The Laws of Ancient Rome

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Ancient Rome was a turbulent civilization, but its laws and how they affected the success of it was what was most memorable. With a multitude of feuding groups and a chaotic government, it was difficult to manage the politics and welfare of citizens and the selfish, but powerful senate. To maintain peace and prosperity, Rome’s government created many unique laws. Roman law was what allowed a divided, separated people to live and work together.

In ancient Rome, 95% of the population were Plebeians, which are lower-class people. (Isaac Asimov, 318) In the Senate, though, all of the senators were wealthy. This posed a huge problem with the Plebeians, as they had no representation in the governing body that created all of the rules relating to them. Women in the ancient Roman world were also being discriminated against; the male scholars who wrote about the role and status of women in roman society were highly biased. Instead of commemorating the strong and powerful women like Fulvia, she was married to Mark Antony and she is said to have run the city while he was gone, and stirred up troops against Octavian when he and Mark Antony split the Roman empire between them. She is also the first woman alive to have her face on a Roman coin. (https://www.ancient.eu/article/659/the-role-of-women-in-the-roman-world/)

The last groups were slaves and free people. In ancient Rome, slavery was not based on race, but the cruelty was just the same as the slavery that occured many years later in America. There were so many slaves in Rome that the idea of specific robes used to identify slaves was rejected, because Romans were worried of a slave revolt when they realized how many of them there were. (https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/slaves_freemen.html)

These differing groups in Rome had a huge effect on Rome. Patricians in ancient Rome feared of the Plebeians’ power in numbers. (https://rightsandresponsibilitiesofrome.weebly.com/patricians-and-plebeians.html) Plebeians made up most of the population in Rome, and therefore held the most jobs in Rome. They had a great power, because if they rioted then the economy of Rome would be very poor, as the people with jobs were not working. (Mr. Pugh) The Plebeians also had military backgrounds, because they were Roman soldiers stripped of their land. Similar to the Plebeians, slaves made up a large percentage of the population. In Augustan Italy, slaves made up 30% of the population. Therefore, the government had to be careful, as they did most of the labor along with the Plebeians.

The Gracchus brothers helped grant the plebeians rights. The Plebeians were granted a Plebeian official, due to the senate lacking plebeian officials. Another success to the Plebeians was that they were granted a Plebeian assembly, concilium plebis. The assembly had a Tribune, who would listen to the demands of the Plebeian population. After constantly badgering the Patricians, the Plebeians finally had a counsel of ten men, a decemviri. (https://sites.psu.edu/struggleoftheorders/plebeians-address-and-patricians-response/) These changes helped the Plebeians achieve the rights they deserved and these governing bodies made up of Plebs created the Ten Tables in 450 BC with the patricians. Later on, they added two more tables. These ended up being the famous Twelve Tables, the main governing decrees of Rome. The Licinian Laws (367 BC) were established so ownership of land was open to all classes, and that not one person could own more than five hundred iligera, or three hundred acres.

In second century AD, a jurist named Gaius created a textbook for students; he had an entire section about slave laws. (https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/slavery.html) First it clearly states that all human beings are either slaves or free. Free-born means that the person had been free since birth, while freedman means the person is a slave that had been freed. If a slave is not branded or tortured due to being punished, they became Roman citizens, if the following did apply then they held the same rights as subject foreigners. To become a citizen a slave must be over thirty years of age, their owner must own them by Quiritary right, and it must be a legitimate manumission. If a slave does not fulfill all of these they can become a Latin. A Latin has the same basic freedom, excluding inheritance from a will, unless its granted unofficially by trust. The Lex Aelia Sentia does not allow manumissions made in order to defraud creditors.

Males and females in ancient Rome had to work and live together, because women needed to bear children and to maintain their slaves, their homes, and their children. Usually the men would control the family’s finances and business, but if the male died on military campaign, there are cases of the female maintaining the family’s financial affairs. In addition, if the woman had three children (from c. 17 BC), freedwomen with four children, and Vestal Virgins they would handle the finances. (https://www.ancient.eu/article/659/the-role-of-women-in-the-roman-world/) In table V., it states that females should remain in guardianship even when they reached their majority. (https://www.unrv.com/government/twelvetables.php)

Roman law had a multitude of important laws, not specifically applying to these groups but helped protect the rights of their people and the justice of the assemblies, as well as the random, yet specific laws applying to ever-changing Rome. In table VII. it states that if the road is not paved a man can drive his team where he wishes to. Yet, in table XI., it forbids the marriage of plebeians and patricians, but that is changed when the plebeians gain their proper rights. The twelve tables also mention that foreigners cannot own property in table III. Citizens of Rome could have a will and it would be legally binding, and if the man died and he had a child born 10 months after the father’s death would not be admitted into the father’s inheritance. Treason was also highly frowned upon in Rome, in table IX., it says those who commit treason shall suffer capital punishment. In table X., it says none shall burn or bury a corpse in the city. Because of these oddly specific laws Rome had control over the people and the people knew how to behave. (Don Nardo, 126)

The laws of ancient Rome helped its success with bringing divided groups of people and making the rules surrounding them fair and just for their situation. This does not justify Rome for having slavery or doing many of the other poor things they had done, but they had a successful republic turned empire. Their laws really helped to create the success they had.


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The Laws of Ancient Rome. (2021, Jul 18). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-laws-of-ancient-rome/

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