Rhodes was a strong, independent seafaring and trading island south of modern Greece, and of great antiquity, having, for example built one of the seven wonders of the world, the Collussus of Rhodes.
Between 1,000 BC and 600 BC, the people of Rhodes developed a strong commercial fleet and they were soon everywhere in the Mediterranean, as well as establishing trading colonies along the west coast of Italy, France and Spain.
Concurrently, the people of Rhodes developed rules of law to deal with occasional shipping disputes including, especially, a code of maritime law (quite likely the world's first given the developing state of writing); what the Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic called "the mysterious lex Rhodia".
No copy of the great Lex Rhodia has ever been found. Yet Rhodian maritime law survived until the Roman Empire, and adopted by the Romans: it is explicitly mentioned in Book 2, Title 7 of the Roman law text, Opinions of Julius Paulus (circa 235):
The five meager provisions which have survived, albeit second-hand through Paulus, and only as to emergency cargo jettisoning, provide as follows:
"It is provided by the Lex Rhodia that if merchandise is thrown overboard for the purpose of lightening a ship, the loss is made good by the assessment of all which is made for the benefit of all.
"If after a ship has been lightened by throwing the merchandise overboard, it should be lost, and the merchandise of others should be recovered by divers, it has been settled that he who threw his property overboard for the purpose of saving the ship will be entitled to an account of the same.
"Where either the ship, or a mast is lost in a storm the passengers are not liable to contribution, unless the vessel was saved through the passengers themselves cutting down the mast to insure their own preservation.
"Where, for the purpose of lightening a ship, merchandise is thrown into a boat and lost, it is established that the loss shall be made good by the assessment of the property which remained safe in the ship. If, however, the ship should be lost, no account should be taken of the boat which was saved, or of the merchandise it may have contained.
"Contribution by assessment should be made where property has been thrown into the sea, and the ship has been saved.
Of Julius Paulus' Opinions of Paulus, Book II, Title 7, written in about 230, legal historian S. P. Scott wrote:
"The meager extracts set forth in this Title practically comprise all that survives of the maritime code of one of the most famous nations of antiquity, whose naval exploits are referred to by Homer as well known in his day, and whose wealth and power caused it to be feared and respected for a period of almost twelve hundred years. Its origin has, on plausible grounds, been attributed to the Phoenicians, who colonized so much territory belonging to the Mediterranean, and from that enterprising people, the commercial pioneers of the ancient world, no doubt came many of the rules of the sea....."
Legal historians believe that a Rhodesian maritime law code referred to as Lex Rhodia, was probably issued in about 900-800 BC, and that it contained far more than the cargo jettison provisions to which Paulus defers.
Book XIV, Title II of the Digests of Justinian, (a part of Corpus Civilis) is entitled "Concerning the Rhodian Law of Jettison" and without otherwise referring to its source, includes a second tantalizing reference to what may have been the Lex Rhodia:
"It is provided by the Rhodian Law that where merchandise is thrown overboard for the purpose of lightening a ship, what has been lost for the benefit of all must be made up by the contribution of all."
Finally, Cicero (106-43BC), in Oratorical Invention, wrote of a Rhodian shipping law:
"There is a law among the Rhodians that if any beaked ship (a ship readied for war) shall be found in any port, it shall be confiscated."
According to Scott, the Lex Rhodia was a comprehensive maritime law code which:
"... prescribed rules for the guidance of the officers and crews of vessels, and their passengers; penalties for misconduct of those in authority and their responsibility in case of negligence; and the forms of bills of lading, charter-parties, loans on bottomry and other contracts growing out of the prosecution of commercial transactions.
"This equitable principle formulated by the greatest sailors and traders of antiquity; inherited by the Rhodians, a people scarcely inferior to them in maritime skill and enterprise; and transmitted to posterity by Roman authority and example survives in localities where one would least expect to encounter it. The Lex Rhodia de jactu, which the Romans borrowed from the Phoenicians, is now in great observance among the tribes of the Sahara as the customary mode of distributing the losses incurred by caravans crossing the desert between the company owning the camels, or what in railway language would be called the plant, and the passengers or owners of goods. "
But the only maritime law legacy which can be credited to Lex Rhodia, with reasonable certainty, is the cargo jettison rules, what present-day English maritime law experts refer to as general average.
In The Law of Obligations, Zimmerman explained how this feature of the Lex Rhodia worked:
"(A)ny voyage by ship was a somewhat hazardous venture, especially in the Mediterranean Sea. It was (and still is) notorious for its storms and shipwreck was no rare occurrence....
"Sometimes the ship's master was able to save the vessel from foundering by throwing goods overboard and thus lightening the ship. Of course, in a situation of distress there is no time carefully to pick up and choose and thus the (master) and his deck-hands grabbed and jettisoned what was nearest or what was heaviest.
"But must the unfortunate owner of these goods then carry the loss? That would most certainly not be equitable. After all, his property was sacrificed in order to save that of the others: he incurred a loss for the common benefit.
"Obviously then, if the benefit was common, so should be the loss.
"The first (person whose cargo was jettisoned) could sue the (ship master) for the value of his property that had been jettisoned, minus his own share of the loss. The (ship master), in turn, would sue the other (cargo owners) for their pro rata contribution,
"The Rhodian custom thus became an integral part of the contractual relations existing between the parties to a contract of carriage by sea.
"Lex Rhodia ... was applied to cases where part of the cargo was used to ransom a ship from pirates."
This legacy of Lex Rhodia soon influenced all forms of transportation and Roman trade law and can be found in the legal principle that where a person's property is sacrificed to protect others, he should be able to receive compensation from those others (not dissimilar to unjust enrichment).
Some scholars - especially R. Benedict - question the existence of a maritime law code, the Lex Rhodia in spite of the persuasive evidence of the references within Paulus, Justinian and Cicero's works, suggesting even that it is a myth. But according to the Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd Edition, the time period of 800-600 BC was precisely when the Greek states were compiling law codes (see, for example, the Law Codes of Gortys) and Rhodes was a dominant sea trader.
Lex Rhodia can be distinguished from another, later maritime law code known as the Rhodian Sea Law, written by Greeks and published in about 800.
- Benedict, R., The Historical Position of the Rhodian Law, XVIII Yale Law Journal 4 (1909), page 223-242.
- Flower, H., Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), page 175.
- Gilmore, G. and Black, C., The Law of Admiralty, 2nd Edition (New York: Foundation Press Inc.), pages 2-5.
- Image is of an ancient Greek ship, painted onto pottery.
- Scott, Samual P., The Civil Law, Volume I (Cincinnati: 1932).
- Université Pierre-Mendès-France, Digest or Pandects of Justinian (translation of S. P. Scott), published at web.upmf-grenoble.fr/Haiti/Cours/Ak/Anglica/digest_Scott.htm
- Zimmerman, R., The Law of Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), page 407.