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According to Roman tradition, the Law of the Twelve Tables (Latin: Leges Duodecim Tabularum or Duodecim Tabulae) was the legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. The Tables consolidated earlier traditions into an enduring set of laws.
The Twelve Tables are sufficiently comprehensive that it has been described as a 'code', although modern scholars consider this characterisation exaggerated. The Tables were a sequence of definitions of various private rights and procedures. They generally took for granted such things as the institutions of the family and various rituals for formal transactions. The provisions were often highly specific and diverse, and lack an intelligible system or order.
Drafting and development
The Twelve Tables of Roman society were said by the Romans to have come about as a result of the long social struggle between patricians and plebeians. After the expulsion of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, the Republic was governed by a hierarchy of magistrates. Initially, only patricians were eligible to become magistrates and this, among other plebeian complaints, was a source of discontent for plebeians. In the context of this unequal status, plebeians would take action to secure concessions for themselves using the threat of secession. They would threaten to leave the city with the consequence that it would grind to a halt, as the plebeians were Rome's labour force. Tradition held that one of the most important concessions won in this class struggle was the establishment of the Twelve Tables, establishing basic procedural rights for all Roman citizens as against one another. However this tradition cannot be verified, and the drafting of the Twelve Tables may have been fomented by a desire for self-regulation by the patricians, or for other reasons.
Around 450 BC, the first decemviri (decemvirate - board of "Ten Men") were appointed to draw up the first ten tables. According to Livy, they sent an embassy to Greece to study the legislative system of Athens, known as the Solonian Constitution, but also to find out about the legislation of other Greek cities. Some scholars dispute the veracity of any claim that the Romans imitated the Greeks in this respect or suggest that they visited the Greek cities of Southern Italy, and did not travel all the way to Greece. In 450 BC, the second decemviri started to work on the last two tables.
The first decemvirate completed the first ten codes in 450 BC. Here is how Livy describes their creation,
"...every citizen should quietly consider each point, then talk it over with his friends, and, finally, bring forward for public discussion any additions or subtractions which seemed desirable." (cf. Liv. III.34)
In 449 BC, the second decemvirate completed the last two codes, and after a secessio plebis to force the Senate to consider them, the Law of the Twelve Tables was formally promulgated. According to Livy (AUC 3.57.10) the Twelve Tables were inscribed on bronze (Pomponius (Dig. 1 tit. 2 s2 §4) alone says on ivory), and posted publicly, so all Romans could read and know them.
The Twelve Tables are no longer extant: although they remained an important source through the Republic, they gradually became obsolete, eventually being only of historical interest. Some believe that the original tablets must have been destroyed when the Gauls under Brennus burnt Rome in 387 BC. Cicero claimed  that he learned them by heart as a boy in school, but that no one did so any longer. What we have of them today are brief excerpts and quotations from these laws in other authors, often in clearly updated language. They are written in an archaic, laconic Latin (described as Saturnian verse). As such, though it cannot be determined whether the quoted fragments accurately preserve the original form, what is present gives some insight into the grammar of early Latin. Some claim that the text was written as such so plebeians could more easily memorize the laws, as literacy was not commonplace during early Rome.
Like most other early codes of law, they were largely procedural, combining strict and rigorous penalties with equally strict and rigorous procedural forms. In most of the surviving quotations from these texts, the original table that held them is not given. Scholars have guessed at where surviving fragments belong by comparing them with the few known attributions and records, many of which do not include the original lines, but paraphrases. It cannot be known with any certainty from what survives that the originals ever were organized this way, or even if they ever were organized by subject at all.
- Jolowicz, H. F. Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law (Cambridge, 1952), 108
- Crawford, M. H. 'Twelve Tables' in Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow (eds.) Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed.)
- Mommsen, T. The History of Rome trans. W. P. Dickson (London, 1864) 290
- Steinberg, S. 'The Twelve Tables and Their Origins: An Eighteenth-Century Debate' Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 43, No. 3 (1982) 379-396, 381
- du Plessis, Paul (2010). Borkowski's Textbook on Roman Law (4th ed.). Oxford. pp. 5–6, 29–30. ISBN 978-0-19-957488-9.
- Livy, 2002, p. 23
- Durant, 1942, p. 23
- Steinberg, S. 'The Twelve Tables and Their Origins: An Eighteenth-Century Debate' Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 43, No. 3 (1982) 379-396
- Grant, Michael (1978). History of Rome (1st ed.). Prentice Hall. p. 75. ISBN 0-02-345610-8.
- McCarty, Nick "Rome The Greatest Empire of the Ancient World", The Rosen Publishing Group, 2008
- Cic. Leg. 2.59
- Durant, W. (1942). The Story of Civilization. Simon and Schuster.
- Livy; De Sélincourt, A.; Ogilvie, R. M.; Oakley, S. P. (2002). The early history of Rome: books I-V of The history of Rome from its foundations. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044809-8.
- Goodwin, Dr Frederick (1886). The XII Tables. Stevens & Sons, London.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1921 Collier's Encyclopedia article Twelve Tables.|
- Translation of the entire text of Twelve Tables, with footnotes
- Original text of the Twelve Tables in Latin
- History of Law
- Entry by George Long in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities