Why do we study Roman law in law school?

The feeling of success is indescribable and you get to feel it when you see that your work is reflected in the result of admission to the Faculty of Law. The summer between these two stages of life is passing faster than we would like, but at the same time we look forward to what university has to offer. We often find out the schedule before meeting with the future colleagues and ask ourselves ” What are we going to learn?”; “What is behind every subject?”.

Even without wanting to, we often hear impressions about the subjects we will deepen later. Some information makes us thrill at the beginning and other ones arouse our interest and curiosity. However, a peculiarity is the Roman law. Every student ends up having different and more or less pleasant experiences with it. But one thing is for certain, we all have to try to find its usefulness and understand it.

Looking back, I wish I had known from the beginning what I know today about the origins of modern private law and had looked above the hard quotes in Latin, the ritual trials and the archaic perspective on the family, the social status and the way in which the state is governed. Roman law has much more to offer. It is a lesson about the essence of law and justice and a first step in our training as lawyers. In the following we will begin a short journey two millennia into the past.

Why do we learn Roman law in Romania?

We joined the Romano-Germanic legal system when the “A.I. Cuza” Civil Code was officially published in 1865 as it was strongly influenced by Napoleon’s Civil Code. Both the French and  German Civil Codes had taken over legal concepts and principles of Roman law. Afterwards, most European nations took them as an example in order to build their own legal systems. However,  Roman law has been applied in Dacia since the conquest of the Geto-Dacians and it was still dominant in the area even after the Aurelian evacuation in 275 AC. Thus, the traditional Romanian legal system was inspired by the Romans as it was formed on its own in the 8th century.

On the other hand, Romanian medieval law was inspired by the Byzantine law after the death of Emperor Justinian. Even so, the Roman culture remained present through our traditional legal system. That being said, Roman culture took part of Romanian history not only from a linguistic point of view, but also from a legal point of view.

Roman law teaches us to respect the order

The Romans were conservative people and any trial was a religious ritual, in fact (especially at the very beginning). The civil procedure during the royalty and the republic was of an exaggerated formalism. If the parties didn’t speak in a certain way and in a specific order, the case wasn’t judged.

Later on, there used to be a formula for every subjective right and each formula was used to solve the case. The formulas were limited, but magistrates had the opportunity to create new court programs when they considered that their clients’ claims were indeed fair. The Romans were willing to evolve and change the rules only if they thought it was the right thing to do or the territory and economy were expanding..

The first Roman contract could be concluded after expressing the promise in solemn terms followed by a religious ritual. They also had a list of crimes and their written laws (the most important being the Law of the Twelve Tablets) had clear rules.

Although it was a rigid system that favoured wealthy citizens, ancient Roman law instilled many values in us. It helps us understand that the procedure is essential in the making of justice.

Roman law helps us improve and extend our legal vocabulary

Roman law shows us the evolution of concepts and how legal terms were used. An example would be the adverse possession. Nowadays usucapio is a way of acquiring ownership and its dismemberments in general, but in the classical era it used to be a way of acquiring quiritary ownership in particular. Due to the impressive size of the empire, the Romans were forced to organize their territory differently. So, the ownership was of several kinds: quiritary property, praetorian property, provincial property and pilgrim property.

The first category included those territories that were part of the Italic soil and that could only be used by the Roman citizens and the third category represented conquered territories that were given to citizens and also to natives for food production.

The Italic soil was considered to be the most valuable land and it was excluded from taxes payment as quiritary ownership was receiving a special treatment.

The other types of property could be acquired through other procedures which were  specific to less valuable goods. During the reign of Emperor Justinian, usucapio became widespread as the territory of today’s Italy became a simple colony of the empire and it lost its former special status. The modern concept of adverse possession finds its roots in Roman law.

The Romans shaped the concept of Senate and citizenship

The state organization of Rome was complex and even efficient for a long time. The Romans improved and came up with new perspectives on government and citizenship.

Free people could be ingenuine or freed citizens and non-citizens (Latinos or pilgrims). In the exercise of civil and political rights, there wasn’t made any distinction between free-born citizens and those who were released by their masters. At that time, liberated slaves took over the social status of their masters.

Nowadays, the identification of citizenship is based on documents that are issued by state offices (birth certificate, marriage certificate, identity card, passport, etc.). However, the identifying elements of Roman citizenship were the name and the clothing. The Romans had complex names which proved that they belonged to a certain family and neighbourhood. Their names also established the paternal filiation. The clothing was specific: gowns which were made of white wool (for ordinary citizens) or purple wool (for magistrates).

The concept of citizenship used to focus more on the social roots of the individual than on how responsible they were. Based on the territorial and economic expansion and the difficulties they encountered in the civil procedure, the Romans were forced to embrace the idea of ​​acquiring citizenship by law.

The Roman Senate first appears as a Council of the Elders in the pre-statal Rome. It becomes an advisory political mechanism during the royalty and the main instrument for achieving social and economic interests in the republic. At that time, the senators chose 2 consuls to lead Rome as the magistrates took over most of the kings’ duties. Nowadays, the members of the Parliament elect presidents in parliamentary republics.

During the empire the Senate acquired legislative authority, but at the same time it diminished its importance as it was only formally fulfilling its duties. The other Roman institutions followed the Senate making the empire collapse from within.

Many states of the world currently have the Senate as the upper chamber of the Parliament. The Roman state organization strongly influenced today’s one.

The essence of law is immutable

The content changes from one historical era to another, from one year to another and from one day to another. Quintessence remains eternal as long as humans keep their desire to find happiness. Justice means giving people what they deserve and the Romans had never stopped believing in this in any stage of evolution. They had always wanted more and better. Above all, they emphasized on the fact that there can be no law without society and no society without law.

Consequently, the history of Rome shows us the connection between the past, the present and the future and the way law was related to every aspect of life. Law is the art of goodness and equity.

Maia-Alexandra Dragomir

Legal Intern R&R Partners Bucharest

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