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.