“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.
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.
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.
The tablets are inscribed with a Roman law that protects citizens from extortion.
What basic principles of Roman law were a foundation for laws in the United States?