The Justinian Code – Byzantine laws made for modern times

Emporer Justinian was born around A.D. 482 under the civil name Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus. During his lifetime, the Roman Empire had already been divided into an Eastern and Western part. Justinian acted from A.D. 527 to 565 as the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor with legal domicile in the diaspora in Constantinople.

The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire and even of the Roman Republic. A separate government and difficult communications with the Western half of the Roman Empire gave the Byzantine Empire its own unique identity.

Justinian was known as “the emperor who never sleeps” on account of his work habits. For the legal profession, his significance masterstroke are his judicial reforms, resulting in the complete combination and compilation of Roman law into the Corpus Juris Civilis, consisting of the Codex Iustinianus (English: Justinian Code), the Digesta or Pandectae, the Institutiones, and the Novellae.


The Justinian Code had been accomplished by a team of ten experts within 14 months only, and the compilation was promulgated as Byzantine law in April 529. This involved studying over 2000 books and three million lines of legal text dating back to the early Roman Republic and comprised

  • all of the statutes passed under the republic and early empire that had not become obsolete,
  • the decrees of the Senate passed at the end of the republic and during the first two centuries of the empire; and
  • the writings of jurists and, more particularly, of those jurists to whom the emperors had given the right of declaring the law with their authority.

A supervision to eliminate conflicts that had arisen over the years in Roman jurisprudence was published in 534. This second edition took effect on December 30, 534 and no copies of the first edition of the original Justinian Code survived till today. The seven main categories of Byzantine laws are the following:

#1. The law of persons, distinguished between free men and slaves, as well as between citizens and non-citizens

#2. Family laws, with two types of marriages. With autocratic power of the husband over the wife – or without, concubinage and divorce.

#3. Corporation laws, with four types of juristic personality in the sense of an entity that had rights and duties.

#4. The law of property and possession, including beneficial ownership, leasehold, and servitude.

#5. Obligations, distinguished between contract and delict. Byzantine laws recognized two further classes of obligation, termed quasi-delict and quasi-contract.

#6. The law of succession as one of the most complex areas of Roman law.

#7. The law of procedure, to conduct lawsuits in two stages: a preliminary one before the jurisdictional magistrate, and then the actual presentation of evidence to the judge.

A (hardly legible) English translation of the Justinian Code can be found in the Roman Law library on the website of the Grenoble II University.

The Justinian Code is the basis for the civil law system, as it is the applicable law in most countries of the world. The idea of a comprehensive law book has been continued, for example in the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or Thailand’s Civil & Commercial Code.

#JustinianLawyers took its biennial establishment in Thailand as an opportunity to this article. Any comments, additions, and fixes to this uncompleted remarks on the Justinian Code are welcome.

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