The Justinian Code

Learning Objective

  • Explain the historical significance of Justinian’s legal reforms

Key Points

  • Shortly after Justinian became emperor in 527, he decided the empire’s legal system needed repair.
  • Early in his reign, Justinian appointed an official, Tribonian, to oversee this task.
  • The project as a whole became known as Corpus juris civilis, or the Justinian Code.
  • It consists of the Codex Iustinianus, the Digesta, the Institutiones, and the Novellae.
  • Many of the laws contained in the Codex were aimed at regulating religious practice.
  • The Corpus formed the basis not only of Roman jurisprudence (including ecclesiastical Canon Law), but also influenced civil law throughout the Middle Ages and into modern nation states.


Corpus juris civilis

The modern name for a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence, issued from 529 to 534 by order of Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor.

Justinian I

A Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565. During his reign, he sought to revive the empire’s greatness and reconquer the lost western half of the historical Roman Empire; he also enacted important legal codes.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I achieved lasting fame through his judicial reforms, particularly through the complete revision of all Roman law, something that had not previously been attempted. There existed three codices of imperial laws and other individual laws, many of which conflicted or were out of date. The total of Justinian’s legislature is known today as the Corpus juris civilis.

The work as planned had three parts:

  1. Codex: a compilation, by selection and extraction, of imperial enactments to date, going back to Hadrian in the 2nd century CE.
  2. Digesta: an encyclopedia composed of mostly brief extracts from the writings of Roman jurists. Fragments were taken out of various legal treatises and opinions and inserted in the Digesta.
  3. Institutiones: a student textbook, mainly introducing the Codex, although it has important conceptual elements that are less developed in the Codex or the Digesta.

All three parts, even the textbook, were given force of law. They were intended to be, together, the sole source of law; reference to any other source, including the original texts from which the Codex and the Digesta had been taken, was forbidden. Nonetheless, Justinian found himself having to enact further laws, and today these are counted as a fourth part of the Corpus, the Novellae Constitutiones. As opposed to the rest of the Corpus, the Novellae appeared in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Empire.

The work was directed by Tribonian, an official in Justinian’s court. His team was authorized to edit what they included. How far they made amendments is not recorded and, in the main, cannot be known because most of the originals have not survived. The text was composed and distributed almost entirely in Latin, which was still the official language of the government of the Byzantine Empire in 529-534, whereas the prevalent language of merchants, farmers, seamen, and other citizens was Greek.

Many of the laws contained in the Codex were aimed at regulating religious practice, included numerous provisions served to secure the status of Christianity as the state religion of the empire, uniting church and state, and making anyone who was not connected to the Christian church a non-citizen. It also contained laws forbidding particular pagan practices; for example, all persons present at a pagan sacrifice may be indicted as if for murder. Other laws, some influenced by his wife, Theodora, include those to protect prostitutes from exploitation, and women from being forced into prostitution. Rapists were treated severely. Further, by his policies, women charged with major crimes should be guarded by other women to prevent sexual abuse; if a woman was widowed, her dowry should be returned; and a husband could not take on a major debt without his wife giving her consent twice.


A later copy of Justinian’s Digesta: Digestorum, seu Pandectarum libri quinquaginta. Lugduni apud Gulielmum Rouillium, 1581. From Biblioteca Comunale “Renato Fucini” di Empoli.


The Corpus forms the basis of Latin jurisprudence (including ecclesiastical Canon Law) and, for historians, provides a valuable insight into the concerns and activities of the later Roman Empire. As a collection, it gathers together the many sources in which the laws and the other rules were expressed or published (proper laws, senatorial consults, imperial decrees, case law, and jurists’ opinions and interpretations). It formed the basis of later Byzantine law, as expressed in the Basilika of Basil I and Leo VI the Wise. The only western province where the Justinian Code was introduced was Italy, from where it was to pass to western Europe in the 12th century, and become the basis of much European law code. It eventually passed to eastern Europe, where it appeared in Slavic editions, and it also passed on to Russia.

It was not in general use during the Early Middle Ages. After the Early Middle Ages, interest in it revived. It was “received” or imitated as private law, and its public law content was quarried for arguments by both secular and ecclesiastical authorities. The revived Roman law, in turn, became the foundation of law in all civil law jurisdictions. The provisions of the Corpus Juris Civilis also influenced the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church; it was said that ecclesia vivit lege romana—the church lives by Roman law. Its influence on common law legal systems has been much smaller, although some basic concepts from the Corpus have survived through Norman law—such as the contrast, especially in the Institutes, between “law” (statute) and custom. The Corpus continues to have a major influence on public international law. Its four parts thus constitute the foundation documents of the western legal tradition.