In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • External History of Roman Law
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • The Roman Jurists
  • Philosophical Works
  • Roman Public Law
  • Criminal Law

Classics Roman Law
Paul du Plessis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0031


The present understanding of Roman law is by and large based on snippets of texts collected in a 6th-century compilation of legal sources known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis, ordered by the Roman emperor Justinian. These fragments, which were stripped of their original context by the drafters of this project, represent the intellectual pinnacle of Roman legal thought of the first three centuries of the Common Era. Since the rediscovery of this compilation toward the end of the 12th century, this collection of texts has provided jurists with a treasure trove of terms and concepts that have been used with great effect to construct much of the private law of Europe and elsewhere. Most modern discussions of Roman law employ the following periodization: Ancient Roman law (753–250 BCE); Republican Roman law (250–27 BCE); Classical Roman law (27 BCE–284 CE); Post-classical Roman law (3rd–5th centuries CE); and Justinianic Roman law (527–565 CE).

General Overviews

A number of informative introductory studies on Roman law are available. A good if dated account is Jolowicz 1932. A similar work, though more restricted in scope, is Wolff 1951, which deals solely with the external history of Roman law. Tellegen-Couperus 1993 also provides a good account. Arguably the most readable and informative recent survey is that of Schiavone 2012 as well as now Johnston 2015. For Justinian’s role in Roman law, see Maas 2005. See also Roman Law Resources for links to various sources, including book reviews, bibliographies, and both primary and secondary sources. When studying Roman law, it is important to appreciate that its academic study has been at the core of legal education since the creation of the first European universities in Italy in the 12th century. Since that time, it has fulfilled a number of functions. For a good survey of this “second life” of Roman law, see Stein 1999. Another interesting, though far more detailed, account may be found in Robinson, et al. 2000. Three recent surveys that deserve mention are Pihlajamäki, et al. 2018; Padoa-Schioppa 2018; as well as Herzog’s A short history of European law: the last two and a half millennia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

  • Ius Romanum.

    An interesting website with questions and answers on Roman law; hosted by the University of Saarbrücken.

  • Johnston, David, ed. 2015. The Cambridge companion to Roman law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive account of the various topics within Roman private, public, and criminal law, together with a number of chapters on the intellectual context of the subject and its “second life.”

  • Jolowicz, H. F. 1932. A historical introduction to the study of Roman law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book provides an overview of the most important periods and corresponding sources in Roman legal history, and also contains some information about selected areas of private law. 3d revised edition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

  • Maas, Michael, ed. 2005. The Cambridge companion to the age of Justinian. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive edited collection about the life and times of Justinian and his importance for the study of Roman law.

  • Padoa-Schioppa, Antonio. 2018. A history of law in Europe from the early Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    One of the most readable and up-to-date accounts of European legal history, first published in Italian in 2007.

  • Pihlajamäki, Heikki, Markus D. Dubber, and Mark Godfrey, eds. 2018. The Oxford handbook of European legal history. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive recent work on the history of law in Europe covering the origins to the 20th century. Chapters written by experts in the field and containing up-to-date recent bibliographies on specific topics.

  • Project Volterra.

    “The general aims of the Project Volterra are to promote the study of Roman legislation in its full social, political and legal context.” The website also contains an extensive overview of other online resources for Roman law. This section of the site lists journals fully or partially devoted to Roman law, of which either full-text articles or tables of contents of past issues are available via their websites. It also contains a survey of other websites devoted to Justinianic and post-Justinianic Roman law.

  • Robinson, Olivia F. 1997. The sources of Roman law: Problems and methods for ancient historians. London: Routledge.

    Although this work is primarily a survey of the sources of Roman law aimed at ancient historians, it provides a good account of the extant sources, their location, and the complexities involved in their use.

  • Robinson, Olivia F., T. David Fergus, and William M. Gordon. 2000. European legal history: Sources and institutions. 3d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Essentially a textbook, but highly informative and very well written.

  • Roman Law Resources.

    A comprehensive website hosted by Ernest Metzger of Glasgow University. This site has a variety of interesting subsections. “Notices” provides information about forthcoming conferences and seminars on Roman law and legal history. “Literature” is devoted to primary and secondary sources on Roman law, as well as teaching materials available online. It also lists many of the current research projects in the field of Roman law as well as book reviews and online bibliographies.

  • Schiavone, Aldo. 2012 [2005]. The invention of law in the West. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

    A work of great sweep, first published in Italian in 2005, in which the origins of the Roman legal order are traced from its origins to the death of the jurist, Ulpian, in the 3rd century of the Common Era.

  • Stein, Peter. 1999. Roman law in European history. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511814723

    A very readable account of the role of Roman law in the creation of law in western Europe since the 13th century.

  • Tellegen-Couperus, Olga E. 1993. A short history of Roman law. London: Routledge.

    This work, translated from Dutch, provides an eminently clear account of the external history of Roman law and the periodizations commonly used in the discipline. It does not treat individual areas or rules of law but provides an overview of the main period of Roman legal history.

  • Wolff, Hans Julius. 1951. Roman law: An historical introduction. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    Reprinted, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978. The author deals solely with the external history of Roman law.

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