature before 1920.
- Michael von Albrecht and Gareth L. Schmeling’s book A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius focuses on ancient literary texts but includes commentary on the politics and government that influenced the art. The book illuminates some of the cultural consequences of the legal system and early democracy.
There are several organizations that offer directories of resources relating to Roman law, both online and off. These directories include some links to blogs though most of them are affiliated with an academic institution and are therefore well researched with documentation of sources.
- UNRV History offers an index of Roman laws including a list specific to marriage laws, the Twelve Tables and prison law.
- The Fordham University Ancient History Sourcebook includes a database on Roman law.
- Ernest Metzger from the University of Glasgow School of Law offers a comprehensive Roman Law Resources database with literature, history, journals and links to online discussions of the texts.
- Livius offers a list of important figures throughout the Roman Empire with scholarly essays on each. Among them are many of the figures instrumental in the government, including the emperors.
- The University of Chicago offers a directory of articles on Roman law, with major (peer-reviewed or particularly influential) articles highlighted in bold.
Miscellaneous Resources on Roman Law
- Yale Law School houses a rare books library that includes antique illustrated texts about Roman law.
- RomanEmpire.net provides resources for the groups of people around the world who put on regular reenactments of legal proceedings in Roman courts.
- Visual Bible Alive provides a database of images relating to Roman law.