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Overview of the Evolution of the Roman Law

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Throughout this text there will be a coherent and short explanation of the Evolution of the Roman Law. The History of Roman Law is divided in four main important periods. It begins with the Monarchy, also known as Regal Period. Stablishing the state division of power and the form in which the law was applied. Furthermore, it advances to the Roman Republic divided into the Early Republic and Late Republic. Outlining the main advances done within the ius civile, legal science, and the new distribution of power. Moreover, The Empire was the third period divided into the Principate and Dominate, pointing the main characteristics that influenced Roman Law and its system. Finally, Eastern Roman Empire was the last period, hence it is explained the influence left all over Europe and the milestones achieved that last until modernity.

Romans were the ones who stablished Law as a shared language. It became the most sophisticated legal system to its date, and Roman law became the backbone of the legal doctrine in Europe. The History of Roman Law is divided in four main important periods.

Monarchy/Regal Period – 753 BC to 509 BC

The First period of the History of Roman Law is the Archaic Period. Rome was founded in 753 BC, a minor city in the Italian peninsula. As a patriarchal society, the Paterfamilias (the father – and eldest of the family) was the head of the family and had complete control over his clan. The State’s whole power relied on the Rex through Imperium. There was also a Senate and Popular Assembly appointed by the King. The people were judged by fas and nefas – divine law (and against), and the ius – law and justice – mainly depended on the mos maiorum – custom of elders; both were seen as similar nature.

Republic – 509 BC to 27 BC

The Constitutional System became to be the Senate, Popular Assembly, and Magistrate. The legal system became sophisticated, formalistic, and the legal sphere separated from the religious one.

Early Republic – 509 BC to 264 BC.

During this period, the territory growth as the full conquest of the Italic Peninsula. New concerns regarding the administration of territories arrived. There was a rural society and it battled Patricians vs Plebeians, whom last demanded the publication of an ius achieving: Laws for plebeians in 471 BC, Law of XII Tables in 451 BC, Access to magistrates in 367 BC, and the Laws for Population in 287 BC.

Furthermore, the leges actiones – Civil Procedure – was established. It consisted in two phases: In Iure by Magistrate and Apud íudice by Jury. After the execution of the litis contestation, appealing the jury’s verdict was not possible. In addition, responsa prudentium was an important part in the legal system since those were the responses and thoughts of the jurist.

Late Republic – 264 BC to 27 BC

The Ius Civile was formalized: It was the public law and regulated the relation between all the roman citizens. Due to the population growth and legal cases, the ius praetorium and honorarium had to be published with the ius gentium, whom last applied to the foreigners. Other of the consequences was the division of the Civil Procedure into the Procedure per Formulas by Praetor Peregrinus – civil cases with at least one foreigner, and Legis actiones by Praetor Urbanus – civil cases between roman citizens. The Roman law under the republic shaped the ius civile and made the separation of religion and jurisprudence – secularization. With the conquest of the Mediterranean area, the political structures were inadequate creating an institutional crisis and marking the fall of the republic.

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Empire – 27 BC to 476 AD

The Society changed as a whole with the Emperor and his court, the senatorial aristocracy, who had gradual loss of importance; the urban Aristocracy outside Rome by middle class, and the lower class. There was also an institutional crisis and the division of the Empire.

The Principate – 27 BC to 284 AD

The Republic formally stood. There were magistrates and officials, and hence the army influence was higher. There were republican methods of legislation, however the imperial ones were added: Edicata, Mandata, Rescripta, and Decreta. Law suffered gradual changes and help to form the Classical Roman Law, and Universal Roman Law.

There was an evolution on the legal science, first the juries’ functions were now to Cavere – draft texts –, Agere – serve as advocate –, and Respondere – give opinions; second there were schools of law in Beirut and Rome; third the Juridical Literature was born; fourth the cognito extra ordinem was made and the praetors’ power was transferred to the emperor’s officials, there was generic search of justice, and the process was less formal; last but not least, in 212 Caracalla gave citizenship to all the people living in the Empire (30 Million people).

The Dominate – 284 AD to 476 AD

The Emperor was the absolute monarch, however Diocletian stablished tetrarchy: divison of the empire in 4. He also limited the power of the army. After, Constantine published ‘Edict of Milan’, and Constantinople was born, hence Rome wasn’t the center of power of the Empire anymore; in 324 Constantine became sole Emperor. Finally, Theodosius declared Christianity to be the Empire’s sole and Official Religion.

There were advances in the Law, first The Law of Citations (Lex citationum) issued in 426 AD which included the work from the jurists: Papinian, Ulpain, Paul, Modestinus, and Gaius. The Leges Generales were issued and were the genuine state laws. There was a clear division between public and private law. Furthermore, The Law school evolved, it went from Latin to Greek, lasted 4 to 5 years, and preserved the classical heritage. The Western Roman Empire fell mainly by Germanic Invasions.

Eastern Roman Empire: Justinian

The New Rome. Justinian was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 527 AD to 565 AD. He helped with the restoration of the empire. The most important advance in Law was the Corpus Iuris Civils, a code divided into four parts to ensure that the Byzantine Empire would have a coherent set of laws: Instituta – Mainly for teaching. Digesta – Juristic writings (Law of Citations) on Roman Law. Digest is considered to be the most important book since it included massive content and had as a purpose to stablish legal training documents and examples Codex – Collection of laws and legal interpretations. Novellae – New laws. This Code was used as the basis for other legal codes. It created the basis for Roman Jurisprudence which maintained the Empire in order for hundreds of years, and also influenced civil law even until modernity. It is said to be the foundation of all legal codes across all of Europe.


Roman Law has the objective of understanding the evolution of the legal mechanism of the Ancient Rome and its institutions allowing to understand the different legal system across Europe. The evolution of Roman Law started from the ius and fas, to the creation of a civil procedure in the Early Republic, continued with the formalization of the ius civile, the separation of the legal sphere and the religious sphere in the Republic, so with the evolution of the legal science in the Empire, and then the issue of the Law of Citations in the principate; in addition to the evolution of the Law School during the dominate. It ended with the Corpus Iuris Civilis, a work as extensive as its importance, since the foundations laid by the code, and Roman Law as a whole, were (and continuously are) used as the main axis of law around the world.


  1. Gallia, Andrew B. (2012). Remembering the Roman Republic: Culture, Politics and History under the Principate. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Raaflaub, Kurt A., Mark T., and Bowersock, W. (1990). Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Harlow, M., and Laurence, R. 2017. “Augustus Senex: Old Age and the Remaking of the Principate.” Greece and Rome 64.2: 115-131.
  4. Sarris, Peter (2006). Economy and society in the age of Justinian. Cambridge.
  5. Wauters, B., & De Benito, M. (2017). The history of law in Europe An Introduction (1st ed.). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

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