the twelve tables of ancient rome -- 1/13/16

Today's selection -- from SPQR by Mary Beard. The Twelve Tables of ancient Rome are in many respects the foundation of the civil laws we have today -- a written collection of basic procedural rights of one against another. Now lost, they were originally written on bronze tablets, then transcribed into pamphlets or memorized. All we now have are incomplete copies of copies:

"The Twelve Tables ... are a long way from being a comprehensive legal code and may well never have been intended as such. ... [T]hey included almost nothing on public, constitutional law. What they do imply is a commitment to agreed, shared and publicly acknowledged procedures for resolving disputes and some thought on dealing with practical and theoretical obstacles to that. What was to be done if the defendant was too elderly to come to meet the plaintiff? The plaintiff was to provide an animal to transport him. What was to happen if the guilty party was a child? The penalty in that case might be beating rather than hanging -- a distinction that heralds our ideas of the age of criminal responsibility.

"The themes of the regulations point to a world of multiple inequalities. There were slaves of various types, from defaulters on their loans who had fallen into some form of debt bondage to those fully enslaved, presumably (though this is only a guess) captured in raiding or war.

"And their disadvantage was spelled out: the penalty for assault on a slave is set at half as much as for assault on a free man, whereas a slave could be punished with his life for an offence for which free citizens got off with not much more than a beating. But some slaves were eventually freed, as is clear from a reference to an ex-slave, or libertus.

"There were hierarchies within the free citizen population too. One clause draws a distinction between patricians and plebeians, another between assidui (men of property) and proletarii (those without property -- whose contribution to the city was the production of offspring, proles). Another refers to 'patrons' and 'clients' and to a relationship of dependency and mutual obligation between richer and poorer citizens that remained important throughout Roman his­tory. ... In the Twelve Tables, the rule simply states: 'If a patron has done harm to his client, he is to be cursed' -- whatever that meant.

"For the most part, the Twelve Tables confront domestic problems, with a heavy focus on family life, troublesome neighbours, private property and death. They lay down procedures for the abandonment or killing of deformed babies (a practice common throughout antiq­uity, euphemistically known to modern scholars as 'exposure'), for inheritance and for the proper conduct of funerals. Particular clauses prohibit women from tearing their cheeks in mourning, funeral pyres being built too close to someone's house and the burial of gold -- except dental gold -- with the body. Criminal and accidental damage was another obvious concern. This was a world in which people wor­ried about how to cope with their neighbour's tree overhanging their property (solution: it had to be cut back to a specified height) or with their neighbour's animals running amok (solution: the damage had to be made good or the animal surrendered). They worried about thieves breaking in at night, which was to be punished more harshly than daylight theft, about vandals destroying their crops or about stray weapons accidentally hitting the innocent. But, just in case this all sounds a bit too familiar, it was also a world in which people wor­ried about magic. What should you do if some enemy bewitched your crops or cast a spell on you? Sadly, the remedy for this is lost.

"To judge from the Twelve Tables, Rome in the mid fifth century BCE was an agricultural town, complex enough to recognise basic div­isions between slave and free and between different ranks of citizen and sophisticated enough to have devised some formal civic proce­dures to deal consistently with disputes, to regulate social and family relations and to impose some basic rules on such human activities as the disposal of the dead. But there is no evidence that it was more than that. ... What is more, there is hardly any mention of the world outside Rome -- beyond a couple of references to how particular rules applied to a hostis (a 'foreigner' or an 'enemy'; the same Latin word, significantly, can mean both) and one possible reference to sale into slavery 'in foreign country across the Tiber', as a punishment of last resort for debt. Maybe this collection had an intentionally internal rather than external focus. All the same, there is no hint in the Twelve Tables that this was a community putting a high priority on relations, whether of dominance, exploitation or friendship, beyond its locality.


Mary Beard


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome


Liveright Publishing


Copyright 2015 by Mary Beard


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment