The legislative achievements of Justinian the Great

Digest or Pandects by Wikipedia

Law governed the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine Empire. But by the time of Justinian, there was much difficulty in the administration of justice. Despite several attempts to tackle the issues, the solutions were short-lived and ended up compounding the mess. This however did not trouble Justinian. He set out on an ambitious reform of the Roman laws that would prove to be one of his enduring legacies.

The problems with Roman law

Romans law, which governed the Byzantine Empire, was famous for being efficient and just. The laws aimed to protect and to provide the citizens of the empire with what was fair. But by the time of Justinian, a few problems arose that hindered the efficient administration of justice. Firstly, the Roman emperors over the centuries frequently issued decrees that contradicted Roman laws. This created confusion in the administration of justice. Secondly, keeping the laws regularly up to date in the various parts of the empire was not easy. This made it difficult for the judges and lawyers to handle court cases properly. Lastly, the differing opinions of jurists on various points of law further complicated matters and were difficult to obtain. All these problems made the administration of justice challenging.

Pre-Justinian reforms of the Roman laws

To address the difficulties in administering justice, the Romans implemented various reforms over the years to tackle the problems. They compiled and published 2 collections of Roman laws before the beginning of the 4th century. But despite efforts to update these laws regularly, they soon became irrelevant. Next, the western emperor Valentinian III, tried to systemize the mess in 426. He limited the number of opinions cited in the courts to just five commentators. Then, he laid out the guidelines to deal with possible conflicts of opinion. The eastern emperor Theodosius II went even further by preparing a collection of the laws created from 312 onwards. He set up commissions in 427 and 434 to carry out this task. The commission published the Theodosian Code in 438. But despite these measures, the empire, with its pre-modern challenges, just did not have the ability to deal with the problems listed above.

The reforms of Justinian the Great

By the time of Justinian, the Theodosian Code was almost 100 years old. There were many new laws that made it outdated. Aware of these problems and the implications for the efficiency of his administration, Justinian decided to address the issues in 528. On February 13, following the example of Theodosius II, he appointed a commission to produce a new legal code. The commission had to standardize and simplify the existing and the new laws created after the Theodosian Code in accordance with Christian values. About a year later, they presented the Codex Justinianus to Justinian on April 7, 529.

Emboldened by his success, Justinian decided to tackle the legal works of the Roman jurists next. He placed the learned and capable Tribonian, in charge of a 16-man commission. A lawyer by profession, Tribonian was part of the team that produced the Codex Justinianus. Justinian clearly valued his ability and henceforth employed him for many years to come. Beginning on 15 December, 530, the commission compressed 2,000 books and 3 million lines into 50 books and 150,000 lines. On 16 December, 533, they presented the result of their monumental efforts, the Digest, also known as the “Pandects” in Greek, to Justinian. But this was not all. On 21 November, 533, Tribonian and another team of lawyers published the Institutes, a short textbook for students on the principles of law. Then, on 16 November 534, an updated version of the Codex Justinianus was completed. These 3 works, written in Latin, became the standardized form of Roman law.

The novels of Justinian

But the legislative work of Justinian did not end with his standardization of Roman law. With the same restless energy, Justinian began to replace outdated laws with new ones from 535 onwards. Written in Greek, these new laws or novels also served to elaborate upon older laws where necessary. The novels covered many issues, some of which are as follows. Firstly, there was the reform of provincial administration to reduce corruption and to increase efficiency. One measure taken was banning the practice of selling offices. Another measure he took was the combination of civil and military power in the provinces. The aim was to enhance the ability of the provincial administration to deal with the possibility of revolts.

Secondly, there was the issue of marriage and divorce which Justinian’s novels addressed. Women could now divorce their husbands for various reasons. Some reasons included unfaithfulness, wrongful accusations of adultery and imprisonment of the husband. But if the couple sought divorce for other reasons, they faced banishment to the monastery or convent. Justinian also forbade divorce by mutual consent. Meanwhile, another law provided for concubines and their children, improving their position considerably.

Finally, the laws also dealt with prostitution and sexuality. Possibly at the urgings of the empress Theodora, Justinian passed a law that banned prostitution in Constantinople. But the legislation for male homosexuality was harsh. For actions that supposedly defied nature, just forms of punishments included torture, public humiliation, castration and exile. The Byzantines believed that God would punish the cities and the people with disasters for allowing such homosexuality.

The impact of Justinian’s reforms

Justinian was very proud of his legislative achievements and rightly so. He had been successful in what he had set out to accomplish during the first few years of his long reign. His laws increased his prestige considerably.

While it was one thing to legislate in theory, it was another thing entirely in practice. The further his officials from the capital, the less control Justinian had over them. He couldn’t do much against a tax-collector in Egypt whom the villagers complained about. Many couples were also displeased about the prohibition of divorce by mutual consent. But it was only during the reign of Justinian’s successor Justin II that this became a permissible reason for divorce.

Overall, the empire was better off with Justinian’s legislative reforms. With the standardization of the law, the administration of justice became easier. Furthermore, his laws survived till modern times, setting the standard for many kingdoms across Europe.

Reflections of the Vizier

The speed, energy and amount of materials that Justinian’s commission worked through were astounding. What many had believed to be impossible became a reality because of Justinian. Roman law and its useful fundamentals would have been lost if Justinian had not made the effort to preserve it. His legal reforms would go on to shape the laws of the modern world.

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Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

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