Roman law in the earliest period known is typically expressed in the Twelve Tables with their marked formalism. The usual early procedure was also stereotyped; it was the legis actio, a form of charge and denial the words of which had to be followed exactly by the parties at the risk of losing the suit. Exact knowledge of the words constituting the legis actiones was limited to a body of patrician priests, the College of Pontiffs. The reduction of these forms to writing (c.250 B.C.) was a victory for the plebeians and a step in reducing the religious and formal element in the law. Soon the primary source of law became the lex (plural leges), a statutory enactment that was proposed by a magistrate and accepted by a popular assembly. Among the assemblies empowered to enact leges was that of the plebeians.
In the late 3d cent. B.C., Roman law could no longer limit itself to the inhabitants of the republic but was forced to take account of the surrounding non-Roman peoples. Thus, to the jus civile, which governed relations among the Romans and those admitted to Roman status, was added the jus gentium, the law applied in dealings with a foreigner. The jus gentium incorporated much of the highly developed commercial law of the Greek city-states and of other maritime powers. Such provisions, being better adapted to Rome's expanding economic needs than the unyielding provisions of the jus civile, in time tended to be applied universally.
The development of new principles was especially vigorous after c.100 B.C., an important source being the jus honorarium, i.e., the law of the praetors (chief magistrates). On assuming office the praetor announced the principles, sometimes novel, that would govern his decisions. The praetors also contributed greatly to making practice more flexible. In place of the legis actiones, they often used the formulary system. A formula, like a legis actio, was a device for determining the issue between the parties; but instead of being a mere interchange of prescribed speeches, it provided a structure for discussing the actual dispute. Whichever method was used, when the nature of the dispute was agreed upon, the parties brought their case before the judex, a private functionary, who considered the evidence and gave judgment.
After the establishment of the empire, the development of law largely passed from the praetors (the practice of issuing new edicts ended c.A.D. 125) and from the popular assemblies into the hands of the emperors, sometimes operating through the senate. Various types of imperial enactments called constitutions were issued in abundance.
Legal problems attained great complexity, and the aid of a specially trained class of scholars was enlisted for their solution. Those jurists with a special license from the emperor could write responsa to guide the judges in deciding cases. Most prominent among the jurists was Papinian; his work, with that of Gaius, Modestinus, Paulus, and Ulpian, attained the highest authority. The employment of jurists was a step in making the whole of Roman procedure official; in this process the institution of judex was abolished and the trial placed entirely in the hands of a judge.
By the early 4th cent. most branches of Roman law were fully developed. The system was generally responsive to legal needs and allowed sufficient variety to meet local customs. A grave disadvantage of the system, however, was that the vast corpus of legal matter included much that was confused, contradictory, or redundant; reduction to code form was required. The Theodosian Code (438), the earliest attempt, was followed by the Breviary of Alaric (506). Finally the task was accomplished with the culminating work of Roman legal scholarship, the Corpus Juris Civilis (completed 535) under the direction of Tribonian.
After the mid-6th cent., Roman law persisted as a part of the Germanic laws and was in effect in the Byzantine Empire. Revival of classical studies during the Renaissance prepared the way for the partial resurrection of Roman law as the modern civil law in a large part of the world. The jus gentium is perhaps the most widely represented in modern legal systems, for it is the basis of commercial law even in those countries that follow common law.
See W. W. Buckland, A Text-Book of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian (3d ed. 1964); H. J. Wolff, Roman Law (1976); T. Honore, Emperors and Lawyers (1982); J. A. Crook, Law and Life of Rome (1984); D. Earl, The Moral and Political Traditions of Rome (1984); B. W. Frier, The Rise of the Roman Jurists (1985).
Roman law in a broad sense refers not only to the legal system of ancient Rome, but also to the law that was applied throughout most of Western Europe until the end of the 18th century. In some countries like Germany the practical application of Roman law lasted even longer. For these reasons, many modern civil law systems in Europe and elsewhere are heavily influenced by Roman law. This is especially true in the field of private law. Even the English and North American Common law owes some debt to Roman law although Roman law exercised much less influence on the English legal system than on the legal systems of the continent. The influence of Roman law is shown by the wealth of legal terminology, retained by all legal systems, like stare decisis, culpa in contrahendo or pacta sunt servanda. Interestingly the Eastern European countries, though heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire from which the Corpus Juris Civilis came, were not significantly influenced by the Corpus. They were, however, influenced to some degree by the Roman Farmer's Law.
Before the Twelve Tables (754–201 BC), private law consisted of the old Roman civil law (ius civile Quiritium), which applied only to Roman citizens. It was closely bonded to religion and it was undeveloped with attributes of strict formalism, symbolism and conservatism, such as the highly-ritualised practice of Mancipatio, a form of sale. The jurist Sextus Pomponius said, "At the beginning of our city, the people began their first activities without any fixed law and without any fixed rights: all things were ruled despotically by kings".
It has been suggested that the ancient roots of the Roman Law derive directly from the Etruscan religion, which puts great emphasis on the rituality and is rather formality-centred concerning its nature.
Modern scholarship tends to challenge the accuracy of Roman historians. They generally do not believe that a second decemvirate ever took place. The decemvirate of 451 is believed to have included the most controversial points of customary law, and to have assumed the leading functions in Rome. Furthermore, the question on the Greek influence found in the early Roman Law is still much discussed. Many scholars consider it unlikely that the patricians sent an official delegation to Greece, as the Roman historians believed. Instead, those scholars suggest, the Romans acquired Greek legislations from the Greek cities of Magna Graecia, the main portal between the Roman and Greek worlds. . The original text of the XII Tablets has not been preserved. The tablets were probably destroyed when Rome was conquered and burned by the Celts in 387 BC.
The fragments which did survive show that it was not a law code in the modern sense. It did not provide a complete and coherent system of all applicable rules or give legal solutions for all possible cases. Rather, the tables contain a specific provisions designed to change the then-existing customary law. Although the provisions pertain to all areas of law, the largest part is dedicated to private law and civil procedure.
Another important statute from the Republican era is the Lex Aquilia of 286 BC, which may be regarded as the root of modern tort law. However, Rome’s most important contribution to European legal culture was not the enactment of well-drafted statutes, but the emergence of a class of professional jurists (prudentes, sing. prudens, or jurisprudentes) and of a legal science. This was achieved in a gradual process of applying the scientific methods of Greek philosophy to the subject of law, a subject which the Greeks themselves never treated as a science.
Traditionally, the origins of Roman legal science are connected to Gnaeus Flavius. Flavius is said to have published around the year 300 BC the formularies containing the words which had to be spoken in court in order to begin a legal action. Before the time of Flavius, these formularies are said to have been secret and known only to the priests. Their publication made it possible for non-priests to explore the meaning of these legal texts. Whether or not this story is credible, jurists were active and legal treatises were written in larger numbers the 2nd century BC. Among the famous jurists of the republican period are Quintus Mucius Scaevola who wrote a voluminous treatise on all aspects of the law, which was very influential in later times, and Servius Sulpicius Rufus a friend of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Thus, Rome had developed a very sophisticated legal system and a refined legal culture when the Roman republic was replaced by the monarchical system of the principate in 27 BC.
The adaptation of law to new needs was given over to juridical practice, to magistrates, and especially to the praetors. A praetor was not a legislator and did not technically create new law when he issued his edicts (magistratuum edicta). In fact, the results of his rulings enjoyed legal protection (actionem dare) and were in effect often the source of new legal rules. A Praetor's successor was not bound by the edicts of his predecessor; however, he did take rules from edicts of his predecessor that had proved to be useful. In this way a constant content was created that proceeded from edict to edict (edictum traslatitium).
Thus, over the course of time, parallel to the civil law and supplementing and correcting it, a new body of praetoric law emerged. In fact, praetoric law was so defined by the famous Roman jurist Papinian (Amilius Papinianus—died in 212 AD): "Ius praetorium est quod praetores introduxerunt adiuvandi vel supplendi vel corrigendi iuris civilis gratia propter utilitatem publicam" ("praetoric law is that law introduced by praetors to supplement or correct civil law for public benefit"). Ultimately, civil law and praetoric law were fused in the Corpus Juris Civilis.
The jurists worked in different functions: They gave legal opinions at the request of private parties. They advised the magistrates who were entrusted with the administration of justice, most importantly the praetors. They helped the praetors draft their edicts, in which they publicly announced at the beginning of their tenure, how they would handle their duties, and the formularies, according to which specific proceedings were conducted. Some jurists also held high judicial and administrative offices themselves.
The jurists also produced all kinds of legal commentaries and treatises. Around AD 130 the jurist Salvius Iulianus drafted a standard form of the praetor’s edict, which was used by all praetors from that time onwards. This edict contained detailed descriptions of all cases, in which the praetor would allow a legal action and in which he would grant a defense. The standard edict thus functioned like a comprehensive law code, even though it did not formally have the force of law. It indicated the requirements for a successful legal claim. The edict therefore became the basis for extensive legal commentaries by later classical jurists like Paulus and Domitius Ulpianus. The new concepts and legal institutions developed by pre-classical and classical jurists are too numerous to mention here. Only a few examples are given here:
The Roman Republic's constitution or mos maiorum ("custom of the ancestors") was an unwritten set of guidelines and principles passed down mainly through precedent. Concepts that originated in the Roman constitution live on in constitutions to this day. Examples include checks and balances, the separation of powers, vetoes, filibusters, quorum requirements, term limits, impeachments, the powers of the purse, and regularly scheduled elections. Even some lesser used modern constitutional concepts, such as the block voting found in the electoral college of the United States, originate from ideas found in the Roman constitution.
The constitution of the Roman Republic was not formal or even official. Its constitution was largely unwritten, and was constantly evolving throughout the life of the republic. Throughout the 1st century BC, the power and legitimacy of the Roman constitution was progressively eroding. Even Roman constitutionalists, such as the senator Cicero, lost a willingness to remain faithful to it towards the end of the republic. When the Roman Republic ultimately fell in the years following the Battle of Actium and Mark Antony's suicide, what was left of the Roman constitution died along with the republic. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus, attempted to manufacture the appearance of a constitution that still governed the empire. The belief in a surviving constitution lasted well into the life of the Roman Empire.
Rei vindicatio is a legal action by which the plaintiff demands that the defendant return a thing that belongs to the plaintiff. It may only be used when plaintiff owns the thing, and the defendant is somehow impeding the plaintiff's possession of the thing. The plaintiff could also institute an actio furti (a personal action) in order to punish the defendant. If the thing could not be recovered, the plaintiff could claim damages from the defendant with the aid of the condictio furtiva (a personal action). With the aid of the actio legis Aquiliae (a personal action), the plaintiff could claim damages from the defendant. Rei vindicatio was derived from the ius civile, therefore was only available to Roman citizens.
During the republic and until the bureaucratization of Roman judicial procedure, the judge was usually a private person (iudex privatus). He had to be a Roman male citizen. The parties could agree on a judge, or they could appoint one from a list, called album iudicum. They went down the list until they found a judge agreeable to both parties, or if none could be found they had to take the last one on the list. For cases of great public interest, there was a tribunal with five judges. First, the parties selected seven from a list, and from those seven the five were chosen randomly. They were called recuperatores.
No-one had a legal obligation to judge a case, which was understood to be a burden. However, there was a moral obligation to do so, what was known as "officium". The judge had great latitude in the way he conducted the litigation. He considered all the evidence and ruled in the way that seemed just. Because the judge was not a jurist or a legal technician, he often consulted a jurist about the technical aspects of the case, but he was not bound by the jurist's reply. At the end of the litigation, if things were not clear to him, he could refuse to give a judgment, by swearing that it wasn't clear. Also, there was a maximum time to issue a judgment, which depended on some technical issues (type of action, etc).
Later on, with the bureaucratization, this procedure disappeared, and was substituted by the so-called "extra ordinem" procedure, also known as cognitory. The whole case was reviewed before a magistrate, in a single phase. The magistrate had obligation to judge and to issue a decision, and the decision could be appealed to a higher magistrate.
When the centre of the Empire was moved to the Greek East in the 4th century, many legal concepts of Greek origin appeared in the official Roman legislation. The influence is visible even in the law of persons or of the family, which is traditionally the part of the law that changes least. For example Constantine started putting restrictions on the ancient Roman concept of patria potestas, by acknowledging that persons in potestate could have proprietary rights. He was apparently making concessions to the much stricter concept of paternal authority under Greek-Hellenistic law. The Codex Theodosianus (438 AD) was a codification of Constantian laws. Later emperors went even further, until Justinian finally decreed that a child in potestate became owner of everything it acquired, except when it acquired something from its father.
The codes of Justinian, particularly the Corpus juris civilis (529-534 AD) continued to be the basis of legal practice in the Empire throughout its so-called Byzantine history. Leo III the Isaurian issued a new code, the Ecloga, in the early 8th century. In the 9th century, the emperors Basil I and Leo VI the Wise commissioned a combined translation of the Code and the Digest, parts of Justinian's codes, into Greek, which became known as the Basilica. Roman law as preserved in the codes of Justinian and in the Basilica remained the basis of legal practice in Greece and in the courts of the Eastern Orthodox Church even after the fall of the Byzantine empire and the conquest by the Turks, and also formed the basis for much of the Fetha Negest, which remained in force in Ethiopia until 1931.
The students, who were taught Roman law in Bologna (and later in many other places) found that many rules of Roman law were better suited to regulate complex economic transactions than the customary rules, which were applicable throughout Europe. For this reason, Roman law, or at least some provisions borrowed from it, began to be re-introduced into legal practice, centuries after the end of the Roman empire. This process was actively supported by many kings and princes who employed university-trained jurists as counselors and court officials and sought to benefit from rules like the famous Princeps legibus solutus est ("The sovereign is not bound by the laws", a phrase initially coined by Ulpian, a Roman jurist).
There have been several reasons why Roman law was favored in the Middle Ages. It was because Roman law regulated the legal protection of property and the equality of legal subjects and their wills, and because it prescribed the possibility that the legal subjects could dispose their property through testament.
By the middle of the 16th century, the rediscovered Roman law dominated the legal practice in most European countries. A legal system, in which Roman law was mixed with elements of canon law and of Germanic custom, especially feudal law, had emerged. This legal system, which was common to all of continental Europe (and Scotland) was known as Ius Commune. This Ius Commune and the legal systems based on it are usually referred to as civil law in English-speaking countries.
Only England did not take part in the wholesale reception of Roman law. One reason for this is that the English legal system was more developed than its continental counterparts by the time Roman law was rediscovered. Therefore, the practical advantages of Roman law were less obvious to English practitioners than to continental lawyers. As a result, the English system of common law developed in parallel to Roman-based civil law, with its practitioners being trained at the Inns of Court in London rather than receiving degrees in Canon or Civil Law at the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Elements of Romano-canon law were present in England in the ecclesiastical courts and, less directly, through the development of the equity system. In addition, some concepts from Roman law made their way into the common law. Especially in the early 19th century, English lawyers and judges were willing to borrow rules and ideas from continental jurists and directly from Roman law.
The practical application of Roman law and the era of the European Ius Commune came to an end, when national codifications were made. In 1804, the French civil code came into force. In the course of the 19th century, many European states either adopted the French model or drafted their own codes. In Germany, the political situation made the creation of a national code of laws impossible. From the 17th century Roman law, in Germany, had been heavily influenced by domestic (common) law, and it was called usus modernus Pandectarum. In some parts of Germany, Roman law continued to be applied until the German civil code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, BGB) came into force in 1900.
As steps towards a unification of the private law in the member states of the European Union are being taken, the old Ius Commune, which was the common basis of legal practice everywhere, but allowed for many local variants, is seen by many as a model.
Today Roman Law has been replaced by modern codes. These codes, however, did not create new law from scratch. But rather, to a large extent, the rules of Roman Law which had been transmitted, were placed in a statutory framework which provided a modern, systematic order.
Most important of all, Roman Law will have great significance in regard to the formation of uniform legal rules which further the process of political integration in Europe. Roman Law is the common foundation upon which the European legal order is built.