Twelve Tables of Roman Law Are Formulated Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Twelve Tables of Roman law established a code of laws to check the power of the patricians against the lower orders of Roman society.

Summary of Event

The formulation of the Twelve Tables of Roman Law, as recorded by Livy (59-17 b.c.e.) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. c. 20 c.e.), was one of the most significant events in the “struggle of the orders” between patricians and plebeians in Rome during the fifth century b.c.e. In 462 b.c.e., according to the traditional date, Gaius Terentilius Harsa, a tribune of the plebs, made a spirited attack on the authority of the consuls, charging that their unregulated and unlimited power brought down all the terrors and penalties of the law on the plebs. Harsa suggested that five men should be appointed to compose a code of laws that would put a check on the patricians, who, as judges, were interpreters of the unwritten customary law and, as priests, determined the validity of the complex legal procedures. His proposal was rejected, as was another in 454 when the tribunes suggested that a commission composed of both patricians and plebeians should draw up the code. Gaius Terentilius Harsa Appius Claudius Crassus

In 452 b.c.e., the tribunes insisted that the work of codification should begin. To expedite the task, it was decided that the ordinary magistracies should be suspended and that, instead, decemviri legibus scribundis (ten men for writing the laws) should be chosen to rule the state the following year without being subject to appeal. After some debate, the plebeians agreed to surrender their demand to be represented on the board along with the patricians, but they did so with the understanding that their sacral laws would not be abrogated.

The ten elected decemvirs set about framing the laws and set them up on ten tables in the Forum. After amending them according to suggestions received, they presented their work to the comitia centuriata for formal ratification. It soon became apparent that two more tables would have to be added to make the corpus complete, and so the decemvirs were again elected by the comitia centuriata after considerable canvassing. Appius Claudius Crassus, who had been chairman of the first decemvirate, was reelected with nine new colleagues.

The second decemvirate is traditionally pictured as drafting the two additional tables amid a reign of terror. For some unknown reason, they began to act like tyrants by oppressing the plebeians, and only a secession of the plebs forced them out of office at the expiration of their commission. Legendary though much of this account of the formulation of the Twelve Tables may be, there is little doubt about the antiquity of the ancient code, which Livy, with some exaggeration, describes as “the source of all public and private law” for Rome.

Although the original text of the Twelve Tables is said to have been lost in the sack of Rome by the Gauls around 390 b.c.e., copies remained so that Cicero (106-43 b.c.e.) reported in his De legibus (52 b.c.e.; On the Laws, 1841) that boys still had to memorize them in his day. Provisions of the code were never repealed, although many lapsed through neglect and irrelevancy. Some 140 fragments or paraphrases show that the code was genuinely Roman in content and largely a codification of already existing custom. The code had only two constitutional provisions: one forbidding privilegia, and the other forbidding trial of a citizen on a capital charge by any assembly except the comitia centuriata.

Dealing with private, public, and sacral law, the code concerned itself, among other matters, with the guardianship and status of women and property, the guardianship of lunatics and prodigals, division of inheritances, and rights concerning land. Assembly at night was forbidden. The laws were absolute imperatives and protected property above life; an insolvent debtor, for example, could be fettered for sixty days and then executed or put up for sale. Many believed that the code allowed dismemberment of a debtor’s body to satisfy several creditors. A person was permitted to kill a thief only if the thief came at night or actually used a weapon. Deformed children were to be killed. Blood revenge was recognized if satisfaction was denied in other ways. As absolute head of the family, the father could, with certain safeguards, sell his sons into slavery. Although marriage rites were simple, intermarriage between plebeian and patrician was forbidden.

Penalties were harsh, and death was meted out in five different ways, including burning at the stake and casting from the Tarpeian rock. Bribery, libel, sorcery, cutting other people’s crops, and even theft were capital offenses. Besides the death penalty, other forms of punishments that were recognized included being fined, fettered, or flogged; retaliation in kind; civil disgrace; banishment, and slavery. Fines for injuring persons were graduated according to the value traditionally ascribed to individuals. Plebeians gained benefits through a law allowing a thirty-day interval to discharge a debt before the infliction of penalty. Interest was fixed, probably at 8.3 percent, and “not according to the free choice of the wealthy.”


Apart from their legal significance, the Twelve Tables are of great interest to philologists because of the archaic language used and to historians because the ordinances provide the best information available on the economic and social conditions of Rome during the fifth century b.c.e. However, it is their legal legacy that is most important, as the Roman Empire spread, not only the Latin language, but also Roman law throughout most of Europe and the Mediterranean world. In many of Rome’s provinces, Roman law formed the basis of later medieval law, albeit syncretized with elements of local custom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman-Norton, P. R. The Twelve Tables Prefaced, Arranged, Translated, Annotated. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952. The best place to begin for readers interested in examining the primary source material on the Twelve Tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornell, Tim. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 b.c.). New York: Routledge, 1995. This general history contains a chapter specifically on the Twelve Tables and their role in the formation of Roman identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diosdi, Gyorgy. Contract in Roman Law: From the Twelve Tables to the Glossators. Translated by J. Szabo. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1981. Limited to only one aspect of the legal code, this work traces the development of Roman contract law from its origins in the Twelve Tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Jane F. Being a Roman Citizen. New York: Routledge, 1993. A good introduction for the general reader on the impact of Roman law upon private life. Written in a popular style but well researched.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lobingier, Charles Sumner. The Evolution of the Roman Law. Littleton, Colo.: F. B. Rothman, 1987. Although now somewhat dated (it was originally released in 1923), this work is still an excellent survey of Roman law from the period before the Twelve Tables to the major legal codes of the late Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Peter. Roman Law in European History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A short but illuminating introduction to the influence and legacy of Roman law, beginning with the Twelve Tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Alan. The Evolution of Law. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. A good general introduction on the history and development of Roman law.

Categories: History