Roman Law By 1000 A.D. the Western Roman Empire had been gone six hundred years, but people in Western Europe still walked on roads that dated from Augustus Caesar’s time—the first century A.D. The ruins of Roman cities, Roman harbors, and Roman churches dotted the landscape. The well-educated merchant—and his lawyer—was taught that in the wake of the Roman conquest had come Roman laws and Roman commerce, including the freedom to buy and sell by means of enforceable contracts. For the Church, and for those temporal lords who also aspired to universal over-lordship, the Roman Empire provided a conscious organizational model.
To regard Roman legal concepts as applicable to “all peoples” was not so formidable a conceit. Be-tween 280 B.C. and the destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 B.C., Rome had forcibly conquered most of the lands bordering on the Mediterranean. A village-based agricultural economy was rapidly being replaced by the class structure of the Empire, in which the dominant figures were traders, bankers, merchants, landowners, and the military power which protected their interests. The labor force which fueled this system was slave or half-free, recruited mainly from the conquered and colonized peoples. Adoption of the term jus gen-tium reflected the conquest by the new Roman ruling class Of its foreign and domestic enemies.
To the Romans medieval lawyers owed the con-cept—which has continued to present times—of the corporation as a fictitious artificial person, entitled to buy, sell, and enforce its claims in the courts. Corporate organization permitted a pooling of interests and therefore an accumulation of capital far greater than in an individual enterprise or a partnership. The distinction was this: a partnership, formed by the agreement of its members, remained in the law’s eyes an amalgam of individual rights and duties.
To sue the partnership and get a court judgment enforceable against its members’ assets one had to bring all the partners before the court. And if the partnership itself came to court, it had in general to have sued in the name of all its members. A corporation, however, swallows up the identities of its shareholder-owners in the common, artificial personality of itself, and is sued and sues, has rights and duties.
In about 150 A.D. there began the prolific production of Roman legal writing that was to become the basis of medieval knowledge of Roman law. These writings, by emperors and legal scholars, grew progressively more arid and decadent as the Western Roman Empire drew to a close. Periodically, these great outpourings were codified, excerpted, and arranged by subject matter. The best-known, most complete, and to the medieval bourgeoisie most influential codification was the Corpus bans Civilis, compiled under the direction of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D.
Justinian’s codification performed the signal service of sorting through the thousands of imperial edicts and legal treatises, eliminating contradiction by choosing the practice or rule which was current in 533, and systematizing the whole under titles corresponding to the areas of law: contracts, property, family law, procedure, crimes, and so on. Most of the sources from which the Corpus tuns is taken are lost: we know of them only from its pages.
The monasteries remained centers of Roman law and Latin learning. At the same time, there is no question that with the death of commercial life attendant upon the fall of the Western Empire in 476 A.D., the technical, artfully constructed precepts of Roman classical law, and the structure for applying them, fell into disuse.