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A core of the Jacob Burns Law Library's Special Collections is the Roman Law Collection. As the foundation upon which many legal systems in Western Europe were developed, our Roman Law collection supports a number of our other Special Collection strengths, including both the French and Canon Law Collections.
To access materials in the Special Collections, please see the Guidelines for Use of Special Collections.
Law in Early Rome and the Republic
Long before the Roman Republic was established in 509 BCE, the early Romans lived by laws developed through centuries of custom. This customary law (ius, in Latin) was handed down through generations and was considered by the Romans to be an inherited aspect of their society as it had evolved from its earliest days. Integral to the notion that this customary law was part of the fabric of early Roman culture was the fact that this law only applied to Roman citizens and was thus ius civile, or civil law.
The Twelve Tables
During a period of social unrest, when some Romans felt that legal decisions were being arbitrarily decided, a push was made to write down the law in order to better anticipate how decisions would be made. Thus a committee of ten men called the decemvirs was established in 451 BCE to write down the law for the first time. The work they produced in 449 BCE, the Twelve Tables, documented the centuries-old customary laws and became the foundation of Roman law as we know it. The Twelve Tables touched on many areas of law, not only the civil law that applied directly to citizens, but also areas such as public law and religious law, which applied to larger social constructs and institutions.
The Jurists and the Evolution of the Roman Legal System
As the Roman republic grew into an empire, its rulers faced the increasing challenge of governing an ever more diverse and far-flung population. Legal questions and disputes arose not only among Roman citizens, but with non-citizens living in or traveling through its territories, to whom the ius civile did not apply. This led to the development of the ius gentium ("law of nations"), which was the body of laws that applied to all people, and was based upon the common principles and reasoning that civilized societies and humankind were understood to share, and ius naturale ("natural law"), a category of law based on the principles shared by all living creatures, humans as well as animals (such as laws pertaining to procreation, or physical defense against attack).
As law became more complex, Roman rulers found themselves in need of a larger group of legal authorities to give order to the system of legal formulas and decisions. By the second half of the third century BCE, a new professional group of specialists trained in law, the jurists, emerged to meet this demand. The jurists did not participate in administering the law, but rather focused on interpreting and generating formal opinions on the law. It was the work and scholarly writings of generations of great jurists that elevated Roman law to its apex during the first two and a half centuries CE, which is referred to as the classical period of Roman law.
When researching the development of Roman Law, emphasis is placed on the works of the jurists Gaius, Ulpian, and Paulus as these texts survived independently of Justinian's compilations. The ideas expressed in these works can therefore be clearly recognized as predating Justinian's rule.
Emperor Justinian and the Corpus Juris Civilis
By the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (ruled 527-565 CE), the Roman Empire was politically and culturally divided into the Western Empire and the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire. The Western Empire had collapsed fifty years before Justinian came to power, but during his reign, the emperor waged a successful campaign to reconquer some of the Western territories that had been lost to Germanic invaders, such as Italy and parts of Spain. Like other Roman emperors before him, Justinian faced the challenge of maintaining control and creating a sense of unity within the Empire.
One of the ways that Justinian sought this unity was through law. Roman citizenship had been extended to the empire outside of Italy in the third century CE, making inhabitants "citizens of Rome" and subject to its civil law. Justinian formed a commission of jurists to compile all existing Roman law into one body, which would serve to convey the historical tradition, culture, and language of Roman law throughout the empire. This compilation, known collectively as the Corpus Juris Civilis, consisted of three different original parts: the Digest (Digesta), the Code (Codex), and the Institutes (Institutiones). The Digest (533 CE) collected and summarized all of the classical jurists' writings on law and justice. The Code (534 CE) outlined the actual laws of the empire, citing imperial constitutions, legislation and pronouncements. The Institutes (535 CE) were a smaller work that summarized the Digest, intended as a textbook for students of law. A fourth work, the Novella (Novellae) was not a part of Justinian's original project, but was created separately by legal scholars in 556 CE to update the Code with new laws created after 534 CE and summarize Justinian's own constitution.
Corpus Juris Civilis and the Development of Western Legal Systems
The compilation of Justinian is widely considered to be the emperor's greatest contribution to the history of Western society. Though largely forgotten for several centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, Roman law experienced a revival that began at the University of Bologna, Italy, in the eleventh century and spread throughout Europe. Surviving manuscript copies of Justinian's compilation were rediscovered and systematically studied and reproduced. These new editions of the compilation became the foundational source for Roman law in the Western tradition. All later systems of law in the West borrowed heavily from it, including the civil law systems of Western continental Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa and to a lesser but still notable extent the English common law system, from which American law is principally derived.
Text used with permission from University of California at Berkeley School of Law's The Robbins Collection's Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian.