City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Laws of the Twelve Tables

As you read these tales of Tarquin and Horatius, Coriolanus, and Cincinnatus, you may think, perhaps, that the teaching of King Numa was wasted, and that the Romans after him did nothing but fight, and studied nothing but the art of winning battles. Almost all of the oldest stories that have come down to us tell us only of the defeat or victory of a Roman army, for that seemed the one important thing to the men who wrote the records. This, however, did not make up all the life of the Roman people. They were something else besides soldiers: they were citizens of Rome, and were members of family groups; and much might have been told us about their life in the city of which we shall always be ignorant.

The wisest men among the Romans at this time knew very little about the world, even as it was then; and they could never have imagined, if they had tried ever so hard, what the boys and girls, who would be living more than two thousand years after they were dead, would like to know about them. They only thought, as they wrote their records, that by the favor of the gods their city should last forever, and that, after many years, their own people might have forgotten when some city was taken, or how some army had been destroyed. So they wrote down these facts, and made them as lasting as they could; and they did not imagine that, after twenty centuries, people would rather know more of how they bought and sold in their market-places, and prayed in their temples, and behaved to one another in their homes, than so much about their little armies, and the towns that they captured, and the fields of their enemies that they laid waste.

The story of the Twelve Tables of the Law, however, is not about battles; and in it you will hear of no consul leading his soldiers out of the city to meet the enemy, and of no Dictator returning in triumph, after winning a victory for his country. It is not a tale of war, but of the beginning of written laws among the Romans, and it is a much nobler story for the Roman people than that of any of their battles.

When we Americans speak of the Law, we think of the laws which are printed in many books, and which are used by our judges and lawyers in trying cases in our courts. The Romans, at first, did not know any-thing of this kind of law. Such laws as they had were all unwritten, and were only known to the patricians who had handed them down by word of mouth from father to son, for many hundreds of years. The common people did not know them, and they had no way of finding out what was right for them to do, except by asking someone who had been taught the law from his early youth.

This might not have been so hard for the common people if all the patricians had learned the same law, and used their knowledge justly. But there were many different rules about the same thing, and the men who wished to be unfair could choose the law that would be most to their advantage, and of the least help to the people who appealed to them. By this unfair dealing, the people were often misled and treated very unjustly in their dealings with the patricians; but as they did not know the law, and had no way of learning it, they could do nothing to help themselves.

It was one of the tribunes of the people who at last tried to aid them by giving them the knowledge that was lacking to them. He proposed that all the laws of Rome should be gathered together and published, so that the people could understand what they must and must not do, and so avoid making mistakes because of ignorance. The patricians of Rome were opposed to this, for they did not wish the knowledge of the law to be given to the plebeians. They felt that this would be giving up even more of their rights over the people than they had surrendered when the people were brought back from the Sacred Mount and given their tribunes to protect them.

For this reason, the Senate refused to consent to the publishing of the law. But the people had now learned to be as firm in what they demanded as the Senate. Year after year, they elected only those men for tribunes who promised to help them in this struggle; and year after year, the tribunes continued to demand patiently and firmly the publication of the laws. It was ten years, however, before the Senate finally gave up the struggle, and allowed the people to have their own way.

Then they all agreed upon a curious thing. They changed their whole government for the time during which the laws were to be written; and instead of electing consuls and tribunes, as usual, they chose ten men who were both to govern the city and to get the laws ready for the people.

After working together for some time over their task, these men called the people together and said to them:

"We have written the laws as justly toward the highest and the lowest as it can be done by the consideration of ten men. The understanding and advice of a greater number might prove more successful. We bid you, therefore, go and read the laws that are placed before you, and consider them in your own minds in each particular, and talk together concerning them, in order that you may discover everything in which they are at fault. For we wish you to seem not to have accepted the laws proposed for you, but to have proposed them for yourselves."

Then the people did as they were bidden, and when all the faults of the laws seemed to have been corrected, they were approved by the assembly of the people; and they were published so that all men might see them.

But perhaps you will ask: "How could they be published, if there were no printing presses and books among the Romans, such as we have now?"

The Romans used a simple plan, but one that answered very well. They carved their laws upon twelve tablets of bronze, and then hung them in their market-place, or Forum, as they called it, on the sides of the stand where the Romans took their places when they wished to make a speech to the assembly of the people.

Here, in this public place, every man who could read was free to come and study them. As the Forum was the busiest place in Rome, where each citizen came at some time during almost every day of his life in the city, you will see that, after this, they lived with their laws constantly before their eyes. The boys, too, were obliged to learn the Twelve Tables by heart, as part of their education, and we may easily believe that it was not hard for a bright boy, who would be glad for an excuse to linger in the bustling Forum, to learn the whole contents of the tables before he was very old. Certainly, there was no excuse now for the Romans of any class not to know what was lawful and unlawful; and in this way a nobler thing had been done than if the Romans had conquered many cities, and sold their peoples into slavery.

These bronze tablets of the law have not come down to us through the centuries, as some of the Roman buildings have done. They were broken and destroyed long ago; but most of their contents have been preserved for us in the writings of the later Romans. Some of these laws seem very strange to us now, who are living with such different manners and customs; and this, perhaps, is most true of the laws that concern the family.

The father of the Roman family was like a ruler in a little kingdom all his own, in which no one, not even the consul, could interfere. He could do exactly as he pleased with his wife and his children and his servants. His children never grew up and became independent of their father, as you will be of your father when you become of age. The Roman father kept his power over his sons and daughters until the day of his death, and the laws even allowed him to sell his children as slaves, or to hire them out to work for his profit, whether they wished to do so or not.

But, besides the laws which seem to us so strange, there were many which seem much more reasonable. Among these was one which declared that if a tree overhung the ground of a neighbor, the neighbor might take the fruit that dropped on his side of the line. If anyone cut down the trees which belonged to another, he must pay twenty-five pounds of copper for each tree. If anyone turned cattle into a neighbor's grain field, or cut down his grain by night, he was to be severely punished.

As time went on, some of the laws of the twelve tables were changed among the Romans, and a great many others were added to them. Then it became impossible for anyone to learn all of the laws by heart, and at last the boys ceased to learn even the laws of the twelve tables. But the main principles of the Roman law remained the same under every change; the laws were only made clearer, and juster, and better fitted to the changes in the world to which they were to be applied. So the Roman law survived when almost everything else of the Roman rule had passed away, and it is the foundation of the law of many nations of the world to this day.