Ancient Roman laws
Within this article we take the opportunity to outline a variety of areas addressed by Roman law and list some of the most renowned ancient Roman laws within them.
A separate introductory article outlines the evolution, breadth and social significance of ancient Roman law.
Major areas of ancient Roman laws
Rights of Roman Citizens
Public Meetings and Assemblies
Provinces and their Governors
Laws relating to Corn
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
Ancient Roman laws of Religion
The religious laws tended to regulate all matters to do with consecration to the gods of public buildings, holding religious festivals and hence the dates and even seating division at the theatres where these feasts were held. An interesting anecdote is that the priestly orders were exempt from military service except in the case where the enemy at hand were the Gauls. Presumably the Romans held a particular fear of the Gauls on account of the early Gaulish invasion at the time of the Kings. This is not dissimilar to an existing law in Britain (I am told) which apparently allows the killing of Welshmen so long as it is with a long bow and in particular areas of the country. Obviously a historical relic if not apocryphal.
Some examples of Roman religious law follow:
- Papiria Lex – written by the Tribune L. Papirius (of the Assembly) whereby no building, place or thing could be consecrated without prior permission of the Assembly of the People.
- Cornelia Lex – funeral expenses
- Sexta Licinia Lex – creating the order of the Decemviri to replace the Duumviri sacris faciundis.
- Papia Lex – defining the manner in which the Vestal Virgins should be chosen.
- Licinia Lex – defining the day of the Ludi Apollinares
- Roscia Lex Theatralis, by L. Roscius Otho, Tribune in A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita) 685. No one worth less than four hundred Sestertia (ie Equestrian rank) were allowed to sit in the first fourteen rows of the Theatres.
Ancient Roman laws concerning the rights of Roman Citizens
Of interest there are various editions of the early Valerian law giving the right to appeal against punishment if you had been provoked into performing the crime.
Perhaps most significantly for Rome, its class structure and its economy we note the various laws and repeals admitting and removing the right to Roman citizenship of other Italic peoples and eventually to all freeborn persons of the empire. Roman citizenship meant privileges but also a duty to pay Roman taxes.
- Laws such as the Julia Lex and Cornelia Lex betray the sort of legal aspects that the social and civil wars took. Latin tribes which had aided this or the other party might find themselves citizens one minute and enemies the next.
- Valeria Lex de Provocatione by Valerius Poplicola, Consul AUC243. Gave liberty to appeal to the people and prevent punishment in case of provocation.
- Papia Lex de Peregrinis expelled all foreigners from Rome
- Servilia Lex gave citizenship to Latins who might successfully hold a law suit against a Senator.
- Licinia Mutia Lex (Licinius Crassus & Mutius Scaevola AUC658) ordering all Italians to be enrolled as citizens in their own cities.
- Julia Lex, De Civitate (Julius Caesar, Consul). All the citizens of the Italian states which had aided Rome should be granted Roman Citizenship. In AUC664 all Italian free citizens were admitted to Citizenship.
- Cornelia Lex de Municipiis (General Sulla, Dictator) Removing the right to citizenship to those who had assisted any of his adversaries, particularly Marius, Cinna and Sulpicius.
Ancient Roman laws regarding Public Meetings and Assemblies
These laws are interesting because they regulated the means by which laws, positions of government and other proposals might be voted for.
- Curia Lex – No voting councils could be convened without the agreement of the Senate.
- Gabinia Lex – AUC614 – voting in the comitia for the election of Magistrates should not be “viva voce” but through tablets to enable greater freedom and privacy of vote.
Ancient Roman laws regarding the Senate and Patrician Class
The laws relating to the Senate and to the Patrician class in general did much to shape the Roman economy. For example it was deemed unworthy of the senatorial class to deal in merchandise which meant they could only really do it through the Client-Patron system. This also meant that the Patricians heavily invested in agriculture and land which tended to result in social tension with the Plebs who were clearly of lesser means (see agrarian laws).
Senators had legal privileges. For example they could expect to be exiled rather than be put to death for serious crimes.
- Claudia Lex – No Senator was allowed to have a ship capable of carrying more than three hundred amphorae.
- Sulpicia Lex – Posed a limitation on the level of indebtedness Senators were allowed.
Laws regarding ancient Roman Magistrates
- Genutia Lex (AUC 411) – no magistrate could go for the same office within ten years of having held it the first time nor could he hold two offices within the same year.
- Cornelia Lex ( by General Cornelius Sylla, Dictator) – granting honours to those who had supported his party during the social and civil wars and removing the right of those who had stood against him (and were hence proscribed) from holding positions in government office.
- A subsequent Cornelia Lex AUC 673 – removed the rights and powers of the Tribunes of the People. These were returned through the Aurelia Lex.
- Atinia Lex – That any Tribune of the people should have the same privileges as a Senator.
- Veleria Lex – AUC243 – The treasury should be held in the Temple of Saturn and guarded by two Quaestors.
Ancient Roman laws concerning Provinces and their Governors
The governors of the Roman provinces were known to have a relatively free reign on the territory and people they controlled. Many heavily abused their position and in only a few cases were actually punished for their wrongdoings. In reality when they were actually caught they would often be able to pay their way out of the law proceedings and make an extremely comfortable living for themselves out of the remainder of the proceeds. Caligula’s wife for example was remembered for having attended a dinner wearing a tiara worth a province’s full yearly income which she had inherited from her uncle, a governor.
- Cornelia Lex – extending the mandate of a Consul in a province until such a time as he returned into Rome and was replaced rather than having to reapply for an extension.
- Julia Lex Prima (Julius Caesar AUC 691) – Granting freedom to the people of Greece, Achaia and Thessaly and that a Roman magistrate should act as judge in those provinces. The governors of these provinces should hold copies of the accounts of these provinces, should remain within the boundaries of the province and be forbidden to wear crowns or coronets unless granted by the Senate.
- Julia Lex Secunda (Julius Caesar AUC 691) – limiting the time during which a Consul might hold a province, one or two years depending on the type of province.
- Titia Lex – that provincial quaestors should be given their provinces by chance and lot like consuls and praetors.
Growing social discontent of the (poor) plebeians during the Republic lead to a series of civil and social wars which resulted in a degree of freedom and equality for the masses as well as the right to assistance for the poor.
The Patrician Gracchi brothers fought for the rights of the poor classes and by hook or by crook managed to win them the right to land reforms and cheap bread. Both brothers were murdered but their reforms were picked up and reapplied by Caesar.
- Cassia Lex – AUC267 – land won from the defeated Hernici should be split in half between the Romans and their Latin allies. The law wasn’t followed.
- Licinia Lex – no person should hold more than five hundred acres of land, have more than a hundred heads of cattle or five hundred heads of small farm animals.
- Flaminia Lex – dividing Picenum (a part of Gaul) amongst the soldiers.
- Sempronia Lex Primera – Confirmed the Licinia lex and ordered that any surplus land held should be delivered to the Assembly to be divided amongst the poor.
- Cornelia Lex ( General Sylla, Dictator) – removing the lands of his opponents and dividing them amongst his soldiers.
- Julia Lex (Julius Caesar, Consul, AUC691) – All land in the Campania region (south of Rome including Naples) should be divided amongst the plebeians and that all members of the Senate should swear to uphold it.
Ancient Roman Laws relating to Corn
- Sempronia Lex (C. Sempronius Gracchus) – that a quantity of corn should be distributed every month amongst the poor for a nominal price only.
- Clodia Lex – made the distributed corn free of charge.
Roman laws regarding Expenses & Luxury
- These laws placed limitations on spendthrifts and luxury. For example on how much an individual might spend in a day or during particular solemnities (Fannia Lex). The Didia Lex extended these laws to all Italians.
- Orchia Lex (AUC 566)- limited the number of guests at a dinner party.
- Licinia Lex (by the rich Licinius Crassus!) – like the Fannia Lex but establishing that no more than 30 Asses should be spent on dinner on the Kalends, Nones and Nundinae (particular days of the month). It also limited meat but place no limit on agricultural product.
- Antia Lex – an effort at suppressing the luxury which was bleeding Rome’s wealth to the Orient. Macrobius tells us the law never made any headway except preventing the author of it from ever dining out again.
- Julia Lex (applied in the reign of Augustus) – set the maximum budgets which could be spent on particular feast days: three hundred Sestertii on common feast days and a thousand Sestertii on marriage feasts. The three hundred Sestertii for feast days was later raised to two thousand (inflation hardly accounts for the increase!!)
Laws governing Roman Military affairs
- Sempronia Lex (C. Sempronius Gracchus, Tribune, AUC630) Soldiers were to receive their clothing at no expense to themselves and that the earliest military age was 17.
- Maria Porcia Lex – punishing military commanders who incorrectly or willingly inflated the accounts of (enemy) deaths at war and underestimated their own losses.
- Sulpicia Lex – taking command of the Mithridatic war away from Sylla and giving it to general Marius.
- Gabinia Lex in 67BC (Gabinius, Tribune AUC685) Handing Pompey the command and resources required to rid the Mediterranean sea of pirates.
Ancient Roman laws regarding Tutorship and Wardships (De Tutelis)
Wardships were a relatively common thing in Rome given that no minors could be without tutor. The same applied to unmarried Roman women. Generally the tutor would be the father or husband but in cases where such a tutor was not available the courts and magistrates would assign one.
- It was illegal for a tutor to marry his tutee.
- Laetoria Lex – forced the assignment of a tutor to those who were squandering their estates or deemed incapable of looking after them.
Laws regarding Wills and Legacies
- Voconia Lex – prevented excessively large fortunies from being left in the hands of women. This was an attempt to prevent the extinction of the noble families.
- In later years of the empire it was extremely common for women to manage vast patrimonies.
Laws concerning Money, Lending and Usury in Ancient Rome
Usury was a great problem in Rome and its dominions. Various attempts were made to reign the phenomenon in but they were never totally successful.
- Claudia Lex – (Claudius Caesar & then supplemented by Emperor Vespasian) – That no usurer was to lend money to persons still under their parent’s tutorship (Filius Familiae) and expect repayment after the parent’s death.
Ancient Roman laws regarding Judges
Much of Roman politics was linked with social struggle and control of power. Judges were elected out of specific social classes and the manner in which they were chosen as well as the legal privileges of the different social classes constituted an important objective in the social struggles.
- Sempronia Lex – (C. Sempronius Gracchus, Tribune, AUC630) – That the right to judge should be passed from the Senatorial class as established by Romulus to the class of Equites (the knights) . The Servilia Lex re-shared judiciary power between the Senatorial and Equestrian classes. 300 Senators and 600 Equites were appointed to the management of judgements and law.
- Plautia Lex – (AUC664) – Shared ordaining of the judiciary amongst the Tribes: 15 persons were to be chosen from every tribe every year out of all three classes of society.
- Ten years later the Cornelia Lex (by Sylla, Dictator) passed the privilege back to the Senatorial class. Twenty years later it was shared out again amongst the Sentarial and Equestrian classes.
- The Julia Lex (Julius Caesar) confirmed this but excluded certain Tribunes involved in taxation. Etc.
Laws relating to trials and judgements
- Cincia Lex (Cincius, Tribune, AUC 549). Forbidding judges to accept gifts. Also known as Lex Muneralis.
Roman laws regarding Crimes
Roman criminal law was a vast subject of which only a few extremely brief notions are given here by way of example.
- “De Majestate” included crimes in personal interest and against the state. Mark Anthony created a law which allowed the accused to appeal to the people but his adversary (Augustus Caesar) had it repealed.
Cornelia Lex (Sylla, Dictator AUC670). On pain of punishment of “Aquae & Ignis Interdictio” which forbade the use of water or fire within the city area. It was treason to take an army out of Italy, to commence war or to ingratiate the army with oneself for sake of personal interest and in absence of special orders. It also forbade to spare or ransom foreign commanders or to pardon captains of robbers or pirates. No Roman citizen was to reside at foreign courts.
- “De Adulterio & Pudicitia” included adultery and public decency.
- “Inter Sicarios & Veneficos” included laws against assassins and murderers who used weapons, poison, started fires etc. The accused could choose to be judged aloud or by private vote.
- “De Parricidis” a sort of Inter Sicarios but specific to killing your parents (father)
- “De Falsi” for those who created fakes or faked documents, money, weakened metal by alloys, bribed judges etc. Generally punished with Ignis & Aquae Interdictio.
Laws for those who attempted force on the Senate or State, caused and participated in riots or sentenced without proper trial. “Leges de vi”.
- The Pompeia Lex was the first to pose real time limits to the speeches for and against the accused during trials.
- The Clodia Lex (AUC695) ordered that those who had sentenced Roman citizens without a trial and sentence of the people should themselves by tried. This was created and used against Cicero who had sentenced without trial those involved in the Catiline conspiracy. Cicero was forced into exile through a punishment of Aquae & Ignis Interdictio.
“Leges de Ambitu” generally included misdemeanors in politics, canvassing for office and elections.
- An interesting one is Tullia Lex by Cicero when he was Consul together with C. Antonius (Marc Anthony) AUC 690. This law forbade those who wished to run for political office from organizing and exhibiting gladiatorial shows, unless doing so was a duty through will of testament. Senators would be sentenced to 10 years of Aquae & Ignis Interdictio whilst anyone else would be forbidden from come into the Senate or sue for office in future.
- The Ausidia Lex was for those who promised money to Tribunes as a bribe. If the bribe was not paid then all was ok. If the bribe had actually changed hands then that person would be sentenced to paying a fine of 3000 Sestertii every year to every tribe.
Roman Marital law – “ius connubii”
The Romans placed a great deal of importance on marriage and a sophisticated set of laws were created to regulate various forms of Roman weddings and divorce. This included the regulation of the wife’s wardship between her father, husband and possibly brother. It also controlled financial aspects such as dowries and inheritance.
Other aspects governed through law regarded the intermarriage of persons belonging to different social classes.
- At first Romans could only marry with Romans although later that was relaxed to include all free people of the empire, especially as in the later period all free people also became Roman citizens (and hence had to pay taxes).
- A tutor could not marry his student and a Patrician couldn’t marry a Plebeian for example. Although with time this latter rule was relaxed I believe there was always a ban on Patrician-Slave marriages…
- Soldiers on active duty or slaves couldn’t marry, or rather had to be satisfied with a second rate type of marriage. In the case of soldiers law saw to it that they could share a home with their promised woman and that their children be recognised together with their marriage as soon as they were no longer on active duty.
- Plutarch tells us that Numa made a law whereby a widow should not remarry until she had mourned her late husband at least ten months. In the event that she did (remarry before the term) she would have to sacrifice a cow and a calf, which we must assume were a heavy cost at that time.
- This law was still in force at the time of Augustus. Plutarch tells us in his “Life of Anthony” that Augustus obtained special dispensation from the Senate for his sister Octavia so that she might remarry Marc Anthony before the ten month term were over.
- Marital law also permitted the creation of pre-matrimonial contracts and divorce. For example (Berlin Papyrus No1052): “To Protarchus from Thermion daughter of Apio, with her guardian Apollonius son of Chaereas, and from Apollonius son of Ptolemaeus. Thermion and Apollonius son of Ptolemaeus agree that they have come together to share a common life, and the said Apollonius son of Ptolemaeus acknowledges that he has received from Thermion by hand from the spouse a dowry of a pair of gold earring weighing three quarters and … silver drachmas; and from now on Apollonius son of Ptolemaeus shall furnish to Thermion as his wedded wife all necessaries and clothing in proportion to his means and shall not ill-treat her nor cast her out nor insult her nor bring in another wife, or else…”
- “Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus” or “Lex Marita” (AUC 672) – This set of laws re-proposed by Augustus with heavy penalties (AUC 736) governed the imposition of fines and penalties on bachelors. According to this set of laws magistrates were ranked according to the number of children they had. A sufficiently numerous offspring could also give family heads the privilege of not attending to a number of public duties and that married men should be preferred over bachelors in elections for office. Unmarried persons were restricted also in the legacies and inheritance they might receive.
We hope this brief overview of ancient Roman laws provides a useful resource for broader research.