Was The Byzantine Legal System Fair And Just?

The Byzantine Empire was what persisted after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But it certainly hasn’t made as flashy a historical remembrance as its other half. For example, the American justice system — and its government, in general — was very much modeled from the old Roman Republic, which fell for a number of reasons, including wealth inequality alongside the rise of Christianity (a discussion which we’ll leave for another day).

Roman law, therefore, is something that you would find familiar. For example, civil litigation began with a plaintiff accusing a defendant of a crime or personal injury, and the defendant would either answer the summons or be forcibly brought to court. A judge would be appointed during a preliminary hearing, should a praetor decide the issue at hand was reasonable. Afterward, there would be a trial with evidence and witnesses and lawyers and all the other nonsense one would expect.

What happened after a trial is where the system deviated greatly. You see, even if a judge concluded that a plaintiff’s arguments were valid, and provided a favorable verdict, it was up to the plaintiff to execute the judgement! 

Byzantine law was somewhat similar — and therefore may have had a greater influence on our own legal authorities than you might realize. But whereas the Ancient Roman Empire’s system was based squared on the law as “man” wrote it, the new system would evolve to include Christian influences. And that means that the laws became more religiously motivated. 

But the law still evolved over the many centuries of the Byzantine Empire.

For example, the decline of the empire after Justinian’s reign, coupled with Arab conquests, put great pressure on the legal system. Legal scholars, in particular, became much harder to find. Knowledge of latin waned. But none of that was necessarily a bad thing when it came to the actual practicing of law, which began to focus more on pragmatism and less on idealism.

Leo III the Isaurian implemented the “Ecloga” in 726, for example, was a compilation of Byzantine law. One of the reasons it has a lasting influence on history is because it was written in Greek instead of Latin. That mattered because more people within the empire’s borders understood Greek than Latin, especially as the centuries wore on.

And it was surprisingly great for women and children, whose rights increased! The Ecloga was surprisingly modern. Believe it or not, the Ecloga said that the primary justification for capital punishment was treason! Instead, you were more likely to be mutilated for committing a serious crime. Social class also had less to do with eventual punishment than ever before. Fairness became a real concept in law under the Byzantine Empire.

About The Ecloga

The Byzantines were very active in law and Christianity. Based on the works of several emperors, the idea of creating written law and adopting Christianity into governance of the Byzantine Empire was of high import among the rulers of the first three centuries of the Empire, which lasted for a millennium.

Several of the laws from the Roman Empire and later from the Byzantine Empire carried through until the Middle Ages in Europe as foundational civil and criminal law that guided society in those times. But even after the Code of Justinian (“Corpus Juris Civilis”) was developed in the sixth century A.D., further development of law was needed in the Byzantine era, and one of the seminal works was developed in the eighth century under Emperor Leo III called the Ecloga.

The Ecloga was developed in 726 as the predominant legal manual of Byzantine courts and law schools. As opposed to previous codes which were written in the original Roman Empire language of Latin, for wider acceptance and use, this law book was written in Greek, the language of the Byzantine Empire.

While the Ecloga was much like other Byzantine codes in that it drew from Roman law, it had a more “fair” application in that Leo III insisted n including Christian principles in the law based on humanity, mercy and grace.  What made the Ecloga so different from previous codes was that it included Christian principles in the application of law, as opposed to having an unequal application of law in a secular sense that meted out punishments according to family status, social status , gender or class.

The Ecloga equalized the law across all divisions of the populace, took away the death penalty from many crimes (limiting it only to rare cases of treasons, heresy, slander and some murders), gave women and children more rights in civil law and cut back rights of men, also looked to apply the laws and punishments equally across all social classes, so even the aristocracy were subject to the same punishments for crimes as the more indigent of the population.

In exchange for the elimination of the death penalty, some punishments that fall under the category of “mutilation” were introduced, which included amputation of limbs and blindness. And in an attempt to eliminate corruption in the judicial system, the Ecloga codified salaries for judicial officials and prohibited the offering or acceptance of gifts by these officials.

The Ecloga was a substantially important work in that it guided Byzantine law for the following centuries, and also had a role in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period in Europe, and the Ecloga was a fundamental model in Slavic areas like Russia, Bulgaria and others –and even was an important guide in the establishment of the code in the Russian Orthodox Church, which was state-sanctioned at the time.

It was also established that much of the Ecloga and Code of Justinian were vital in the establishment of Islamic law after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453 and was the new force in the Middle East and eastern Europe. So in many ways, the Ecloga has had a staying power that was not rivaled due to its Christian principles and wide influence across most of continental Europe and the Middle East, from where much of the world’s future societies would branch.


The Corpus Juris Civilis


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Justinian I was an emperor looking for a legacy. What was developed under his watch was more than a legacy, it was a foundation for much of Western jurisprudence for the last 15 centuries.

The Byzantine Empire was in its early years after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the eastern part of the Empire was moving forward from the capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey) when Justinian ascended to power in 527 A.D. Shortly after his reign began, he commissioned a group of jurists to put together what was originally called the Code of Justinian, later called the Corpus Juris Civilis, or “Body of Civil Law.”

The original Corpus was planned to have three parts, but a fourth wound up growing out of it as the process went along. The first three parts are known as the Code (Codex), the Digest (Digesta) and Institutes (Institutiones). The Code of Justinian took much from earlier Codes, including Gregorianus and Theodosianus, but also added some of the decrees and legislation that Justinian himself wrote into law during the early years of his reign.

The first work, the Codex, is comprised of 10 books that were compiled by a 10-man commission. This compilation was of all the constitutions (or imperial decrees and laws) that included those from previous codes as well as in the years leading up to Justinian’s ascent. The commission pored through all the decrees and laws, edited out those which were contradictory, or obsolete, verified the veracity of various copies of decrees that were discovered in various places (including private collections), eliminated redundancies and clarified some ambiguities. The final Codex was published in 534 after adding Justinian’s own legislation.

What was key about the Codex was that it had laws establishing Christianity as the state-sanctioned religion, and treated all non-Christians as noncitizens, denying them the benefits of living in the Empire? Further, any non-Christian practices were forbidden, all other religions were prohibited, and those who committed heresy were treated as if they were murderers.

The second part of the Body of Civil Law was called the Digest. This was a compilation of mostly jurist opinions and writings that dated back a couple centuries. Some of the opinions were fragments of larger writings and were in some ways taken out of context – but the entire book had the force of law just like the Codex.

The third part was called the Institutes, or Elements. This became a textbook for students of the law. Tribonian, who was one of the leaders of the original Digest and Codex commissions, combined with a couple of law professors named Theophilus and Dorotheus to create four books (coinciding with the four “elements” in science at the time) that also had the force of law but were instructional for law students in the empire.

Much of the Corpus Juris Civilis was used as the primary law code for the Byzantine Empire until the early Middle Ages in Europe. There are still some aspects of the Western civil law that are direct descendants of the Corpus.

The fourth part, which was initially unplanned, was called the Novels and consisted of decrees and laws introduced by Justinian during the remaining 30 years of his reign after the Codex was published.