This is the earliest attempt by the Romans to create a CODE OF LAW; it is also the earliest (surviving) piece of literature coming from the Romans. In the midst of a perennial struggle for legal and social protection and civil rights between the privileged class (patricians) and the common people (plebeians) a commission of ten men (Decemviri) was appointed (ca. 455 B.C.) to draw up a code of law which would be binding on both parties and which the magistrates (the 2 consuls) would have to enforce impartially.
The commission produced enough statutes (most of them were already `customary law' anyway) to fill TEN TABLETS, but this attempt seems not to have been entirely satisfactory--especially to the plebeians. A second commission of ten was therefore appointed (450 B.C.) and two additional tablets were drawn up. The originals, said to have been inscribed on bronze, were probably destroyed when the Gauls sacked and burned Rome in the invasion of 387 B.C.
The Twelve Tables give the student of Roman culture a chance to look into the workings of a society which is still quite agrarian in outlook and operations, and in which the main bonds which hold the society together and allow it to operate are: the clan (genos, gens), patronage (patron/client), and the inherent (and inherited) right of the patricians to leadership (in war, religion, law, and government).
|Procedure: for courts and trials
|Rights of fathers (paterfamilias) over the family
|Legal guardianship and inheritance laws
|Acquisition and possession
|Torts and delicts (Laws of injury)
"If he (plaintiff) summon him (defendant) into court, he shall go. If he does not go, (plaintiff) shall call witnesses. Then only he shall take him by force. If he refuses or flees, he (plaintiff) shall lay hands on him. If disease or age is an impediment, he shall grant him a team (of oxen). He shall not spread with cushions the covered carriage if he does not wish to.
Whoever is in need of evidence, he shall go on every third day to call out loud before the doorway of the witness."
"When a debt has been acknowledged or a judgment has been pronounced in court, 30 days must be the legitimate grace period. Thereafter, arrest of the debtor may be made by the laying on of hands. Bring him into court. If he does not satisfy the judgment (or no one in court offers himself as surety on his behalf) the creditor may take the debtor with him. He may bind him either in stocks or fetters, with a weight of no less than 15 lbs. (or more if he desires)." [After 60 days in custody, the case is returned to the court, and if the debt is not then paid, the debtor can be sold abroad as a slave, or put to death.]
John Paul Adams, CSUN