This series has sixteen easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Necessary Legal Reform.
Justinian’s rule within the first half of the 6th. century serves as good a divide as any between the eastern half of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. While a lot of of change occurred — territorial, buildings, taxes — the most lasting transformative change was in the codification of more than a thousand years of Roman laws.
There are two reasons why this series gets this lengthy treatment:
- These laws tell us much about how ordinary people lived and the values they lived by
- Justinian’s Code became the basis of most of Europe’s laws
Justinian discovered that laws that were so complex and numerous caused over-burdened magistrates to just make rulings by the seats of their pants. This story has relevance to our civilization today, confronted as it is by a morass of ever-growing laws, regulations, and impulsive court rulings.
This selection is from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon published in 1788.
Gibbon’s examination of the Justinian Code is justly regarded as one of the most important features of the historian’s great work, and in several of the leading universities of Europe has long been used as a text-work on civil law.
The subjects of Justinian were dissatisfied with the times, and with the government. Europe was overrun by the Barbarians, and Asia by the monks: the poverty of the West discouraged the trade and manufactures of the East: the produce of labor was consumed by the unprofitable servants of the church, the state, and the army; and a rapid decrease was felt in the fixed and circulating capitals which constitute the national wealth. The public distress had been alleviated by the economy of Anastasius, and that prudent emperor accumulated an immense treasure, while he delivered his people from the most odious or oppressive taxes.
Their gratitude universally applauded the abolition of the gold of affliction, a personal tribute on the industry of the poor, but more intolerable, as it should seem, in the form than in the substance, since the flourishing city of Edessa paid only one hundred and forty pounds of gold, which was collected in four years from ten thousand artificers. Yet such was the parsimony which supported this liberal disposition, that, in a reign of twenty-seven years, Anastasius saved, from his annual revenue, the enormous sum of thirteen millions sterling, or three hundred and twenty thousand pounds of gold. His example was neglected, and his treasure was abused, by the nephew of Justin.
The riches of Justinian were speedily exhausted by alms and buildings, by ambitious wars, and ignominious treaties. His revenues were found inadequate to his expenses. Every art was tried to extort from the people the gold and silver which he scattered with a lavish hand from Persia to France: his reign was marked by the vicissitudes or rather by the combat, of rapaciousness and avarice, of splendor and poverty; he lived with the reputation of hidden treasures, and bequeathed to his successor the payment of his debts. Such a character has been justly accused by the voice of the people and of posterity: but public discontent is credulous; private malice is bold; and a lover of truth will peruse with a suspicious eye the instructive anecdotes of Procopius. The secret historian represents only the vices of Justinian, and those vices are darkened by his malevolent pencil. Ambiguous actions are imputed to the worst motives; error is confounded with guilt, accident with design, and laws with abuses; the partial injustice of a moment is dexterously applied as the general maxim of a reign of thirty-two years; the emperor alone is made responsible for the faults of his officers, the disorders of the times, and the corruption of his subjects; and even the calamities of nature, plagues, earthquakes, and inundations, are imputed to the prince of the daemons, who had mischievously assumed the form of Justinian.
When Justinian ascended the throne, the reformation of the Roman jurisprudence was an arduous but indispensable task. In the space of ten centuries, the infinite variety of laws and legal opinions had filled many thousand volumes, which no fortune could purchase and no capacity could digest. Books could not easily be found; and the judges, poor in the midst of riches, were reduced to the exercise of their illiterate discretion. The subjects of the Greek provinces were ignorant of the language that disposed of their lives and properties; and the barbarous dialect of the Latins was imperfectly studied in the academies of Berytus and Constantinople. As an Illyrian soldier, that idiom was familiar to the infancy of Justinian; his youth had been instructed by the lessons of jurisprudence, and his imperial choice selected the most learned civilians of the East, to labor with their sovereign in the work of reformation. The theory of professors was assisted by the practice of advocates and the experience of magistrates, and the whole undertaking was animated by the spirit of Tribonian.
This extraordinary man, the object of so much praise and censure, was a native of Side in Pamphylia; and his genius, like that of Bacon, embraced as his own all the business and knowledge of the age. Tribonian composed, both in prose and verse, on a strange diversity of curious and abstruse subjects; a double panegyric of Justinian and the life of the philosopher Theodotus; the nature of happiness and the duties of government; Homer’s catalogue and the four-and-twenty sorts of metre; the astronomical canon of Ptolemy; the changes of the months; the houses of the planets; and the harmonic system of the world. To the literature of Greece he added the use of the Latin tongue; the Roman civilians were deposited in his library and in his mind; and he most assiduously cultivated those arts which opened the road of wealth and preferment. From the bar of the praetorian prefects he raised himself to the honors of quaestor, of consul, and of master of the offices: the council of Justinian listened to his eloquence and wisdom, and envy was mitigated by the gentleness and affability of his manners.
The reproaches of impiety and avarice have stained the virtues or the reputation of Tribonian. In a bigoted and persecuting court the principal minister was accused of a secret aversion to the Christian faith, and was supposed to entertain the sentiments of an atheist and a pagan, which have been imputed, inconsistently enough, to the last philosophers of Greece. His avarice was more clearly proved and more sensibly felt. If he were swayed by gifts in the administration of justice, the example of Bacon will again occur: nor can the merit of Tribonian atone for his baseness, if he degraded the sanctity of his profession; and if laws were every day enacted, modified, or repealed, for the base consideration of his private emolument. In the sedition of Constantinople his removal was granted to the clamors, perhaps to the just indignation, of the people; but the quaestor was speedily restored, and, till the hour of his death, he possessed above twenty years the favor and confidence of the Emperor. His passive and dutiful submission has been honored with the praise of Justinian himself, whose vanity was incapable of discerning how often that submission degenerated into the grossest adulation. Tribonian adored the virtues of his gracious master: the earth was unworthy of such a prince; and he affected a pious fear, that Justinian, like Elijah or Romulus, would be snatched into the air and translated alive to the mansions of celestial glory.
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