Given that law and order was in the hands of the King who acted with the gods it was a natural consequence that the priests and religious orders also doubled up as the first lawyers and judges of Rome.
During the early days when Rome was a kingdom, the Kings set up an intricate religious system of gods and priests, elected from the noble Patrician class, to look after the cults. Given that law and order was in the hands of the King who acted with the gods it was a natural consequence that the priests and religious orders also doubled up as the first lawyers and judges of Rome.
It is easy to imagine that in the absence of written laws, legal judgments might lack transparency, especially if the case involved a plebeian versus a patrician. Any citizen would be hard pressed to know or understand what his or her rights were.
A number of written laws were indeed collected during the reign of the last king Tarquin the Proud by a man called Sextus Papirius. This rudimentary book of laws was called Jus Papirianum (“jus” means “law”).
The Tyrannical attitude of the last king, Tarquin the Proud, led to his expulsion and the Kingdom became a Republic where government and law was managed by elected bureaucrats. The Republic was ruled through two elected Consuls who had to consult with one another in order to take decisions.
In times of danger the Consuls would be replaced by a single Dictator who was clearly in a position to take quick military decisions without consultation. Because of his absolute power the dictator was only allowed to hold power for six months. At first any free citizen could aspire to these and other positions of state although soon enough it became a privilege of the Patricians.
The ruling bureaucracy were called Magistrates. The “parliament” was called the Senate and the whole Roman State was headed up by the two Consuls.
With the fall of the last of the Kings of Rome the laws within the Jus Papirianum were abolished and replaced by laws based on custom and the judgement of the court. Given that the government of the Republic was soon taken over by the Patrician class it is not surprising that a new set of written laws were required to ensure a more transparent judicial system.
The first laws of the Republic were collected by a council of ten men who wrote them onto twelve tablets and published for all to see in the forum, amongst other places. All children learned the twelve tablets off by heart at school. Although this didn’t lead to instantaneous justice it did at least divorce religious matters from legal ones and render legality a little more transparent. Cicero himself, many years later, declared his opinion that “the laws of the Twelve Tablets were to be preferred to the whole libraries of the philosophers”.
The Twelve Tablets were subdivided into three areas of law:
- Concerns of Religion
- Rights of the Public
- Private Persons
This system of laws came to be known as “Jus Civile” – civil law. A number of sample cases and schemes were also assembled in order to guide legal proceedings. This was called the “Actiones Legis”.
With time further centres of power were added alongside the Senate so that the assembly of the Tribunes (which represented the plebeians) reached enormous legislative and judicial power also. This may be loosely compared to the system of House of Commons and House of Lords in the UK.
The Assembly of the People could actually create new laws at the Comitia Tributa without requiring the authority of the Senate. Although they weren’t actually called Leges, they held the full force of law.
In special circumstances the Assembly could by-pass the Senate and issue new laws but generally it was the Senate which would discuss and issue the laws whilst the Assembly had a power to listen and Veto if they didn’t like what they heard.
Other legislative bodies were the supreme magistrates, particularly the Praetors, who could also issue laws called Jus Honorarium. Finally there were the Principalis Constitutio which were laws made on the spot by the dictator who might be given the job of ruling for six months in times of the greatest danger.
Suring the social struggles of the Republican age, the Patrician Gracchi brothers fought for the rights of the poor classes. By hook or by crook managed to establish a right to land reforms and cheap bread for the poor. Both brothers were murdered and their reforms more or less suppressed but they were picked up again and reapplied by Caesar.
By the end of the Empire the body of legal knowledge and laws had grown to something in the region of two thousand volumes. This made the legal system so unwieldy that emperor Justinian ordered them to be reorganised and simplified. The result was four tomes of Civil Law which formed the basis of the legal systems in all Christendom – “the West”.
Examples of Roman Law
Roman law covered a wide range of areas such as:
- Rights of Roman Citizens
- Public Meetings and Assemblies
- The Senate
- Laws relating to laws and Privileges
- Provinces and their Governors
- Agrarian laws
- Laws relating to Corn
- Expenses of the State
- Military affairs
- Tutorship and Wardships (De Tutelis)
- Wills and Legacies
- Money, Lending and Usury
- Laws relating to trials and judgements
- Crimes & “De Magestate”
- Slaves and slavery
- Marriage and Divorce
A great deal of information regarding ancient Roman law was written by Cicero, Manutius and Rosinus.
Read on for examples of the different Ancient Roman Laws.