What Did Roman Law Reveal About Their Society?
Numerous aspects of our current society can be attributed to the Romans. Ancient influences of theirs can be seen in our government, architecture, law, and our language. However, their society was flawed, like all societies. Roman laws and primary sources reveal weaknesses concerning views on class, gender, and religion. Historians and social scientists view primary sources from Roman laws and can identify their strengths and weaknesses. In doing this, they will not only understand how the Roman laws worked but also how we can apply their successes and weaknesses to our own society.
The Roman government had a tendency to place certain people higher than others, as can be seen in The Twelve Tables of Roman Law. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law set strict rules that favored the upper class and targeted the lower class and women. These laws revealed the sexist ways of Rome as well as their hierarchy of people. The law “The women shall not tear their faces nor wail on account of the funeral” is unfair. Directly targeting females, it strips them of their natural right to grieve the loss of a loved one. Roman law took everything away from the women, even their right to express emotion. Being that this law does not also apply to the male population, it shows the unjust ways of their society. This ludicrous law proves just how poorly the women in Ancient Rome were treated. A law was also enforced that forbid the marriage between plebeians and patricians. This law proposes a clear divide between the upper/ruling class and the lower class, creating a hierarchy of people. The Roman law placed the patricians so above the plebeians that the two were not even allowed to have relationships with each other.
Yet another example found in The Twelve Tables of Roman Law states, “If a slave shall have committed theft or done damage with his master’s knowledge, the action for damages is in the slave’s name.” Using the slaves as scapegoats, the upper class Romans were able to get away with any crimes under the protection of the law. Rome’s government cared so little for the slaves that they treated them as nothings and condoned the abusive treatment from the upper class. This law further reveals Rome’s unjust hierarchy of people in their society.
Not all Romans agreed with the government, however, as is common in all civilizations. These people aid present societies in understanding the flaws in Ancient Rome. An example of such a person and his views is shown in On the Laws by Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero says that just because there is no written law against something does not mean that it does not go against “natural law”, or morality. He uses the example of the rape of Lucretia, saying that “…though in the reign of Tarquin there was no written law concerning adultery, it does not therefore follow that Sextus Tarquinius did not offend against the eternal law…” (Cicero). The same is not true of laws that are written to please the people but do not follow “the eternal law”/”natural law”. The passing of said laws does not come down to a person’s misguided judgement. A person has a good set of morals, but he/she chooses to ignore them in favor of personal gain and pleasure. That is what Cicero believes is the root of the problem within Roman government, and anything and anyone flawed, for that matter. Many laws that favored certain people over others were ones that went against basic human values, and therefore, he thought, were not true laws, but were made to benefit the people who made them instead of to guide the population in distinguishing right and wrong.
Roman law also highlighted the biases towards certain religions. One example of this ignorance was in the later Roman empire, and the hate of the Jewish people. Constantius outlined a multitude of laws, all vastly derogatory to those of not only Jewish, but non-Christians. Jews were forbidden to intermarry, and were also forbidden to own slaves from other religions. “This prohibition [of intermarriage] is to be preserved for the future lest the Jews induce Christian women to share their shameful lives.”(Constantius). This law not only illustrates the hate of the Jewish people, but the pure ignorance implied in the wording,“Shameful lives”. In addition to bashing a certain religion, this law directly limits the rights of females, displaying major sexism in the late empire by restraining female choice. Theodosius also displays bias in a law written about government offices and religion. “No Jew…shall obtain offices and dignities; to none shall the administration of city service be permitted.”(Theodosius.) The separation of state and religion is clearly not present in this situation, and strips all Jews of the essential right to be part of their own government. Analyzing these sources displays the flaws in Roman society, and exemplifies how we should avoid these prejudices within our own culture in order to promote social equality.
The Romans were a flawed people, but no civilization is without imperfections. Take our own society, for example. We have not totally eradicated racism, sexism, homophobia, religious discrimination, etc. in today’s world. However, the human world has much improved since its birth. A part of the path to a near perfect society is to learn from the mistakes of the past. This logic illustrates the importance of analyzing historic societies and root out the flaws, in turn recognizing them in the establishments of the present.