There’s a really good reason law students today are required to master a certain amount of a foreign language that largely died out a thousand years ago. Legal references like Habeas Corpus, a priori, mens rea, amicus curiae, de facto, de novo, and many others are common staples of contemporary judicial language. Their usage survives because of the continuing application of ancient Roman legal practices to the current era. The Romans and the Greeks bequeathed modern democratic societies the foundations upon which law is practiced today in the United States. The Romans established a legal framework that produced a system of laws designed to protect the rights of Rome’s citizenry, as well as the rights of its foreign residents. While there are definite limits to the extent to which a system of law established thousands of years ago could be directly applied today, the basic concepts prevalent throughout the American system of juris prudence borrowed heavily from the Romans. The Roman concepts of “public” as opposed to “private” laws, with the former protecting the interests of the state and the latter those of the masses, do not translate well to the American concept of inviolable rights and separations of powers. That distinction by the Romans, however, is represented in the distinction today between criminal and civil law, a vital element of the American system of justice.
Perhaps the greatest direct correlation between the Roman legal system and today’s system of jurisprudence can be found in the contributions of Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565. While Justinian ruled the eastern part of the empire, his influence on the development of the modern system of jurisprudence was enormous and enduring. It was under Justinian’s command that the expansive, ad hoc “system” of largely-unwritten laws applied haphazardly across the empire was meticulously reviewed and analyzed for inconsistencies and redundancies with the final compilation of laws written down in systematic order for the first time. Known as “The Laws of the Twelve Tables” for the twelve tablets on which the newly established legal code was inscribed. These laws, a link to which is provided below, constitute a logical precursor the United States Code of Laws that is used today. While these laws are hardly the kind of definitive legal protections that a modern citizenry needs and deserves – Law X from Table I reads: “The setting of the sun shall be the extreme limit of time within which a judge must render his decision” – the Justinian Code represented an extremely important development in the history of modern jurisprudence, and in the development of democratic forms of government. It is no exaggeration to state, therefore, that the Roman system of law remains highly relevant to the modern era.