Law Hall of Fame logoDate of birth is approximate; taken from Encyclopedia Britannica, although Honoré proposes that it was: "in the last fifteen years of the fifth century".

Honoré's book describes Tribonia as follows:

"[H]e was Justinian's minister of (justice) for nearly 12 years, between 529 and May 542. In these years the three volumes of the Corpus Juris and most of the surviving legislation of Justinian's reign were produced. He drafted about three-quarters of the surviving constitutions of Justinian's reign. He planned and directed the work of the Second Law Commission which produced the Digest, the Institutes and the second Codex Justinianus. He took an active part in the execution of the plan, doing more work himself ... than any of the other commissioners."

Roman jurist and Justinian’s right hand man in consolidating Roman law and issuing what has become known as Justinian’s Institutes, but also known as Corpus Iuris Civilis. Justinian got all the credit and much was deserved.

Tribonian (also Tribonianus) started his career as a lawyer and was later appointed as a judge.

Justinian, Emperor of the Roman Empire from 527 to his death in 565, was also chief administrator and military general. He left his ongoing pet project, essentially a royal commission, to consolidate and compact existing Roman law, to his chief law minister Tribonian, culminating in the publication of the Institutes in 533.

Roman law is one of the primary sources of law (the other being the common law). Without the Institutes, it is doubtful that the Roman law would have enjoyed the success that it did. Birks and McLeod suggest that the Institutes "has some claim to be the most important law book ever written".

TribonianTribonian first sat on the commission writing the Codex, a consolidation of imperial decisions, which published the first edition in 529.

Justinian then struck his Digest commission in December of 530 and under Tribonian’s chairmanship, he selected fifteen fellow jurists to form a committee of sixteen which took just three years to publish the first part of the Institutes, and by far the biggest, the Digest.

Tribonian also presided over the three member commission that undertook to write the Institutes, published a month before the Digests.

The Digest was essentially an encyclopedia of existing Roman law as selected from the most eminent Roman law jurists.

Perhaps most importantly, Tribonian had his hand in writing the Institutes, the most important part of the Corpus, with the assistance of two law professors, one from Constantinople and the other from Beirut, with Tribonian being the final editor.

In Tribonian, Honoré wrote of his subject:

"The last Roman jurist, his was the hand which preserved and renewed Rome’s lawyers and its laws."

In 542, the plague swept across the Roman Empire, and took many of Constantinople leading jurists, including Tribonian, in about 542.

His legacy was somewhat tarred by allegations of corruption noted in this otherwise eloquent eulogy of Edward Gibbon:

"This extraordinary man, the object of so much praise and censure, was a native of Side in Pamphylia.

"From the bar of the Praetorian praefects, he raised himself to the honors of quaestor, of consul, and of master of the offices: the council of Justinian listened to his eloquence and wisdom; and envy was mitigated by the gentleness and affability of his manners.

"The reproaches of impiety and avarice have stained the virtue or the reputation of Tribonian. In a bigoted and persecuting court, the principal minister was accused of a secret aversion to the Christian faith, and was supposed to entertain the sentiments of an Atheist and a Pagan, which have been imputed, inconsistently enough, to the last philosophers of Greece. His avarice was more clearly proved and more sensibly felt. If he were swayed by gifts in the administration of justice..., if he degraded the sanctity of his profession; and if laws were every day enacted, modified, or repealed, for the base consideration of his private emolument.

"In the sedition of Constantinople, his removal was granted to the clamors, perhaps to the just indignation, of the people: but the quaestor was speedily restored, and, till the hour of his death, he possessed, above twenty years, the favor and confidence of the emperor. His passive and dutiful submission had been honored with the praise of Justinian himself, whose vanity was incapable of discerning how often that submission degenerated into the grossest adulation. Tribonian adored the virtues of his gracious master...."

REFERENCES:

  • Birks, P. and McLeod, G., Justinian’s Institutes (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1987), page 8.
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law's Hall of Fame and Duhaime's Timetable of World Legal History
  • Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire (London: 1788), available online as of March 2008 at ccel.org/ccel/gibbon/decline/files/decline.html.
  • Honoré, T., Tribonian (London: Duckworth & Co., 1978).
  • Holland, Thomas, The Institutes of Justinian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881), Introduction
  • Image of Tribonian as displayed at the US House of Representatives