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Ancient Rome

Roman Law

History >> Ancient Rome

The Romans had a complex system of government and laws. Many of the basic systems and ideas that we have about laws and government today comes from Ancient Rome.

Who made the laws?

Laws were made a number of different ways. The primary way of making official new laws was through the Roman Assemblies. Laws were voted on by citizens who were members of the assemblies. There were other ways, however, that laws were implemented including the Plebeian Council, decrees by the senate, decisions by elected officials (magistrates), and edicts by the emperor.

Who enforced the laws?

The laws were enforced by an official called the praetor. The praetor was the second highest ranking official in the Roman republic (after the consuls). The praetor was responsible for the administration of justice.

To keep the laws in the city, the Romans had a police force called the Vigiles. The Vigiles dealt with petty criminals like thieves and runaway slaves. When more force was needed, like during riots or against gangs, other more military groups were used such as the Praetorian Guard and the urban cohorts.

Roman Constitution

The Roman Constitution was an agreed upon set of principles that was followed by the Roman government. It wasn't written down in one place, but was established through tradition and individual laws.
Picture of the Law of the Twelve Tables being posted in the forum
Law of the Twelve Tables
by Silvestre David Mirys

The Law of the Twelve Tables

Because many of the laws were unwritten or unavailable for the people to see, there was much room for corruption by public officials. The people eventually revolted against the leaders and, in 450 BC, some laws were written on stone tablets for everyone to see. These laws became known as the Law of the Twelve Tables.

Roman Citizens

Many of the protections and rights given to people under Roman law only applied to Roman citizens. It was a big deal to be a full Roman citizen. There were even different levels of Roman citizenship, each one having more or less rights than the next.

Punishment and Prisons

The punishment for committing a crime in Rome was not the same for everyone. What punishment you received depended on your status. If you were a wealthy patrician you would receive far less punishment than a slave would for the same crime.

Punishment could include beatings, lashings, exile from Rome, fines, or even death. The Romans generally didn't send people to prison for crimes, but they did have jails to hold people while their guilt or punishment was determined.

Legacy of Roman Law

Many aspects of Roman law and the Roman Constitution are still used today. These include concepts like checks and balances, vetoes, separation of powers, term limits, and regular elections. Many of these concepts serve as the foundations of today's modern democratic governments.

Interesting Facts About Roman Law
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Works Cited

History >> Ancient Rome

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