The Influence of Ancient Rome on the American Legal System
By: Flavia Argamasilla
Italy’s roots lie in ancient Rome, and as it seems, so do America’s. As you may already know, there are countless notions we experience in our day-to-day lives in America that were adopted from ancient principles that were originally Roman in descent. We have all been taught at some point in our schooling that we stole ancient Rome’s concept of government for ourselves in the United States. After all, we do have the famous separation of powers, with multiple branches of government including a congress and no singular, all- powerful position. As a matter of fact, the Roman, Julius Caesar thought he could fit into that role, and we all know what happened to him. Nonetheless, the truth is that we took a lot more ‘inspiration’ from ancient Rome than solely the concept of having a free Republic. If you look closely enough, you will notice that bits and pieces, if not whole chunks, of Roman ideals are scattered throughout our very country’s most principal foundations, just like crumbs under the couch of our country.
As someone who is studying towards a political science minor and a pre- law skills certificate, I’ve learned throughout all my classes to perceive the world in a different manner. Pre- law studies have taught me to always take in both sides of an equation and put objectivity and impartiality above all else while deciding situations. In America, these two factors are arguably the most basic building blocks you discover when breaking apart our legal system. In fact, our own Lady Justice wears a blindfold representing this same principle of fairness that we know the country constantly strives for in legal proceedings. Yet, what is ‘just’? Although in practice it is true that plenty of unexpected imperfections often rise up from the cracks and flaws in our system, our concepts and beliefs on ‘justice’ and how it should function in the legal sense of the word are very much founded in Italy, or more specifically, they are founded in ancient Roman principles.
Furthermore, law in ancient Rome revolutionized many concepts during the civilization’s time. One of the stark differences between Rome and its geographical neighbors was the treatment women received. Roman women, although still not considered completely equal to men, had more legal rights than had been seen at this point in history. Romans let women practice certain rights, like divorce, owning a business, and executing their own wishes on their property, among others. For its time, these women’s rights were not popular, and the effect of letting women be far more socially independent no doubt revolutionized how we, to this day, see and put into practice women’s rights.
Legal Foundations – Italia
Roman law stretched so far into all aspects of daily life that, like modern day law, it can be difficult to catalog. One key feature of Roman law was the attention to the precision of language used in writing the laws, very similar to America’s convoluted legal terminology. It all started with the Roman Twelve Tables. They are, as the name provides, 12 bronze tablets created in Rome in 451 and 450 BCE. At the time, there was a growing pressure from the plebeians, the ordinary Romans, to establish a set of laws that would reduce the influence that the wealthy, patricians, and priests had on the administration of law in Rome. This new set of laws would have to better represent the ordinary people. A committee, or decemviri, composed of 10 aristocratic men or Roman patricians, was established and put up to the task. They came up with 10 tables, adding two more in the following year, of ius civile, civil laws, that they felt would help prevent abuses and help govern themselves better.
Philosophically, these tablets stand for a lot more than the laws the Romans established to please the plebeians. It was an attempt to codify law and apply it to all citizens, wealthy or not. It now allowed legal principles to be looked at and cases to be decided based on a certain standard. The decemviri had the charge of determining which principles they wanted to codify into everyday Roman law. Plebeians and patricians alike would have to follow them, and its key features would be known to all of Rome and beyond for years into the future. What standard were they intending to set for the future of Roman legal practices? The Twelve Tables showcase a just and fair approach to civil law, many of the lines starting with the words ‘any person’ or ‘no person’. It established the Romans’ concept of justice across the civilization for years to come and functioned as the first guiding document for Roman society and legal practices.
Afterward, new laws continued shaping Rome as its needs and people changed. Roman law was cumulative, meaning that statutes, senatorial decrees, decided cases, and edicts could all be added to or supersede any existing law, much like in the United States today. Additionally, there was eventually a need for laws that covered difficult topics such as businesses and commercial purchases. When Roman citizens began interacting with non-Roman citizens in transactions and financial deals, contract law and international law came to be. During the second half of the Roman republic, legal jargon had reached technicality levels that everyday citizens could no longer interpret, triggering the rise of ‘legal specialists’ or jurists. The job of jurists was to be consulted by anyone who needed legal advice or had questions having to do with Roman law. In a way, these jurists were the closest thing to modern day ‘lawyers’ that Rome had.
Legal Foundations – America
The United States of America is known for its prime example of democracy and its complex legal system. What is less popularly known is how much of the legal system is inspired from Rome. In terms of legal frameworks, the most important American document is, of course, the Constitution. The lengthy document established the guiding principles and fundamental laws and rights in the United States, just as the Twelve Tables did for Rome. What principles did America’s Founding Fathers intend to instill on the future of both their country and its legal foundations? The same ones the decemviri instilled onto their Twelve Tables: fairness, impartiality, justice; the parallels between the two groups are difficult to ignore.
The Founding Fathers’ idea of justice, founded in Roman ideals, comes through in their writing: creating a congress to represent the rights of all citizens, not just the wealthy, along with spelling out which legal rights they believed one should be entitled to from birth. It was the guiding document on justice in America that deeply resembled the same Roman ideals in the Twelve Tables, from the creation of a separate body of power to the notion of treating citizens justly. The various glaring similarities between both civilizations’ establishing documents are deeper than the surface level. They both created what would go on to be considered the collective standard of law for each of their respective societies in the future. Currently, the United States Constitution is still protecting the rights of U.S. citizens.
As in Rome, our earliest laws have also been added to or changed by different court decisions, statutes, bills, amendments, and executive orders. As for court decisions, it’s called precedent, meaning when a higher court decides something, all future cases tackling the same issue have to be decided in the same way, allowing our laws, the very pillars of society, to be revised as time and innovations move along. This notion that laws could not possibly stay the same forever due to a society’s changing needs first occurred to the Romans.
The adding and amending of existing laws inevitably led to more difficulty in cataloging all the different areas of American law. Similar to Rome, legal jargon in America is also complex enough to require ‘legal specialists,’ which today we call ‘lawyers.’ The very profession was first necessitated in ancient Rome. Nowadays, about two-thirds of the world’s lawyers are American lawyers. I think it’s safe to say that it is an extremely popular profession within the country, having its roots in Rome.
Symbols of Justice – Italia and America
Our pictures of justice and equality are numerous throughout our legal system. One of the most recognized symbols of justice in the United States is Lady Justice, a woman depicted holding the scales of justice perfectly balanced, with a blindfold over her eyes. What isn’t recognized is that in Roman mythology, Justitia was the woman blindfolded holding scales and a sword. Our own Lady Justice is actually Justitia, one of the four Virtues in Roman mythology who represented the equal and impartial carrying out of justice without corruption, greed, or prejudice. She is the personification of the moral forces at play in all legal decisions. Justitia was first introduced by the emperor Augustus as a symbol of the morals and virtues that every emperor wishes to be associated with during their rule, in this case justice. In the United States, statues, paintings, and plenty of other depictions of Lady Justice with her sword, blindfold, and scales line the halls and chambers of government buildings, from the Supreme Court to the White House, from the Capitol building and beyond, both inside and along the steps outside. Her constant depictions are as if symbolizing the principle of justice that the government itself wants to be associated with, much like emperor Augustus.
Another Roman mythological goddess is Veritas, who stands for truth, and is most known as the Latin word used to represent a core value in American politics and the legal system. Both Roman goddesses, Veritas- truth, and Justitia- justice are deeply engraved in countless corners of our legal depictions and teachings in the United States yet are completely and authentically Roman concepts dating back to very ancient times.
The ideals of how to achieve justice and put objectivity into practice in the legal system are rooted in ancient Rome. They practiced our same ideals, such as ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and the right for an accused person to be defended. A huge pillar of the American legal system is the fact that you are not automatically guilty. The burden of proof falls onto the accuser, and those who are accused do, in fact, have the right to defend themselves against their accusations. Moreover, Roman legal specialists would often defend others and present their case for them during trials. People had the right to present their side and have their case heard before being decided. As in ancient Rome, the United States practiced justice in a way where everyone’s rights were protected, including the accused’s rights to have a fair trial without delay, and the right to have a defense, which today has been codified into the Sixth Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, an indispensable part of the country’s legal framework and history.
Women and Law
An important point to note when speaking about rights within the legal system is women. Ancient Rome afforded more rights to women than most other civilizations had done at that time in history. Legally, women were allowed to manage their own finances, and even further, they could open businesses of their own. In fact, there were many women in Rome who became quite influential through their booming businesses and achieved it all on their own accord.
Moreover, as in the United States, women in ancient Rome had the right to legally divorce and be remarried. Having the ability to divorce a husband is important because it contributed to the overall societal independence of women. In ancient Rome, women, especially those who were wealthier, had many everyday societal freedoms. While not completely equal as of yet, the various rights that women in ancient Rome received at the time, especially the ability to request a divorce, were pretty much unseen.
All in all, ancient Rome and America have much more in common than is often led on. America has taken countless legal concepts that Rome did first and applied them to our legal frameworks and establishing documents. Our constitution serves the same purpose as their Twelve Tables, providing the country with the same guiding rights, laws, and principles that would set up the futures of both the civilization, and the country. Furthermore, it is also unchallenged that our many ideals and symbols of justice have always revolved around their original Roman counterparts.
Cartwright, Mark. “Roman Law.” World History Encyclopedia, 24 Nov. 2013, http://www.worldhistory.org/Roman_Law.
—. “Twelve Tables.” World History Encyclopedia, 11 Apr. 2016, http://www.worldhistory.org/Twelve_Tables/#:%7E:text=The%20Twelve%20Tables%20(aka%20Law,be%20treated%20equally%20before%20them.
Glendon, Mary Ann. “Roman Law | Influence, Importance, Principles, and Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Nov. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-law.
Kreis, Steven. “The Laws of the Twelve Tables.” The History Guide, 3 Aug. 2009, http://www.historyguide.org/ancient/12tables.html.
Lisbdnet. “How Did Roman Law Influence Us Today.” Lisbdnet.Com, 6 Feb. 2022, lisbdnet.com/how-did-roman-law-influence-us-today/#:%7E:text=Rome’s%20laws%20have%20influenced%20democracy,be%20protected%20by%20the%20laws.
National Archives. “The Constitution of the United States.” National Archives, 19 Jan. 2022, http://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution.
PBS Learning Media. “The Roman Empire in the First Century.” PBS, PBS.org, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/women.html.
Pennington, Ken. “History of Innocent Until Proven Guilty.” Legal History Sources, 1999, legalhistorysources.com/Canon%20Law/PresumptionInnocence.htm.
SCOTUS. “Figures of Justice.” Supreme Court, 22 May 2003, http://www.supremecourt.gov/about/figuresofjustice.pdf.
Stager, David. “Are There Too Many Lawyers?” Canada-United States Law Journal, vol. 6, no. 17, 1983, p. 245. Canada-United States Law Institute, https://doi.org/10.2307/3551001.