Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian


Civil law (ius civile) – In the Roman Republic/Empire, the body of law that applied to citizens.

Code – Part of the compilation of Justinian, or Corpus iuris civilis, that outlined the actual laws of the empire, citing imperial constitutions, legislation and pronouncements.

Compilation of Justinian – The multi-part compilation of Roman law ordered by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century CE. In the eleventh century, this compilation came to be known as the Corpus iuris civilis.

Decemvirs – A committee of ten Roman citizens formed in 451 BCE to write down Roman law for the first time in what was called the Twelve Tables

Digest – Part of the compilation of Justinian, or Corpus iuris civilis, that collected and summarized all of the classical jurists' writings on law and justice.

Institutes – Part of the compilation of Justinian, or Corpus iuris civilis, that summarized the Digest and was meant to be used as a textbook for students of law.

Jurists – A professional class of legal experts who interpreted the law and wrote scholarly opinions and treatises on law and justice in Ancient Rome.

Justinian I – Emperor who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, from 527–565 CE and ordered all Roman law compiled into a multi-part work referred to as the compilation of Justinian and later named the Corpus iuris civilis.

Law of nations (ius gentium) – The body of laws that applied all people and was based upon the common principles and reasoning that civilized societies and humankind were understood to live by and share. In the Roman Empire, the ius gentium were the laws that applied to non-citizens and foreigners as well as Roman citizens.

Natural law (ius naturale) – A category of law based upon the principles shared by all living creatures, humans as well as animals.

Novella – Part of the Corpus iuris civilis that was not part of the original compilation of Justinian but was created separately to update the Code with new laws created after 534 CE and to summarize Justinian's own constitution.

Patricians – An elite class of citizens in Ancient Rome who in its early days were exclusively eligible to hold the principle positions of power, such as senator or magistrate. The word derives from the term pater ("father"), as it was applied to the original 100 heads of family that formed the first Roman Senate. Patrician status was hereditary.

Plebeians – Non-patrician citizens of Rome who made up the greater part of the population. Plebeians did not enjoy privileged status and were unable to hold positions of power in early Rome.

Twelve Tables – The first written compilation of Roman laws. Produced in 449 BCE by the decemvirs and later lost/destroyed, the Twelve Tables and their legacy formed a foundation upon which the Roman legal system developed.

Select Bibliography/Further Reading

Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989) 216 pp.

Frier, Bruce. American Philological Association Classical Resources Series, A Casebook on the Roman Law of Delict (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) 265 pp., and A Casebook on Roman Family Law (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 594 pp.

Johnston, David. Roman Law in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 153 pp.

Nicholas, Barry. An Introduction to Roman Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1969) 281 pp.

Stein, Peter. Roman Law in European History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 137 pp.

Watson, Alan, ed. The Digest of Justinian, revised English-language edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998). Two volumes.