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.