I propose in coming weeks to put forward a series of historico-archaeological posts on ideas of justice and of natural law in Roman jurisprudence by making use of sections of two parts of Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis (“Body of Civil Law”): first, the Digest and, later, the Institutes. Most posts will consist of a short Latin passage, an English translation, and brief notes and discussion of key ideas and terms. Before beginning the series proper, however, it seems prudent to offer a couple of introductory posts on the nature and historical background of the Corpus Iuris, and especially the Digest, along with important figures involved in its composition or cited in it as authorities. These posts intend nothing original, but rather are to be entirely derivative and summary, drawing on relevant articles in such standard reference works as the Oxford Classical Dictionary and Brill’s New Pauly, as well as on other standard works on Roman law.
In this first post, I shall discuss the background and make-up of the Corpus Iuris.
When Justinian ascended to the purple on 1 April 527, he embarked on a plan to reunify the Roman Empire territorially, theologically, and legally. Of the three, the last became his most significant and enduring effort and its result a monument of Western law whose influence is still felt today (e.g., in Louisiana).
Justinian’s great legal reform, now known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis (though it was not so named at the time; the designation was first used in 1583 by the Calvinist Dionysius Gothofredus), was carried out between 528 and 535 and was designed to condense and clarify the millennium-long tradition of Roman legal thought and practice, and to update, standardize, and codify legal education and procedure for contemporary lawyers and students of law. The Corpus Iuris consists of three parts, promulgated separately.
All three of these components, though produced in Constantinople, were written in Latin, an archaizing move that tended to limit its impact (though it did not wholly blunt it, for Greek translations were allowed: Jolowicz notes that “in the East, the history of the law, though mainly one of decadence, is continuous, and did not indeed come to an end even with the Turkish conquest, for the ecclesiastical courts maintained considerable independence and continued to administer the Romano-Byzantine system” (Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law, 508).
The exclusive use of Latin was not continued in a fourth component that is now included with the Corpus Iuris but that was not originally promulgated as part of it: the Novellae (“Novels,” “Amendments”), mostly Greek imperial laws that were enacted after the end of the reform project, the most important of which date from 535-556.
It must be emphasized again that the importance of the Corpus Iuris cannot be overestimated, not least because it came eventually to form the basis for European legal education and administration. As Wolff writes, “Justinian’s age stands out as one of the most distinguished periods in all legal history” (Roman Law, 173).