Trial of Jesus before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate

The Roman judicial system distinguished laws from facts. There were indictments, jury trails, prosecutors, defense attorneys and both softhearted and unforgiving judges. Magistrates in Rome were originally called censors. Traditional Roman law was systemized and interpreted by local jurists and then supplanted by vast tax-collecting bureaucracies in the A.D. 3rd and 4th century. The legal rights of women, children and slaves were strengthened around this time. [Source: World Almanac]

In most civil and criminal cases, a magistrate defined the dispute, cited the law and referred the problem to a judex, a reputable person in the community. The judex, along with some advisors, listened to the arguments of the attorneys, weighed the evidence and pronounced the sentence.

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Roman law developed as a mixture of laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and opinions issued by jurists. One of the most long lasting of Justinian's actions was the gathering of these materials in the A.D. 530s into a single collection, later known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis (Code of Civil Law). [Source: Medieval Sourcebook]

In the Aeneid Virgil wrote: But you, Romans, remember your great arts; / To govern the peoples with authority." To establish peace under the rule of law." To conquer the mighty, and show them/ mercy once they are conquered.” Not all Romans were enamored with the infallibility of laws. The historian Tacitus noted, "The worse the state, the more laws it has." And Even though the Romans had an impressive set of laws, Roman emperors could kill whomever they pleased (although most tried to be good citizens) and slaves were bought and sold for less than the price of a good horse.

Inscriptions from Pompeii;“A copper pot has been taken from this shop. Whoever brings it back will receive 65 sesterces. If any one shall hand over the thief he will be rewarded.”

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Roman Law

Roman law was perhaps Rome's greatest contribution to mankind. It was credited with holding the Roman Empire together, helping it endure as long as it did and bringing an element of fairness to an otherwise unfair world.

humiliation was a punishment under Roman military law

The Romans borrowed from the Greeks the notion that laws were ways in which individuals could be protected from each other and the power of the state. The Romans, however, were the ones who codified the abstract notions of laws and put them into daily use.

The Romans decided to put more trust in written laws than in the whims of their human rulers. This concept is summed up in the Harvard Law School Inscription: " Non sub homine sed sub deo et lege " ("It is not by men but God and the law [that we are governed]."

Roman law left behind a huge body of statutes and case law that first appeared in written form in 450 B.C. as the Twelve Tables, bronze tablets on which the first codified laws of the Roman Republic were inscribed. In A.D. 534, Emperor Justinian finished the daunting task of compiling all the Romans Laws that existed at that time into the Institutes, Digests and the Revised Code. These momentous legal works provided the foundations for modern Western Law.

Roman law defined property, contracts and crimes. People who were found guilty of crimes and legal authorities who lost their positions for abusing the laws were imprisoned or placed in chains. In the colonies, "Roman citizens had the right to appeal legal cases to Rome, while the others had to rely on local magistrates."

Mos Maiorum

The first laws in ancient Rome were unwritten traditional or customary laws — like those still found in tribal societies today — known as mos maiorum,. ("ancestral custom" or "way of the ancestors" in Classical Latin). Mos Mairoum was a source of ancient Roman social norms and a core concept of Roman traditionalism. It differed from but was dynamic complement to written law and defined time-honoured principles, behavioural models, and social practices that affected private, political, and military life in ancient Rome. [Source: Wikipedia]

Romulus murdered Remus and didn't seem to suffere severe legal consequences for his act

Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “The mos maiorum was an unwritten code pertaining to behavioral customs mostly derived from the traditions of the Romans’ ancestors. Much like the Jews in the first song in Fiddler on the Roof, the Romans loved tradition and felt that moral decay would occur if they strayed too far from the ideals of the past. Therefore, obedience to the mos maiorum was seen as tantamount to maintaining a proper civilized Rome and was almost given legal standing. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]

“There were occasions where breaking tradition was seen as subversive; in the case of legislation, it was considered customary to bring proposals before the Senate. Any magistrate who neglected to perform this duty ran the risk of being labeled a traitor. Even with the strict punishment handed down for certain offenses, it was still considered unwritten. As such, the transmission of the mos maiorum from one generation to the next was said to be the duty of the family, especially the paterfamilias (head of the household).”

Justinian and the Codex Justinianus

The Codex Justinianus (Latin for "The Code of Justinian") is one part of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the codification of Roman law ordered early in the 6th century AD by Justinian I, who was an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor in Constantinople. Two other units, the Digest and the Institutes, were created during his reign. The fourth part, the Novellae Constitutiones (New Constitutions, or Novels), was compiled unofficially after his death but is now thought of as part of the Corpus Juris Civilis [Source: Wikipedia]

When the Roman empire moved to Byzantium (a Greek name) the official language of the empire was changed from Latin to Greek and Roman Law was condensed into “the codex Justinianus 529", a document that defined the legal code in Europe through the Middle Ages.

Byzantine emperor Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Lawmaker, was famous for creating the first codified legal book, the “Institutes”, later known as the “Codex Justinianus 529" or simply “The Digest”. This legal textbook, which became the law of the land for almost 1000 years, was created with a hand-picked group of lawyers and synthesized from 2000 books of Roman law.

Justinian gave us the word "justice." He was born into a peasant family in 452 and rose through the ranks with the help of his uncle. Justinian also changed the face of money by putting his likeness on one side of a coin and the image of Christ on the other. He made an effort to root out corruption and make law more understandable and accessible.

Corpus Iuris Civilis (Code of Civil Law)

Codex Justinian
The Corpus Juris (or Iuris) Civilis ("Body of Civil Law") is the modern name for a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence, issued from A.D. 529 to 534 by order of Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor. It is also sometimes referred to as the Code of Justinian, although this name belongs more properly to the part titled Codex Justinianus. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The work as planned had three parts: 1) the Code (Codex) is a compilation, by selection and extraction, of imperial enactments to date; 2) the Digest or Pandects (the Latin title contains both Digesta and Pandectae) is an encyclopedia composed of mostly brief extracts from the writings of Roman jurists; and 3) the Institutes (Institutiones) is a student textbook, mainly introducing the Code, although it has important conceptual elements that are less developed in the Code or the Digest. All three parts, even the textbook, were given force of law. They were intended to be, together, the sole source of law; reference to any other source, including the original texts from which the Code and the Digest had been taken, was forbidden. Nonetheless, Justinian found himself having to enact further laws and today these are counted as a fourth part of the Corpus, the Novellae Constitutiones (Novels, literally New Laws).

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “Roman law developed as a mixture of laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and opinions issued by jurists. One of the most long lasting of Justinian's actions was the gathering of these materials in the A.D. 530s into a single collection, later known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis (Code of Civil Law). [Source: Medieval Sourcebook]

“The Corpus Iuris Civilis is of historical importance for a number of periods: first it illuminates the Roman society of the time the individual parts were first written; next it says a great deal about 6th century Byzantium both in the selection criteria, and in the laws made specifically by Justinian; and finally it was of tremendous importance in later Western Europe where it provided, after the 11th century, the basis for the development of both Church, or "canon" law and the civil law of most European countries except England.

“As a system of law based on principles, not case law, it was re-invigorated by Napoleon and in that form remains the basis of the legal system of most of continental Europe, as well as the former colonial dependencies of those European countries [including most of Africa, China, Latin America and Japan]. It is also the basis of law in Louisiana and Quebec. In fact the only legal systems that rival Roman law in usage are the Anglo-American "common law" tradition, and the Islamic Sharia.”

Roman Law, Confucianism and the Rights of St. Paul

20120227-Christian catacomb Paul_philosopher.jpg
Image of Paul in a Roman
Christian catacomb
While the Romans and the Western cultures that followed put their trust in written laws, Confucius and his disciplines and Eastern cultures that followed distrusted written laws and put their trust in people and innate human goodness. The Confusions developed a code of conduct that defined how human beings interacted. This code of conduct was the basis of civil society rather than a written set of laws.

Even today the concept of written laws and written contacts is fairly weak in China and the nations of the East. The 20th-century Chinese historian Hsiao Kung-chuan wrote that if the early Chinese emperors had been exposed to Roman law "the Chinese of necessity would have undergone an absolutely different course of development in the thousand or more years thereafter."

The Romans established Mirnada-like laws to protects the rights of accused criminals. One of the most famous individuals to invoke these laws for his protection was the Apostle Paul. Chapter 22 of Acts, described how Paul was charged by a Roman magistrate for the crime of something similar to inciting a riot. Just as he was about to be carted away to jail, he told authorities he was a Roman citizen, which means that was allowed to remain free pending a trial.

After the chief priest of Jerusalem complained to the Roman governor Festus that Paul was still running loose, Festus replied in Chapter 25 of Acts: "It's not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had the opportunity to defend himself against their charges." Paul later won his freedom for a couple of years by invoking his legal right to have his trial in Rome. Paul finally ended up in Rome, but the Book of Acts ends without saying anything about the final outcome of the case. Some Christians contend he was crucified or fed to the lions by Nero, but scholars believe that the charges were likely dropped because there are no other records of the case.

Ancient Roman Lawyers

Rome is considered the home of the first bona-fide professional lawyers (men who argued cases for clients before magistrates as opposed to clients representing themselves). Lawyer-like speech writers in ancient Greece helped clients prepare arguments but did not argue their cases. In Rome there were juris prudentes (men wise in law), who analyzed and came up with laws, and advocati (men summoned to one's side) and causidici (speakers of cases), who, beginning around the 2nd century B.C., began arguing the cases themselves for their clients.

tombstone of a lawyer and son in Aquincum

Eventually a lawyer class evolved that performed many of the services associated with modern lawyering. The most sought-after lawyers wore immaculate togas and were supported by assistants paid huge fees. By charging huge fees, lawyers made enough to afford luxurious villas in the countryside and elaborate mansions (with large waiting rooms for customers) in Rome.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Closely connected with the political career then, as now, was that of the law, at all periods the obvious way to prominence and political success, and the only way to such advancement for persons without family influence. There were no conditions imposed for practicing in the courts. Anyone could bring suit against anyone else on any charge that he pleased, and it was no uncommon thing for a young politician to use this license for the purpose of gaining prominence, even when he knew there were no grounds for the charges he brought. On the other hand, the lawyer had been forbidden by law to accept pay for his services. In olden times the client had of his right gone to his patron for legal advice; the lawyer of later times was theoretically at the service of all who applied to him. Men of the highest character made it a point of honor to put their technical knowledge at the disposal of their fellow citizens. At the same time the statutes against fees were easily evaded. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Grateful clients could not be prevented from making valuable presents, and it was a very common thing for generous legacies to be left to successful advocates. Cicero had no other source of addition to his income, so far as we know, but while he was never a rich man he owned a house on the Palatine and half a dozen countryseats, lived well, and spent money lavishly on works of art that appealed to his tastes, and on books. Finally the statutes against fees came to be so generally disregarded that the Emperor Claudius fixed the fees that might be asked. Corrupt judges (praetores) could find other sources of income then as now, of course, but we hear more of this in relation to the jurors (iudices) than in relation to the judges, probably because with a province before him the praetor did not think it worth his while to stoop to petty bribe-taking. |+|

Criticism of Ancient Roman Lawyers

"It's the stylish clothes that sells the lawyer," wrote Juvenal. "No one would give even Cicero a case if he didn't wear a ring gleaming with an oversize diamond. The first thing a client looks for is whether you have behind you eight flunkies, ten hangers-on and a sedan chair and, in front of you, a crowd of the well-dressed...Legal eloquence doesn't often turn up in rags."


At the bottom of the ladder, where ancient versions of ambulance chasers, who took whatever cases they could get and accepted any fees that were available, which according to Juvenal could be "a measly chunk of pork, a pot of fish fry, the overage onions they issue as slave's rations and five jugs of rotgut wine." "The most salable item in the public market is a lawyers' crookedness," wrote the historian Tacitus, "Pretend you purposely murdered your mother; they'll promise their extensive special divinings in the law will get you off if they think you have money."

Martial wrote: "With a judge to pay off and a lawyer to pay," Settle the debt is my advise; much cheaper that way." One Roman satirist wrote: "What does a man need to be a lawyer? Cheating, lying, brass, shouting and shoving." Martial also wrote: I took your case: two thousand was the fee." The cash you've sent amount to one, I see/ Now why is that? I was no good, you say?/ What's more, the verdict went the other way?/ With a case like yours, instead of giving me trouble/ For my blushes alone, you should have paid me double.

Demand for Written Laws in the 5th Century B.C.

“Proposals of Terentilius Harsa ( B.C. 462): The conflict between the patricians (the elite early Roman aristocracy) and plebeians (early Roman peasants) was a key element of early Roman history. In the mid 5th century B.C. the two orders had struggling with one another for nearly fifty years; and yet no real solution had been found for their difficulties. The plebeians were at a great disadvantage during all this time, because the law was administered solely by the patricians, who kept the knowledge of it to themselves, and who regarded it as a precious legacy from their ancestors, too sacred to be shared with the lowborn plebeians. The laws had never been written down or published. The patricians could therefore administer them as they saw fit. This was a great injustice to the lower classes. It was clear that there was not much hope for the plebeians until they were made equal before the law. It was also clear that they could not be equal before the law as long as they themselves had no knowledge of what the law was. Accordingly one of the tribunes, Gaius Terentilius Harsa, proposed that a commission be appointed to gather up the law, and to publish it to the whole people. This proposal, though both fair and just, was bitterly opposed by the patricians, and was followed by ten years of strife and dissension. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Roman military punishments included dismemberment

Concessions to the Plebeians: To rescue the city from these troubles, the senate tried to conciliate the plebeians by making certain concessions to them. For example, the number of tribunes was increased from two to five, and then to ten. This was supposed to give them greater protection than they had had before. Then it was decided to give up to them the public land on the Aventine hill, and thus to atone for not carrying out the agrarian law of Sp. Cassius. Finally, the amount of fine which any magistrate could impose was limited to two sheep and thirty oxen. It was thought that such concessions would appease the discontented people and divert their minds from the main point of the controversy. \~\

Compromise between the Plebeians and Patricians: But these concessions did not satisfy the plebeians, who still clung to their demand for equal rights before the law. The struggle over the proposal of Terentilius, which lasted for nearly ten years, was ended only by a compromise. It was finally agreed that a commission of ten men, called decemvirs, should be appointed to draw up the law, and that this law should be published and be binding upon patricians and plebeians alike. It was also agreed that the commissioners should all be patricians; and that they should have entire control of the government while compiling the laws. The patricians were thus to give up their consuls and quaestors; and the plebeians were to give up their tribunes and aediles. Both parties were to cease their quarreling, and await the work of the decemvirs. \~\

Development of the Twelve Tables and the Decemvirates

The Commission to Greece: It is said that a commission of three men was sent to Greece, to consult the laws of Solon and other Greek codes. However true this story may be, it is not likely that the Romans intended to borrow the laws of another country by which to govern their own. The complaint of the plebeians was not that they did not have any laws, but that the laws which they had were unwritten and known only to the patricians. What they wanted was that the unwritten laws should be published; so that they could know what they were, and whether they were properly administered or not. \~\

Formation of the XII. Tables ( B.C. 450): The first body of commissioners, or the First Decemvirate, entered upon the work assigned to it, gathered together the law which had hitherto been kept secret, and inscribed it on ten tables of brass. These tables were erected in the Forum, where they could be seen by everyone, and were declared binding on all the people. At the close of the year, a Second Decemvirate was appointed to complete the code, and two more tables were added. \~\

This whole body of law was called the Twelve Tables, and formed the basis of the most remarkable system of law that the world has ever seen. There was nothing strange, however, in the XII. Tables themselves. They contained nothing especially new. The old law of debt remained as it was, and the distinction between patricians and plebeians was not destroyed. The XII. Tables were important, because they put the law before the eyes of the people; and plebeians, as well as patricians, could know what were their rights. So highly valued was this code that it formed a part of Roman education, and the boys in school were obliged to commit it to memory. \~\

Twelve Tables

Putting up the Twelve Tables

The Twelve Tables (451-450 B.C.) is the earliest attempt by the Romans to create a code of law; it is also the earliest (surviving) piece of literature coming from the Romans. John Paul Adams of CSUn wrote: “In the midst of a perennial struggle for legal and social protection and civil rights between the privileged class (patricians) and the common people (plebeians) a commission of ten men (Decemviri) was appointed (ca. 455 B.C.) to draw up a code of law which would be binding on both parties and which the magistrates (the 2 consuls) would have to enforce impartially. [Source: “John Paul Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN) , June 10, 2009]

“The commission produced enough statutes (most of them were already "customary law' anyway) to fill TEN TABLETS, but this attempt seems not to have been entirely satisfactory — especially to the plebeians. A second commission of ten was therefore appointed (450 B.C.) and two additional tablets were drawn up. The originals, said to have been inscribed on bronze, were probably destroyed when the Gauls sacked and burned Rome in the invasion of 387 B.C.

“The Twelve Tables give the student of Roman culture a chance to look into the workings of a society which is still quite agrarian in outlook and operations, and in which the main bonds which hold the society together and allow it to operate are: the clan (genos, gens), patronage (patron/client), and the inherent (and inherited) right of the patricians to leadership (in war, religion, law, and government). Cicero wrote in De Oratore, I.44: “Though all the world exclaim against me, I will say what I think: that single little book of the Twelve Tables, if anyone look to the fountains and sources of laws, seems to me, assuredly, to surpass the libraries of all the philosophers, both in weight of authority, and in plenitude of utility.”

TABLE I: Procedure: for courts and trials
TABLE II: Trials, continued
TABLE IV: Rights of fathers (paterfamilias) over the family
TABLE V: Legal guardianship and inheritance laws
TABLE VI: Acquisition and possession
TABLE VII: Land rights
TABLE VIII: Torts and delicts (Laws of injury)
TABLE IX: Public law
TABLE X: Sacred law
TABLE XI: Supplement I
TABLE XII: Supplement II

Twelve Tables Highlights

TABLE I: Procedure: for courts and trials
I.1"If he (plaintiff) summon him (defendant) into court, he shall go. If he does not go, (plaintiff) shall call witnesses. Then only he shall take him by force. If he refuses or flees, he (plaintiff) shall lay hands on him. If disease or age is an impediment, he shall grant him a team (of oxen). He shall not spread with cushions the covered carriage if he does not wish to.
TABLE II: Trials, continued
II.3 “Whoever is in need of evidence, he shall go on every third day to call out loud before the doorway of the witness."

III. 1"When a debt has been acknowledged or a judgment has been pronounced in court, 30 days must be the legitimate grace period. Thereafter, arrest of the debtor may be made by the laying on of hands. Bring him into court. If he does not satisfy the judgment (or no one in court offers himself as surety on his behalf) the creditor may take the debtor with him. He may bind him either in stocks or fetters, with a weight of no less than 15 lbs. (or more if he desires)." [After 60 days in custody, the case is returned to the court, and if the debt is not then paid, the debtor can be sold abroad as a slave, or put to death.]

TABLE IV: Rights of fathers (paterfamilias) over the family
IV. 1 "A dreadfully deformed child shall be killed."
IV. 2 "If a father surrender his son for sale three times, the son shall be free."
TABLE V: Legal guardianship and inheritance laws
V. 1 "Our ancestors saw fit that "females, by reason of levity of disposition, shall remain in guardianship, even when they have attained their majority."
V. 7 A spendthrift is forbidden to exercise administration over his own goods.
V. 8 The inheritance of a Roman citizen-freedman is made over to his patron, if the freedman has died intestate and has no natural successor.

TABLE VI: Acquisition and possession
VI. 1 When a party shall make bond or conveyance, what he has named by word-of-mouth that shall hold good.
VI. 2 Marriage by "usage' (usus): If a man and woman live together continuously for a year, they are considered to be married; the woman legally is treated as the man's daughter.
TABLE VII: Land rights
TABLE VIII: Torts and delicts (Laws of injury)
VIII. 1 "If any person has sung or composed against another person a SONG (carmen) such as was causing slander or insult.... he shall be clubbed to death."
VIII. 2 "If a person has maimed another's limb, let there be retaliation in kind, unless he agrees to make compensation with him." (Lex talionis)
VIII. 21 "If a patron shall defraud his client, he must be solemnly forfeited ("killed')."
VIII. 23 "Whoever is convicted of speaking false witness shall be flung from the Tarpeian Rock."
VIII. 26 "No person shall hold meetings in the City at night."

TABLE IX: Public law
IX. 3 "The penalty shall be capital punishment for a judge or arbiter legally appointed who has been found guilty of receiving a bribe for giving a decision."
IX. 6 "Putting to death... of any man who has not been convicted, whosoever he might be, is forbidden."
TABLE X: Sacred law
X. 4 "Women must not tear cheeks or hold chorus of "Alas!' on account of a funeral."
X. 6a "Anointing by slaves is abolished, and every kind of drinking bout....there shall be no costly sprinking, no long garlands, no incense boxes."
TABLE XI: Supplement I

XI. 1 "Marriage shall not take place between a patrician and a plebeian."
TABLE XII: Supplement II
XII. 5 "Whatever the People has last ordained shall be held as binding by law."
? "There are eight kinds of punishment: fine, fetters, flogging, retaliation in kind, civil disgrace, banishment, slavery, death."

Twelve Tables

checking out the TwelveTables

Table I.
1. If anyone summons a man before the magistrate, he must go. If the man summoned does not go, let the one summoning him call the bystanders to witness and then take him by force.
2. If he shirks or runs away, let the summoner lay hands on him.
3. If illness or old age is the hindrance, let the summoner provide a team. He need not provide a covered carriage with a pallet unless he chooses.
4. Let the protector of a landholder be a landholder; for one of the proletariat, let anyone that cares, be protector.
6-9. When the litigants settle their case by compromise, let the magistrate announce it. If they do not compromise, let them state each his own side of the case, in the comitium of the forum before noon. Afterwards let them talk it out together, while both are present. After noon, in case either party has failed to appear, let the magistrate pronounce judgment in favor of the one who is present. If both are present the trial may last until sunset but no later.

Table II.
2. He whose witness has failed to appear may summon him by loud calls before his house every third day. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1901), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 9-11]

Table III.
1. One who has confessed a debt, or against whom judgment has been pronounced, shall have thirty days to pay it in. After that forcible seizure of his person is allowed. The creditor shall bring him before the magistrate. Unless he pays the amount of the judgment or some one in the presence of the magistrate interferes in his behalf as protector the creditor so shall take him home and fasten him in stocks or fetters. He shall fasten him with not less than fifteen pounds of weight or, if he choose, with more. If the prisoner choose, he may furnish his own food. If he does not, the creditor must give him a pound of meal daily; if he choose he may give him more.
2. On the third market day let them divide his body among them. If they cut more or less than each one's share it shall be no crime.
3. Against a foreigner the right in property shall be valid forever.

Table IV.
1. A dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed.
2. If a father sell his son three times, the son shall be free from his father.
3. As a man has provided in his will in regard to his money and the care of his property, so let it be binding. If he has no heir and dies intestate, let the nearest agnate have the inheritance. If there is no agnate, let the members of his gens have the inheritance.
4. If one is mad but has no guardian, the power over him and his money shall belong to his agnates and the members of his gens.
5. A child born after ten months since the father's death will not be admitted into a legal inheritance.

Table V.
1. Females should remain in guardianship even when they have attained their majority.

Table VI.
1. When one makes a bond and a conveyance of property, as he has made formal declaration so let it be binding.
3. A beam that is built into a house or a vineyard trellis one may not take from its place.
5. Usucapio of movable things requires one year's possession for its completion; but usucapio of an estate and buildings two years.
6. Any woman who does not wish to be subjected in this manner to the hand of her husband should be absent three nights in succession every year, and so interrupt the usucapio of each year.

Table VII.
1. Let them keep the road in order. If they have not paved it, a man may drive his team where he likes.
9. Should a tree on a neighbor's farm be bend crooked by the wind and lean over your farm, you may take legal action for removal of that tree.
10. A man might gather up fruit that was falling down onto another man's farm.

Table VIII.
2. If one has maimed a limb and does not compromise with the injured person, let there be retaliation. If one has broken a bone of a freeman with his hand or with a cudgel, let him pay a penalty of three hundred coins If he has broken the bone of a slave, let him have one hundred and fifty coins. If one is guilty of insult, the penalty shall be twenty-five coins.
3. If one is slain while committing theft by night, he is rightly slain.
4. If a patron shall have devised any deceit against his client, let him be accursed.
5. If one shall permit himself to be summoned as a witness, or has been a weigher, if he does not give his testimony, let him be noted as dishonest and incapable of acting again as witness.
10. Any person who destroys by burning any building or heap of corn deposited alongside a house shall be bound, scourged, and put to death by burning at the stake provided that he has committed the said misdeed with malice aforethought; but if he shall have committed it by accident, that is, by negligence, it is ordained that he repair the damage or, if he be too poor to be competent for such punishment, he shall receive a lighter punishment.
12. If the theft has been done by night, if the owner kills the thief, the thief shall be held to be lawfully killed.
13. It is unlawful for a thief to be killed by day....unless he defends himself with a weapon; even though he has come with a weapon, unless he shall use the weapon and fight back, you shall not kill him. And even if he resists, first call out so that someone may hear and come up.
23. A person who had been found guilty of giving false witness shall be hurled down from the Tarpeian Rock.
26. No person shall hold meetings by night in the city.

Table IX.
4. The penalty shall be capital for a judge or arbiter legally appointed who has been found guilty of receiving a bribe for giving a decision.
5. Treason: he who shall have roused up a public enemy or handed over a citizen to a public enemy must suffer capital punishment.
6. Putting to death of any man, whosoever he might be unconvicted is forbidden.

Table X.
1. None is to bury or burn a corpse in the city.
3. The women shall not tear their faces nor wail on account of the funeral.
5. If one obtains a crown himself, or if his chattel does so because of his honor and valor, if it is placed on his head, or the head of his parents, it shall be no crime.

Table XI.
1. Marriages should not take place between plebeians and patricians.

Table XII.
2. If a slave shall have committed theft or done damage with his master"s knowledge, the action for damages is in the slave's name.
5. Whatever the people had last ordained should be held as binding by law.

Cicero and Improvement to Roman Law in the 1st and 2nd Centuries B.C.

20120227-Cicero _Musei_Capitolini.jpg
The Roman general and dictator Sulla (138-78 B.C.) organized the criminal courts for the trial of public crimes. In the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C. there were also improvements made in the civil law, by which the private rights of individuals were better protected. Not only were the rights of citizens made more secure, but the rights of foreigners were also more carefully guarded. Before the social war, the rights of all foreigners in Italy were protected by a special praetor (praetor peregrinus); and after that war all Italians became equal before the law. There was also a tendency to give all foreigners in the provinces rights equal to those of citizens, so far as these rights related to persons and property. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

In addition to being an influential politician, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 B.C.) was also the most celebrated defense lawyer of his time –- a Roman Johnny Cochran or F. Lee Bailey if you will. He was famous for winning shaky cases with his extraordinary persuasive skills. He once won a Greek poet Roman citizenship, even though he had documents to prove it, by waxing eloquently about contributions poets make to society. Cicero once said, "We are brought in not to say what we stand by in our own opinions, but what is called for by circumstances and the case itself" and if necessary "to pour darkness over the judges."

Cicero pioneered standard defense tactics such as the praeterito (a technique in which the lawyer condemns his opponents while he insists he doing no such thing) and the ad misericordiam (an appeal of pity in which the defendants crying wife and malnourished children were positioned in front of the jury box). If Ciceros client was childless he would hire some homeless children to play the part. In the classic example of a praeterito, the lawyer would say he wants the jury to make their decision based totally on evidence and the fact that the prosecutor cheats on wife and is cruel to his dog.

Judicial Reforms and Improvements Under Augustus

Augustus gave judges more authority, established the concept of precedence as a cornerstone of justice and helped engender respect for government institutions. His rule though could be harsh. Augustus is reported to have ordered that his executions be carried out "quicker than you can cook asparagus."


Suetonius wrote: “Many pernicious practices militating against public security had survived as a result of the lawless habits of the civil wars, or had even arisen in time of peace. Gangs of footpads openly went about with swords by their sides, ostensibly to protect themselves, and travellers in the country, freemen and slaves alike, were seized and kept in confinement in the workhouses [the ergastula were prisons for slaves, who were made to work in chains in the fields] of the land owners; numerous leagues, too, were formed for the commission of crimes of every kind, assuming the title of some new guild [collegia, or guilds, of workmen were allowed and were numerous; not infrequently they were a pretext for some illegal secret organization]. Therefore to put a stop to brigandage, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the workhouses, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum — Divus Augustus” (“The Lives of the Caesars — The Deified Augustus”), written A.D. c. 110, “Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum,” 2 Vols., trans. J. C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1920), pp. 123-287]

“He burned the records of old debts to the treasury, which were by far the most frequent source of blackmail. He made over to their holders places in the city to which the claim of the state was uncertain. He struck off the lists the names of those who had long been under accusation, from whose humiliation nothing was to be gained except the gratification of their enemies, with the stipulation that if anyone was minded to renew the charge, he should be liable to the same penalty [i.e., if he failed to win his suit, he should suffer the penalty that would have been inflicted on the defendant, if he had been convicted]. To prevent any action for damages or on a disputed claim from falling through or being put off, he added to the term of the courts thirty more days, which had before been taken up with honorary games. To the three divisions of jurors he added a fourth of a lower estate, to be called ducenarii, and to sit on cases involving trifling amounts. He enrolled as jurors men of thirty years or more, that is five years younger than usual. But when many strove to escape court duty, he reluctantly consented that each division in turn should have a year's exemption, and that the custom of holding court during the months of November and December should be given up.

“He himself administered justice regularly and sometimes up to nightfall, having a litter placed upon the tribunal, if he was indisposed, or even lying down at home. In his administration of justice he was both highly conscientious and very lenient; for to save a man clearly guilty of parricide from being sewn up in the sack [parricides were sewn up in a sack with a dog, a cock, a snake, and a monkey, and thrown into the sea or a river], a punishment which was inflicted only on those who pleaded guilty, he is said to have put the question to him in this form: "You surely did not kill your father, did you?" Again, in a case touching a forged will, in which all the signers were liable to punishment by the Cornelian Law, he distributed to the jury not merely the two tablets for condemnation or acquittal, but a third as well, for the pardon of those who were shown to have been induced to sign by misrepresentation or misunderstanding. Each year he referred appeals of cases involving citizens to the city praetor, but those between foreigners to ex-consuls, of whom he had put one in charge of the business affairs of each province.”

Arrest and Trial of Jesus

Caravaggio painting of Jesus as a prisoner
The arrest and trial of Jesus Christ seem to have taken place about two decades after Augustus's death. According to the BBC: “No trial or execution in history has had such a momentous outcome as that of Jesus in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, 2000 years ago. But was it an execution or a judicial murder; and who was responsible? The story begins when the Galilean rebel Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, deliberately fulfilling a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible about the coming of the Messiah. He's mobbed by an adoring crowd. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“The next day Jesus raids the Temple, the heart of the Jewish religion, and attacks money-changers for defiling a holy place. The leaders of the Jewish establishment realise that he threatens their power, and so do the Romans, who fear that Jesus has the charisma to lead a guerrilla uprising against Imperial Rome. |::|

“Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, tried by Caiaphas and then by the Roman Governor. He's sentenced to death and executed. Caiaphas Caiaphas had a privileged position Caiaphas was a supreme political operator and one of the most influential men in Jerusalem. He'd already survived 18 years as High Priest of the Temple (most High Priests only lasted 4), and had built a strong alliance with the occupying Roman power. Caiaphas knew everybody who mattered. He was the de-facto ruler of the worldwide Jewish community at that time, and he planned to keep it that way. |::|

“The case against Caiaphas is that he arrested Jesus, tried him in a kangaroo court and convicted him on a religious charge that carried the death penalty. What were Caiaphas' motives? Jesus threatened Caiaphas's authority. Caiaphas could not afford to allow any upstart preacher to get away with challenging his authority; especially not at Passover time. This was the biggest Jewish festival and scholars estimate that around two and half million Jews would have been in Jerusalem to take part. Caiaphas did not want to lose face.

Trials of Jesus

Jesus was tried first by Jewish officials and questioned in front of a group of Jewish religious leaders led by Caiaphas and then, second, tried by the Roman Governor According to the BBC: The Gospels give different accounts of this, and of who is present. Caiaphas, the Chief Priest of the Temple wanted to destroy Jesus before he caused a rebellion that would bring down the comfortable world of the Temple and enraging the Roman authorities. |During questioning Jesus says enough for the Romans to see him as a rebel, and the Jews to regard him as a blasphemer. The trial of Jesus before the Jewish authorities is a source of much controversy, and has been used in the past to justify anti-Semitism. Modern Christians do not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“The Jewish authorities had several reasons for being angry with Jesus: 1) Jesus had challenged their authority - earlier in the week Jesus had gone to the Temple and protested against the moneychangers, as a symbolic denunciation of all the injustices the Temple stood for; 2) Jesus was reinterpreting Jewish Law; 3) Jesus was breaking the laws concerning the Sabbath; 4) Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, a claim which the authorities thought blasphemous; 6) The claim to be Messiah suggested that Jesus was preparing some sort of rebellion - probably against the Roman colonial government. Such a revolt would endanger the relationship between Roman and Jewish authorities. (In those days the Messiah was expected to be a royal figure who would defeat the enemies of God and cleanse or rebuild the temple, and perhaps also bring God's justice to the world.) [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“Jesus is tried by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, on a charge of treason. The Jewish authorities were not authorised to execute people, so they needed to transfer the case to the Roman authorities. Pilate is not convinced that Jesus is guilty of a capital crime and suggests that it would be sufficient to flog him. The crowd objects to this and demands that Jesus be killed. Pilate gives in and sentences Jesus to be flogged first and then executed by crucifixion. [Source: BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“Although the Gospels paint Pilate as a weak man who ignores justice rather than stand against the crowd, other sources say that he was tough and authoritarian, and unlikely to have been pushed around by anyone. Pilate was eventually ordered back to Rome and tried for the cruel way he treated the people under his government. There is a Christian tradition that Pilate and his wife eventually converted to Christianity. |::|

Trial of Christ before the Roman Court of Pontius Pilate

Christ Before Pilate

The second trial was before a Roman secular court presided over by a minor prosecutor named Pontius Pilate, who asked Jesus a few cursory questions and ordered his crucifixion. After the sentencing Pilate famously washed his hands to show the fate of Jesus was no longer a matter of which he had any control over. Jesus was then mocked, spat upon and slapped around. He was taken away by Roman guards who harassed and tortured him the night before his execution.

Pilate was the only one with the authority to order a crucifixion. He originally did not see any reason why Jesus should be executed — his crime was never clarified and Pilate said "I find no crime in him” — but he was persuaded to give Jesus a death sentence due to pressure from Jewish authorities, who considered his refusal to submit to the High Priest of the Temple as a an offense punishable by death. Jesus accepted his death and did not deny the charges, despite being tempted to. All that he said was “he known and made known by God.”

The Romans found Jesus guilty of sedition not blasphemy — a civil crime not a religious one. The men that were crucified with him were identified in some translations as “thieves.” The word can also mean “insurgents.” Jesus' condemnation by Pontius Pilate is described Matthew 27:11-24; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; and John 18:28-19:16.

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great. He is mentioned often in the New Testament. Pilate sent Jesus to him for questioning. Herod Antipas ‘set Him at nought, and mocked Him and arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him, again to Pilate.” Herod was also a central figure in the story of John the Baptist.

Pilate Orders Jesus’s Death Without a Trial

Reza Aslan wrote in the Washington Post: “The Gospels portray Pontius Pilate as an honest but weak-willed governor who was strong-armed by the Jewish authorities into sending a man he knew was innocent to the cross. The Pilate of history, however, was renowned for sending his troops onto the streets of Jerusalem to slaughter Jews whenever they disagreed with even the slightest of his decisions. In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, [Source: Reza Aslan, Washington Post, September 26, 2013 /+]

“Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor. Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. So the notion that Pilate would spend a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, let alone grant him a personal audience, beggars the imagination. /+\

“It is, of course, conceivable that Jesus would have received an audience with the Roman governor if the magnitude of His crime warranted special attention. But any “trial” Jesus got would have been brief and perfunctory, its sole purpose to officially record the charges for which He was being executed.” /+\

Legal Reforms Under Vespasian


Suetonius wrote: “Lawsuit upon lawsuit had accumulated in all the courts to an excessive degree, since those of longstanding were left unsettled though the interruption of court business [During the civil wars] and new ones had arisen through the disorder of the times. He therefore chose commissioners by lot to restore what had been seized in time of war, and to make special decisions in the Court of the Hundred, reducing the cases to the smallest possible number, since it was clear that the lifetime of the litigants would not suffice for the regular proceedings. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

“Licentiousness and extravagance had flourished without restraint; hence he induced the Senate to vote that any woman who formed a connection with the slave of another person should herself be treated as a bond-woman; also that those who lend money to minors [In the legal sense; "filii familiarum" were sons who were still under the control of their fathers, regardless of their age; cf., Tib. xv.2] should never have a legal right to enforce payment, that is to say, not even after the death of the fathers.

“It cannot readily be shown that any innocent person was punished save in Vespasian's absence and without his knowledge, or at any rate against his will and by misleading him. Although Helvidius Priscus was the only one who greeted him on his return from Syria by his private name of "Vespasian," and moreover in his praetorship left the emperor unhonored and unmentioned in all his edicts, he did not show anger until by the extravagance of his railing Helvidius had all but degraded him. But even in his case, though he did banish him and later order his death, he was most anxious for any means of saving him, and sent messengers to recall those who were to slay him; and he would have saved him, but for a false report that Helvidius had already been done to death. Certainly he never took pleasure in the death of anyone, but even wept and sighed over those who suffered merited punishment.

Hadrian’s Legal Reforms

Perhaps the most important event in the reign of Hadrian was his compilation of the best part of the Roman law. Since the XII. Tables there had been no collection of legal rules. That ancient code was framed upon the customs of a primitive people. It did not represent the actual law by which justice was now administered. A new and better law had grown up in the courts of the praetors and of the provincial governors. It had been expressed in the edicts of these magistrates; but it had now become voluminous and scattered. Hadrian delegated to one of his jurists, Salvius Julianus, the task of collecting this law into a concise form, so that it could be used for the better a ministration of justice throughout the empire. This collection was called the Perpetual Edict (Edictum Perpetuum). [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Hadrian dressed like a Greek

Tom Dyckoff wrote in The Times: “Hadrian could lay claim to being the world’s first conservationist – passing laws curbing unnecessary demolition – and urban regenerator, involving himself in the minutiae of neighbourhood politics, and recognising the civilising effects on his populace of a decent, unpotholed pavement, laws banning heavy traffic and a good flood prevention policy.” [Source: Tom Dyckoff, the Times, July 2008]

Aelius Spartianus wrote: “He always inquired into the actions of all his judges, and persisted in his inquiries until he satisfied himself of the truth about them. He would not allow his freedmen to be prominent in public affairs or to have any influence over himself, and he declared that all his predecessors were to blame for the faults of their freedmen; he also punished all his freedmen who boasted of their influence over him. With regard to his treatment of his slaves, the following incident, stern but almost humorous, is still related. Once when he saw one of his slaves walk away from his presence between two senators, he sent someone to give him a box on the ear and say to him: "Do not walk between those whose slave you may some day be." As an article of food he was singularly fond of tetrapharmacum, which consisted of pheasant, sow's udders, ham, and pastry. [Source: Aelius Spartianus: Life of Hadrian,” (r. 117-138 CE.),William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“He established a regular imperial post, in order to relieve the local officials of such a burden. Moreover, he used every means of gaining popularity. He remitted to private debtors in Rome and in Italy immense sums of money owed to the privy-purse, and in the provinces he remitted large amounts of arrears; and he ordered the promissory notes to be burned in the Forum of the Deified Trajan, in order that the general sense of security might thereby be increased. He gave orders that the property of condemned persons should not accrue to the privy-purse, and in each case deposited the whole amount in the public treasury. He made additional appropriations for the children to whom Trajan had allotted grants of money. He supplemented the property of senators impoverished through no fault of their own, making the allowance in each case proportionate to the number of children, so that it might be enough for a senatorial career; to many, indeed, he paid punctually on the date the amount allotted for their living. Sums of money sufficient to enable men to hold office he bestowed, not on his friends alone, but also on many far and wide, and by his donations he helped a number of women to sustain life. He gave gladiatorial combats for six days in succession, and on his birthday he put into the arena a thousand wild beasts.”

Legal and Administrative Improvements Under Antoninus Pius

His Influence upon Law and Legislation: If we should seek for the most distinguishing feature of his reign, we should doubtless find it in the field of law. His high sense of justice brought him into close relation with the great jurists of the age, who were now beginning to make their influence felt. With them he believed that the spirit of the law was more important than the letter. One of his maxims was this: “While the forms of the law must not be lightly altered, they must be interpreted so as to meet the demands of justice.” He laid down the important principle that everyone should be regarded as innocent until proved guilty. He mitigated the evils of slavery, and declared that a man had no more right to kill his own slave than the slave of another. It was about the close of his reign that the great elementary treatise on the Roman law, called the “Institutes” of Gaius, appeared. \~\

Antoninus Pius

Roman Jurisprudence: Some one has said that the greatest bequests of antiquity to the modern world were Christianity, Greek philosophy, and the Roman law. We should study the history of Rome to little purpose if we failed to take account of this, the highest product of her civilization. It is not to her amphitheaters, her circuses, her triumphal arches, or to her sacred temples that we must look in order to see the most distinctive and enduring features of Roman life. We must look rather to her basilicas—that is, her courthouses where the principles of justice were administered to her citizens and her subjects in the forms of law. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

The Government and Administration: It was during the period of the Antonines that the imperial government reached its highest development. This government was, in fact, the most remarkable example that the world has ever seen of what we may call a “paternal autocracy”—that is government in the hands of a single ruler, but exercised solely for the benefit of the people. In this respect the ideals of Julius and Augustus seem to have been completely realized. The emperor was looked upon as the embodiment of the state, the personification of law, and the promoter of justice, equality, and domestic peace. Every department of the administration was under his control. He had the selection of the officials to carry into execution his will. The character of such a government the Romans well expressed in their maxim, “What is pleasing to the prince has the force of law.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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