A Companion to Justinian’s Institutes

by Ernest Metzger

November 12th, 2008

Why in the world would Justinian's Institutes need a companion. Is it (are they?) lonely? In need of a pal? Well, no. In order to understand just the title to the book, you need to know a little history.

When they threw out their last king around 450 BCE, the Romans needed a new source of laws, so they wrote up all the laws they'd been living under and posted them in the Forum so that everybody could see exactly what the laws were. Of course, in those days, not many Romans could read, so what they wrote down was more like a set of singsong summaries. Remember in the second "Road Warrior" film, how one of their laws was "Bust a deal, face the wheel"? That's sort of like what the Romans wrote down. This law collection was called "The Twelve Tables", and they were destroyed by invading Celts a few hundred years later. So how do we know what was on them? Mostly by later writings that refer back to them. It's not very reliable, but it's the best we've got.

Over the next 950 years, the Romans kept adding to the laws, coming up with refinements to deal with all the complexities of a growing empire. The Roman magistrates (the people who actually decided cases in accordance with the law) also worked out some of the kinks. However, after a few centuries' worth of patches and one-time fixes, Roman law had gotten to be a bit of a mess. Every few hundred years somebody would come along and attempt to clean up the mess. The more serious attempt to do this was done by the Emperor Justinian in the closing days of the Western Roman Empire (Justinian was safely nestled on the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire). He appointed a bunch of legal eagles to go through the whole mess and rewrite everything so that it made sense.

The end result of this effort was Justinian's Insitutes, a massive compilation of Roman law that at last made sense. The book I have is NOT Justinian's Institues -- it's merely a commentary on it, a shortened discussion of some of the main elements of the Institutes. Why on earth would I want to read this book? The answer has to do with my continuing quest to understand the development of reasoning in Western civilization. This book did not provide me with the answers I sought -- but it did give me some hints as to where I might find those answers. I shall continue this quest with another book.