Justinian’s Codification Of The Law


Great men make laws, and greater men interpret them.

If a leader wishes to achieve immortality, let him organize, arrange, and codify a body of law for his people.  Many of the greatest leaders (Numa Pompilia, Lycurgus, Solon, etc.) have been lawgivers.  The monuments of stone have crumbled, but the laws remain.

To codify is to bestow immortality.

The Roman emperor Justinian (482-565) has achieved his fame primarily because of one priceless gift to posterity:  his codification of Roman law in his Code and his Digest.  No one now really remembers his wars to reconquer North Africa and Italy; and even Hagia Sophia now goes by another name, and receives the chants of a different creed.  But his legislative work is the bedrock on which all European civil law was later based.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.

Before him, Roman law was a conflicting chaos of edicts, statutes, rules, regulations, and interpretive case-law.  Some decisions overtly contradicted each other; and there was much that was vague or obsolete.

There were even some codes that had been drawn up before him, primarily that of Theodosius II; but these proved inadequate to the task of providing predictability and consistency for the law courts. Something better was needed.

Justinian announced his plan to organize and collate the entire body of Roman law within several months of acceding to the throne.  Ten expert jurists were appointed to oversee the work, the most distinguished of these being the jurists Tribonian and Theophilus; the latter was a professor of law at Constantinople.

The commission must have worked with extreme rigor, for the task was finished and presented to the world on April 7, 529.  This Code–which filled ten books–has not survived the centuries.  However, an amended and updated version appeared five years later, and this we do have.

It is one of the crowning glories in the history of governance.

This work, filling twelve volumes, dealt with 4652 laws and statutes.  In addition to this, work had proceeded on codifying the body of “case law” (i.e., judge-made law).  There was a massive corpus of jurisprudence in this area, much of it scattered around the provinces of the Eastern and Western halves of the empire.  These legal opinions (called responsa prudentium) were as inconsistent as the statutes.

It was determined that the opinions of certain jurists should be given primary weight: Gaius, Ulpian, Papinian, Paulus, and Modestinus.  Before Justinian, the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III had decreed a so-called “Law of Citations”:  under this directive, the judge should base his decision on the opinions of the majority.  If such opinions balanced out equally, the controlling authority of Papinian should control.

This was the theory, at least.  In practice, things were not so easy to implement.  What was needed was some body of work that settled all important legal controversies once and for all.  Justinian therefore directed the publication of a set of books that would do just this; it was called the “Fifty Decisions.”

At the end of 530, the emperor formed a commission of 16 eminent lawyers and jurists, under the leadership of Tribonian, to begin work on what would eventually be called the Digest.  As already stated, the goal would be to collect, collate, synthesize, and publish all Roman case law in one reference work.


Tribonian was a competent leader as well as scholar, for he was able to organize the commission into various committees for maximum effectiveness.  The work took over three years of steady labor, but it was finished.  In 533, the entire work–fifty volumes containing the legal history of over 1300 years–was issued under an imperial edict.  It was known as the Pandects, or more commonly, the Digest.

The publication of the Code and the Digest superseded everything that had come before it.

Other innovations followed.  Several professors of law, in consultation with Tribonian, issued a handbook of the civil law for the use of students called the Institutions.  The reform of legal education was also addressed.

In all we have the Code, the Digest, and the Institutions, which together comprise what came to be known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis.  It is this body of law, as a whole, that all European law is ultimately based.  Although Justinian’s law was not officially accepted in England, it did unofficially influence English law to a great degree.

Justinian abolished all the law schools of the empire except those at Constantinople and Berytus, and mandated that law programs should be five years in length.  Unqualified teachers were forbidden to teach, and the entire process assumed an organization and rigor not previously known.  And as these works were issued in Latin (after Justinian, Greek would gradually replace it), his work ensured that the Latin language would permeate all of European law.

It was an incredible work of scholarship, executed nearly flawlessly.  Here, finally, was not just a collection of rules and regulations, but a living record of the entire history of Roman jurisprudence.  It ensured that courts all over the empire would, in theory, know what was expected of them and which opinions would control.

It brought order out of chaos, and permitted commerce, education, and justice to flourish.  He who wishes to unlock the creative energies of a people, and to see that justice is both uniform and consistent, should ignore the squabbling legislatures, and focus on the law courts.  Justinian’s work in legal reform must count as among the most influential events in European history.

Any monkey can pass laws.  Only a wise leader can foresee how they may be interpreted and enforced.


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