Archive Civic Polity Corpus Iuris Civilis E.J. Hutchinson

An Introduction to the Corpus Iuris Civilis

365px-Meister_von_San_Vitale_in_RavennaI 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.

    1. The Codex Iustinianus (“Code”), a collection of imperial constitutions in twelve books. A first version was promulgated on 7 April 529, but it does not survive. A second edition was disseminated on 16 November 534, which included new laws enacted as part of the reform between 529 and 534. The Codex Iustinianus surpassed and replaced the previous Codices, the C. Gregorianus, C. Hermongenianus, and C. Theodosianus. The division of the Codex, based on these earlier works, is: Book 1, ecclesiastical law; Books 2-8, private law; Book 9, criminal law; Books 10-12, administrative law.


    1. The Digesta (“Digest”) or Pandectae (“All-Encompassing”). The Digest is a collection of extracts either by or attributed to classical Roman jurists and was designed to set forth models for the solution of cases. The commissioners who were tasked with its compilation, under the leadership of the quaestor sacri palatii (“quaestor of the sacred palace”) Tribonianus, had to comb through and condense an enormous amount of material: some 2,000 books including more than three million lines of text were excerpted and condensed into 50 books of about 150,000 lines total. Even more surprising than the scale of the work is the speed with which it was completed: the commission, made up of elite lawyers, law professors, advocates, and one official was formed on 15 December 530 and its work was promulgated on 16 December 533. It should be noted that the excerptors did not merely quote their sources, but also at times adapted (interpolated) them to meet contemporary legal needs (though the extent to which they did this is debated).
      Interestingly, the text of the Digest was to stand completely alone: all commentaries were prohibited out of fear that they would obscure the text and lead to confusion (see H.F. Jolowicz, Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law, 487).The importance of this collection for modern knowledge of previous Roman jurisprudence is enormous; Hans Julius Wolff has called it “the most important part of the Corpus Iuris” (Roman Law, 166). From the time of its promulgation it formed a crucial part of legal education in the most important schools of law, Berytus (mod. Beirut) and Constantinople. Of previous jurists quoted in the Digest, the most important is Ulpian, for quotations from or attributed to him constitute 40% of the whole; I intend to introduce him in a later post.


  1. The Institutiones (“Institutes”). This was an elementary legal textbook—but one that had the authority of law—designed to replace the Institutiones of the famous second-century law teacher Gaius, of which large portions were incorporated in the new version. It was promulgated on 21 November 533.

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).

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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