Roman Law – Concept, periods and characteristics

We explain what Roman Law is, its history and what periods it is divided into. Also, what are its sources and characteristics.

Roman Law
Roman Law served as the basis for legal texts other cultures and civilizations.

What is Roman Law?

Roman Law is called legal order that governed the society of Ancient Rome, from its foundation (in 753 BC) until the fall of the Empire in the V century AD. C., although it remained in use in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) until 1453.

It was compiled as a whole in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, in a volume of laws known as the Corpus Juris Civilis (“Body of Civil Law”), and first printed by Dionysus of Godfrey in 1583, in Geneva. .

Said text and the laws it contains are of utmost importance in the legal history of humanityas they served as the basis for the legal texts of multiple other cultures and civilizations. So much so, that there is still a branch of law specialized in its study, called romanistics, with offices in the law schools of many countries.

To fully understand Roman Law, it is convenient to examine its characteristics and its history, but in broad terms it can be understood from the concept of ius (“right”), contrasted with fas (“divine will”), thus separating for the first time the legal exercise of religion. This will allow the emergence of the various branches of law: ius civile (“civil law”), ius naturale (“natural law”), etc., many of which still exist today.

History of Roman law

Roman Law
The Roman Republic oscillated between democracy and dictatorship constantly.

The history of Roman law covers more than a thousand years of legislation and changes in the way of understanding the law and legality, from the first appearance of the Law of the Twelve Tables in 439 a. Approximately, until the Code of Justiniano of 529 d. C. Its birth comes from custom (which would inspire customary law) and would emerge as a model of regulation of society that would guarantee social peace in the face of plebeians and the hierarchy that supported the emperors and praetors for equality. and the Senate.

Let us remember that the Roman Republic oscillated between democracy and dictatorship constantly, to end up becoming an Empire that would conquer almost the entire Western world, taking its law to all the corners that it colonized. A) Yes, Roman law became the mainstay of the legality of the Roman colonies in Europe, Asia and Africa, and this is reflected in the legal history of each kingdom into which the Roman Empire was divided after its collapse.

Some of the leading jurists and legal scholars in Ancient Rome were Gaius, Papiniano, Ulpiano, Modestino, and Paulo.

Periods of Roman law

The history of Roman law is normally divided into the following periods:

  • The monarchical period. It extends from the middle of the 8th century BC. C., with the foundation of Rome, until the year 509 a. C. when King Tarquinio the Proud, whose despotic government was the last exercised by the Roman kings, is expelled from the city, thus giving rise to the Roman Republic.
  • The republican period. It begins with the fall of the monarchy at the beginning of the 5th century BC. C. and culminates with the granting by the Roman Senate of absolute powers to Octavio Augusto in the year 27 a. During this period the Law of the XII Tables was published, formally beginning Roman law, and building a State of powers in balance: a group of magistrates was democratically elected in popular assemblies, in charge of assigned functions; while the Senate was in charge of issuing senate consultations with the force of law.
  • The period of the principality. It begins in the year 27 a. After the political crisis that affected the Republic and allowed the emergence of an authoritarian State, subject to the will of the auctoritas of the Prince or Emperor, such as Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), Calígula ( 37-41 AD), Nero (54-68 AD) among others. Rome reached its maximum territorial extension in this period: 5 million square kilometers.
  • The period of the dominated. Also known as the absolute Empire, it began in the middle of the second century AD. Until the year 476, when the Western Roman Empire collapses and disappears. It is a time of absolute power the State, in the hands of the Emperor, who governs through imperial constitutions. In the year 380 the Empire assumed Christianity as the official religion and later it was divided into two parts, from which the Eastern Roman Empire was born.
  • The period of Justinian. Also called the Government of Justinian, it goes from 527 to 565 d. C., and it is the time when the Justinian compilation of Roman Law is published in the year 549, marking the end point of its history. After the death of Justinian, the Byzantine Empire was erected, a rather medieval state, which lasted until the 15th century, when it fell to the Turks.

Sources of Roman law

Emperor Justinian I - Roman Law
Justinian sources are in the Corpus iuris civilis of Emperor Justinian I.

Like all aspects of law, the Roman has its sources, which we can study separately as follows:

  • The mos maiorum. “The custom of the ancestors” is the first of the sources of Roman Law. It is made up of custom (common law), through a set of rules inherited from the ancestral tradition and which were venerated in Ancient Rome, which were transmitted in the family and which served to contrast the Roman with the Hellenizing or Asian traditions.
  • Justinian sources. Those compiled by Emperor Justinian I in his work Corpus iuris civilis, which includes: The code or Codex (vetus) that compiled the imperial constitutions; The digest or Pandectas that contains a chronological ordering of the various subjects, in chronological order throughout 50 different books; the Institutions or Institutes that contains a synthesis of doctrines and precepts in four books that make up an elementary treatise on law; The Justinian code or “The New Code” which is the version commissioned by the Emperor from John of Cappadocia, inspired by all of the above; and finally the Novels that make up the definitive code promulgated by Justinian.
  • Extrajustinian sources. They comprise two sets of texts unrelated to Justinian’s work:
    • Fragments of jurists of the classical period. How are the institutions of Gayo; the Fragments of Sententiarium libri V ad filium of Paulo; the Tituli ex corpore Ulpiani whose author is unknown; very scarce parts of the Papianian Responsa; an appendix to Ars grammatica de Dositheus; and the Scholia sinaitica discovered on Mount Sinai.
    • The collection of other imperial constitutions. Like the Vatican Fragmenta, which are the remains of a private collection of passages from classical jurists and imperial laws found in a palimpsest in the Vatican Library.

Characteristics of Roman law

Roman Law - Public Law
Public law regulates the actions of the State and ensures the well-being of citizens.

Roman law, in very broad strokes, distinguished between various ways of understanding the law. Not only, as has been said, between ius (“right”) and fas (“divine will”), but also between public law, which regulates the actions of the State and ensures the general welfare of citizens; and private law, which regulates the agreements and transactions between them, in view of the idea of ​​justice defended by the institutions.

Similarly, he differentiated between two fundamental concepts: Ius (“right”), that which is fair and equitable in itself and therefore binding; and Lex (“Law”), that which is ordered or commanded in writing by the State authorities. The entire body of Roman Law was inspired by this opposition.

We must also note that for Roman Law the human being was not necessarily a citizen, but rather those that the law recognized as such, slaves being excluded from any right. There were, thus, three forms of citizenship based on their degree of freedom:

  • Free people. Those who always were (Naive) and those who had won their freedom after being slaves (Libertines).
  • Colonists. They were in an intermediate state between freedom and slavery, sentenced for life to the cultivation of Roman territories, and whose desertion made slaves.
  • Slaves. People who were not owners of themselves, but were part of the heritage of others.

Although they were not at the level of slaves or colonists, women occupied a place of subordination in this legal system with respect to men.

Importance of Roman law

Roman law not only It is the basis of the constitutions of the countries of the West and the East (especially its civil and commercial law) that were part of the Roman colonial Empire, but also embodied the statutes of the Catholic Church that governed its operation even in the Middle Ages, when the Roman Empire had already dissolved.

Almost all republican institutions that exist today have their origin in Roman Law, and many legal systems such as Anglo-Saxon common law as well.