The sources of Roman law


The function of this chapter is to provide you with an overview of the different ‘sources’ of Roman law. To that end, an appreciation of the history of the Roman Empire is required. We would therefore advise you to revise this chapter in conjunction with chapter 1.


This chapter is concerned with the main ‘sources’ of Roman law during the various periods. If you are unclear about these periods, refresh your memory by looking back at chapter 1. The key to understanding this chapter is to understand the meaning of the term ‘source’ of law. You should also reflect upon the changes to the list of ‘sources’ as a result of constitutional changes in the Roman Empire.

Important dates:

The Monarchy [Regal Period]: c 753 – 510 BC
The Republic: 509 – 27 BC
The Empire: 27 BC – 476 AD (West), - 1453 AD (East)

Important statutes mentioned:

Leges regiae [uncertain dates during the Regal period]
Law of the Twelve Tables 451 – 450 BC
Lex Aquilia 287-6 BC
Lex Aebutia c. 150 BC
Lex Cornelia (concerning the edict of the praetors) 67 BC
Lex Iunia Velleia 28 AD
Lex de Imperio Vespasiani 70 AD
Codex Gregorianus c 291 AD
Codex Hermogenianus c 295 AD
Codex Theodosianus 438 AD
Justinianic compilations 530s AD


Focus on the following key facts when revising this chapter

The Monarchy [Regal Period]

  • The relationship between the sources of law during this period and the constitutional structure of the state [king, senate, voting assemblies].
  • The role of custom as a source of law.

The Republic

  • The relationship between the sources of law in the Republic and the offices of state created after the fall of the monarchy.
  • The rise of legislation [and especially how legislation was enacted].
    • Focus here on the Twelve Tables [narrative surrounding its enactment, perceived Greek influence and the importance of the voting assemblies].
  • The right of certain senior offices of state to promulgate edicts.
    • Focus here on the praetor and his edict [the ius honorarium].
  • Legal interpretation by the jurists [compare here the rise of the jurists as a class of legal interpreters].
    • Focus here on the weight of legal responses given by jurists in lawsuits and the relationship between jurists and orators.

The Empire

  • The relationship between the sources of law in the Empire and the office of the Emperor.
    • Which Republican sources decline in importance and why? [Focus specifically on the decline of legislation and the use of senatorial decrees as a means of promulgating laws].
  • The rise of Imperial legislative capacity.
    • The forms of Imperial law and its relation to existing sources of law such as the edicts of magistrates and the legal interpretation of the jurists.
  • The decline of the profession of the jurist in the later classical period and the reasons for it [relate back to the rise of Imperial legislative capacity].
  • The function of the Law of Citations 426 AD.
  • The problems with the applicability of laws in the two halves of the Roman empire.
  • The rise of the ‘barbarian’ law codes after the collapse of the western empire [compare chapter 11].
  • Justinian’s motivations for undertaking the compilation project.
    • The content of the compilation [note especially that the 50 Decisions and the First Code are not part of the final product].
    • The order of the compilation.
    • The way in which the Digest was compiled and the speed of the compilation.
    • Theories concerning the arrangement of the material and the working practices of the committees.
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