What was the Law of the Twelve Tables? The genesis of roman Law

What was the Law of the Twelve Tables ? The genesis of roman Law.

By: Diana Carvalho

The roman Republic

The establishment of the roman Republic succeeds the fall of its monarchy in the year 509 b.C, but Rome continued to be a city-state, autonomous and powerfull, with a social structure based on the existence of a dominant aristocratic group opposed to the majority economically subordinated by it.

In this context emerge some social conflicts, meaningfull enough to ensue a reflection on the drafting of laws that diminish the instability.

The Law of the Twelve Tables

The Law of the Twelve Tables represents the first outline of  legal codification e practice explored by the romans, and it derives from a conflict between the aristocracy and the common people based on the inequality towards the Law.

Nonetheless, the Law of the Twelve Tables had no intention of promoting equality, only settle the disputes and present the Law as an independent subject.

How was it devised…

The legend of its conception says that in the year 462 b.C. a commoner tribune proposed the designation of a commission to compose this laws, yet unsuccessfully. Later on, in the year 455 b.C, the Senate decided to write a set of laws equal to both social groups, naming a commission that should collect in Greece a number of model laws for this purpose.

In 451 b.C, a college of ten magistrates, all of them patricians, was elected in place of the consuls to write the laws, they were the decemviri legibus scribundis. Each one presented their work on a table, voted by the assembly of military units, the comitia centuriata. The following year, in 449 b.C., a college of commoners and patricians wrote and added two more tables to the group.

That same year, the consular regime is reestablished. Law of the Twelve Tables was considered by Titus Livius (Livy), perhaps the first historiographer of the city of Rome, as “the source of all the public and private law”.

Current historians recognize the existence of a common law for aristocrats and commoners and the existence of colleges that drafted all this legislation.

The origin of the jus civile

Law of the Twelve Tables established the jus civile, the laicization of the right, and contemplated the family, marriage, divorce and inheritances; possession and transfer of property, assaults and injuries against people and property; and debts, slavery, insolvency subjection with the agreement of the parties (nexum). It also contained administrative and formal procedures for legal cases, regulations of a religious nature, such as the rules established for funerals. However, the Law is silent regarding the city’s institutions, the judiciary, the distribution of property and the economic life, not due to a failure of the legislators, but because this was a Law with a single objective, to settle the main conflicts between aristocrats and commoners.

The concilum plebis

The commoners, or free citizens, were favored in two strands, one regarding access to the judiciary, and the second regarding the leges Valeriae, in which the legal status of the commoners is recognized through the creation of an assembly that represents them, the concilium plebis, with legislative capacity and with a seat in the Senate.

You can read the text of the law here.


CENTENO, Rui Manuel Sobral (coord.) – Civilizações Clássicas II. Roma. Documento pdf. Manual de História das Civilizações Clássicas. 1º ciclo de Estudos em História. Acessível na Plataforma de E-Learning da Universidade Aberta.

ALFOLDY, Géza – A História social de Roma. Lisboa: Ed. Presença, 1989.

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