In This Article 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: 20 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0031


The present understanding of Roman law is essentially as a thought experiment based on the 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 snippets, which were stripped of their original context, 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 western 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

There are a number of informative introductory studies on Roman law. A good if slightly 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. The most recent account is Tellegen-Couperus 1993. 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.

  • Ius Romanum

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

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

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    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.

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

  • Project Volterra

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    “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.

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    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. D. Fergus, and William M. Gordon. 2000. European legal history: Sources and institutions. 3d edition. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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

  • Roman Law Resources

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    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.

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

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    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.

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    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.

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

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