What is Roman Law Concept, Periods and Characteristics

Roman Law

We explain what Roman Law is, its history and into what periods it is divided. In addition, what are their sources, characteristics and importance.

Roman law served as a basis for legal texts of other cultures and civilizations.

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What is Roman Law?

Roman Law is the name given to the legal system that governed the society of Ancient Rome, from its foundation (in 753 B.C.) until the fall of the Empire in the 5th century A.D., although it remained in use in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) until 1453.

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

This text and the laws it contains are of paramount importance in the legal history of humanity, as they served as the basis for the legal texts of many other cultures and civilizations.

So much so that there still exists a branch of law specialized in its study, called romanistics, with headquarters in the law faculties of many countries.

In order to fully understand Roman Law, it is necessary to examine its characteristics and its history, but in broad terms it can be understood from the concept of ius (“right”), opposed to fas (“divine will”), thus separating for the first time the juridical 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.

See also: Natural Law.

History of Roman Law

The Roman Republic oscillated between democracy and dictatorship constantly.

The history of Roman law spans over a thousand years of legislation and changes in the understanding of law and legality, from the first appearance of the Law of the Twelve Tables in approximately 439 B.C. to the Code of Justinian of 529 A.D.

The history of Roman law spans more than a thousand years of legislation and changes in the understanding of law and legality, from the first appearance of the Law of the Twelve Tables in approximately 439 B.C. to the Code of Justinian of 529 A.D.

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 the desire for equality of the plebeians and the hierarchy that sustained the emperors, the pretors 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, bringing its law to every corner it colonized.

Roman law thus became the backbone of the legality of 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 law 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 monarchic period. It extends from the middle of the 8th century B.C., with the foundation of Rome, until 509 B.C. when King Tarquinius the Sovereign was expelled from the city, whose despotic government was the last to be exercised by the Roman kings, 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 B.C. and culminates with the granting by the Roman Senate of absolute powers to Octavian Augustus in 27 B.C. During this period, the Law of the XII Tables was published, formally initiating Roman law and building a balanced State of powers: a group of magistrates was democratically elected in popular assemblies, in charge of assigned functions; while the Senate was in charge of issuing senadoconsults with the rank of law.

The principality period. It began in 27 B.C. after the political crisis that affected the Republic and allowed the emergence of an authoritarian State, subject to the will of the auctorites of the Prince or Emperor, such as Augustus (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), Caligula (37-41 A.D.), Nero (54-68 A.D.) among others. In this period Rome reached its maximum territorial extension: 5 million square kilometers.

The dominated period. Also known as the Absolute Empire, it began in the mid-second century A.D. until 476, when the Western Roman Empire collapsed and disappeared. 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 assumes Christianity as its official religion and later divides into two parts, from where the Eastern Roman Empire will be born.

Justinian’s period. Also known as Justinian’s Government, it runs from 527 to 565 A.D., and is the time when the Justinian compilation of Roman Law was published in the year 549, marking the end of its history. After Justinian’s death, the Byzantine Empire was erected, a rather medieval state, which lasted until the 15th century, when it fell in front of the Turks.

Sources of Roman Law

The sources Justinianeas are in the work Corpus iuris civilis by Emperor Justinian I.

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

El mos maiorum. “The custom of the ancestors” is the first of the sources of Roman law. It is composed of custom (customary law), through a set of rules inherited from ancestral tradition and which were venerated in Ancient Rome, which were transmitted familiarly and which served to contrast the Roman to Helenizing 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 order of the diverse matters, in chronological order along 50 different books; the Institutions or Institutes that contains a synthesis of doctrines and precepts in four books that composes an elementary treatise of right.

The code of Justinian or “The New Code” that is the version ordered by the Emperor to John of Cappadocia, inspired in all the previous thing; and finally the Novels that compose the definitive code promulgated by Justinian.

Extrajustinian Sources. They include two sets of texts alien to Justinian’s work:

Fragments of jurists from the classical period. Such as The Institutions of Gaius; the Fragments of Sententiarium libri V ad filium by Paulo; the Tituli ex corpore Ulpiani whose author is unknown; very few parts of the Responsa by Papianiano; an appendix of Ars grammatica by 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 of classical jurists and imperial laws found in a palimpsest in the Vatican Library.

Characteristics of Roman law

Public law regulates the actions of the State and ensures the welfare of citizens.

Roman law, broadly speaking, distinguished between various ways of understanding the law.

Not only, as has been said, between ius (“law”) and fas (“divine will”), but also between public law, which regulates the actions of the State and watches over the general welfare of citizens; and private law, which regulates agreements and transactions between them, with a view to the idea of justice defended by the institutions.

Similarly, a distinction was made between two fundamental concepts: Ius (“right”), that which is just and equitable in itself and therefore obligatory; and Lex (“Law”), that which is ordered or commanded in writing by the State authorities. The whole body of Roman law was inspired by this opposition.

We should also note that for Roman Law the human being was not necessarily a citizen, but are those that the law recognized as such, being excluded from any right slaves.

Thus, there were three forms of citizenship based on their degree of freedom:

  • Free people. Those who were always (Naive) and those who had gained their freedom after being slaves (Libertines).
  • Settlers. They were in an intermediate state between freedom and slavery, perpetually sentenced to the cultivation of Roman territories, and whose desertion turned them into slaves.
  • Slaves. People who did not own themselves, but were part of the patrimony of others.

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

Importance of Roman law

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

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

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