Justinian I and His Codification of Roman
Justinian I and His Codification of Roman Law Justinain I, whose full name was Flavius Justinianus in Latin, was the Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565.
He is commonly known as Justinian the Great, who had spent all his reign restoring the greatness of the Byzantine Empire and trying to reconquer the western half of the Roman Empire. His achievements could be seen in the Roman law, the administrative system of the Empire, religion, literature, architecture and some other fields, enough to prove his great influence on Europe and himself as one of the most influential people in the European Civilization.Historical records during Justinian I’s reign are fairly abundant and opinions on him seem quite polarized, depicting him both as an extraordinarily talented and brave man with a good intention towards the people of the Byzantine Empire and a heartless man who drained the national treasury and the pockets of his people.
But nevertheless, that the Mediterranean world in the sixth century was dominated by Emperor Justinian is an indisputable fact. (Evans, 2005) In this paper, I would like to focus on only one of Justinian’s achievements – the codification of Roman law, one that gives him his everlasting fame.By going through the process of the codification, I intend to demonstrate Justinian’s great impact on the European legal system and the European Civilization. Historians consider Justinian judicial reforms as one of his greatest achievements, particularly the Corpus Juris Civilis – Code of Justinian, the codification of the Roman law issued under the order of Justinian from 529 to 534.
Unlike some of his other achievements so physical such as the territory of the Byzantine Empire or the marvelous edifices built under his command, his Code still takes up an vital place in today’s legal culture and of course, the European culture. Humfress, 2006) As Edward Gibbon remarked in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The vain titles of the victories of Justinian are crumbled into dust; but the name of the legislator is inscribed on a fair and everlasting monument. Under his reign, and by his care, the civil jurisprudence was digested in the immortal works of the Code, the Pandects or Digest, and the Institutes: the public reason of the Romans has been silently or studiously transfused into the domestic institutions of Europe, and the laws of Justinian still command the respect or obedience of independent nations. ” (as cited in Humfress, 2006, p. 62) Four separate volumes makes up the Corpus Juris Civilis, namely the Codex, the Digest, the Institutes, and the Novellae.
During Justinian’s reign, the need of a consistent and precise juridical system was prominent. The existing system contained a vast number of laws passed from the past, including several case-made laws, legal interpretations in the law courts that were considered having binding forces on later judges. Not only the documents promulgated by the Roman emperor, such as edicts and “constituion”, that had legal force, but also the response the emperor gave on the query of a certain point of law.
Evans, 2005) These legal documents were so vast and complex that sometimes the laws quoted by lawyers could conflict with each other, possibly just because the laws were issued in different time. In this case, problems were unavoidable, and they urged Justinian and his people to take action. Out of a good intention towards the Empire and the people’s welfare, Justinian appointed a commission to comb the past laws, classify the selected materials into groups of different subjects, arrange them chronologically, and put them under titles or rubrics accordingly.In addition, the commissioners were told to do everything needed to codify a clear, certain and practical collection of legislation that even the reverse of a past law was allowed as well. (Humfress, 2006) It was believed that even before Justinian ascended the throne had he started to plan on compiling a new Code. (Bury, 1958)The first commission was assembled in 529, merely seven months after the death of Justinian’s uncle and former empire, Justin I. It was a ten-man commission headed by John the Cappadocian.
Their task was to go through the Codes issued before Justinian’s reign, namely the Gregorian, Hermogenian Codes and the Theodosian Code, which were ancient and inefficient, to discard the obsolete laws while adding later constitutions, and to compile the remaining selected ones into a practical and compact collection of laws. The new Code came into effect in April the next year. But none of the copies of it is available today. It is the second edition of the Codes, now known as the Codex repetitae praelectionis, that survives.On December 15, 530, Justinian convened a second legal committee, headed by his imperial quaestor, Tribonian, a former commissioner of the first commission. Although he was born lowly, Tribonian proved his worth by leading the commission to scan through an enormous amount of Roman jurisprudence from the first to the fourth centuries and in 533, came up with their extraordinary final work as an Imperial statute, the Digest, which is “a great monument to the traditions of Roman law”.
Evans, 2005) At the same time, Justinian saw the need to overhaul the legal education system, and the key of this overhaul is the promulgation of the Institutes in 533. (Humfress, 2006) The old textbook, Institutes of Gaius, which was centuries old, was abandoned. The new Institutes were written by Dorotheus and Theophilus under Tribonian’s supervision. (J.
Evans, 2001)What distinguished it from the old textbook was that it also had legal force and could be quoted in court.It was regarded as “An elementary framework, a cradle of the law, not based on obscure old stories but illuminated by the light of our imperial splendor . . . you have been found worthy of the great honor and good fortune of . .
. following a course of legal education which from start to finish proceeds from the Emperor’s lips. ” (as cited in Humfress, 2006, p. 170) Justinian himself assigned the course which restrained the legal study to his own law books.
The law education was limited to two law schools in Berytos and Constantinople. But the former was destroyed in an earthquake and was never rebuilt.Thus the law school in Constantinople remained the only one who offered official legal education.
In addition, the total year of education in the law schools was extended to five years. After finishing his education, which consisted of studies mainly on Justinian’s books of laws, student could easily find a job providing him with a pretty affluent life. (Evans, 2006) The Codex, Digest, and Institutes form the principal parts of the Corpus Juris Civilis.
The Novellae is considered the fourth part and a supplement to the Corpus Juris Civilis.It is a collection of new laws issued after 534 during Justinian’s reign, which was not officially published by Justinian, although he had promised to and probably because of the decline if the zeal in reform he didn’t, but rather unofficially collected. It does not have the same official character as the other three parts. What’s more, the language of it is Greek, the language commonly used in Eastern Roman Empire, not Latin, which was the legal language at that time. (Bury, 1958) Several preferences can be detected in Justinian’s Codes.One that crabs my attention is the determination showed in the Codes to vindicate the status of women and their rights in marriage.
(Bury, 1958) Hardly did the women require equal social status as men in the history of Roman society. Before Justinian’s time, started from the fourth century, there appeared a tendency of making the law favorable to women. Justinian set a quicker pace to it. (Evans, 2006) This kind of law extended to various parts of women’s life.
For example, rape was severely punished, no matter the victim was a virgin, a married woman, or a widow.And woman was not to be put into prison, for the male guards might seek to violate female prisoners. More protections in regard to marriage were given to women in the Codes.
For instance, dowry was legally protected and antenuptial donations given by the husband should equally match it. Infidelity was still regarded as a legitimate reason for divorce. But unlike the previous law, this could be applied equally to a husband who committed it as well as a wife. For these laws, historians imply that Theodora, his wife and former actress, was the reason that women’s rights take up some space in the Codes.Whatever the reason is, Justinian was certainly a frontrunner in protecting women’s rights.
And as a woman myself, I wholeheartedly welcome his laws in this regard. In the Eastern Roman Empire, it seems that Justinian’s Corpus never received enough credit, probably because he used Latin. J.
Evans mentioned in his The Age of Justinian that: “the mere fact that it came into force only two weeks after it was promulgated shows that the imperial authorities knew that it would have little effect in the far reaches of the empire, and perhaps they did not greatly care, for outside the capital the civil courts were not reatly used. In Egypt, there is no good evidence that they functioned at all after 500, and in the other provinces, local law and institutions continued to flourish even when they contradicted imperial legislation. ” However, we certainly cannot underestimate the Corpus’s magnificence. Where the Codes does leave a great influence was in the western European and its colonies in the Americas. (Evans, 2006) The Digest was rediscovered in Italy in the eleventh century, which led to the revival of Justinian’s Code.
Italy, at that time, was at the beginning of a period when universities were founded and flourished.Irnerius, a teacher of the University of Bologna, studied the Digest and the rest of Justinian’s jurisprudence and began to offer lectures on the Roman laws. Since then, the University of Bologna, claiming 1088 as its foundation date started to become a center for legal studies. And the rest of Europe chimed in, all but England. However, despite the fact that the English people preferred their own legal system, Roman law still had some influence on England. It was in the Spanish and French colonies in the Americas that the Justinian’s Code and his legal achievements left great impact. Evans, 2006) Today, all western legal system looks upon Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, which became the foundation legal literature of most western countries.
Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis is brilliant and marvelous, and its contribution on law-making in modern times is significant. For historians who want to research on the history of Roman republican, Roman law or early imperial law, Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis is a treasure of a database. It is now not only a law book, but also a history book in which we can perceive a picture of the life and people of Byzantine Empire. Reference Bury, J.
B. (1958). The Legislative Work of Justinian. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian: Vol.
2 (pp. 395-409). New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Evans, J. A. S. (1996). The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. (2001 ed. ).
New York: Routledge. Evans, J. A. (2006).
The Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine Empire. Westport: Greenwood Press. Humfress, C. (2005). Law and Legal Practice in the Age of Justinian.
In M, Maas (Eds. ), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (pp. 161-184). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.