Justinian and His Codification of Roman Law

Topics: Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Justinian I Pages: 6 (1948 words) Published: November 1, 2011
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.162)

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...
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