Roman Law Unites the Empire

“Let justice be done,” proclaimed a Roman saying, “though the heavens fall!” Probably the greatest legacy of Rome was its commitment to the rule of law and to justice—ideas that later shaped Western civilization. Many centuries later, key principles of Roman law became the basis for legal systems throughout the world, including that of the United States.

Rome's System of Law Emerges

During the republic, Rome developed a system of law, known as the civil law, that applied to its citizens. As Rome expanded, however, it ruled many foreigners who were not covered under the civil law. Gradually, a second system of law, known as the law of nations, emerged. It applied to all people under Roman rule, both citizens and non-citizens. Later, when Rome extended citizenship across the empire, the two systems merged.

Principles of Roman Law

As Roman law developed, certain basic principles evolved. Many of these principles are familiar to Americans today. Among the most important was that an accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. A second principle ensured that the accused was allowed to face the accuser and mount a defense against the charge. A third idea was that guilt must be established “clearer than daylight,” using solid evidence. Still another idea was that judges interpret the laws and make fair decisions.

Many other principles of Roman law were later adapted by the Western world. The idea of a trial by jury is sometimes traced to Roman law practices. Cases where the accused faced the death penalty might be tried in front of hundreds of people from the community.

Some Roman principles differed from today's laws. Penalties varied according to social class, and lower-class defendants could be treated more harshly. The idea of equality before the law for all would take centuries to be accepted.

Fragments of a tablet, with inscriptions in Latin.

The tablets are inscribed with a Roman law that protects citizens from extortion.


  1. Identify Central Ideas Identify examples of how literature reflects the history of Rome.
  2. Support Ideas with Examples Describe the architectural elements developed or adapted by the Romans. Provide examples of its influence on Western architecture.
  3. Identify What was the origin and diffusion of major ideas in mathematics, science, and technology that occurred in classical Rome?
  4. Summarize Explain the concept of “trial by jury” that is sometimes traced back to Rome.
  5. Analyze Information Give two examples of American legal principles that had their foundation in Roman law.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments