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GW Law Library
Research Guides

Roman Law Research

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 iusgentium ("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.

View a Timeline of Roman Law.

Jurist Compilations- English Translations

Jurist Compilations