The Roman code of the Twelve Tables lasted as long as the Roman Empire itself. Though more importantly, they represented a written code which applied right across the social scale from the patricians to the plebeians. The Twelve Tables are generally seen as the beginning of European law and are hence seen as a milestone in history.
It is surprising though that only excerpts of the laws survive to this day. The original tables were destroyed in 390 BC when the Gauls occupied and looted Rome. Naturally they must have survived in other form, yet little has passed down through time to the present. Some manuscripts are only partially legible.
The list on this page is not absolutely complete. Some points remain confused.
From what remains, it seems evident that the rules seemed to have been derived specifically from cases the decemvirs presided over. Hence it can appear a bit of a jumble.
Some laws can appear quaint, others seem extremely harsh.
If a man was summoned to court, he had to go. If he did not, then a witness would be called (to confirm that he did not come). Thereafter he could be seized and brought to court by force. If age or infirmity was preventing the summoned person from coming to court, then transport was to be provided. The summoned person could be represented by an advocate. The advocate of a wealthy man had to be a wealthy man himself. (This because, by being his ‘defender’, he in law assumed the liabilities of the accused) If the two sides in court agreed to compromise then the judge (praetor) announced this. If they could not reach agreement, then they were to state their case at the Forum before noon. If one failed to show up the judge would find in favour of the one who came. If both came, the trial was to last no longer than until the sun set.
If a serious disease or an important religious duty, or affairs of state, prevented other the summoned or his advocate to attend, then the case was to be deferred to a more suitable date. If a witness failed to turn up, the party who summoned him could shout and scream in front of his house on every third day for him to show up in court. It was deemed legal, if a thief was killed in the act of theft by night, or if he was killed by day when trying to fight back with a weapon. Regarding theft; if a thief was a freeman he was flogged and then handed to the person from whom he had stolen to repay what damage he’d done, if necessary by working for him. If the thief however was a slave he was flogged and then thrown to his death off the cliff of the Capitoline Hill known as the Tarpeian Rock.
If the thief was a child it was left to the judge (praetor) to decide if he was to be flogged and forced to make up for his deeds. If a thief was convicted, yet the stolen goods were not recovered, the thief would have to pay twice their value. Should anyone secretly cut down someone else’s trees, he would hav eot pay twenty five asses for each tree. If a man had settled with a thief out of court and received reparations he could thereafter not take him to court for the crime. Stolen goods remained the property of the owner, no matter how long he was parted from them. They cannot be legally bought by another.
If anyone defrauded another by not returning what was given to him for safe keeping, he would have to pay twice the amount in penalty. There was now a maximum rate of interest, the unciarum faemus (foemus?) (most likely 10%) For the payment of a debt confirmed by a court one had thirty days to pay. Thereafter one could be seized by force and the court would hand one to the creditor for a term of up to sixty days (most likely for labour). Thereafter one could be sold into slavery. A non-Roman could not acquire property by usucapio (See Table Four). A Roman proprietor could always demand it to be restored back to him. A very frightening paragraph suggests that should a man owe a debt to several, then they after sixty days may be entitled to divide him into parts. It is likely that this division applied to the value he fetched as a slave, yet it is not clear. Some suspect it may indeed have been a division of the body.
A father had the right of life and death over his children (patria potestas). Should, however, he sell the son three times, then the son should be free of this bond of authority. A father was to right to kill his deformed child.
A child born within ten months after the death of the man, is to be considered his rightful heir.
A female was to remain under the guardianship of a man, irrespective of her age. The only exception were Vestal Virgins. A woman’s dowry could not be fully acquired in marriage, unless with her permission and that of her guardian. (upon divorce she (i.e. her guardian) received her dowry back) If a man died leaving a will, then this is legally binding. If he had no son and died without a will, then the nearest male relative from a shared male ancestor (agnate) was the heir. If there was no such man either, then the members of his extended family (the gens) would inherit his property. If a man grew insane and had no guardian, the agnates or the gens were to take care of him and his belongings. A ‘wasteful’ person (a ‘spendthrift’) could not be left to administer his own estate. For this he should be placed under guardianship of his agnates. If a freed slave died without heirs, his belongings should fall to his former patron, or the patron’s descendents. The heirs of a deceased could only be sued for the proportion of the debt according to their share of the inheritance. The same applied to their right to sue, if they were to claim from the deceased’s debtors.
For a sale of land a formal agreement was required. This agreement could be verbal. Once made, it was legally binding. If a patron ordered his slave set free in his will, or agreed to free him on a condition which the slave fulfils, or if the slave paid his purchase price to the owner, then the slave was to be set free. Had property been sold, then it should not be deemed acquired until the purchaser had provided payment. Usucapio was the acquisition of property by possession. If it was in your hands for a year, then it was yours by right. For land and buildings the time was two years. If a women lived with a man for a year, she was his in marriage by usucapio. (Notice that this is the same rule as for a woman as for any possession.) If she wished to avoid this, she was to stay absent from his house for three successive nights a year. If there were two conflicting claims by others over a man, one claiming him a slave, the other claiming him free, then in the absence of proof the judge (praetor) shall rule in favour of freedom. No-one was to remove material from or alter a building or vineyard without the permission of the owner. Who did so, was liable to pay twice the cost of the damage. If a man wished to divorce his wife he needed to provide a reason for doing so.
Table Seven (or eight)
A distance of two and a half feet was to be left between buildings. Societies and associations could form internal rules as they wished, as long as these did not breech the law. A space of five feet was to be left between adjoining fields. If a dispute arose over the boundary between adjoining fields, the praetor was to send three investigators to review the problem. On hearing their report he should decide the boundary. One was permitted to remove a branch from a neighbour’s tree which overhung one’s property. In fact, one was entitled to remove the whole tree.
The owner of a tree was permitted to gather up fruit which had fallen onto his neighbour’s land. A road running straight was to be eight feet wide and where it curved it was to be sixteen feet wide. If a man’s land may next to the road, anyone would be entitled to drive their wagons or animals across it, unless he encloses it (With a hedge, wall or fence one would assume. – This law was most likely to enable travellers to veer off the road should it have been made impassable by rain.) The maintenance of roads was the responsibility of those on whose property they bordered.
Table Eight (or seven)
If an animal caused damage then his owner was to pay the cost, or was to surrender the animal to the injured party. Any accidental or unintentional damage was to be repaired or paid for by the one who caused it. For the theft or destruction of crops there was the death penalty (clubbing to death).
If the person who led to the destruction was still child, it was within the praetor’s power to order him flogged in addition to twice the price of the damage being paid. A farmer who let his animals graze on the fields of another, was to forfeit the animals as payment. Who set alight a building or grain near a building was to be flogged and burned alive. Yet if he had done so unintentionally he was to pay the cost, or given a more appropriate punishment. For an injury that was not deemed serious the penalty was twenty asses. For slander there was the death penalty (clubbing to death).
If a person injured another and does not offer reparations, retaliation was permitted. For breaking the bone or tooth of a freeman the penalty was three hundred asses. The same injury to a slave would cost 150 asses.. The penalty for insult was twenty five asses. Anyone who was a formal witness to a sale or will who then refused to testify was rendered infamous (dishonoured) and can thereafter never give evidence. If an injury was caused by a weapon accidentally leaving the hand (perhaps when exercising weapons on the Campus Martius), then a ram was to be sacrificed publicly to atone for the deed. The penalty for perjury was to be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock. The punishment for murder was death, unsurprisingly. Yet the penalty for causing a death accidentally was merely the duty to provide a ram for public sacrifice to atone for the killing and to appease the deceased’s relatives. It was an offence to cast or have a witch cast any spells on someone else. The penalty was death. To kill one’s father was deemed the worst crime. He who killed one of his fathers (father grandfather, etc) was sewn into a leather sack together dog, a viper, a cock, and a monkey and then flung into the Tiber. (Outside of Rome the leather sack was either flung into another body of water or thrown to the wild beasts.) A patron who defrauds his clients was outlawed. (This meant he could be killed by anyone with impunity, yet in practice he could flee into exile.)
No laws are judgements were to be made in favour of individuals to the detriment of others, irrespective of their rank and status, against the laws of Rome. (In short: Everyone is equal before the Law, at least prior to judgment.) The same rights and protections of the law were to apply to all people in the countryside as to the people of Rome. A judge found guilty of receiving a bribe shall be put to death. Death sentences now were only allowed to be issued by the law courts. And the final court of appeal in death penalties would be the Comitia Centuriata. The public prosecutors were to appointed ‘by the people’. In practice this meant they were appointed by the consuls. Assemblies at night were forbidden, by pain of death. To demonstrate in the streets against another person was forbidden. One was allowed to demonstrate for or against a particular cause, but not against a specific person.
Treason (stirring up an enemy, or delivering a Roman to an enemy) was subject to the death penalty. No one should be put to death without a conviction, no matter what the crime, or who he may be. (Previously some lenders had seen it fit to condemn some debtors to death who failed to pay.)
No burials or cremations were allowed within the city walls.
There are several ‘rules’ trying to restrict over-zealous mourning or overly flamboyant funerals. An individual could only have one funeral. Pyres should not be built from polished wood. Women should not lacerate their faces or scratch their cheeks in mourning, nor should they wail. Expenses for funeral ceremonies should not exceed what was deemed proper. No more than three women should prepare the body for the funeral. The funeral procession should be accompanied by no more than ten flute players. It was forbidden to place a body onto a funeral pyre with any gold upon it. All such jewellery had to be removed. The only exception was if the body had any dental gold in its teeth. No wines or fragrances should be sprinkled, on the pyre, etc, etc More practically, a pyre could not be built within sixty feet of a building without the owner’s permission. On a callous note the rules also stipulate that no dead slave should be anointed for a funeral, nor should any drinking or banqueting take place in his honour. Usucapio should not allow anyone to the approach to or any part of a tomb. Peoples Assemblies were not to take place when one had died who had distinguished himself in service to the state.
Marriage between patricians and plebeians was forbidden.
(This law was withdrawn soon after) No affairs ‘of great importance’ should be decided without a vote by the people.
A more recent law or court ruling on a subject overruled an old one.
Nothing can be rendered sacred (for sacrifice or as a temple) of which ownership is disputed. If a slave commits damage the owner is liable for repairs. If the slave acted with the knowledge of the owner, the owner is liable for penalty. The levels of punishment for assault were also defined; the level varied according to the status of the person who had committed the crime. Harsher for a plebeian, milder for a patrician. And should the victim of the crime be a mere slave, the sentence was reduced yet further.
The laws also distinguished between an intentional and an accidental killing.
And the historian Pliny the Elder tells us that the penalty for murder according to the Twelve Tables was less than that for stealing crops. (For murder it was death by clubbing to death. For stealing crops it was the same, yet was one hung afterwards (‘as a sacrifice to Ceres’).
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.