Twelve Tables

Roman statute

The Law of the Twelve tables (Latin: Leges Duodecim Tabularum or Duodecimo Tabulae) was the legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. Formally promulgated in 449 BC, the Tables were mostly a summary earlier traditions written down as a set of laws.

Displayed in the Forum, "The Twelve Tables" stated the rights and duties of the Roman citizen. Their formulation was the result of considerable agitation by the plebeian class, who had until then been excluded from the higher benefits of the Republic. Before that, the law had not been written down. Higher-class priests, the pontifices, intepreted it. Cicero (106–43 BC) stated that the "Twelve Tables...seems to me, assuredly to [be better than] the libraries of all the philosophers, both in weight of authority, and in [usefulness]". Cicero hardly exaggerated; the Twelve Tables formed the basis of Roman law for a thousand years.

The Twelve Tables are rather comprehensive, they have been described as a 'code'. Modern scholars consider this characterization exaggerated. The Tables were a sequence of definitions of various private rights and procedures. They generally took for granted such things as the institutions of the family and various rituals for formal transactions. The provisions were often highly specific and diverse.

Table 1 Procedure: for courts and trials
Table 2 Further enactments on trials
Table 3 Execution of judgments
Table 4 Rights of familial heads
Table 5 Legal guardianship and inheritance laws
Table 6 Acquisition and possession
Table 7 Land rights and crimes
Table 8 Torts and delicts (Laws of injury)
Table 9 Public law
Table 10 Sacred law
Table 11 Supplement I
Table 12 Supplement II

Influence and significance

Roman civilians examining the Twelve Tables after they were first implemented.

The Twelve Tables are often cited as the foundation for ancient Roman law. The Twelve Tables provided an early understanding of some key concepts such as justice, equality, and punishment. Although legal reform occurred soon after the implementation of the Twelve Tables, these ancient laws provided social protection and civil rights for both the patricians and plebeians. At this time, there was extreme tension between the privileged class and the common people. This meant that some form of social order was needed. While the existing laws had major flaws that were in need of reform, the Twelve Tables eased the civil tension and violence between the plebeians and patricians.

The Twelve Tables also heavily influenced and are referenced in later Roman Laws texts, especially The Digest of Justinian I. Such laws from The Digest that are derived from the Twelve Tables are the legal recompense for damage caused by an animal, protocol for inheritances, and also laws about structural property damage.[1]

The influence of the Twelve Tables can still be seen today. The Twelve Tables play a significant role in the basis of the early American legal system. Political theorists, such as James Madison have highlighted the importance of the Twelve Tables in crafting the United States Bill of Rights. The idea of property was also perpetuated in the Twelve Tables, including the different forms of money, land, and slaves. Another example: the Twelve Tables are tied into the notion of Jus Commune, which translates as "common law", but is commonly referred to as "civil law" in English-speaking countries. Some countries including South Africa and San Marino still base their current legal system on aspects of jus commune. In addition, law school students throughout the world are still required to study the Twelve Tables as well as other facets of Roman Law in order to better understand the current legal system in place.[2]

The Twelve Tables no longer exist: although they remained an important source through the Republic, they became obsolete, and were only of historical interest. The original tablets may have been destroyed when the Gauls under Brennus burned Rome in 387 BC. Cicero claimed that he learned them by heart as a boy in school, but that no one did so any longer. What we have of them today are brief excerpts and quotations from these laws in other authors, often in clearly updated language. They are written in an archaic, laconic Latin (described as Saturnian verse). As such, though it cannot be determined whether the quoted fragments accurately preserve the original form, what is present gives some insight into the grammar of early Latin. Some claim that the text was written as such so plebeians could more easily memorize the laws, as literacy was not common during early Rome. Roman Republican scholars wrote commentaries upon the Twelve Tables, such as L. Aelius Stilo, teacher of both Varro and Cicero.

Like most other early codes of law, they were about the procedure: They specified in detail, how something needed to be done. They also gave the same detail, about what the punishment was if the procedure wasn't followed. In most of the surviving quotations from these texts, the original table that held them is not given. Scholars have guessed at where surviving fragments belong by comparing them with the few known attributions and records, many of which do not include the original lines, but paraphrases. It cannot be known with any certainty from what survives that the originals ever were organized this way, or even if they ever were organized by subject at all.


  1. Watson, Alan (March 12, 2009). The Digest of Justinian, Volume 1. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 276, 379, 315. ISBN 9780812205510.
  2. Baker, Keir (2016-04-11). "Studying Roman law: Juno it's more useful than you'd think". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-05-08.

Further reading

  • Cornell, T.J. 1995. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 B.C.). London: Routledge, Routledge History of the Ancient World.
  • Harries, Jill. 2007. “Roman Law Codes and the Roman Legal Tradition.” In Beyond Dogmatics: Law and Society in the Roman World, Edited by Cairns, John W. and Du Plessis, Paul J. Edinburgh studies in law; 3, 85-104. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Pr.
  • Tellegen-Couperus Olga ed. 2011. Law and Religion in the Roman Republic. Mnemosyne supplements. History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, 336. Leiden; Boston: Brill.
  • Watson, Alan. 1992. The State, Law and Religion: Pagan Rome. University of Georgia Press.
  • Westbrook, Raymond. 1988. "The Nature and Origins of the Twelve Tables." Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Romanistische Abteilung, CV, 74-121.