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Roman Law and the Pax Romana: Definition, Meaning & History

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  • 0:05 Law: Rome's Greatest Export
  • 0:40 The History of Roman Law
  • 2:21 The Three Branches of…
  • 4:27 The Pax Romana
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson examines Roman law, following its development over time. Next, we briefly explore the three branches of Roman law. Finally, we look at how the spread of Roman law led to an era of Roman peace known as the Pax Romana.

Law: Rome's Greatest Export

Of all Rome's contributions to Western civilization, Roman law is probably their greatest legacy. It has been said that law and order were Rome's biggest exports.

As the Roman Empire expanded, the Romans imposed their legal system on the territories that they conquered. Feuding nations one by one fell into the fold of the Pax Romana, or 'Roman Peace,' and the Mediterranean entered an era of peace and prosperity that lasted for about two centuries.

The History of Roman Law

Roman law has a history nearly as old as Rome itself. In the early days of the republic, Roman law was held in the minds and memories of Rome's judges and magistrates. Such a system was prime for abuse. A magistrate could forget or even change laws on a whim, and there was no way to question him. And, since magistrates were aristocrats (or patricians, as the Romans called them), the common people, or plebs, had little hope of finding justice in such a system.

The plebs protested this justice system for many years, until at last, in 450 BCE, Roman law was codified and written down in the famous Twelve Tables of Rome. This written law guaranteed that all, high as well as low, were subject to the laws of Rome.

As the years went by and the republic matured and became more inclusive, the Roman legal system was reformed to accommodate these changes. The rulings of judges began to be used as precedent for future cases, as did the edicts of praetors. Simultaneously, philosophical ideals from Stoicism found their way into Roman law.

These reforms did not stop with the death of the republic and the rise of the Principate. Roman emperors, struggling to deal with the new challenges of the empire, would often appoint imperial jurists to refine and interpret the law. From Gaius to Ulpian to Paulus, these jurists helped establish the philosophical underpinnings of law, creating a philosophy of justice that endures to this day.

The Three Branches of Roman Law

So, let us take a look at the fruits of these men's labors and explore the scope and depth of Roman law. The Romans divided their law into three branches: civil law, the law of peoples, and natural law.

Civil law was the law of Rome and its citizens. These laws enumerated the rights and obligations of Roman citizenship. It included statutes of the senate, decrees of the emperor, the edicts of praetors, and of course, customs older than Rome itself.

The law of peoples was a later development that came about as the Romans rushed to provide laws for the peoples they'd conquered. Unlike civil law, which was only intended for Roman citizens, the law of peoples applied to all people, regardless of nationality. The law of peoples established the rights of personal property. Historians these days now look at the protection of personal property as the foundation of any just society. Yet, before we give the Romans too much credit, we should note that the rights of personal property included the right to own another person as a slave. The law of peoples also laid down the laws of trade, commerce, and contracts.

While the Romans were developing their civil and people's laws, a separate, more philosophical concept of law began to develop. This was a law for all people and for all time. Under the influence of the Stoics, the Romans gradually came to the conclusion that the whole universe obeyed a rational natural order and that this order was just and right. The Romans called this order natural law. A great Roman statesman named Cicero believed that this natural law superseded the laws of men and states. Roman natural law held that all men were born equal and that they have certain rights that no government can violate. Nearly 2,000 years later, this Roman concept of natural law would inspire the founding fathers of America.

The Pax Romana

The greatest export of Rome turned out to be the Pax Romana.
Pax Romana

This legal spirit did not end with the death of the republic. Indeed, under the steady leadership of Roman emperors, the Roman Empire and its laws expanded across the Mediterranean. This system of law and order was known as the Pax Romana, or 'Roman Peace,' and it proved to be Rome's greatest export.

Though the peoples and cities the Romans conquered likely resented Roman subjugation, they could not deny that their lives were far more peaceful and orderly than they had been before. Roman law was rather fair and balanced for its time, and it was enforced by the armies of a mighty empire.

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