In Rome lived a learned Greek exile from the famous city of Ephesus in Asia Minor, a man of philosophic turn of mind by the name of Hermodorus. He advised the Romans, by whom it appears he was held in high esteem, to organize a commission of capable men and to send them to Greece to study the laws of Sparta, Crete and Athens, and especially the legislation of Solon; and thereupon to prepare a code for Rome based upon the existing law and the experience which the commissioners might obtain from the operation of the systems of the several Hellenic states. The suggestion was readily accepted. It was a peculiarity of the Roman character that the people never believed that they possessed all the virtues and that nothing was to be learned from the experience of other nations. On the contrary, the Romans were always ready and willing to accept anything from other nations, and especially from Greece, which was deemed to be advantageous and superior to what they had themselves. Even in the days of their greatest greatness they were generally disposed to respect the usages and customs of the peoples whom they incorporated into their vast empire, and to allow them the greatest possible degree of local self-government consistent with the supremacy of the Roman authority. And this was by no means the least of the causes which induced the permanence of their wide spread dominion.
The commission was organized, and went to Greece. This was fifty-five years after the expulsion of the Tarquins; and it was the age of Cimon and Pericles in Athens. In other words, it was the culminating period of Hellenic splendor and civilization. What the commissioners brought back with them is perhaps not quite apparent; but the result certainly showed the influence of the legislation of Solon. A code of law was promulgated in the year B.C. 451, which was designated by the name of the Law of the Ten Tables, so called because it was inscribed upon ten tablets of brass set up for the public inspection on the walls of the Temple of Jupiter. Two other tables were soon afterwards added; and the Code was then known by the name of the Law of the Twelve Tables, and so continued to be known to after generations. It was the foundation upon which all subsequent Roman law was built; and it was the work to a very considerable extent of Hermodorus, the learned Greek from Ephesus. It was not, however, a Greek code transferred to Rome, but in the main a codification of existing Roman law with such addition and modification as the experience of the Hellenic states, especially that of Athens, had shown to be beneficial.
Only fragmentary portions of the Laws of the Twelve Tables have been transmitted to us; and they are not of themselves sufficient to enable us to form any satisfactory estimate of the compilation as a whole. But it is much that they received the intelligent commendation of so true a critic and so honest a man as Cicero in his work De Republica, that of the Greek historian of Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and that of the other great Greek historian of almost the same period, Diodorus Siculus. From these writers, and from the Roman law writers who wrote commentaries upon them, such as Gaius, Antistius Labeo, and others, we learn that the Laws of the Twelve Tables did not constitute a complete code of law, such as we would now understand by that phrase, but rather enunciated a collection of legal maxims of universal application
sufficient to support and sustain the fabric of the law that was built upon it by the later development.
The commentator Gaius, to whom reference has already been made, one of the greatest and most accomplished Roman writers on the subject of law, and who lived in the time of the Emperor Antoninus, in the second century of our era, mentions two of the laws of the Twelve Tables, one of them concerning corporations or collegia, as they were called, and the other concerning boundaries, which he states were derived from the laws of Solon; and we may infer that there were others of similar origin. But the code, whether of native growth in the main, or in great part of Hellenic origin, evidently proved to be an admirable basis for the magnificent superstructure that was reared upon it. How this superstructure was erected, and what agencies contributed to the great work, we may now consider. Like all other human institutions worthy of consideration, it was a development, an evolution from primary principles by the most competent race of lawgivers that has ever existed.
For it was, in truth, a race that erected the edifice, and not any one person or number of persons. The rulers of Rome were a race of lawyers. We have referred to the various Comitia or General Assemblies of the Roman people, by which the sovereign power of the state was exerted. It was the Roman theory that all power was reposed in the sovereign people. As being merely a city, and therefore a state in which all the people could readily be congregated in town meeting, the Romans considered that the theory could be reduced to actual practice so far as the immediate government of the city itself was concerned, while the government of the provinces was left to the Senate, whose smaller number made it a more competent legislative assembly.
Consequently the General Assembly, known as the Comitia Centuriata, where the people voted by centuries, was not only the ultimate source of power in Rome, but likewise exercised the power in concrete cases; enacted laws, elected officers, directed the public policy, and sat as a supreme court of last resort in numerous cases of a judicial nature, especially those involving capital punishment. For the life of no Roman citizen could lawfully be taken except by the vote of his fellow-citizens convened in Comitia Centuriata; and even when the privilege of Roman citizenship was largely extended and was enjoyed by many of the provincial cities, those in possession of such right might appeal to the Comitia Centuriata at Rome, or subsequently to the Imperator or Emperor, when the Caesarian Revolution had transferred the judicial authority of the people to the all-powerful Emperor.