Roman law

Several good websites on Roman law make it less necessary to give here detailed and extensive information. We treat here successively of the history of Roman law, its structure, character and content, the sources – and modern translations – and the modern scientific literature. At the bottom of this page there are links to important sites on Roman law.

History of Roman law

The earliest history of Roman law is lost forever. Rome existed already as an Etruscan town in the eight century B.C. The first known source of Roman law are the Laws of the Twelve Tables from the mid-fifth century B.C., written in early Latin. After the period of the kings two consuls and the Senate governed Rome. Only few people knew something of the law before the Twelve Tables were erected to provide some legal security. Members of well-to-do families, most of them patricians and senators, gave juridical advice when asked for. The Senate itself proposed laws or voted on proposals of the consuls. More is known about the period of the Late Republic (200-30 B.C.). The praetor, one of the Roman magistrates, published each year his edict in which he announced how he would apply the laws. The censors had a legal task, too, the upholding of mores. From Cicero’s pleas and letters one gets a vivid picture of actual jurisdiction during the Late Republic. Legal experts started to write books. In this period Rome had grown from a tiny city state into a vast reign.

The Roman theater at Orange

The Roman theatre at Orange with a marble statue of the emperor Augustus

During the Principate great jurists were active, who were sometimes employed by the emperor. Famous among them were Ulpian, Papinian, Paul and Julian. The mysterious Gaius wrote an introductory law book, the Institutes, almost the only completely surviving manual. The letters of governor Pliny show some of the legal questions he posed to the emperor. The praetorial edict became fixed. Emperor Theodosian tried to impose some legal order with his code of law. During the confusing times of the Late Imperium Justinian (early sixth century) tried to unify law by codification on all levels. Imperial decrees were collected and edited into a new Code, followed by later decrees, the Novellae. Justinian also charged a committee with making an anthology of the classical Roman lawyers, the Digestae or Pandectae. To crown his achievement, Justinian decreed a manual of law compulsory for all legal education. His Institutes are written using Gaius’ Institutes. The Justinian codification was the starting point for the new study, renewal and revival of Roman law during the Middle Ages.

The structure, character and content of Roman law

Roman law is first and foremost private law, law of and between citizens. In relation to it public law and the law of nations are less important. Roman law is concerned with the relationships between people, their legal actions, and the right they have on goods. Legal persons were in particular the fathers of families, the proverbial pater familias. They held great power over their wives, children and slaves. An important element is the law of procedure. The archaic Roman law was characterized by a lot of ritualized legal formulae to which one had to stick as close as possible. In a later phase one is able to choose one or more legal actions, a matter which called for interpretation: which action? Parties ruled their conflicts themselves. A judge only appeared in a final phase of the case. For centuries there were no courts. In the great public trials, like the ones in which Cicero became famous, his role was more akin to that of an orator than to the role of a modern solicitor.

Roman law is remarkable for the detailed yet succinct way one treated cases. One looked principally at things by dealing with concrete or imaginary cases (see the examples). This casuistic aspect is more important than any systematic view. One did not write a theory of damage, but about a car hitting someone on the Capitol (see D. Of course one has tried to systematize Roman law. The great Roman lawyers treated all kind of cases when writing on several subjects or commenting the edict of the praetor. The real heart of Roman law was hereditary law. Apart from legal procedure, family law, the law of goods, and the law of obligations are the other main areas. The juridical content and level of Roman law has such quality that it has deeply influenced directly and indirectly lawyers of all times and places. It brought with it great prestige because of Roman history.

Sources of Roman law

During the ages many sources have been lost forever. Scholars divide the sources into pre-Justinian and Justinian, edited and codified in the sixth century. One has reconstructed the Twelve Tables from the works of later lawyers. The praetorial edict has been transmitted in the same way, and could therefore be reconstructed. The Code of Justinian preserves decrees of earlier emperors. Thanks to their inscriptions we know which emperor pronounced which decree. The Digest was made from a large collection of legal works into an anthology centered mostly around some of the great classical lawyers. The inscription at every lex or law give a clue to its origin, and thus we know many of these authors and a number of their works. The laws have been organised around particular subjects in tituli. These tituli have been gathered into 50 libri. In some modern languages, including English, exist modern translations of the sources within the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

Justinian – versions at the Latin Library


  • Iustiniani Digestae, Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krueger (eds.) (Berlin 1882; editio minor; many reprints; online in the Internet Archive (5th ed., Berlin 1888)
  • Digesta Justiniani Augusti, P. Bonfante et alii (eds.) (2 vol., Milan 1908-1931)


  • Digesten, J.E. Spruit, K.E.M. Bongenaar and R. Feenstra (eds.) (5 vol., The Hague-Zutphen 1994-2001; Corpus Iuris Civilis. Tekst en vertaling, II-VI) – Latin text and Dutch translation
  • The Digest of Justinian, Alan Watson (ed.) (4 vol., Philadelphia, Pa., 1985; also translation only in two volumes (1997))

Translations online:

  • English: The Digest of Justinian, Charles Henry Monro and William Warwick Buckland (ed.) (2 vol., Cambridge, 1909): vol. 1, vol. 2 (Internet Archive)
  • French: Les cinquante livres du Digeste, Dominique Gaurier (ed.) (3 vol., Paris 2017), with also Lenel’s palingenesia of the Edictum perpetuum
  • French: H. Hulot et alii, Les cinquante livres du Digeste (…) (Metz-Paris 1803; reprint Aalen 1979), online, Histoire du Droit
  • Italian: Iustiniani Augusti Digesta sive Pandectae, S. Schipani, L. Lantella, A. Petrucci et alii (eds.), online database (Università La Sapienza, Rome / CNR, Pisa) – Latin and Italian

Institutiones Justiniani

  •  Iustiniani Institutiones, Paul Krüger (ed.) (Berlin 1872; editio stereotypa, online in the Internet Archive (5th ed., Berlin 1888))

Translations (selection):

  • Instituten, by J.E. Spruit, K.E.M. Bongenaar and R. Feenstra (The Hague-Zutphen 1993; revised ed., Amsterdam 2007) – Latin text and Dutch translation
  • De Instituten van Iustinianus, by A.C. Oltmans (4th ed., Haarlem 1967) – Latin text and Dutch translation
  • Justinian’s Institutes, P. Birks and G. McLeod (London 1987)
  • some older English translations are available in the Internet Archive, by T.C. Sandars (Chicago 1876); J.T. Abdy and Bryan Walker (Cambridge 1876)
  • Institutes de l’empereur Justinien, H. Hulot (Metz-Paris 1806), online, Histoire du Droit

Codex Iustinianus

  • Codex Iustinianus, Paul Krüger (ed.) (Berlin 1877; editio stereotypa; many reprints; online in the Internet Archive (5th ed., Berlin 1892)


  • Codex Iustinianus, J.E. Spruit., J.M.J. Chorus and L. de Ligt (3 vol., Amsterdam 2005-2010; Corpus Iuris Civilis. Tekst en vertaling, VII-IX) – Latin text and Dutch translation
  • Fred. H. Blume, The annotated Justinian Code, (University of Wyoming), revised by Bruce Frier, The Codex of Justinian. A New Annotated Translation, with Parallel Latin and Greek Text (3 vol., Cambridge. etc., 2016) – see also the digitized version at the website of the Hopper Law Library.Corps du droit civil en latin et en français: Code et Novelles de Justinien (…), H. Hulot et alii (3 vol., Metz-Paris 1806), online, Histoire du Droit


  • Novellae, R. Schöll and G. Kroll (eds.) (Berlin 1895 – online in the Internet Archive; 5th ed., 1928; reprint 1954)


The translation by Samuel P. Scott of the Twelve Tables, the Digest, Code, the Novellae, the Institutes of Gaius and of Justinian is available online: The Civil Law, including the Twelve Tables… (17 vol., Cincinnati 1932). You can read more about translations of Roman legal texts in a post from 2011 on my blog.

Heino Speer offers at Corpus Iuris Civilis: Gliederung several versions of Justinian’s texts, with also a nineteenth-century German translation, and concordances for the Digest and the Codex, incluing an alphabetical list of initia. The Repertorium utriusque iuris by Denis Muzerelle offers a very useful online overview of the titulidistinctiones and other divisions of the major texts in Roman law and medieval canon law.

Pre-Justinian legal sources

Codex Theodosianus


  • Theodosiani libri XVI cum constitutionibus Sirmondianis, Th. Mommsen and P. Meyer (eds.) (2 vol., Berlin 1905; last reprint 1971); online, The Latn Library; vol. 2, Internet Archive – the text of Mommsen and Meyer is also online at the Projet Volterra (only bks. 1-8) and in the Internet Archive
  • ed. Paul Krüger (Berlin 1923-1926), only books I-VIII, online, Hathi Trust Digital Library (U.S. proxy needed)
  • see among editions in particular the edition by Jacques Godefroy (6 vol., Leipzig 1736-1745), online at Polib (Lille)


  • The Theodosian Code…, Cl. Pharr (Princeton 1952)


  • Gaii Institutiones, G. Studemund and P. Krüger (eds.) (7th ed., Berlin 1923) – online, The Latin Library; see also this searchable version at the Intratext Library.
  • Gaii Institutiones, M. David and H.L.W. Nelson (Leiden 1948)

Some translations with facing text:

  • De Instituten van Gaius by A.C. Oltmans (3rd ed., Haarlem 1967);
  • De Instituten van Gaius by J.E. Spruit and K.E.M. Bongenaar (Zutphen 1982)
  • W.M. Gordon and O.F. Robinson, The Institutes of Gaius (London 1988)

Other resources before Justinian:

  • Fontes Iuris Romani Anteiustiniani [FIRA], C. Ferrini, G. Baviera and S. Riccobono (eds.) (2 vol., Florence 1909; 2nd ed., 3 vol., Florence 1941-1943; reprint 1964-1968)

Many of these texts appear with Dutch translations in: J.E. Spruit and K.E.M. Bongenaar, Het erfdeel van de klassieke Romeinse juristen (4 vol., Zutphen 1982-1987). For some texts an older translation is given in Le Trésor de l’ancienne jurisprudence romaine (…), H. Hulot e.a. (Metz -Paris 1811; reprint Aalen 1979), online, Histoire du Droit

  • Otto Lenel, Palingenesia iuris civilis I-II (Leipzig 1889; vol. 1 and vol. 2, Internet Archive) – reprint 1961 with additions by L.E. Sierl, reprint Rome 2000
  • Otto Lenel, Das Edictum perpetuum. Ein Versuch seiner Wiederherstellung (3rd ed., Leipzig 1927, online, Internet Archive; reprint Aalen 1956, 1974).

There exist two modern editions of Roman statutes:

  • Roman statutes, Michael H. Crawford (ed.) (2 vol., London 1996).
  • Die Gesetze der frühen römischen Republik. Text und Kommentar, Dieter Flasch (ed.) (Darmstadt 2004).
  • Leges Populi Romani, CNRS/Université Paris-I – a project for creating a database for researching the nearly 900 known Roman laws, with a fine bibliography

A number of other sources is also available online:

For the laws of the Twelve Tables you can now also use the new edition and translation La Loi des XII tables. Édition et commentaire, M. Humbert (ed.) (Rome 2018). Senatusconsulta are the subject of Edoardo Volterra, Materiali per una raccolta dei senatusconsulta (753 a.C. – 312 d.C.), A. Terrinoni and P. Buongiorno (eds.) (Rome-Münster 2018).

Amanuensis is a tool providing you at your computer or as an app on your smartphone with a database containing Roman legal texts based on the corpus created by Josef Menner (Linz); its interface can be tuned to many languages. More texts will be added in the future. For the Justinian Digest Marton Ribrary has developed in 2020 a relational database which you can download and install. At DigilibLT: Biblioteca digitali di testi latini tardoantichi (Università di Piemonte Orientale) with an Italian and English interface you can both read – and after registration download – several legal texts from Late Antiquity as PDF or TEI files; there is a PDF in English with an overview of the texts included and the editions used. For the online text of the Digest one can also consult the version in the Latin Library of the Packhard Humanities Institute; the concordances in this library help you to make quick textual comparisons with other texts

The famous Codex Florentinus of the Digest, a sixth-century manuscript with a truly chequered history, is discussed here in the context of medieval law.

Some dictionaries:

  • Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford 1968-1976) – juridical terms are well covered here.
  • Heumann, H.G., and E. Seckel, Handlexikon zu den Quellen des römischen Rechts (4th ed., Jena 1907; reprint Graz 1971) – very useful; the edition 1926 is available online (Universidad Sevilla, PDF, 80 MB).
  • Logeion, University of Chicago – online Greek and Lation dictionaries, in connection with Perseus under Philologic, an offspring of the Perseus Digital Library for texts from Classical Antiquity


One could mention lots of books. First of all some introductory books that do not aim only at lawyers:

  • Crook, J.A., Law and life in Rome (2nd ed., London-Ithaca, NY, 1978) – very readable.
  • Watson, Alan, The spirit of Roman law (Atlanta, GA, 1995).
  • Alföldy, Géza, Römische Sozialgeschichte (3rd ed., Wiesbaden 1984).
  • Bürge, Alfred, Römisches Privatrecht (Darmstadt 1999) – fresh and original, starting from procedure.
  • Julen Extabe (ed.), A cultural history of law in Antiquity (London 2018).

Mentioning particular titles is often dictated by tradition. For the “external” history:

  • Spruit, J.E., Bibliografie Romeins recht. Wegwijzer tot de bronnen, hulpmiddelen en literatuur (Zutphen 1988).
  • Spruit, J.E., Enchiridium. Overzicht van de geschiedenis van het Romeinse privaatrecht (3rd ed., Deventer 1992).
  • Wieacker, Franz, Römische Rechtsgeschichte I. Einleitung, Quellenkunde. Frühzeit und Republik (Munich 1988).
  • Jolowicz, H., and B. Nicholas, A historical introduction to the study of Roman law (3rd ed., Cambridge, etc., 1972).
  • Wenger, Leopold, Die Quellen des römischen Rechts (Vienna 1953).
  • Schulz, Fritz, History of Roman legal science (2nd ed., Oxford 1953) – an updated German translation: Geschichte der römischen Rechtswissenschaft (Weimar 1961; reprint Leipzig 1975).
  • Liebs, Detlev, Die Jurisprudenz im spätantiken Italien (Berlin 1987).
  • Tellegen-Couperus, Olga, A short history of Roman law (2nd ed., London-New York 1993).
  • Fögen, Marie Theres, Römische Rechtsgeschichten. Über Ursprung und Evolution eines sozialen Systems (Göttingen 2002).
  • Johnston, David (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Roman Law (Cambridge, etc., 2015) – essays on several aspects of Roman law and its history
  • Du Plessis, Paul, Clifford Ando and Kaius Tuori (eds.), The Oxford Handbook to Roman Law and Society (Oxford, etc., 2016)

On the “internal” history, the dogmatic side of Roman law, many manuals have appeared. Think for instance of the books by German scholars from the 19th century Pandektistik, such as Britz, Dernburg, Vangerow, and Windscheid. Here just some titles:

  • Mommsen, Theodor, Römisches Staatsrecht (Berlin 1877; reprint 1971).
  • Bleicken, J., Die Verfassung der römischen Republik (7th ed., Paderborn 1995).
  • Kaser, Max, Das Römische Privatrecht (2 vol.: I, 2nd ed., Munich 1971; II: 2nd ed., Munich 1975).
  • Kaser, Max, Römisches Privatrecht, Rolf Knütel (ed.) (17th ed., Munich 2003) – translated into many languages.
  • Kaser, Max, Das römische Zivilprozessrecht (Munich 1966) – the standard work on Roman civil procedure.
  • Oven, J.C. van, Leerboek van Romeinsch privaatrecht (3rd ed., Leiden 1948).
  • Schulz, Fritz, Classical Roman law (Oxford 1961).
  • Feenstra, Robert, Romeinsrechtelijke grondslagen van het Nederlands privaatrecht (4th ed., Leiden 1984).
  • Spruit, J.E., Cunabula iuris (Deventer 2001).
  • Ibbetson, D.J., A history of the law of obligations (Cambridge, etc., 1999) – written from a Common Law perspective.

The several parts of the Corpus Iuris Romani and related sources have been the object of numerous studies, here a selection of recent work:

  • Ernest Metzger, A Companion to Justinian’s Institutes (London 1998).
  • José María Coma Fort, Codex Theodosianus: historia de un texto (Madrid 2014) – also online (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid; PDF, 3,8 MB).

Some relevant book series are partuially or completely accessible online in open access:

Important scientific journals on Roman law are:


First some bibliographical websites:

There is a wide variety of other interesting websites:

Some general links to research in the field of Classical Antiquity: