Could A Byzantine Citizen Sue Someone For Damages?

If someone’s negligence results in injury or financial damages in the United States, we have a relatively simple solution: sue the jerk. But it’s important to recognize that the ability to receive that sort of compensation isn’t pervasive in other countries (even in the developed world) and that many people have the view that accidents will always happen. What about the legal process in the Byzantine Empire? Could one citizen sue another?

We acquired many of our “rights” from the original Roman Empire. There was a latin concept coined as “lus conubii,” which represented a person’s right to a lawful marriage. This was generally a legal concept between two Roman citizens based on traditional Roman principles. But Romans also enjoyed citizenship rights, the right to run for office, and the right to vote or make legal contracts (dependent on who you were). But they also had the right to sue for damages!

What is personal injury? It’s a form of law in which a person who was physically or financially harmed by a person or organization can recoup proportional damages. The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Old Western Roman Empire, and thus assimilated many of its laws and traditions. The right to sue was one such tradition.

Many of these laws were predictably acquired through a heavily Christian influence, which was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine law is generally assumed to be a continuation of Roman traditions that had begun in the sixth century. They collapsed when Constinople was sacked in the fifteenth century.

Byzantine also had a number of “codes” to determine what was legal and illegal. The Sea Laws, for example, provided seafaring travelers with a set of maritime laws. Not only were Byzantine landmasses subject to regulation by the Empire, but so were the seas! One of the earliest sea laws was simply called “Naval Law.”

Other laws were intended to help oversee how certain professions could do business. A set of “Farmer’s Laws” to regulate the mostly agricultural society that thrived inside Byzantine’s borders. The Nomos Georgikos (sometimes called the Lex Rustica or Farmer’s Law) has been researched for a long time because the relevant texts are some of the most routinely discovered. Farmer’s Law was heavily influenced by the Slavs, who immigrated into the Empire in very large numbers during the first days when these laws were established.

Byzantine peasants were themselves organized into groupings called communities, but only for the purpose of collecting taxes every so often. The entire community of a certain region was responsible for making sure those taxes were paid. If they were not paid, then the entire community was liable for a sort of “personal injury” against the Empire itself. In turn Farmer’s Law influenced Slavic countries like Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia.

Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ratified an important set of laws called the Ecloga, which regulated civil and criminal law. These were the laws that provided citizens with the right to marry or file lawsuits and, notably, provided them with equality in the eyes of Byzantine legal system.