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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
Some Roman Ideas of Law
by Wormuth, Francis D.

The Romans were thoroughly familiar with the ideas about law which enter into the tradition of constitutionalism, even though these ideas played no important part in their public life. At least in the late formulations, the generality of law was taken for granted: Law (lex) is a general precept, said Papinian;1 and Ulpian wrote, "Laws (jura) are not established for individuals, but for general purposes."2 Prospectivity was likewise assumed, and occasionally this assumption was made explicit. An explosive passage in Cicero seems to argue that a retroactive measure is a physical impossibility.3 The Theodosian Code states that laws do not condemn past actions but fix a rule for the future,4 and the Code of Justinian preserves a command by Theodosius II and Valentinian III that laws are not to be applied to past transactions unless they are expressly made retroactive.5

But if jus and lex were general, special laws were familiar enough. The earliest name for these measures was privilegia. The privilegium was, as the name indicates, a private law, a piece of legislation dealing only with individuals or with particular groups. Ordinarily it conferred a benefit or immunity. In 450 b.c. the Twelve Tables forbade the passing of privilegia "in favor of private persons to the injury of others, contrary to the law common to all citizens, and which individuals, no matter of what rank, have a right to make use of."6 Cicero in 57 b.c. appealed to this provision of the Twelve Tables in order to secure the return of his home, which had been consecrated during his exile by Clodius.7 It is not clear that a special measure which conferred no privilege but merely operated to the disadvantage of a single person came within the prohibition of the Twelve Tables, but in the Laws also Cicero defined a privilegium as a law which penalized a particular individual.8

After Cicero there were no protests against privilegia. Aulus Gellius in the second century after Christ defined lex as a general command, a privilegium as one concerning individuals.9 Privilegia constituted a great part of the jus singulare; the remainder consisted of rules special in the sense that they deviated from the general tenor of the law. Opposed to jus singulare was jus commune, the general law.10 Paulus in the third century wrote a Liber singularis de jure singulari, of which nothing survives but the definition, "Special law is that which has been introduced by the authority of those establishing it against the tenor of a legal principle, on account of some particular advantage."11

Justinian's Code contains many examples of privilegia: those of the cities of Rome and Constantinople12 and of metropolitan cities;13 of the corporate bodies of Rome;14 of persons employed in the imperial palace,15 and those serving in favored divisions of the army;16 of the Fiscus;17 and of the lands of the emperor.18 The action for dowry is called privilegium dotis.19 Such privileges, since they did no immediate injury to anyone, did not appear inequitable. They were not given application beyond the particular cases for which they were intended.20

The position of the emperor raised a problem somewhat analogous to that of the privilegium. The emperor was, as Ulpian said, legibus solutus, exempt from the operation of the law, and he ordinarily conferred the same privilege upon the empress.21 But it was not considered proper for the emperor to avail himself of this immunity to the disadvantage of subjects; it was "dishonorable," said Paulus, and unworthy of his majesty not to submit to the laws.22 The authors of panegyrics to the emperors praised them for their obedience to law.23 This opinion culminated in the famous digna vox declaration of Theodosius II and Valentinian III in the year 429: "It is a statement worthy of the majesty of a reigning prince for him to profess to be subject to the laws; for our authority is dependent upon that of the law. And, indeed, it is the greatest attribute of imperial power for the sovereign to be subject to the laws, and we forbid to others what we do not suffer ourselves to do by the terms of the present edict."24

This constitutional morality, as it might be called, developed in connection with two problems in the law. The first arose in the law of wills. It was not uncommon for testators to make the emperor their heir in order to secure to their estates litigious claims or to make good some deficiency in the will. Pertinax refused to accept such inheritances, and Severus and Antoninus likewise declared: "Although we are above the laws, yet we live in obedience to them."25 Hadrian wrote, "It has frequently been decided that even the emperor cannot claim an estate under an imperfect will, for although the lex imperii has released the emperor from the formalities of law, nevertheless nothing is so fitting to sovereignty as to live according to the laws."26 Even more important in establishing the conception of the rule of law was the constitutional position of the Fiscus. This was the imperial treasury, which first overshadowed and then swallowed up the Aerarium, the popular treasury surviving from the republic. It was the creditor or debtor in all claims by or against the state. It could sue and also could be sued. It was in many cases subject to the rules of private law, in others to rules peculiar to the Fiscus, but in all cases to known and settled rules.27 So Roman law developed the doctrine of the suability of the sovereign which has been in modern times the envy of English and the boast of German jurisprudence.

In the sixteenth century Jean Bodin offered in his Six Books of the Republic what is usually called the first statement of the doctrine of sovereignty. Law is the will of the sovereign, and sovereignty is the capacity to make law by an act of will. But the sovereign is limited in four ways: he must observe the laws of God and nature; he cannot alter the "laws which concern the state of the realm, and the establishing thereof"; he must respect the property of his subjects; and he must honor his contracts. The first limitation came from medieval ideas rather than Roman law, for the Roman jurists were clear that any imperial command, however unreasonable, was law.28 The second referred to certain French laws, such as that governing succession to the throne, which the king could not alter. The third also had a medieval background, although Seneca had distinguished between imperium and dominium.29 The fourth was, perhaps, drawn from the Roman law.


(1) Digest, I, 3, 1.

(2) Digest, I, 3, 8, in Samuel P. Scott, trans., The Civil Law (Cincinnati, 1932), ii, 223.

(3) De domo sua, XVIII.

(4) I, 1, 3.

(5) I, 14, 7.

(6) Table IX, Law I, in S. P. Scott, op. cit., i, 73.

(7) Op. cit., XVII.

(8) Laws, III, 44.

(9) Attic Nights, X, 20.

(10) Carl Salkowski, Institutes and History of Roman Private Law (E. E. Whitfield, trans.: London, 1886), pp. 14-15.

(11) Digest, I, 3, 16, in S. P. Scott, op. cit., ii, 224. See also Modestinus, Digest, L, 17, 196.

(12) Code, XII, 21 (20).

(13) Ibid., XII, 22 (21).

(14) Ibid., XI, 15 (14).

(15) Ibid., XII, 28 (29).

(16) Ibid., XII, 29 (30).

(17) Ibid., VII, 73.

(18) Ibid., XI, 75 (74).

(19) Ibid., VII, 74.

(20) Institutes, I, 2, 6; Code, I, 6, 2.

(21) Digest, I, 3, 31.

(22) Digest, XXXII, i, 23.

(23) Lester K. Born, "The Perfect Prince according to the Latin Panegyrists," American Journal of Philology (1934), lv, 20; Mason Hammond, "Pliny the Younger's Views on Government," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (1938), xlix, 115.

(24) Code, I, 14, 4, in S. P. Scott, op. cit., xii, 86-87.

(25) Institutes, II, 17, 8 (Thomas C. Sanders, trans.: Chicago, 1876), p. 283. See J. B. Moyle, Imperatoris lustiniani Institutionum (Oxford, 1912), p. 2790.: "For acceptance under informal wills by the Emperors cf. Suetonius, Calig. 38, Domit. 12, Pliny, Paneg. 43."

(26) Code, VI, 23, 3. See Paulus, Digest, XXXII, 1, 23.

(27) J. Walter Jones, "The Early History of the Fiscus," Law Quarterly Review (1927), clxxii, 499.

(28) Digest, I, 3, 14-15-

(29) On Benefits, VII, 4, 2; 6, 3.


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