Introduction: Rome - a historical sketch


Use the expanded timeline that forms part of the online resources when revising this chapter. It will provide you with a good summary of the main events and their relations to specific areas of Roman private law. It goes without saying that this chapter should be studied in conjunction with chapter 2 on the sources of law and chapter 11 on the second life of Roman law. These three chapters collectively will provide you with the ‘external’ history of Roman law.


The function of this chapter is to provide you with a historical background to the rules of law discussed in greater detail throughout the book. While it might seem tempting to skip this chapter and to move on to the ‘law’ proper, this would be a foolish strategy. Roman law cannot be understood properly without an appreciation of Roman history. After all, law is rooted in various contexts (social, economic etc.).

Important dates:

The Monarchy [Regal Period]: c 753 – 510 BC

The Republic: 509 – 27 BC

The Empire: 27 BC – 476 AD (West)

Important statutes mentioned:

Law of the Twelve Tables: 451 – 450 BC

Leges Liciniae Sextiae: 367 BC

Lex Hortensia: c 287 BC 


Focus on the following key facts when revising this chapter

The Monarchy [Regal Period]

  • The position of the king and his legislative capacity.
  • The founding of some of Rome’s most important organs of state [e.g. the senate].
  • The organisation of the population into various groupings for voting purposes.
  • The reasons for the demise of the monarchy.

The Republic

  • Replacement of the king with two consuls.
  • The rise of the most important offices of state in the Republic [focus on consuls, praetors and aediles] and the cursus honorum attached to these offices.
  • The ‘struggle of the orders’ and the enactment of the Twelve Tables.
  • The impact of the first and second Punic Wars.
  • The land reforms of the Gracchi and the eventual Civil War of 91 BC.
  • The causes and consequences of the collapse of the Roman Republic.

The Empire

  • The constitutional settlement under Augustus [as first citizen].
  • The decline of the authority of the senate under successive emperors [compare here the sources of law during the classical period].
  • The growth of Imperial authority and modes of law making.
  • The causes and consequences of the ‘crisis of the third century’.
  • Recovery under Diocletian and Constantine and the rise of the tetrarchy.
  • Conversion of the empire to Christianity under Constantine.
  • Causes and consequences of the fall of the western empire in 476 AD.
  • Second life of the eastern empire as the Byzantine empire [with specific focus on the activities and accomplishments of Justinian].
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