This text is snipped from the excellent german law site at the university of Saarbrücken. It is written by Thomas Rüfner, he's an expert on this field of law, whereas I am a mere clerk. The original URL is here:

Roman Law was the law that was in effect throughout the age of antiquity in the City of Rome and later in the Roman Empire. When Roman rule over Europe came to an end, Roman Law was largely--though not completely--forgotten.

In Medieval times (from about the 11th century onward) there was a renewed interest in the law of the Romans. Initially, Roman Law was only studied by scholars and taught at the universities, Bologna being the first place where Roman Law was taught. Soon Roman Law came to be applied in legal practice--especially in the area of civil law. This process of (re-) adoption (reception) of Roman Law occurred at varied times and to various extents across all of Europe (England being the most important exception). Thus from about the 16th century onward, Roman Law was in force throughout most of Europe. However, in the process of adoption/reception many Roman rules were amalgamated with, or amended to suit, the legal norms of the various European nations. Thus, Roman rules, applied in Europe at this period, were by no means identical with Roman Law from antiquity. Nonetheless, because the law that had evolved was common to most European countries, it was called the Ius Commune (common law).

In the form of the Ius Commune, Roman Law was in force in many jurisdictions until national codes superseded these rules in the 18th and 19th centuries. In many regions of the German Reich, Roman Law remained the primary source of legal rules until the introduction of the German Civil Code in 1900. Even today a special branch of the Ius Commune, known as Roman-Dutch Law, is the basis of the legal system in the Republic of South Africa.

To what extent did Roman Law influence the English legal system?

England did not adopt Roman Law as the other countries in Europe had. In England, ancient Roman texts were never considered as rules having the force of law. Nonetheless, Roman Law was taught at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, just as it was taught at Bologna. Scholars, who had studied Roman Law on the Continent (the so-called Civilians), did have considerable influence on the development of certain areas of law. Some substantive rules, and more importantly concepts and ways of reasoning, developed by continental legal scientists, based on the Roman legal tradition, influenced the English legal system.

What does the term, Classical Roman Law, mean?

The Romans were the first people to make law into a science. During the first two centuries of the Common Era, Roman legal science was the most fertile. This age is called the classical period of Roman Law, because the law during this time period, as it was taught and practised, best exemplified the classic characteristics of the Roman legal tradition.

How do we know about Roman Law ?

A rich variety of written documents concerning Roman Law during antiquity has come down to us including: statutes, deeds and the writings of legal scholars. The most important text among all these is the Corpus Iuris Civilis. In addition to the Corpus Iuris, the Institutes of Gaius from the middle of the second century of the Common Era must be mentioned; these Institutes constitute a beginners' textbook on Roman Law.

What is the Corpus Iuris Civilis?

In the sixth century A.D., the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian (Iustinianus), ordered the compilation of several law codes. These codes were based on much older sources of law, mostly statutes and legal writings from the classical period. They were:

the Institutes (Institutiones) a book largely copied from the Institutes of Gaius - written 300 years prior!-- and like it may be considered a beginners' textbook. The rules contained in the Institutes were given legal force in many countries; consequently the work may be regarded as both a textbook and a statute.

the Digest (Digesta or Pandectae) a collection of fragments from scholarly writings. Like the rules contained in the Institutes, the legal opinions expressed in these fragments were often given legal force.

the Code (Codex) a collection of imperial statutes. Justinian had planned to add another collection to these three: a collection of new pieces of legislation which had come into force after the compilation of the Code (novellae constitutiones). This plan was never realized. There exists today only private collections of these novellae constitutiones. These form, together with the three codes, the Corpus Iuris Civilis. The Corpus Iuris is by far the most important written source of Roman Law that has come down to us. The texts transmitted therein constituted the basis of the revival of Roman Law in the Middle Ages. As well, most of the insights gained by modern research on Roman legal history are owed to the analysis of texts from the Corpus Iuris.

What is the Gloss?
When the Medieval scholars started to study the old texts of the Corpus Iuris again, they first wrote explanations concerning the meaning of single words in the texts (glosses). Based on earlier works of this kind, at the beginning of the 13th century, Accursius of Bologna, wrote a collection of such glosses to the texts of the Digest and the Code. This seminal work destined previous piecemeal attempts to oblivion. It was simply called The Gloss (glossa ordinaria) and all further elaboration of the Ius Commune proceeded from Accursius' gloss.

Why is Roman Law still important today?
Today Roman Law has been replaced by modern codes. These codes, however, did not create new law from scratch. But rather, to a large extent, the rules of Roman Law which had been transmitted, were placed in a statutory framework which provided a modern, systematic order. This is particularly true in regard to the German Civil Code. So, in order to fully understand the German Civil Code, it is necessary to know about the legal foundation upon which it rests. As this is true in regard to German law, it is eqully true in regard to most modern European legal systems.

Most important of all, Roman Law will have great significance in regard to the formation of uniform legal rules which further the process of political integration in Europe. Roman Law is the common foundation upon which the European legal order is built. Therefore, it can serve as a source of rules and legal norms which will easily blend with the national laws of the many and varied European states.

(C) Thomas Rüfner

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