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Lex or Leges?: Augustus' Judiciary Reforms

Emily Master

This paper argues that Augustus’ judiciary reforms of 17 BC were effected with a single lex Iulia iudiciorum, not with the two separate laws known in modern scholarship as the leges Iuliae iudiciorum publicorum et privatorum.  The debate on the number of judiciary laws is ancient and modern scholarship has continued to argue over whether the princeps regulated the Roman court system with one, two, or even three laws.  The sources – literary, juristic, and epigraphic – reveal a comprehensive law or laws that sought to control the whole of Roman jurisprudence and to bring order to a legal system that had grown increasingly complex with the development of Rome and its Empire [Acta Divi Augusti I (1945) 142-143; Girard (1913)].  The juristic classification system of Roman law, which strictly separates public/criminal and private/civil law, was adopted by modern legal scholarship and has had a lasting impact on the study of the Augustan legislation. Modern scholarship has remained focused on the lex Iulia iudiciorum privatorum because of the important changes it precipitated in private law, ushering in the ‘classical period’ of Roman law and completing the final transition to the formulary system by removing the vestiges of the legis actio procedure that still remained [Frier (1996)].  This paper argues that the division of the legislation into separate laws is anachronistic and that the unity of Augustus’ reforms on the court system is essential to our understanding of the Augustan legal program as a whole.  

    In the first part of my paper, I will argue for a single law. There is overwhelming juristic evidence for a lex/leges Iulia/ae on the Roman courts, and the literary evidence suggests an Augustan date of 17 BC. Although some sources speak of only one law, the usual modern argument has been for two laws, since most juristic sources speak of two laws, a lex iudiciorum publicorum/de iudiciis publiciis and a lex iudicorum privatorum/de iudiciis privatiis.  It is also accepted that the laws must have overlapped significantly.  My argument will rely on an examination of two passages which both appear to refer to two separate judiciary laws: a section of Ulpian which refers to two chapters of the Augustan law(s) and a passage from Gaius’ Institutes which talks about two Julian laws that regulated the Roman court system (Fragmenta Vaticana 197-198; Gaius Inst. 4.30). I will show that the Ulpian fragment is, in fact, discussing a single law.  Building on the scholarship of Wlassak (1888) and Gonzalez (1986), I will argue that duae leges in passage of Gaius are the lex Iulia iudiciorum and a municipal law.  Using Cloud’s (1998) study of the Julian legislation on vis as a point of comparison, I will then briefly explain the problematic nature of the juristic classification system.

            In a shorter second section, I will advocate for the importance of a single judiciary law for our understanding of how the princeps legislated and of the larger purpose of his legislative program.  An examination of the Roman court system as it had developed by the late Republic does not sustain division into the strict categories of public and private, but reveals a diverse array of judicial authorities.  It was to this complex system that Augustus sought to give procedural order with a single judiciary law.  Since the Augustan reforms of the court system straddle the traditional divide between public and private, they are particularly useful for examining Roman law as a unified system and for reasserting the importance of the public side of Roman law into modern legal scholarship.

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Law and Empire in the Roman World

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