The Law According to Justinian

Front cover of Justinian
The Codex of Justinian: A New Annotated Translation with Parallel Latin and Greek Text
Fred H. Blume (trans.)
Bruce W. Frier (ed.)
Cambridge University Press
Three vols.  2,964pp  £450

Why should we be interested in a sixth-century legal code? The Emperor Justinian (527-565) gets a bad press as a misguided autocrat, but there is no disagreement about his extraordinary achievement in the legal sphere. With amazing speed and determination – and beginning within months of his accession – he oversaw not only the publication of a revision and updating of existing late Roman legislation, but also a suite of other legal works, including a new set of prescriptions for legal education. He achieved this within a period of little more than five years, while pursuing a war with Sasanian Iran and putting down a dangerous revolt in Constantinople in 532 that destroyed some of the ceremonial heart of the city and nearly put an end to his reign. Justinian’s legal officer, Tribonian, survived the hostility of the rioters to mastermind the Digest, a compilation of legal judgements, and the Institutes, designed for law students. Both had come into force by the end of 533, the year in which Justinian’s general Belisarius launched his brilliant campaign against the Vandals in North Africa.  

The Codex, or Code, of Justinian was announced in February 528 and promulgated not much more than a year later; it was further brought up to date in 534. It was the work of a specially selected commission, who collected, edited and revised the mass of earlier legislation contained in the fifth-century Theodosian Code and elsewhere. Hard though it is to believe, this great work has now been published in an authoritative English translation, with the scholarly explanation it deserves. These impressive three large volumes develop the pioneering English translation by an American lawyer, Justice Fred Blume, completed but not published in the 1920s, and is the work of a group of experts. It is a massive achievement on the part of both Cambridge University Press and the Code’s academic editor, Bruce Frier. 

Belisarius’ campaign against the Vandals was a spectacular success, but the military ventures that followed against the Ostrogoths in Italy and on the eastern front proved much more difficult. The Ostrogoths were eventually defeated, but new invasions left Italy fragmented. Nor did the new system of legal education last for long in the East, while Latin, the main language used in all these works, gave way definitively to Greek in the eastern empire. Later laws passed by Justinian, known as the Novels, were issued mainly in Greek. Justinian’s repeated efforts to end theological divisions also proved counterproductive.

Yet the legal work of Justinian and Tribonian remains alive to this day. Greek translations of the Code formed the basis of later Byzantine law codes, while as Simon Corcoran explains in a brilliant chapter on its complex history, in the Latin West Roman law still represented the legal touchstone, even in the fragmented world of the early Middle Ages. In the 11th and 12th centuries the Code was glossed, edited and copied, and the teaching of Roman law in Bologna and elsewhere (including Oxford) developed on the basis of Justinian’s legal compilations. An industry grew up of commenting on and adding to the text of the Code, later encouraged by the advent of printing and serious textual criticism, with many new editions and a new attention to the Greek material as the language became more widely known in western Europe. In the early modern period, such was Justinian’s reputation as the Christian Roman emperor and legislator par excellence that when Procopius’ sensational and hostile Secret History came to light contemporaries assumed it must be a forgery. 

The Code of Justinian reflects the body of existing civil law through sixth-century spectacles and needs careful interpretation. Recent work on the fifth-century Code of Theodosius II by historians, including Jill Harries, Fergus Millar and John Matthews, has led to a new and better understanding of how law functioned in late Roman society. The appearance of these magisterial volumes will surely stimulate more such work. Justinian’s team of experts did an immense service to historians of the later Roman Empire as well as to Roman lawyers.

The Code has also had a long history. Roman law is still the basis of European legal systems with their civil law tradition. It is also fundamental to any understanding of the working of the late Roman state. What an achievement for an emperor many historians regard as a failure.

Averil Cameron is chair of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and was formerly the Warden of Keble College, Oxford.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X