The Twelve Tables or Law of the Twelve Tables (Lex XII Tabularum) was a code of law framed by a commission of ten men called the Decemviri. It was written in a year’s time (traditionally dated 451–450 BC) and was provided basic procedural rights for all of Rome’s citizens, both plebeians and patricians. The statutes formulated by the decemviri filled ten bronze tablets initially and two additional tablets were added later.
Livy claims that a delegation was sent to Greece to study the Solonian Constitution (the legislative system of Athens) and research on legislation of other Greek cities. Some historians and scholars believe that the Romans did not imitate the Greek legislation.
Here are some of the laws of the Roman Republic:
Table I. (Procedure for courts and trials)
- If anyone summons a man before the magistrate, he must go. If the man summoned does not go, let the one summoning him call the bystanders to witness and then take him by force.
- If he shirks or runs away, let the summoner lay hands on him.
- When the litigants settle their case by compromise, let the magistrate announce it. If they do not compromise, let them state each his own side of the case, in thecomitium of the forum before noon. Afterwards let them talk it out together, while both are present. After noon, in case either party has failed to appear, let the magistrate pronounce judgment in favor of the one who is present. If both are present the trial may last until sunset but no later.
Table II. (Continued Trials and Theft)
- He whose witness has failed to appear may summon him by loud calls before his house every third day.
Table III. (Debt)
- One who has confessed a debt, or against whom judgment has been pronounced, shall have thirty days to pay it in. After that forcible seizure of his person is allowed. The creditor shall bring him before the magistrate. Unless he pays the amount of the judgment or some one in the presence of the magistrate interferes in his behalf as protector the creditor so shall take him home and fasten him in stocks or fetters. He shall fasten him with not less than fifteen pounds of weight or, if he choose, with more. If the prisoner chooses, he may furnish his own food. If he does not, the creditor must give him a pound of meal daily; if he chooses he may give him more.
- Against a foreigner the right in property shall be valid forever.
- Unless they (the debtors) make a compromise, they (the debtors) shall be held in bonds for sixty days. During those days they shall be brought to [the magistrate] into the comitia (meeting-place) on three successive markets
Table IV. (Rights of fathers (pater familias))
- A dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed.
- If a father sells his son three times, the son shall be free from his father.
- A child born after ten months since the father’s death will not be admitted into a legal inheritance.
Table V. (Legal guardianship and inheritance laws)
- Females should remain in guardianship even when they have attained their majority.
Table VI. (Acquisition and possession)
- When one makes a bond and a conveyance of property, as he has made formal declaration so let it be binding.
Table VII. (Land rights and crimes)
- Let them keep the road in order. If they have not paved it, a man may drive his team where he likes.
- Should a tree on a neighbor’s farm be bent crooked by the wind and lean over your farm, you may take legal action for removal of that tree.
- A man might gather up fruit that was falling down onto another man’s farm.
Table VIII. (Laws of injury)
- If one has maimed a limb and does not compromise with the injured person, let there be retaliation. If one has broken a bone of a freeman with his hand or with a cudgel, let him pay a penalty of three hundred coins. If he has broken the bone of a slave, let him have one hundred and fifty coins. If one is guilty of insult, the penalty shall be twenty-five coins. If one is slain while committing theft by night, he is rightly slain.
- If a patron shall have devised any deceit against his client, let him be accursed.
- Any person who destroys by burning any building or heap of corn deposited alongside a house shall be bound, scourged, and put to death by burning at the stake provided that he has committed the said misdeed with malice aforethought; but if he shall have committed it by accident, that is, by negligence, it is ordained that he repair the damage or, if he be too poor to be competent for such punishment, he shall receive a lighter punishment.
- A person who had been found guilty of giving false witness shall be hurled down from the Tarpeian Rock.
- No person shall hold meetings by night in the city.
Table IX. (Public law)
- The penalty shall be capital for a judge or arbiter legally appointed who has been found guilty of receiving a bribe for giving a decision.
- Treason: he who shall have roused up a public enemy or handed over a citizen to a public enemy must suffer capital punishment.
- Putting to death of any man, whosoever he might be unconvicted is forbidden.
Table X. (Religious Laws)
- None is to bury or burn a corpse in the city.
- The women shall not tear their faces nor wail on account of the funeral.
Table XI. (Supplement I)
- Marriages should not take place between plebeians and patricians.
Table XII. (Supplement II)
- Whatever the people had last ordained should be held as binding by law.
Historians only have scattered mentions of the laws that are generally paraphrased or personalized in language. The original tablets were supposedly destroyed when the Gauls under Brennus burned Rome in 387BC. Nonetheless, these laws give us an insight into the working of the people and society of Rome better than most.