Code of Justinian, Byzantine Emperor 527-565 AD
The Code of Justinian had four components. The Digest (533 AD), published in 50 books, summarized Roman opinions about laws and justice. The Code (534 AD), containing 12 books, outlined 5,000 actual laws of the Roman Empire, citing imperial constitutions, legislation and pronouncements. The Institutes (535 AD) were a smaller work that summarized the Digest, used as a textbook for law students.
The Novellae (New Laws), were not a part of Justinian’s project, but were created by legal scholars in 556 AD to update the Code with new laws created after 534 AD and summarize Justinian’s constitution.
Emperor Caesar Flavius Justinian, ruled in the eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire at Constantinople, 527-565 AD.
The Code of Justinian was largely forgotten for several centuries after the fall of the Western Empire in Rome. A revival began at the University of Bologna when surviving manuscripts were rediscovered and compiled into new editions, given the name Corpus Juris Civilis (body of civil law).
Roman Notarius or Notary
During the early Roman Empire, special agents or officers evolved with authority to write and store recordings of documents and transactions of parties. This Roman officer was called a tabellio, tabularius or notarius. Chief duties were the preparation of legal documents, complaints for lawsuits and the drafting of wills.
The Digest and Code of Justinian revealed to medieval Europe the practice and procedures for using special agents, notaries, to prepare legal documents. Under the reign of Justinian, notaries were formed into a corporate body, or college, and wrote many authentic transcripts of the Code of Justinian.
The Code of Justinian has been translated from Latin and Greek into English. Some excerpts are shown below.
Execution of Wills
Institutes, Title X. Of the Execution of Wills. The testator and seven witnesses sign their names—a new formality imposed by imperial legislation—and affix their seals.
Institutes, Title XVI. Of the Penalties for Reckless Litigation. The oath has to be taken by every defendant, who is not permitted even to state his defense until he swears that he resists the plaintiff’s claim because he believes that his cause is a good one. The plaintiff, also under our constitution, is obliged to swear on oath that his action is commenced in good faith. Similar oaths have to be taken by the advocates of both parties.
Purchase and Sale Agreement
Institutes, Title XXIII. Of Purchase and Sale. No sale effected by an agreement in writing shall be good or binding, unless that agreement is written by the contracting parties themselves, or, if written by someone else, is at least signed by them, or finally, if written by a notary, is duly drawn by him and executed by the parties.
Novel 44, Notaries
All notaries who hold such office shall personally draw the document and be present at its execution, particularly when the parties are unable to read and write and may deny the truth of the matter. The notary may not delegate his duty to another person, and, through such sloth and ease, destroy the fortunes of others. Nor shall the notaries complain that their income is diminished due to the slowness of the hiring parties. It is better to draw a few documents well, than many badly.
Notaries shall not make the final draft of a document on any paper other than that which has in front what is called a protocol, containing the name of the officiating glorious Count of the Imperial Exchequer, the time when the document was drawn and other things usually contained thereon; nor shall the protocol be cut off, but bound with the paper; for we know that many documents written on such papers have in the past been and are now being proven to have been forged.
Novel 47, Emperor’s Name and Date Required on Documents
The name of the emperor is required to appear on documents and records, the year of his reign, the consulship, the tax year, and the date and month. For example, “In the eleventh year of the reign of Justinian, most holy Augustus and emperor, in the second year after the consulship of the honorable Flavius Belisaricus, in the month of ____ the ____ day.”
England Maintained a Common Law Legal System
During the 13th century, Roman Law spread throughout the legal systems of continental Europe. But England never adopted Roman Law. Henry II (Plantagenet) became King of England in 1154. He inherited a legal system made up of Germanic and feudal elements fused by royal judges into English Common Law.
Before the Notary School of Bologna in 1228 and other Italian law schools began turning out graduates, there were few trained legal administrators. England used shire courts, refined from the early “Hundred Courts”. Itinerant, unpaid judges presided during assizes and collected fines for the Crown.
King Henry II decided against replacing the Common Law with the Civil Law principles and institutions based on the Code of Justinian operating across the European Continent. Common Law was already in place, popular, and cheap to implement. While the Code of Justinian stated “The will of the Emperor has the force of law,” in the Common Law the law resides both in the legislative power of the king and the community.
Countries that were former colonies of Spain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands, follow the Roman civil law legal system. In the United States, laws are based on English common law, except for civil law in Louisiana and Puerto Rico.
1. The Institutes of Justinian, English translation by J.B. Moyle, 1913, Project Gutenburg, [EBook #5983], Release Date: April 11, 2009, Last Updated: February 6, 2013
2. Annotated Justinian Code, English translation by Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Fred H. Blume, University of Wyoming Law Library
3. Novel 44, Notaries, English translation by Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Fred H. Blume, University of Wyoming Law Library
4. Novel 47, Emperor’s Name Required, English translation by Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Fred H. Blume, University of Wyoming Law Library
5. Justinian Novels, English translation by Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Fred H. Blume, University of Wyoming Law Library
6. The Lion In Winter, movie, 1968, starring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II.
1. Emperor Justinian, photo of mosaic, by Petar Milošević (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Corpus Juris Civilis, [public domain in the United States, published before 1923], via Wikimedia Commons
3. King Henry II, image from Cassell’s History of England, published circa 1902, [public domain in the United States, published before 1923], via Wikimedia Commons