Justinian’s Code Is Compiled Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Justinian’s code created a comprehensive, authoritative compilation of Roman law that served as the foundation of European law.

Summary of Event

At the time Justinian I directed its reform, Roman law Law;Roman was the accumulated product of Rome’s history from republican times. For centuries, emperors had repeatedly issued new laws and decrees (referred to as constitutions). They also issued rescripts (official statements) regarding specific questions. Although these did not necessarily agree with the general principles of the law, they had the force of law. In addition, laws were not systematically published and the archives did not always keep copies of new legislation. This accumulation of conflicting legislation made it difficult for lawyers and judges to cite the law accurately on specific legal points. Also, jurisconsultants issued many opinions during the second and third centuries. These opinions, however, were sometimes contradictory, and many were difficult to find. [kw]Justinian’s Code Is Compiled (529-534) Justinian I Laws and law codes;Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire;529-534: Justinian’s Code Is Compiled[0090] Turkey;529-534: Justinian’s Code Is Compiled[0090] Government and politics;529-534: Justinian’s Code Is Compiled[0090] Laws, acts, and legal history;529-534: Justinian’s Code Is Compiled[0090] John the Cappadocian Valentinian III Theodosius II Justin I Justinian I Theodora (c. 497-548) Tribonian

Toward the end of the third century, two different collections of laws were compiled and updating was attempted during following years. These publications, however, gradually lost their usefulness as time passed. In 426, Valentinian III Valentinian III , the Western Roman emperor, ordered that the opinions of only five past commentators could be cited before the courts. Opinions of earlier commentators cited by them also could be considered, but only if they were confirmed by comparison of manuscripts. If the commentators differed, the majority ruled. If they were equally divided, the authority of the group that included an opinion of Papinian, a prestigious second century jurist, was to be accepted. Theodosius II Theodosius II (Byzantine emperor) , after setting up commissions in 427 and 434 in order to prepare a collection of laws issued after 312, promulgated the Theodosian code in 438. His code, however, proved inadequate. In short, by the time of Justinian, the legal system badly needed streamlining.

Prior to succeeding the emperor Justin Justin I , who was his uncle, Justinian had long served in the emperor’s administration. According to the historian Procopius, Justin appointed his nephew, Justinian, count of the Domestics, and invested him with patrician rank immediately after beginning his reign in 518. In 527, Justin, having earlier adopted him, made Justinian coemperor. Thus, Justinian became well aware of defects in the legal system and, doubtless, began formulating plans for reform.

Justinian’s long-term mistress Theodora Theodora (Byzantine empress) , whom he married after the death of Justin’s wife, was most influential in Justinian’s rule. He considered her coequal in many respects, and portions of his code, especially those relating to women’s issues and rights, apparently were heavily influenced by her opinions. She appears not, however, to have been officially recognized as sharing the throne.

On February 13, 528, during the first year of his reign, Justinian appointed a commission of ten experts to produce a new code of imperial law. The chairman of the commission was John the Cappadocian John the Cappadocian , praetorian prefect of the East, the highest administrative official of the eastern empire. The commission was charged with updating the laws recorded in the existing Gregorian, Hermogenian, and Theodosian codes. In addition, the constitutions, as well as “novels” or supplementary laws, issued since promulgation of the Theodosian code, were to be included. This accumulated mass of law was systematized and simplified in the Codex Justinianus Codex Justinianus and published April 7, 529. An updated edition was published November 16, 534. Laws and law codes;Byzantine Empire

On December 15, 530, a second commission, under the direction of Tribonian Tribonian , quaestor of the Sacred Palace (chief legal officer of the empire) and a highly qualified lawyer, set out to codify the works of Roman jurists. These works, written by Roman lawyers during the first through fourth centuries, composed 1,528 “books.” Each manuscript was the length of a papyrus roll. The entire text is estimated to comprise three million lines. Tribonian, who probably was a graduate of the school at Beirut, chose the other commissioners: Constantinus, the register libellorum, the official whose function was to prepare cases for the supreme court; Dorotheus, dean of the Beirut law school; Anatolius, a Beirut law school professor whose father had served on the first commission; Theophilus, a professor at the Constantinople law school; and Cratinus, another Constantinople professor. In addition, eleven barristers assisted the commission. All of these were illustres, belonging to the highest and least numerous class of senators who were permitted to deliberate in the senate. By December 16, 533, the commission published the Panadects, or Digest, consisting of 9,123 separate texts contained in fifty books totaling 150,000 lines.

A fragment from the Pandects of Justinian, the old Roman law that Justinian ordered to be codified. This seventh century parchment was originally housed in the library of the Medici at Florence.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

During their work, the commissioners found many outmoded or unjust arguments and opinions. Many of these were simply abolished, but some questions required reform, so during the first three years of his reign, Justinian issued many new laws. These then were compiled by the commission and published in late 530 or early 531 as the Fifty Decisions, the text of which has been lost. This contained only decisions promulgated before work began on the Digest. Tribonian’s commission quickly recognized that a new edition of the code of 529 would be required, so Tribonian, Dorotheus, and three other lawyers immediately began work. The revised code, Codex Justinianus repetitae praelectionis or “Justinian’s code of resumed reading,” published in 534, replaced the Codex Vetus of 529.

In addition, a committee consisting of Tribonian and the leading academic lawyers of Constantinople and Beirut also prepared the Institutes, a short textbook to be used by students of law. This was published November 21, 533, and was heavily indebted to Gaius, an earlier lawyer of the second century.

Justinian intended the entire work, Codex, Digest, and Institutes or Corpus juris civilis Corpus juris civilis , as it has been known since the sixteenth century, as a unified, consistent, literal, and straightforward body of law. Commentaries on the Digest were prohibited, although indices and supply headings were provided. In contrast to the Codex, literal translations of the Digest into Greek also were allowed.


Justinian’s code seems to have little affected the mass of the empire. Civil courts were hardly used away from Constantinople. The fact that the code and Digest were published in Latin, a language not understood in most of the Byzantine Empire, limited the use of the Corpus. Local laws and institutions continued to operate in many localities even though they contradicted imperial legislation, and arbitration and mediation were favored in the provinces, generally with bishops or local holy men as arbiters. Although slightly used in the Byzantine Empire after the sixth century, the Corpus remained a most important philosophical contribution. In the eleventh century, rediscovery of the Digest led to the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088 and the revival of Roman law. Inerius’s publication of the Vulgate Digest as a textbook for students at Bologna is, by some, considered the initial spark of the European Renaissance. In any event, Justinian’s code of civil law became the de facto law in many parts of Western Europe. Furthermore, appropriate parts of Roman law were incorporated in new codes and functioned as parts of them. In this way, the influence of Roman law persists through all subsequent European history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, G. P. Justinian: The Last Roman Emperor. 1931. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002. A biographical account of Justianian’s reign and the history of the Roman and Byzantine Empires during his time. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borkowski, Andrew. Textbook on Roman Law. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides an exposition of Roman civil law and procedure, with the use of texts from Justinian’s Digest. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browning, Robert. Justinian and Theodora. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987. A scholarly discussion of Empress Theodora’s contributory role in Justinian’s administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bury, J. B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 1923. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1958. Comprehensive scholarly history with a full chapter on Justinian’s legislative works. Bury’s work on the Byzantine Empire is the definitive account by an English-speaking scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, James Allan. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. New York: Routledge, 1996. An updated political and social history of Justinian’s era, including many facets of the legal system. Maps, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerostergios, Asterios. Justinian the Great, Emperor and Saint: Illustrious Byzantine Emperor, Legislator, and Codifier of Law. Belmont, Mass.: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1982. Detailed account by a Greek historian of Justinian’s religious policies, including the role of the Codex.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Longman, 1994. A concise biography that includes a succinct account of Justinian’s legal reforms. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, J. A. C. Textbook of Roman Law. New York: North-Holland, 1976. A 562-page text looking at Justinian’s code and its far-reaching consequences. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vasiliev, A. A. History of the Byzantine Empire, 324-1453. 2 vols. 2d rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964. Written from the point of view of czarist Russian scholarship, this comprehensive work illuminates Justinian’s legal reforms and their causes and effects. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.

Categories: History