Twelve Tables

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Twelve Tables,

early code of Roman law. Most modern authorities accept the traditional date of 450 B.C., but several place the work later. The tables were supposedly written in response to the plebeians' protest that the patrician judges were able to discriminate against them with impunity because the principles governing legal disputes were known only orally. Two decemvirs [10-man commissions] were appointed to state the law in writing, and they first produced 10 tablets, probably wooden, with laws inscribed thereon; in the next year they produced two more. Exact quotations of the Twelve Tables are rare, but from references in later Latin writings their content has been approximately reconstructed. They appear to have been an exceedingly formalistic statement of the customary law. In later times the Twelve Tables were regarded with reverence as a prime legal source.

Twelve Tables


(Leges duodecim tabularum), a codex of laws of ancient Rome, compiled, according to tradition, by specially elected commissions called decemvirs in 451–450 B.C. These laws represented a written record of the common law of the Roman community. The name, the Twelve Tables, comes from the 12 tables on which the laws were written down and which were exhibited in the city square. The text of the laws was not preserved and has been reconstructed on the basis of references contained in the works of Roman writers and lawyers (Cicero, Gaius, and others).

The laws of the Twelve Tables contained regulations concerning judicial proceedings, criminal and civil law, and certain police regulations. The legal process in disputes over property was distinguished by formality; diversification of form, and the division of jurisdiction between the magistrate-praetor and the judge, who was a private individual appointed to make the final decision in a dispute. From the point of view of property relations, private ownership of property was characteristically widespread, including land-ownership as well as a wide range of contracts concluded on the basis of a free agreement between the parties (sale, exchange, lease, etc.). The norms of family law were based on the unconditional domination by the head of the family—the paterfamilias.