Roman law

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Roman Law is the legal system of ancient Rome. The development of Roman law covers more than two thousand years from the law of the twelve tables (from 449 BC) to the codification of Emperor Justinian I (around 530). Roman law as preserved in Justinian's codes became the basis of legal practice in the Byzantine Empire and—later— in continental Western Europe.

Using the term Roman law in a broader sense, one may say that Roman law is not only the legal system of ancient Rome but the law that was applied throughout most of Europe until the end of the 18th century. In some countries like Germany the practical application of Roman law lasted even longer. For these reasons, many modern legal systems in Europe and elsewhere are heavily influenced by Roman law. This is especially true in the field of private law. Even the English and North American Common law owes some debt to Roman law although Roman law exercised much less influence on the English legal system than on the legal systems of the continent.


Divisions of Roman law

Ius Civile, Ius Gentium, and Ius Naturale

The Ius Civile ("Citizen law") was the body of common laws that applied to Roman citizens and the Praetores Urbani (sg. Praetor Urbanus) were the individuals who had jurisdiction over cases involving citizens.

The Ius Gentium ("Law of nations") was the body of common laws that applied to foreigners, and their dealings with Roman citizens. The Praetores Peregrini ( sg. Praetor Peregrinus) were the individuals who had jurisdiction over cases involving citizens and foreigners.

Some Roman jurists introduced ius naturale as a further category. It encompassed natural law (the body of laws that were considered common to all beings!).

Ius Scriptum and Ius Non Scriptum

The terms Ius Scriptum and Ius Non Scriptum literally mean written and unwritten law, respectively. In practice, the two differed by the means of their creation and not necessarily whether or not they were written down.

The Ius Scriptum was the body of statute laws made by the legislature. The laws were known as leges (lit. "laws") and plebiscita (lit. "plebiscites" [originating in the Plebeian assemblies]). In them, Roman lawyers would include:

  • The edicts of magistrates (magistratuum edicta),
  • The conclusions of the Senate (Senatus consulta),
  • The responses and thoughts of jurists (responsa prudentium), and
  • The proclamations and beliefs of the emperor (principum placita).

The Ius Non Scriptum was the body of common laws that arose from customary practice and had become binding over time.

Ius Publicum and Ius Privatum

Ius publicum means public law and ius privatum means private law, where public law is to protect the interests of the Roman state while private law should protect individuals. In the roman law ius privatum included personal, property, civil and criminal law; judicial proceeding was private process (iudicium privatum); and crimes were private (except the most severe ones that were prosecuted by the state). Public law will only include some areas of private law close to the end of the Roman state.

Ius Publicum

Ius publicum was also used to describe obligatory legal regulations (today called ius cogens). These are regulations that cannot be changed or excluded by party agreement. Those regulations that can be changed are called today ius dispositivum, and they are used when party shares something and are not in opposition.

Ius Commune and Ius Singulare

Ius singulare (singular law) is special law for certain groups of people, things, or legal relations (because of which it is an exception from the general principles of the legal system), unlike general, ordinary, law (ius commune). An example of this is the law about wills written by people in the military during a campaign, which are exempt of the solemnities generally required for citizens when writing wills in normal circumstances.

The sources of Roman law

Romans did not have tendency towards codified law. That is why the only codifications of Roman law are found at the beginning (Lex Duodecim Tabularum ) and at the end (Corpus Iuris Civilis) of Roman legal history.

Civil law

The private law of this time (754 - 201 BC) was old Roman civil law (ius civile Quiritium), which applied only to Roman citizens. It was closely bonded to religion and it was undeveloped with attributes of strict formalism, symbolism and conservatism. The main source of this time is "The law of twelve tables"

It is impossible to give an exact date for the beginning of the development of Roman law. The first legal text the content of which is known to us in some detail is the law of the twelve tables. It was drafted by a committee of ten men (decemviri legibus scribundis) in the year 449 BC. The fragments which have been preserved show that it was not a law code in the modern sense. It did not aim to provide a complete and coherent system of all applicable rules or to give legal solutions for all possible cases. Rather, the twelve tables contain a number of specific provisions designed to change the customary law already in existence at the time of the enactment. The provisions pertain to all areas of law. However, the largest part seems to have been dedicated to private law and civil procedure.

The important law sources of this time are results of class struggle between patricians and plebeians. As the result of this struggle "Law of twelve tables" has been made. Other laws include Lex Canuleia - 445 BC (which allowed the marriage- ius connubii- between patricians and plebeians), Leges Licinae Sextiae - 367 BC (made restrictions on possession of ager publicus, and also made sure that one of counsuls is plebeian), Lex Ogulnia - 300 BC (plebeians received access to priest posts), and Lex Hortensia - 287 BC (verdicts of plebeian assemblies -plebiscita- now bind all people).

Another important statute from the Republican era is the lex Aquilia of 286 BC, which may be regarded as the root of modern tort law. However, Rome’s most important contribution to European legal culture was not the enactment of well-drafted statutes, but the emergence of a class of professional jurists and of a legal science. This was achieved in a gradual process of applying the scientific methods of Greek philosophy to the subject of law—a subject which the Greeks themselves never treated as a science.

Traditionally, the origins of Roman legal science are being connected to the story of Gnaeus Flavius: Flavius is said to have published around the year 300 BC the formularies containing the words which had to be spoken in court in order to begin a legal action. Before the time of Flavius, these formularies are said to have been secret and known only to the priests. Their publication made it possible for non-priests to explore the meaning of these legal texts. Whether or not this story is credible, jurists were active and legal treatises were written in larger numbers the 2nd century BC. Among the famous jurists of the republican period are Quintus Mucius Scaevola who wrote a voluminous treatise on all aspects of the law, which was very influential in later times, and Servius Sulpicius Rufus a friend of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Thus, Rome had developed a very sophisticated legal system and a refined legal culture when the Roman republic was replaced by the monarchical system of the principate in 27 BC.

Honorary law

In this period (201 - 27 BC) we can see the development of more flexible law to match the needs of the time. In addition to the old and formal ius civile a new juridical class is created: the ius honorarium (so called because praetors were central to the creation of this new body of law and because the Praetorship was an honorary service). With this new law the old formalism is being abandoned and new more flexible principles of ius gentium are used.

The adaptation of law to new needs was given over to juridical practice, to magistrates, and especially to the praetors. A praetor was not a legislator and did not technically create new law when he issued his edicts (magistratuum edicta). In fact, however, the results of his rulings enjoyed legal protection (actionem dare) and were in effect often the source of new legal rules. A Praetor's successor was not bound by the edicts of his predecessor, however, he did take rules from edicts of his predecessor that had proved to be useful. In this way a constant content was created that proceeded form edict to edict (edictum tralatitium).

Thus, over the course of time, parallel to the civil law and supplementing and correcting it, a new body of praetoric law emerged. In fact, praetoric law was so defined by the famous Roman jurist Papinian (Amilius Papinianus - died at 212 AD):" Ius praetorium est quod praetores introduxerunt adiuvandi vel supplendi vel corrigendi iuris civilis gratia propter utilitatem publicam" ("praetoric law is that law introduced by praetors to supplement or correct civil law for public benefit"). Ultimately, civil law and praetoric law are fused in the Corpus Juris Civilis.

Classical Roman law

The first 250 years AD are the period during which Roman law and Roman legal science reached the highest degree of perfection. The law of this period is often referred to as classical Roman law. The literary and practical achievements of the jurists of this period gave Roman law its unique shape.

The jurists worked in different functions: They gave legal opinions at the request of private parties. They advised the magistrates who were entrusted with the administration of justice, most importantly the praetors. They helped the praetors draft their edicts, in which they publicly announced at the beginning of their tenure, how they would handle their duties, and the formularies, according to which specific proceedings were conducted. Some jurists also held high judicial and administrative offices themselves.

The jurists also produced all kinds of legal commentaries and treatises. Around 130 the jurist Salvius Iulianus drafted a standard form of the praetor’s edict, which was used by all praetors from that time onwards. This edict contained detailed descriptions of all cases, in which the praetor would allow a legal action and in which he would grant a defense. The standard edict thus functioned like a comprehensive law code, even though it did not formally have the force of law. It indicated the requirements for a successful legal claim. The edict therefore became the basis for extensive legal commentaries by later classical jurists like Iulius Paulus and Domitius Ulpianus .

The new concepts and legal institutions developed by pre-classical and classical jurists are too numerous to mention here. Only a few examples are given here:

  • Roman jurists clearly separated the legal right to use a thing (ownership) from the factual ability to use and manipulate the thing (possession). They also found the distinction between contract and tort as sources of legal obligations.
  • The standard types of contract (sale, contract for work, hire, contract for services) regulated in most continental codes and the characteristics of each of these contracts were developed by Roman jurisprudence.
  • The classical jurist Gaius (around 160) invented a system of private law based on the division of all material into personae (persons), res (things) and actiones (legal actions). This system was used for many centuries. It can be recognized in legal treatises like William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England and enactments like the French Code civil.

Post-classical law

By the middle of the 3rd century the conditions for the flourishing of a refined legal culture had become less favorable. The general political and economic situation deteriorated. The emperors assumed more direct control of all aspects of political life. The political system of the principate, which had retained some features of the republican constitution began to transform itself into the absolute monarchy of the dominate. The existence of a legal science and of jurists who regarded law as a science, not as an instrument to achieve the political goals set by the absolute monarch did not fit well into the new order of things. The literary production all but ended. Few jurists after the mid-third century are known by name. While legal science and legal education persisted to some extent in the eastern part of the empire, most of the subtleties of classical law came to be disregarded and finally forgotten in the west. Classical law was replaced by so-called vulgar law. Where the writings of classical jurists were still known, they were edited to conform to the new situation.

The introduction of Christianity as state religion under emperor Theodosius I, which lead to the suppression of pagan learning, may have contributed to the deterioration of Roman legal culture.

Rights of the People (Status)

Main article: Status in Roman legal system

To describe person's position in legal system, Romans mostly used the expression status. The individual could have been Roman citizen (status civitatis) unlike foreigners, or he could have been free (status libertatis) unlike slaves, or he could have had certain position in Roman family (status familiae) either as head of the family (pater familias), or some lower member.

Influence of Roman law

Roman law in the East

In the Byzantine Empire, the codes of Justinian became the basis of legal practice. In the 9th century, the emperors Basileios I and Leon VI commissioned a combined translation of the Code and the Digest into Greek, which became known as the Basilica. Roman law as preserved in the codes of Justinian and in the Basilika remained the basis of legal practice in Greece and in the courts of the Orthodox Church even after the fall of the Byzantine empire and the conquest by the Turks.

Roman law in the West

In the west, Justinian’s codes were almost immediately forgotten. While the Code and the Institutes remained known (though they had little influence on legal practice in the early Middle Ages), the Digest was completely ignored for several centuries. Around 1070 however, a manuscript of the Digest was rediscovered in Italy. From that time, scholars began to study the ancient Roman legal texts and to teach others what they learned from their studies. The center of these studies was Bologna. The law school there gradually developed into one of Europe’s first universities.

The students, who were taught Roman law in Bologna (and later in many other places) found that many rules of Roman law were better suited to regulate complex economic transactions than the customary rules, which were applicable throughout Europe. For this reason, Roman law, or at least some provisions borrowed from it, began to be re-introduced into legal practice, centuries after the end of the Roman empire. This process was actively supported by many kings and princes who employed university-trained jurists as counselors and court officials and sought to benefit from rules like the famous Princeps legibus solutus est (The sovereign is not bound by the laws).

By the middle of the 16th century, the rediscovered Roman law dominated the legal practice in most European countries. A legal system, in which Roman law was mixed with elements of canon law and of Germanic custom, especially feudal law, had emerged. This legal system, which was common to all of continental Europe (and Scotland) was known as Ius Commune. This Ius Commune and the legal systems based on it are usually refered to as civil law in English-speaking countries.

Only England did not take part in the reception of Roman law. One reason for this is the fact that the English legal system was more developed than its continental counterparts by the time Roman law was rediscovered. Therefore, the practical advantages of Roman law were less obvious to English practitioners than to continental lawyers. Later, the fact that Roman law was associated with the Holy Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church and with absolutism made Roman law unacceptable in England. Even so, some concepts from Roman law made their way into the common law. Especially in the early 19th century, English lawyers and judges were willing to borrow rules and ideas from continental jurists and directly from Roman law.

The practical application of Roman law and the era of the European Ius Commune came to an end, when national codifications were made. In 1804, the French civil code came into force. In the course of the 19th century, many European states either adopted the French model or drafted their own codes. In Germany, the political situation made the creation of a national code of laws impossible. In some parts of Germany, Roman law continued to be applied until the German civil code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) came into force in 1900.

Roman law today

Today, Roman law is no longer applied in legal practice, even though the legal systems of some states like South Africa and San Marino and the legal system of the United States state of Louisiana are still based on the old Ius Commune. However, even where the legal practice is based on a code, many rules deriving from Roman law apply: No code completely broke with the Roman tradition. Rather, the provisions of Roman law were fitted into a more coherent system and expressed in the national language. For this reason, knowledge of Roman law is indispensable to understand the legal systems of today. Thus, Roman law is often still a mandatory subject for law students in civil law jurisdictions.

As steps towards a unification of the private law in the member states of the European Union are being taken, the old Ius Commune, which was the common basis of legal practice everywhere, but allowed for many local variants, is seen by many as a model.

Relevant links


  • Fritz Schulz, History of Roman Legal Science. Clarendon Press. 1953.
  • Peter Stein, Roman Law in European History. Cambridge University Press, 1999 (ISBN 0521643724).
  • Andrew Borkowski, Textbook on Roman law. Oxford University Press, 2nd Ed. (ISBN 1-85431-642-7).
  • Barry Nicholas, An Introduction to Roman Law. Clarendon Press, 1962 (ISBN 0-19-876063-9).
  • Jill Harries, "Law and Empire in Late Antiquity" Cambridge, 1999 (ISBN 0-521-41087-8).

The book by Schulz is somewhat outdated, but it is a masterly and very readable account of how Roman law evolved into a science. Stein’s book is suited to someone interested in the impact of Roman law on later systems and the detail on the law itself here is comparatively brief. Borkowski offers the most accessible and detailed information. In Nicholas' book, there are many interesting insights and extra detail but occasionally, Nicholas fails to include areas that can be found in Borkowski's work. The fifth is an excellent historical survey of later legal development confined in the main to the fourth century AD.

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