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Twelve Tables

(Duodĕcim Tabŭlae). The Twelve Tables, the first code of Roman law, adopted in B.C. 451 and 450. They remained the foundation of Roman jurisprudence (fons omnis publici privatique iuris, Livy, iii. 34) until the promulgation of the Corpus Iuris (q. v.) by the emperor Justinian (about A.D. 530). Livy (iii. 31-37) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (x. 55-60) narrate the circumstances under which the code was enacted. The measure was a concession to the plebeians in their struggle with the patrician class. An agitation for written laws, which might serve as a check on the arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates, had begun as early as 462 (Livy, iii. 9). The principal Greek communities had long enjoyed the advantages of such laws. In 454 a commission of three men was sent abroad to study the institutions of Athens and other Greek cities. This commission returned, and finally, in 451, ten men (decemviri), of whom Appius Claudius was the leading spirit, were chosen as the sole magistrates for the year, with power to draw up laws. The first ten tables were thus produced, and adopted by the Comitia Centuriata. The following year another board of decemviri, still headed by Appius Claudius, was elected, and two more tables were added. A divergent account (Diod.xii. 26) ascribes the composition of the last two tables to Horatius and Valerius, the consuls of the year 499. The laws were cut on bronze plates, which were hung in a conspicuous place in the Forum (Livy, iii. 57). Whether these original copies survived the sack of Rome by the Gauls in B.C. 390 is disputed, the question turning on the ambiguous expression of Livy in vi. 1.

The authority of the Twelve Tables during the republican period was very great. Boys learned them by heart in the schools (De Leg. ii. 4, 9, and 23, 59). Later, this practice was discontinued. Though never repealed, the laws were gradually overlaid by praetorian decisions (edicta), which modified and supplemented them according to existing needs. These edicts came to be more important than the laws themselves (De Leg. i. 5, 17). There were several ancient commentaries on the Twelve Tables; the latest of these, by Gaius (second century A.D.), is often quoted in the Digests.

In general, the code of the Twelve Tables is spoken of by ancient writers in terms of admiration. The eleventh and twelfth tables, the work of the unpopular Second Decemvirate, are called by Cicero ( Rep. ii. 37, 63) duae tabulae iniquarum legum; but the chief ground for this estimate of them appears to be the law, afterwards annulled, forbidding the intermarriage of patricians and plebeians. It must not be supposed that these two tables were an afterthought; it is clear from the language of Livy and Dionysius that the first ten tables, at the time of their adoption, were understood to be only a partial code, and that further legislation was expected. It is a noteworthy fact that the remarkable set of laws discovered in 1884 at Gortyna in Crete is cut upon a wall in twelve columns. See Gortyn.

We cannot exactly define the relation of the Twelve Tables to preëxisting Roman law. But it is certain that they contained both new and old elements. There existed already a body of legal usages, and some of these had been formulated in maxims, known as leges regiae. Some of these maxims would seem from the language of Livy (vi. 1) to have existed in written form. The Twelve Tables were based in part on this older law of custom (τὰ πάτρια ἔθη, Dionys. x. 55; οἱ παρὰ σφίσιν αὐτοῖς ἄγραφοι ἐθισμοί, ibid. 57). At least one of the leges regiae, relating to the patria potestas, was embodied in them (Dionys. ii. 27). On the other hand, they contained new features, and some of these were certainly derived from Greek sources. Thus we are told in particular by Cicero (De Leg. ii. 23, 59; 25, 64) that certain clauses restricting expense at funerals were taken almost word for word from the laws of Solon. Like statements are made by Gaius (Dig. x. 1, 13; xlvii. 22, 4) about two other laws. An Ephesian Greek named Hermodorus is said to have aided the decemviri in their work ( Strab. p. 642; Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxxiv. 5Pliny H. N., 11). The fact of Greek influence in the decemviral legislation is further brought out by striking resemblances between the Twelve Tables and the inscriptional code of Gortyna just mentioned—resemblances extending even to particular expressions (se fraude esto=ἄπατων ἤμην).

We possess about 100 fragments of the Twelve Tables, some containing quotations of their exact words, others only statements of content. The most important sources are Gellius (especially the interesting chapter xx. 1), Festus, Cicero, and Gaius. The arrangement of these fragments and their distribution among the Twelve Tables have been much discussed. The following is the system of Dirksen, which has obtained a considerable currency: Tables i. and ii., civil process; iii., procedure for debt; iv., patria potestas; v., guardianship and inheritance; vi., rights of property; vii., contracts; viii., delicta and crimina; ix., ius publicum; x., ius sacrum (including burial); xi. and xii., supplements and additions. This system is based on two things:


a few citations in which the number of the table is expressly stated; and


the citations from Gaius 's commentary, the assumption being that the six books of that commentary corresponded to the twelve tablets of laws taken in pairs. But the validity of this assumption respecting Gaius 's six books has been denied by many recent scholars, and even the hypothesis which underlies this and all previous attempts at arrangement—that the disposition of the code was strictly systematic, and that the contents of each tablet constituted a sort of unity, like a chapter— has been shown to be unsupported by analogies. (See, on all this, Schoell's Prolegomena, pp. 67, 68.) It may be added that the arrangement of the Gortynian Code, already mentioned, shows little system, and that its twelve columns are like pages of a book, and have nothing to do with the divisions of the subject-matter. It should therefore be borne in mind that all that we certainly know respecting the location of the different fragments is this: the law permitting the release of a son from patria potestas by three mancipations (sales) stood in the fourth table (Dionys. ii. 27); the sumptuary laws regulating funerals in the tenth (De Leg. ii. 25, 64); the prohibition of conubium between patricians and plebeians in one of the last two tables (Dionys. x. 60). Probably, also, the law defining proper causes of postponement for a suit was in the second table (Festus, p. 273, but the text is conjectural). Lastly, that the first table began with the words si in ius vocat, ito may be fairly inferred from De Leg. ii. 4, 9. It is the opinion of Mommsen that the Fasti or Calendar were contained in the Twelve Tables (cf. Cic. Ad Att. vi. 1, 8; Macrob. Sat. i. 13, 21), and Schoell assigns them to the eleventh table.

The language of the Twelve Tables abounded in archaisms. As examples may serve im=eum, nox =noctu, endo=in (endo iacito inicito), escit=est, lessus=luctus, ast as conditional particle, ‘and if.’ The condensation of expression is extreme: for instance, the subject is constantly omitted, even where there is a sudden change; as, si nox furtum faxsit, si im occisit, iure caesus esto. The laws contain some noteworthy provisions. Thus, gold must not be buried with a corpse, except that used to fasten teeth. The person of a debtor was forfeited to his creditors, who might divide his body among them. No actual occurrence of this, we are told, was on record in historical times.

The fragments of the Twelve Tables have been often edited, but the editions which mark a distinct advance are: J. Gothofredus, Fragmenta XII Tabularum (Heidelberg, 1616) (reprinted in Otto's Thesaurus Iuris Romani, vol. iii.); H. E. Dirksen, Uebersicht der bisherigen Versuche zur Kritik und Herstellung des Textes der Zwölftafeln-Fragmente (Leipzig, 1824); Rudolf Schoell, Legis Duodecim Tabularum Reliquiae (with valuable Prolegomena) (Leipzig, 1866).

hide References (8 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (8):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 6.1.8
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 12.26
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 34.11
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 34.5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 34
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 57
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 9
    • Cicero, De Republica, 2.37
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