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This Week in Legal History -- Justinian the Great

This week in legal history was a big one for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, aka Justinian the Great. On November 16,534 he published his Codex Justinianus, a landmark legal codification and on November 14, 565 he died after a reign of 38 years.

Justinian I was the emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565. While we think of it as the Byzantine Empire, Justinian thought of it as the Roman Empire since Constantinople had been the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at the time that the Western Roman Empire was over-thrown by the Visigoths in 410. In fact, Justinian was the last emperor who spoke Latin. After Justinian, the empire spoke Greek. Justinian is rightly known as Justinian the Great. He was the emperor who re-conquered the lost provinces in the West-- regaining North Africa and Italy-- that had fallen under the control of Visigoths and Ostrogoths. After rioting destroyed the Hagia Sophia, Justinian rebuilt it bigger than it had been before and making it the center of Orthodox Christianity until the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1543. But Justinian is probably most famous as a lawgiver, or rather, a law reviser.

In an effort to bring order to the laws that governed so large an empire, Justinian appointed Tribonian to revise and organize all of Rome’s laws. The result of this effort came to be known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, The Body of Civil Law or the Code of Justinian. The code was composed of three parts; The Codex, The Digest, and the Institutes. The Codex is a compilation of imperial enactments dating back to the time of the emperor Hadrian. The Digest is a compilation of the pronouncements of Roman jurists. Finally, the Institutes is a textbook for law students and is, in essence a hornbook of Roman law. On the first page the Institutes indicates that it is intended for, “the youth desirous of studying the law.” The influence of this work cannot be underestimated. It is the basis of the law in all civil jurisdictions. Justinian’s Code is also the basis of the Roman Catholic Church’s Canon law. The Codex has also influenced many public international law concepts. The Institutes “has always been the best and clearest introduction to Roman law, and time and again it gives relief from the more difficult books that try to explain it.” This week let us celebrate Justinian the Great and his accomplishments in the field of law.

If you are interested in these materials, they can be found translated into English in the O'Quinn Law Library stacks.

The Civil Law, translated by S.P. Scott, KJA195 .C5813 1932

The Digest of Justinian, ed. by Alan Watson (2 volumes) KJA1112.2 1998

The Institutes of Justinian, translated by J.B. Moyle, KJA1088 .E5 2002

A Companion to Justinian’s Institutes, ed. by Ernest Metzger, KJA1089 .C66 1998


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