These laws – themselves extracted from tribal customs - became pillars of Roman law and as such, are considered to form the foundation of all modern public and private law.
They promoted the organization of public prosecution of crimes and instituted a system whereby injured parties could seek compensation from their aggressors.
More importantly, they protected the lower class (plebes) from the legal abuses of the ruling class (the patricians) especially in the enforcement of debts.
The common class of Rome (the plebians) struggled mightily against the rich class (patricians). The plebians appreciated the rule of law and the peace and order that it wrought but not the way it was interpreted and administered against them by the patricians - including judex or judges who were taken exclusively from the patrician class.
The Cambridge Ancient History sets the context for the Twelve Tables:
“The plebians were in ignorance of the Roman laws, which were a secret of the pontifices (priests) and other patricians and were administered with unfair severity against plebians.”
In 462, after over 200 years of near civil war between the rich and the not-so-rich, the epiphany came from a plebian named Terentilius.
In Ab Urbe Condita, Livy wrote of the historical moment:
“(I)n order that (the patricians) unbounded license might not last forever, he (Terentilius) would bring forward a law that five persons be appointed to draw up laws regarding the consular power, by which the consul should use that right which the people should have given him over them, not considering their own caprice and license as law.
Terentilius’ suggestion was brilliant: that discretion and arbitrary justice be eliminated by simply writing the law down. Solon had done it in Athens some 150 years earlier, with reported success, but to be sure, the patricians sent a delegation of three to Athens to make inquiries.
In 451, the patricians struck a board of ten consuls with the stated eligibility of plebians but none were appointed – it was all patrician commissioners.
The Board came up with ten laws and had them passed by the patricians and then by an assembly of the plebians.
Then, they were individually inscribed on ten bronze tablets and prominently displayed in the Forum, immortalized in a famous drawing by the Polish artist, Augustyn Mirys (below) wherein the citizens of Rome are shown exalting the Twelve Tables as they are placed on the outside wall of the Forum in Rome.
The Board was disbanded but a year later, according to Livy, the Gods sent word that the ten tables were not sufficient because:
“(T)he sky seemed to be on fire, and a violent earthquake took place: it was believed that an ox spoke, a phenomenon which had not been credited in the previous year: among other prodigies there was a shower of flesh, which a large flock of birds is said to have carried off by pecking at the falling pieces: that which fell to the ground is said to have lain scattered about just as it was for several days, without becoming tainted.”
Two more laws were added, bringing the total of tables to twelve. The additions was approved by the Roman parliament in a statute called Lex duodecim tabularum.
From that point on, a basic principle of Roman law is that the law must be written and justice cannot be left in the hands of judges alone to interpret, a correct and wise detour along the path of law that, for example, the common law would not take directly. But the civil law, itself a modern prodigy of Roman law, has always subscribed to this principle.
Cicero writes that the Twelve Tables were mandatory learning for all Roman youth.
Eventually, the Twelve Tables proved insufficient for the economic and societal necessities of the Roman empire. Lawyers and jurists began a long process of extending the text of the Tables by tendering interpretations which, increasingly, were adopted as law by the Roman courts.
No complete original copy of the Twelve Tables has ever been found although significant fragments of copies have been pieced together to give an almost-complete view, albeit with discordance as to the detail of missing words and the usual international issue: translation.
The original Twelve Tables survived almost 1,000 years until destroyed by invading Gauls in 390 AD.
"It is probably quite true that the original twelve tables were destroyed when Rome was sacked and burned by the Gauls. But they were at once reproduced and ranscripts of them must have been abundant if, as Cicero says was still the case in his youth, the children were required to committ them to memory as an ordinary school task."
The Twelve Tables set out as follows:
- A person summoned to Court to give evidence must attend and a perjurer is thrown from Tarpeian Rock (Table 1, 2, 4 and 8);
- A judgment may be enforced as of the 30th day thereafter and if the debtor does not pay, he may be bound for an additional 30 days and if he still does not pay, he may be killed or sold as a slave (Table 2);
- Women shall remain in the permanent guardianship of their father or, if married, of their husband (Table 5);
- Marriage is presumed after a year of cohabitation and the wife, in the eyes of the law, to be treated as the daughter of her husband (Table 6);
- Marriage between patricians and plebians is forbidden (Table 11);
- Women must not wail at funerals (Table 10);
- If a person slanders another by song, the slanderer shall be clubbed to death (Table 7);
- If a person maims another, let the injurer be similarly injured unless the victim agrees to compensation (Table 8);
- Dreadfully deformed newborns are to be killed (Table 4);
- Any person who interferes with the growing of crops by the use of magic, shall be put to death (sacrificed; Table 7);
- A child born ten months after the father’s death shall not inherit from the father’s estate (Table 4);
- It is illegal to hold meetings in Rome at night (Table 8); and
- Any judge fund to have accepted a bribe in exchange for a decision, shall be put to death (Table 9).
- Cicero, Marcus Tullius, Treatises On The Nature Of The Gods, And On The Commonwealth, circa 50 BC.
- Cook, S., Adcock, F. and Charlesworth, M., The Hellenistic Monarchies and the Rise of Rome, Volume 7 (VII) of The Cambridge Ancient History, published in Cambridge, England by The University Press in 1928.
- Cumin, Patrick, A Manual of Civil Law (London: Stevens and Norton, 1854).
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Timetable of World Legal History
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Roman Law
- Livy, Titus (died 17 AD), Ab Urbe Condita (Roman History or From the Founding of the City), Book III.
- Long, G., Lex Duodecim Tabularum, published in Murray, J., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London 1875), online as of March 2008 at penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Lex_XII_Tabularum.html
- Muirhead, James, Historical Introduction to the Private Law of Rome (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1899), page 97.