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Twelve Tables: Equal Access to the Law

Problem

Imagine you are a citizen living in a society that is governed by laws that are not written. Suppose your neighbor breaks a law, and the government official who is in charge of enforcing the laws makes them pay a small fine. Then, you break the same law, but the same government official tells you to pay a much larger sum than your neighbor. You want the government official to treat you and your neighbor the same, but since the law is not written, you have no way of showing that the government official made you pay an excessive fine. 

The Explanation

Since the law is enforced according to the official's impulses rather than an objective system, the official’s power is arbitrary. Essentially, the law exists in the official’s mind, so the official is the ultimate authority on the law. So how do you ensure that the law is applied equally to all citizens? 

In Rome during the fifth century B.C., concerns over the arbitrary power of officials to enforce the law may have led the citizens of Rome to call for some laws to be written, resulting in the Twelve Tables.

Twelve Tables

The Twelve Tables, also known as the Law of the Twelve Tables, contained Rome’s first set of written laws. Composed around 450 B.C., the Twelve Tables dealt primarily with private law and topics relevant to an agricultural society.

The History

The Twelve Tables date to the middle of the fifth century B.C. when ten men were chosen to draft a set of laws to govern the Roman Republic. Exactly why these men were commissioned is uncertain; it is possible that the driving force was pressure from the common people to limit the power of the consuls, Rome’s highest-ranking government officials. In any case, one year after these men were commissioned, they produced ten bronze tablets that were prominently displayed in the middle of the city, the Roman Forum. A year later, two more tablets were added to bring the total to twelve. The Twelve Tables were displayed in the Forum until Rome was sacked by invading Gauls in 390 B.C., and the Twelve Tables were destroyed. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Twelve Tables continued to heavily influence Roman law and society throughout the Republic and beyond, as the memory of the contents of the Twelves Tables lived on in the written works of Roman authors. According to the famous Roman statesman and writer Cicero, the Twelve Tables were even part of the education of Roman boys in the late Republic, three hundred years after the tablets themselves were lost. 

The Twelve Tables were not an all-encompassing legal code, but rather a collection of laws designating specific punishments and procedures for specific actions, mostly regarding interactions between individuals. This branch of law is called private law. The Twelve Tables dealt with topics relevant to an agricultural society, such as debt, the family, inheritance, and property. Additionally, the Twelve Tables contain some public law, which governs relations between individuals and society, including a provision for due process, or the right to a trial.

To be clear, the contents of the Twelve Tables were by no means a radical attempt to reform the laws governing the Roman Republic. Rather, they were an effort to put pre-existing laws into writing. So, if the Twelve Tables were not a comprehensive legal code, the laws themselves were not revolutionary, and the physical tablets only lasted for sixty years, what was so important about them? The most significant aspect of the Twelve Tables was the introduction of written law to Rome, along with the implications this had on the development of Roman law.

Why Care?

Roman law could very well be the most enduring and impactful contribution of Rome’s legacy, as it has influenced numerous modern legal traditions. The Twelve Tables were significant because they embodied the characteristics that would later come to define Roman law: they were specific, meaning there was less opportunity for magistrates to arbitrarily enforce them; they were public, ensuring equal access to the law for all citizens; and they were rational, meaning they applied in a more equal, systematic manner, thus ensuring the right of citizens to fair treatment by magistrates. The Twelve Tables were not a finished product, but they were a major step toward what Roman law would become.

Think Further

  1. Why is it so important that laws are written and publicly accessible? What are the consequences if this is not the case?
  2. What is the benefit of having laws that are specific?
  3. Do you think that the legal system of the United States was influenced in any way by the Twelve Tables? Why or why not? 

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  1. Boatwright, Mary T., et al. A Brief History of the Romans. 2nd ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  2. Cartwright, Mark. “Twelve Tables.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, Apr. 2016, https://www.ancient.eu/Twelve_Tables/.
  3. Lobingier, Charles Sumner. The Evolution of the Roman Law from Before the Twelve Tables to the Corpus Juris. 2nd ed., Charles Sumner Lobingier, 1923. HeinOnline.
  4. The Twelve Tables. Translated by P. R. Coleman-Norton, Project Gutenberg, 2005, www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14783/pg14783-images.html.