The Twelve Tables: Basis of Roman Law

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In the history of governments, the Twelve Tables occupy a special place. At once, they are the basis of the Roman Republic, the basis of Roman Law for centuries, and the germ of the idea that evolved into humanism, the philosophy of John Locke, and the Declaration of Independence.

We're talking about, of course, the protection of certain rights. 

By about the 6th century B.C., Roman people (who weren't slaves) could be divided into two classes: patricians and plebeians. The former were wealthy, landowning citizens who had money and power and wealth and the right to vote. The latter were none of the above (or very little) but were not slaves. Since the patricians made up most of the ruling class and made the laws, they tended to make laws to protect their own interests. If the interests of the plebeians got in the way, then the laws came first--at least that's what the patricians thought.

The plebeians had other ideas. They wanted certain basic rights, and they were willing to cause civil disturbances to get it. They even threatened to secede, in 494. By this time, the sheer numbers of the plebeian class made the patricians sit up in their governing chairs and take notice. The result was the Twelve Tables. 

The Tables themselves, which were finalized in the mid-5th century, were pieces of stone with writing carved into them. The main benefit of having laws written down was that the lawmakers and law-enforcers couldn't change them to suit their whims. Once a law was made public (and carving it into stone was about as public as it got), the law was known to everyone. This also had the benefit for the lawmakers and law-enforcers of ruling out a lawbreaker's protestation that he or she didn't know that what he or she was doing was against the law. If a law was made public, then it was everyone's responsibility to know and obey.

Specifically, of the fragments of the Twelve Tables we have remaining, here are some points of interest:

  • Table I mandates that when a person is accused of something, both accused and accuser must be present at a hearing or trial on the matter. Also, if both parties don't show up for a court date, the judge is free to rule in favor of the party that did show up.
  • Table III gives debtors 30 days to pay off a debt. After that, a creditor is free to seize the debtor and make him or her a prisoner.
  • Table IV makes a man's will binding.
  • Table VIII lists specific punishments for certain crimes. It also says that if a person fails to show up as a trial witness, then that person will never again be allowed to be a witness. Most importantly, it says that a person shown to have lied in court will be put to death.
  • Table IX specifies capital punishment for judges who have taken bribes and for people who have committed treason. 

It's also interesting to note that Table XI prohibits marriages between plebeians and patricians. So, even though the plebeians got some very important rights through the Twelve Tables, they couldn't marry into the upper class. The ruling class had to keep the other hand, after all.

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