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Justinian (483—565) Byzantine emperor 527–65

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Justinian's codification

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Is a term loosely used to describe the three volumes (Codex, Dīgesta or Pandectae, Institutes) in which Justinian tried to restate the whole of Roman law in a manageable and consistent form, though this restatement, which runs to over a million words, is too bulky and ill‐arranged to count as a codification in the modern sense.

Within a few months of becoming emperor, Justinian ordered a commission of ten, mostly present or recent holders of public office, to prepare a comprehensive collection of imperial laws including those in the three existing codices, so far as they were still in force, together with more recent laws. The laws were to be edited in a short and clear form, with no repetition or conflict, but attributed to the emperors and dates at which they had originally been issued. The commission's head was the politically powerful layman John the Cappadocian. Within fourteen months the Codex Iustinianus in twelve books was finished and on 7 April 529 was promulgated as the exclusive source of imperial laws, the earlier codes being repealed. Its practical aim was to shorten lawsuits; and its compilation was widely regarded as a major achievement. It fitted a vision in which Justinian saw himself as rapidly restoring and extending the empire, in which process military and legal achievements would reinforce one another. This 529 Codex does not survive, but the second edition of 534 does.

The writings of old legal authorities could still be cited in court, but they often conflicted; so Justinian first arranged for the 50 most prominent conflicts between the old writers to be settled, then in December 530 ordered that these old works, which ran to over 1,500 books, be condensed in 50 books and given the title Dīgesta (‘Ordered Abstracts’) or Pandectae (‘Encyclopaedia’). For that purpose he set up a second commission consisting of élite lawyers under the quaestor Tribonianus, who had shown his mettle as a member of the earlier commission, along with another official, four law professors, and eleven advocates. They were to read the works of authority, none of them written later than about ad 300, and excerpt what was currently valid. As with the Codex, the commissioners were to edit the texts in a clear form with no repetition or contradiction. 39 writers were used for the compilation. The commission was not to count heads but to choose the best view, no matter who held it. In the upshot Ulpian, who provided two‐fifths of the Digest, was their main source; Paulus provided one‐sixth. The commission worked rapidly, and the Digest was promulgated in December 533. Justinian, in whose palace the commission was working, could be relied on to see that the timetable was kept to, as he did with the construction of St Sophia.

The compilers were authorized to alter the texts they kept. If the new version of a text differed from the old, the new prevailed, on the theory that Justinian was entitled to amend the previous law as he wished. But the amended texts were ‘out of respect for antiquity’ attributed to the original authors and books. This was a compromise, unsatisfactory from a scholarly point of view, which enabled Justinian to claim that everything in the Digesta was his, while in fact often reverting to the law as it was before 300.


Subjects: Classical studies

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