Roman Law - Roman Legal Development - The Twelve Tables

The Twelve Tables

The first legal text is the Law of the Twelve Tables, dating from mid-5th century BC. The plebeian tribune, C. Terentilius Arsa, proposed that the law should be written, in order to prevent magistrates from applying the law arbitrarily. After eight years of political struggle, the plebeian social class convinced the patricians to send a delegation to Athens, to copy the Laws of Solon; they also dispatched delegations to other Greek cities for like reason. In 451 BC, according to the traditional story (as Livy tells it), ten Roman citizens were chosen to record the laws (decemviri legibus scribundis). While they were performing this task, they were given supreme political power (imperium), whereas the power of the magistrates was restricted. In 450 BC, the decemviri produced the laws on ten tablets (tabulae), but these laws were regarded as unsatisfactory by the plebeians. A second decemvirate is said to have added two further tablets in 449 BC. The new Law of the Twelve Tables was approved by the people's assembly.

Modern scholars tend to challenge the accuracy of Roman historians. They generally do not believe that a second decemvirate ever took place. The decemvirate of 451 is believed to have included the most controversial points of customary law, and to have assumed the leading functions in Rome. Furthermore, the question on the Greek influence found in the early Roman Law is still much discussed. Many scholars consider it unlikely that the patricians sent an official delegation to Greece, as the Roman historians believed. Instead, those scholars suggest, the Romans acquired Greek legislations from the Greek cities of Magna Graecia, the main portal between the Roman and Greek worlds. The original text of the Twelve Tables has not been preserved. The tablets were probably destroyed when Rome was conquered and burned by the Gauls in 387 BC.

The fragments which did survive show that it was not a law code in the modern sense. It did not provide a complete and coherent system of all applicable rules or give legal solutions for all possible cases. Rather, the tables contained specific provisions designed to change the then-existing customary law. Although the provisions pertain to all areas of law, the largest part is dedicated to private law and civil procedure.

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