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What is Roman Law and why does it matter?

This article will centre on Roman Law, delving into its nature, origins, and particularly, its significance. We will provide a concise overview of the historical background of Roman law, and subsequently examine the impact of ancient Roman legal principles on contemporary society. Moreover, we will explore the enduring relevance of studying and analysing legal concepts in the present time. Roman law served as the governing legal system in Ancient Roman society, functioning as a reflection of the prevailing social structure, as is the case with other legal systems. Within Rome, there was a persistent animosity between two distinct social groups: the plebeians, representing the common class, and the patricians, who constituted the ruling class. The plebeians' desire for a universally recognized and unchangeable set of laws prompted the creation of 'The Twelve Tables.' These tables represented the earliest form of written law in Ancient Rome, constituting an initial endeavour to consolidate all pertinent laws into a quasi-constitutional document that would be followed by all Romans. This compilation laid the groundwork for the subsequent development of Roman Law and encompassed various areas such as criminal law, family and inheritance law, civil law, and more. The power in interpreting the law was in the hands of the praetors, judicial officials. The decisions of these praetors where extremely impactful as they would set up a precedent system which would continue to evolve the interactions and interpretations of laws in Roman society.

Figure 1. Front Page of a copy of ‘Corpus Juris Civilis’. Image Source: Wolf Law Library With the end of the Republic and the start of the Empire, new developments came about. In the new legal system, the emperor had highest authority. Laws were codified in the “Praetorian Edict” and the “Edictum Perpetuum”, by Emperors Augustus and Hadrian. The final change in Roman Law was with the separation of the Roman Empire into the West and the East, or the Byzantine Empire. The most significant advancement in this era was the ‘Corpus Juris Civil’, the legal code complied by Emporer Justinian. Justinian sought to systemise Roman Law and would gather a group of experts to create a single legal code. They would remove irrelevant aspects of Roman Law and clear up many of the contradictions caused by the precedent system. It would be used to lay the foundation for legal systems around Europe, which continue to this day. This leads us to the enduring impact and significance of Roman Laws in the contemporary world. The 'Corpus Juris Civilis' served as the fundamental basis for civil law systems adopted by a majority of countries worldwide. Its comprehensive and straightforward structure provided the groundwork for the legal frameworks found in present-day nations such as France, Germany, Spain, and others. These legal systems, in turn, have continued to exert their influence and spread their impact globally. The Justinian's Code, with its focus on equality, legal reasoning, and the defense of individual rights, along with its meticulous organization enabling the dissemination and study of law and legal practice, has become a foundational document in education and government pertaining to law. Due to its significant impact in the modern world, studying the code is crucial for comprehending contemporary civil law systems. It provides valuable insights into the evolution of law as we know it today, as well as fundamental knowledge of civil law principles. Moreover, it contributes to the historical context of laws and enhances our perspective on legal ideas and their understanding. For instance, the concept of equity in modern society draws heavily from the Roman principles of justice and fairness, which have influenced not only civil law systems but also common law systems such as those in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Additionally, exploring the historical context of laws enhances our perspective on legal ideas and their interpretation. For example, the notion of equity in contemporary society draws heavily from the Roman principles of justice and fairness. These principles have permeated common law systems, including those of the United Kingdom and the United States, further emphasizing their lasting influence.

Figure 2. Roman Senate. Image Source: Trinity College Dublin In addition to the aforementioned influences, Roman law had a significant impact on the establishment of a legal community, which remains relevant in today's world. During the Roman Republic, the emergence of jurists marked a crucial development. Jurists were individuals who approached law as a science, studying and practicing it by offering legal advice, engaging in debates, and analyzing the intricacies of the law. In many ways, they can be seen as early prototypes of modern-day lawyers.

While jurists were more focused on academia than our contemporary image of lawyers, they actively participated in legal practice by engaging in discussions, interpreting laws, and providing assistance in legal cases and queries. This demonstrated that they were indeed practitioners within the legal system. Concurrently, citizens began to pursue legal studies at universities throughout the republic.

This period witnessed the formation of early legal communities where intellectuals would study and engage in debates surrounding the law. These communities laid the groundwork for the future of legal studies and shaped their evolution, ultimately influencing the role of the modern-day lawyer.

To summarize, this article provided a comprehensive overview of the historical development of Roman law, spanning from the republic to the empire, the division, and Justinian's reign. It highlighted significant milestones in the evolution of Roman law, including the notable 'Corpus Juris Civilis.' The article emphasized the enduring importance and profound influence of Roman law on contemporary legal systems and the study of law. Furthermore, it shed light on how Roman law has shaped the modern legal landscape, impacting the actions and operations of legal bodies. This article is written by Mr. Adis Trezhnjeva, Guildhouse School, London, UK.


  1. Glendon, Mary Ann , Stein, Peter G. , Jolowicz, Herbert Felix , Carozza, Paolo , Hazard, John N. , Rheinstein, Max , Millner, Maurice Alfred , Kiralfy, Albert Roland and Powell, Raphael. "Roman law". Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Dec. 2022, Accessed 9 July 2023.

  2. Nicholas, B. (2008). Roman law, an introduction. Oxford University Press.


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