When in Rome…


In the chapters of history, there has arguably never been a more successful classical civilisation then that of the Romans, nor one that has reached their heights, or scraped the pinnacle of human capability in their fashion. None have become as synonymous and interchangeable with the word ‘success’, or succeeded in imparting such a legacy, which has borne and survived the weight of time. The work of the Ancients has provided inspiration to the likes of Milton, who honed his craft of poetry through wielding their literary ‘tools’ and classical texts, to produce his landmark, ‘unpremeditated’ epic of ‘Paradise Lost’, to explain ‘the ways of God to man’, as well as countless politicians, artists, architects, academics and strategists throughout the ages. It was an era which gave birth to some of the greatest minds in human history, who excelled in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and the general sciences. Yet, unbeknown to many, it was also an era which produced works that have defined much of the legal practice conducted in Europe today, and in almost every nation with a legal code. Roman Law has influenced the development of Western civilisation, as well as serving as the basis of practically every modern legal system on the planet.

Although the Romans are indeed credited with the discoveries of multiple constellations, mathematical theorems and scientific theses, if we were to follow much of their academic work on, for example, the reproductive system or even the human anatomy, we would be sent down a road of futility. However, their system of legal documentation and compilation of legal edicts is perhaps one of the greatest examples of systemisation that had ever been seen on the face of the planet, before the dawn of the Roman Empire. Instead of just having a set of speeches and disconnected groups of dialogue, the Romans categorised a revolutionary, fully-comprehensible version of the Law. 

The written Law was a key, societal element in Ancient Rome, as the Plebeians, the general members of the public, had faced much hardship and injustice at the hands of the elite, and this brimming level of communal dissatisfaction, led to the inevitable formation of legal ‘doctrina’ over the centuries, to promote social wellbeing. The people utilised the court systems in order to ensure that they received legal solutions to resolve their quarrels over issues of family, marriage, inheritance and of course, proprietorship. Law courts were created and had magistrates who were installed to chair regular sessions, and were instilled with the powers to listen to all cases put before them, dole out punishments and issue orders. Appeals were also allowed by the system, hinting at its progressive nature. A very similar legal conduct is carried out today in nations ruled by civil codes. The Roman customs of written law came in many forms such as ‘edicts from magistrates, resolutions of the Roman Senate and imperial decrees’, as stated by the book ‘Byzantium’. For an age, laws were also created through the appeal system, in which the Emperor would listen to certain circumstances, and issue imperial decrees on the basis of an argument’s validity, that were posed to him. An example of common laws that were passed, would be the edicts lowering taxes in regions wracked by bad harvest seasons. At a period of time, during the century of 200 AD, the emperor was the single creator of the law, but it was in fact the commentaries of the key Roman lawyers, Papinian, Paul, Gaius, Ulpian and Modestus, that truly paved the way for future interpreters of the Law. 

In order for any legal system to be accurately navigated, education is essential, for without an understanding of the key fundamentals, the universality of Law can not be upheld. It is for this very reason why Ancient Rome saw the development of law schools and the ‘emergence of a specific class of jurists with practical experience, the scholastikoi’. Rome, Alexandria and Athens emerged as the hubs of learning, specialised in producing the best lawyers within the empire. During the year of 429 AD, Theosiddius II, a leading academic who himself had established a law school in 425 AD, recognised the issue of having a contrasting set of decrees, and ordered legal experts to form a law book which would be a compilation of all imperial laws, within one volume. This was seen as the first ‘official codification’ and was titled the ‘Codex Theodosianus’. It held in excess of 2,500 texts written over the course of a century, thus simplifying/universalising the Roman Law. A while after its release, Justinian went about securing further reforms within the system. A team of experienced lawyers were appointed to work through documents and make adaptations in order to update the constitutions. The new volume was named the ‘Codex Constitutionum’,  and its summary in the ‘Corpus Iuris Civilis’ (Corpus of Civil Law) is what forms the basis of today’s European Law.

A legal system prescribes on its people the general views and opinions of society on what is good and what is bad, and sets out a group of statutes which hold the primary function of doling out justice, and maintaining the balance of order. Now, it is more than obvious that modern society has moved away from the moral codes held by the Ancients, who condoned the likes of slavery, which we have rightly deemed to be a despicable act of injustice. However, quite surprisingly, Roman laws covering such controversial topics actually serve as the basis of many modern concepts such as the limited liability for corporations, agency and joint ownership. We are all impacted by these ancient decrees in our everyday lives. Depreciation is a measure of the disintegration in concepts due to the burden of time, and the depreciation rate of Roman Law sits at a lowly 10-15%, which suggests it is still very much a dominant force almost 2000 years later, and will remain as such, for years to come.


  1. HERRIN, JUDITH. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton University Press, 2007. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6zdbvf. Accessed 7 May 2020.
  2. RICHARD, EPSTEIN. Why Study Roman Law? The Durability of Roman Law [No. 86]. The Federalist Society. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKbhcJfqjEw
  3. RICHARD, EPSTEIN. Is Roman Law a primitive system? [No. 86] The Federalist Society. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buLvnnmciLc


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