Rule of Law: The Story of Human Rights in World History
2004 ORIAS Summer Teachers' Institute 
July 26-30

Justinian Code: Ancient Rome/Byzantine Empire
Background on Justinian's Code (Byzantine Empire, 534 CE).
Hand-out focuses on composition of the Code, including interlinked areas of civil law, law of nations, and natural law.
Excerpts from Medieval Legal History Sourcebook.

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What is the Justinian Code? What types of law are in the Justinian Code? Areas of Law in the Justinian Code How do Natural Law, Law of Nations, and Civil Law work together to create a legal system?

What is the Justinian Code?

Based on "The Institutes"

Corupus Iurus Civilis or the Justinian Code, was the result of Emperor Justinian's desire that existing Roman law be collected into a simple and clear system of laws, or "code." Tribonian, a legal minister under Justinian, lead a group of scholars in a 14-month effort to codify existing Roman law. The result was the first Justinian Code, completed in 529. This code was later expanded to include Justinian's own laws, as well as two additional books on areas of the law. In 534, the Justinian Code, made up of the Code, the Digest, and the Institutes, was completed.

Composition of the Justinian Code, 534 CE
Codex/ Code
Codification of existing Roman laws

*A guide for judges
*Summary of common law

The Institutes
Introduction to law and the Code
intended for law students


What types of law are in the Justinian Code?

  1. Unwritten laws based on customs and usage
  2. Types of written law :
"Sounds Like "
leges (singular, lex)
by vote of the people

consult decree of ancient Roman Senate

constitutiones of emperors

edict of the Emperor

(supreme power)

edicta of magistrates
edict of magistrates
responsa of jurisprudents
response, jurist
commentary by legal expert

Areas of Law in the Justinian Code:


Public Law:

Law for government


Private Law:

Law for individuals
composed of Natural Law, Law of Nations, and Civil Law

Natural Law

"The law of nature is that law which nature teaches to all animals. For this law does not belong exclusively to the human race, but belongs to all animals, whether of the earth, the air, or the water. Hence comes the union of the male and female, which we term matrimony; hence the procreation and bringing up of children. We see, indeed, that all the other animals besides men are considered as having knowledge of this law."

Law of Nations

"[T]he law which natural reason appoints for all mankind obtains equally among all nations, because all nations make use of it."

Civil Law

"The law which a people makes for its own government belongs exclusively to that state and is called the civil law, as being the law of the particular state."

How do Natural Law, Law of Nations, and Civil Law work together to create a legal system?

"Civil law is thus distinguished from the law of nations. Every community governed by laws and customs uses partly its own law, partly laws common to all mankind. . . . The people of Rome, then, are governed partly by their own laws, and partly by the laws which are common to all mankind."

"{N]ations have established certain laws, as occasion and the necessities of human life required. Wars arose, and in their train followed captivity and then slavery, which is contrary to the law of nature; for by that law all men are originally born free. Further, by the law of nations almost all contracts were at first introduced, as, for instance, buying and selling, letting and hiring, partnership, deposits, loans returnable in kind, and very many others."

"The laws of nature, which all nations observe alike, being established by a divine providence, remain ever fixed and immutable. But the laws which every state has enacted, undergo frequent changes, either by the tacit consent of the people, or by a new law being subsequently passed."

Adapted from Justinian Code, "The Institutes: Book I, Section I," Medieval Legal History Sourcebook, Last modified : March 4, 2001. <>; Linda Karen Miller, "Justinian as a Law Reformer," The Byzantine Empire in the Age of Justinian: A Unit of Study for Grades 7-10, National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 1997. pp. 35-45; and Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume IV. Chapter XLIV : Idea Of The Roman Jurisprudence. (Ancient History Sourcebook:)

Created with cited sources by Hallie Fader at ORIAS, Berkeley, CA May-July 2004.

Sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley Office of Resources for International and Area Studies (ORIAS), Institute of East Asian Studies, Center for Latin American Studies, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, Center for South Asia Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Institute of European Studies. 

Funding is provided by Title VI grants from the United States Department of Education.