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Roman law is the legal system of the Roman republic and Roman Empire, from
its earliest days to the time of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Emperor
Justinian I after the fall of Rome itself.
Roman law is the foundation of many legal systems of the world.
* Common law was originally based on Roman law, before it developed into
a tradition of its own in England, from where it expanded to the United
Kingdom, apart from Scotland, to the United States, apart from
Louisiana, and to most former British colonies.
* By contrast, so-called Civil law systems are more directly based on
Roman law; the legal systems of most countries in continental Europe
and South America fall into this category, frequently through the
Napoleonic Code. These are sometimes called Latin systems (or
"operating jure latino").
Roman law has its beginnings in the code known as the Twelve Tables (449
BC). From there, Roman law became highly advanced for its time, developing,
over the centuries, many of the legal institutions that are taken for
For example, it was Roman law that developed the differentiation between
contract and tort; previously (as in ancient Greek law), contract violations
were simply a kind of tort. Also, the differentiation between possession
(which is a factual state: someone has something) and property (which is a
right; later formulated as the right to do whatever one wishes with
something) was developed in Roman law, most visible in the rei vindicatio,
the action of the owner against the possessor to release a piece of
property. Finally, the origins of today's concept that contracts are valid
when there is a meeting of the minds can be found in the Roman rules about
credits, which could be freely agreed on and were called stipulatio.
Roman law also developed the concepts of one law for the citizens and
another law for foreigners – the beginnings of private international law.
The Emperor Justinian arranged for the re-organisation of most of Roman law
in his Codex and his Pandectae, a fifty book set which took three years to
compile and was completed in 533. The emperor also ordered the production of
a textbook, Iustiniani Institutiones (the Justinian teaching manual), during
the early 530s. It was intended as an overview of Roman law for legal
students and consisted of just four books. Justinian's work was completed by
Pandectae (or Digesto), Institutiones and Codex are part of the Corpus Juris
Civilis. This has been called the most influential law work ever written as
it has been on the reading list for legal students in countries using Civil
law for nearly 1500 years so far.