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Corpus Juris Civilis › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 24 April 2018
Emperor Justinian & His Court (Carole Raddato)
The Justinian Code or Corpus Juris Civilis (Corpus of Civil Law) was a major reform of Byzantine law created by Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) in 528-9 CE. Aiming to clarify and update the old Roman laws, eradicate inconsistencies and speed up legal processes, the collection of imperial edicts and expert opinions covered all manner of topics from punishments for specific crimes to marriage and the inheritance of property. Not only used as a basis for Byzantine law for over 900 years, the laws therein continue to influence many western legal systems to this day.


In February 528 CE Justinian I assembled a group of ten legal experts and 39 scribes to reassess Byzantine law and compile a new collective legislative code. It was a truly Herculean task which involved studying hundreds of documents and Latin Roman laws dating back to the early Roman Republic of the west, deciding which were no longer relevant, which should be maintained, and which needed some adapting. The old system relied on such diverse traditional sources of Byzantine law as the Codex Gregorianus (imperial edicts from 196 to 284 CE), Codex Hermogenianus (mostly imperial edicts of Diocletian, r. 284-305 CE), and Codex Theodosianus (issued in 438 CE and containing edicts dating back to Constantine I, r. 306-337 CE).


Many of the laws within the older works were repetitive, contradictory or simply did not meet the requirements of a society which had since moved on from earlier Roman times. From over 2000 books and three million lines of legal text, a new comprehensive and consistent body of laws had to be thrashed out and distilled and then better organised into subjects and themes. As a result, Justinian would achieve his multiple aims of making the laws clearer for all, reducing the number of cases brought before the courts (many were based on misunderstandings and a misinterpretation of what actually was the law), and increasing the speed with which legal cases were dealt with. Justinian may also have been motivated by a desire to outdo the famed legal achievements of Theodosius II (r. 402-450 CE), and this he undoubtedly did achieve. Finally, a new and consistent law code would help in Justinian's plan to expand the Byzantine Empire into new territories and bring those societies under the jurisdiction of Roman law.


The commission to update Byzantine law was led by the great legal expert Tribonian who had already served as quaestor of the Great Palace of Constantinople, the highest legal position in the empire. The first part of the Corpus Juris Civilis was completed in April 529 CE, and two more parts were added in the following year. The work superseded all previous legal documents and records of any kind. To add to these, Justinian himself issued decrees, and thus the Justinian Code was eventually made up of four main parts:
  • Codex Justinianus - the Codex, issued in 529 CE, was a collection of 12 books containing 4,562 imperial edicts from the time of Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) to Justinian I himself, organised by theme and all correctly attributed to the emperor who had made them and with a date. Interestingly, the first book deals with ecclesiastical topics whereas in the older codexes this was dealt with last - an indicator of how Christianityhad become more entrenched in Byzantine culture by the 6th century CE.
  • Digestum (or Pandectae ) - the Digest (or Pandects), issued in December 533 CE, was a compendium of legal opinions by celebrated Roman jurists of the past, which could be cited by claimants and defenders in court. It was also designed to be of use to practising judges. These words of wisdom were all edited, reduced and assembled into 50 books (instead of the previous 1,500) and all organised by subject. The works of the prolific 2nd-3rd century CE lawyer and writer Ulpian (aka Domitius Ulpianus) were especially popular with Justinian's legal team, and these make up 40% of the Digest.
  • Institutiones - the Institutes, also issued in December 533 CE, was a sort of handbook of the Codex and Digestum for law students to better understand and apply them. It was compiled by Trebonian and two other experts, Theophilos and Dorotheos.
  • Novellae Constitutiones - the Novels (or New Laws) was a collection of the imperial edicts made by Justinian between 534 and 565 CE, the final year of his reign. Instead of Latin, as used previously (and still used in the other three parts), Greek was mostly used in these new edicts, the common language of the Byzantine Empire.
The laws within this huge body of work (still around 1 million words) dealt with every aspect of life and society in Byzantium.There are matters regarding the constitution, the powers of the emperor, the duties of high-ranking officials, and the sources of law. There are matters of private law and criminal law with punishments listed for specific crimes, as well as coverage of administrative affairs and issues related to tax, local government, the civil service, and the military. As with previous Roman law, a particular concern was the relations between individuals such as contracts, marriage, divorce, property ownership, inheritance, and succession. Finally, ecclesiastical matters were given much greater prominence in a departure from previous law codes.
Justinian I

Justinian I

The Novels, in particular, addressed the social changes that Byzantine society had undergone and its evolution away from the Roman society of Constantine ’s days. Thus the rights of such groups as women, slaves, and children were improved.Further, it was now established, for the first time in Roman law, that the emperor was the single legitimate source of law.
Justinian's Code was itself revised within a few years to reflect recent legislation and reissued in December 534 CE (it is this version which exists today). To prevent any future confusion as to what was what, all commentaries on the Code were banned.The Code was studied by students of law in the fifth year of their studies. As a consequence, gradually most of the Codex was translated into Greek by the end of the 6th century CE. Justinian's Code was also introduced into the recently reconquered Italy (in 554 CE), but it was relatively neglected there until the 11th century CE when it was incorporated into the medieval Corpus Iuris Civils using Latin instead of Greek. Parts of North Africa also used the Code until the Arab expansion of the 7th century CE.



The body of laws created by Justinian and his experts, in one form or another, lasted for almost a millennium until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 CE. New Byzantine laws were, of course, added to it over the centuries as each emperor issued their own edicts and society evolved. Leo VI (r. 886-912 CE), for example, famously produced another collection of Byzantine edicts and had everything translated into Greek as next to nobody understood Latin anymore (few ordinary people would have even in Justinian's day).
The Corpus Juris Civilis may have failed in Justinian's aim to aid his imperial ambitions but, as it became a fundamental element of any higher education across Europe from the 11th century CE and has become the basis for many legal systems ever since, perhaps he did, in the end, achieve something of a lasting cultural domination. The Code is a monument to rival his other great achievement, the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople. Roman and then Byzantine laws were, above all, rational, precise and comprehensive, and it is these qualities which have greatly influenced many of the national and international laws by which we live today. As the historian JH Rosser notes:
The Corpus Juris Civilis not only preserved Roman law but provided the basis of law for emerging European nations. Its influence on western civilization is probably greater than any other book, except, of course, the Bible. (101)

Oedipus the King › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 24 January 2018
Oedipus & the Sphinx (Carole Raddato)
The 5th-century BCE poet and dramatist Sophocles is considered one of the most successful tragedians of his time. Although Sophocles wrote at least 120 plays, only seven have survived. Of his surviving plays, the most famous is Oedipus the King(429-420 BCE), also known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannos ('Tyrannos' signifies that the throne was not gained through an inheritance). The play is part of a trilogy along with Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus.
The plot - an old myth already known to most of the audience - was simple: a prophecy claiming he would kill his father and lie with his mother forces Oedipus - whose name means 'swollen foot' after his ankles were pierced as a child - to leave his home of Corinth and unknowingly travel to Thebes (his actual birthplace). On route he fulfills the first part of the prophecy when he kills a man, the king of Thebes and his true father. Upon arriving in Thebes, he saves the troubled city by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, then he marries the widowed queen (his mother) and becomes the new king. Later, when a plague has befallen the city, Oedipus is told that to rid the city of the plague he must find the murderer of the slain king. Unknowingly, ignorant of the fact that he was the culprit, he promises to solve the murder. When he finally learns the truth, he realizes he has fulfilled the prophecy; he blinds himself and goes into exile.


Sophocles (c. 496 BCE - c. 406 BCE) was born to a wealthy family in the deme or suburb of Colonus outside the heart of Athens. Besides being an author, he was extremely active in Athenian public life, serving as a treasurer in 443-42 BCE and a general 441-40 BCE. When he was in his eighties, he was named a member of the group of special magistrates assigned to the dubious task of organizing both financial and domestic recovery in 412-11 BCE after the disastrous defeat at Syracuse.He had two sons; Iophon by his wife Nicosrate and Ariston (also called Sophocles) by his mistress Theoris. Both sons would eventually become playwrights. Among his close friends were the historian Herodotus and the statesman Pericles.
Bust of Sophocles

Bust of Sophocles

Although active in Athenian political circles, his plays rarely contain any references to current events or issues - something that makes the dating of his plays difficult. Classicist Edith Hamilton wrote that he was a passionless, detached observer of life. In her book The Greek Way, she said that the beauty of his plays was in their simple, lucid, and reasonable structure. He was the embodiment of what we know to be Greek. She wrote that “… all definitions of the Greek spirit and Greek art are first of all definitions of his spirit and his art. He has imposed himself upon the world as the quintessential Greek, and the qualities pre-eminently his are ascribed to all the rest” (198-199). She added that he was conservative in politics and believed in the established order of things, even in theology. Author David Grene in his translation of Oedipus the King said that his plays had tightly controlled plots with complex dialogue, character contrasts, an interweaving of spoken and musical elements, and the “fluidity of verbal expression.”



Greek tragedians performed their plays in outdoor theaters at various festivals and rituals in competitions. The purpose of these tragedies was to not only entertain but also to educate the Greek citizen, to explore a problem. Along with a chorus of singers to explain the action, there were actors, often three, who wore masks. Sophocles' contemporaries included Aeschylus, author of Prometheus Bound, and Euripides, author of Medea. At the festival of Dionysius, Sophocles won 18 competitions, while Aeschylus won 13, and Euripides only five. Few accurate dates are known for his plays; Oedipus the Kingwas probably written in the mid-420s BCE. This estimate is based on his reference to a plague that beset the city during Oedipus's time on the throne. Oddly, while it was one of his most popular plays then and now, it did not win first prize.
The play's characters are few:
  • Oedipus, the king
  • Creon, his brother-in-law
  • Teiresias, an old blind prophet
  • Jocasta, Oedipus' wife and mother
  • two messengers
  • a herdsman
  • a priest
  • and, of course, the chorus.


The play opens with the city of Thebes in turmoil, beset by a plague. A priest speaks to Oedipus: “A blight is on the fruitful plants of the earth, a blight is on the cattle in the fields, a blight in on our women that no children are born to them…” (Grene, 74). He reminds the king that he had freed the city from the tribute paid to the Sphinx, and now the city pleads for him to find some way to rescue the city and “set it straight.” Oedipus replies that he understands the plight of the people and has sent his brother-in-law Creon to the temple of Apollo (often referred to in the play as King Phoebus) to find an answer. Upon returning to the city, Creon requests to speak to the king in private, but Oedipus replies, “Speak it to all, the grief I bear, I bear it more for these people than for my own life” (77). To rid the city of the plague they must find the murderer of King Laius. Knowing little about the former king's death, Oedipus listens to the details of the murder, a crime supposedly committed by robbers. He vows to find the murderer: “Whoever he was that killed the king may readily wish to dispatch me with his murderous hand: so helping the dead king I help myself” (79).
Oedipus & the Sphinx

Oedipus & the Sphinx

Oedipus speaks to the audience, begging that if anyone knows the murderer to come forward, promising that he has no punishment to fear, only exile. However, he invokes a curse “… whether he is one man and all unknown, or one of many - may he wear out his life in misery to miserable doom” (82). He is told of a local blind prophet, Teiresias, who often sees what Apollo sees and might help him solve the murder. However, after the prophet arrives, he is afraid to speak, fearing for his life if he tells the truth. Oedipus pleads, “You know of something but refuse to speak. Would you betray us and destroy the city?” (86) To try and force him to speak, Oedipus accuses him of being part of a plot. Reluctantly, the old prophet relents, telling Oedipus that he, himself, is the murderer. Oedipus is irate, threatening Teiresias. The old man replies that Oedipus taunts him “with the very insults which everyone soon will heap upon yourself” (89). The king questions if this accusation comes from him or Creon. The old prophet replies that Creon is not to blame. The old prophet then inquires of Oedipus if he knows who his parents are, adding that a “curse from father and mother both, shall drive you forth out of this land, with darkness on your eyes” (91).
Oedipus and Creon meet to talk. Immediately, Oedipus threatens his brother-in-law, calling him a traitor and plotting against him. In defense, Creon asks if he is to be banished. When Jocasta arrives, the king tells her that her brother is plotting against him, but she replies in defense, “… what was it that roused your anger so?” (104) He tells her that Creon accuses him of killing her husband, the king. She responds that he should not concern himself with the matter and tells him of the prophecy of the oracle and the death of her husband. “… it was fate that he should die a victim at the hands of his own son … (b)ut see now, he, the king was killed by foreign highway robbers at a place where three roads meet” (105). With his curiosity aroused, Oedipus asks about the murder: How long ago was it? What did he look like? How old was he? She tells him of the only survivor, an old servant who was sent away. Oedipus asks to speak to the old man, and if their stories are the same, he will be free of any guilt.
Oedipus then relates the story of his own departure from Corinth. He had been called a bastard at a dinner party held by his parents, the king and queen. Although his parents denied the accusation, he soon learned that a prophecy fated him to murder his father and lie with his mother. To avoid fulfilling the prophecy, he fled the city only to come to a crossroads where he encountered a carriage. A dispute ensues and he ends up killing the carriage's occupant and the driver. “I killed them all.” He asks of Jocasta, “Was I not born evil? Am I not utterly unclean?” (110)
Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus at Colonus

A messenger arrives to tell Oedipus that his father, the king of Corinth is dead. Oedipus realizes that the old prophecy was wrong. “They prophesied that I should kill my father. But he's dead and hidden deep in the earth, and I stand here who never laid a hand or spear near him…” (116). However, he is confused and not completely relieved, still fearing that the prophecy may be proven to be true. The messenger adds that King Polybius was not Oedipus' real father, for he had received a baby - Oedipus - from a shepherd and given it to the king. Oedipus realized that this shepherd was the same man who had been sent away by Jocasta. To help appease the king's anguish Jocasta tells Oedipus that she hopes the gods keep him from finding out who he really is.
The old herdsman arrives to speak to Oedipus. After the king pressures him, he reluctantly relates the story of how he had pitied the baby that came from the house of Laius and given it to the messenger. After hearing the herdsman's confession, Oedipus is beside himself, begging for a sword so he could kill his wife, his mother. Speaking to the chorus, a second messenger arrives and tells that the audience that Jocasta is dead; she had committed suicide. When Oedipus enters her room, he finds her hanging with a twisted rope around her neck. He tore the brooches from her robe and stabbed himself in his eyes, repeatedly. Blinded, he begs to be shown to the men of Thebes as his father's killer. He laments: “Why should I see whose vision showed me nothing sweet to see? (134) He proclaims that he is godless and a child of impurity. “If there is any ill worse than ill, that is the lot of Oedipus” (135). Creon comes to him but not to laugh, only to ask what he could do. Oedipus asks to give Jocasta a proper funeral, and for himself, to be driven out and live “away from the city.”


Oedipus the King was not only staged throughout antiquity but is still performed to this day and is required reading in many schools. It survived as the model for plays by such noted authors as Seneca, Dryden, and Voltaire. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud even coined the phrase “Oedipus Complex” to describe the developmental phase when one may experience a desire for one's parent of the opposite sex. David Grene wrote that Oedipus serves as “a metaphor for every human being's quest for personal identity and self-knowledge in a world of ignorance and human horrors” (11).


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with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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