Comparison between the Roman Legal System and Modern Democracies/Governments

Long before the establishment of the Roman Republic, the early Romans lived according to the customary laws that were considered an inherited aspect of the society. They were passed from one generation to the other. The system divided the citizens into two classes: the plebeians that consisted of the ordinary people and the patricians comprising the elite class that ruled the Roman society. In the modern days, one of the continuing influences of the Roman legal system is vivid in the jurisdictions and the governmental structure. The Roman legal system has influenced the modern development of law in some parts of East as well as the Western civilization. It also forms the basis for the secondary systems and law codes of the majority of the countries of continental Europe. Today, the Roman legal system is widely interpreted and is referred to as the laws of Roman society. Though it was a widely accepted way of maintaining peace and order in Rome, the Roman legal system had less value for humankind as compared to the modern democracies as it is evident in this paper.  


Just like any other ancient system, the Roman legal system initially applied the principle of personality as opposed to the modern comprehensive laws. This meant that the law of the state was only applicable to the citizens. The foreigners had no rights in the country. If they were not protected by a treaty between Rome and their state, they were subjected to discrimination. However, following an increased commercial interest in Rome, the country was forced to establish some form of justice that would protect the foreigners. The lack of proper rights for the immigrants in Rome resulted in signing the treaties between it and other states making enabling mutual protection of the citizens. In contrast to the Roman legal system, in the modern democratic government, the foreigners are treated with dignity and are not isolated from the citizens of the country that they have visited. There is a belief that every individual who resides in the country has freedoms and fundamental human rights. The knowledge is evident in the traditional Western emphasis of the individual’s worthiness. Every person is considered important and therefore allowed to enjoy their rights. Unlike in the Roman legal system, the democratic government has the mandate to protect the rights of the people living within its territories. Democratic governments are also bound to respect the civil liberties of the foreigners. Foreigners, especially those with long tenures in the foreign country, are given freedom of action, thought, religion, speech, and press. 

The Roman legal system did not allow a judge to apply the law because it was considered the privilege of the citizens unlike today where the judge has the final word in a court case. This made it challenging for the foreigners to object the cumbersome formalism that existed within the system and made it easier for most of the civilizations in Rome to be ruled by custom and the absolute judgments of the kings and the priest laws. This resulted in the revolution of plebs who wanted to know and interpret the law. Later, there were established the Twelve Tables that supposedly covered all the areas of law. Like the modern constitution, the tables emphasized the procedures that would be followed to punish various crimes. At this point, the law was supposedly made open and applicable to all citizens. In modern democracies, the judges interpret the law, do a thorough assessment of the evidence, and decide on how the trials and hearings will unfold in the courtrooms.  The judges are impartial in their decisions and do their assessments based on the facts presented to them. In modern democracies, all people are treated equally, and no one is considered to be above the law. The wealthy and the poor are treated the same and are required to obey the law in equally. The personal prejudices, opinions, and wishes of any individual are not allowed to preside over the constitutional and legal procedures. The written constitutions establish the fundamental laws for which the people are governed. This helps in protecting against the discrimination and abuses of the poor by the wealthy.

The citizenship in Rome was exclusive and characterized by the intense classes’ distinctions, and the control of the variety of legal customs was in the hands of the wealthy. This is contrary to the democratic governments where the citizenship is equal for everyone. This made it easier for the wealthy to have an influence in the Roman courts. They found their ways and sometimes went unpunished. 

Unlike the modern democracies where minor crimes are not heavily penalized and fined, crimes such as counterfeiting, adultery, and false witness were severely punished in the Roman legal systems. Stringent punishments such as death penalties were also imposed on those who committed small crimes. The murder was considered a serious offense, and anyone who was involved in it was buried alive, burnt, or thrown from a cliff. This is contrary to modern democracies where such acts are considered inhumane. Most of the modern democracies punish  murderers through life imprisonment penalty. Executions were also ordered for anyone who was found in possession of poison or weapon. In other cases, the penalty for a crime would involve losing of citizenship, castigation, and forced labor, confiscation of property or exile. Contrary to the democratic government where punishment is passed to all offenders without discrimination, the enforcement of the punishments in the Roman legal system was applied selectively. Only criminals from the lower class were punished. 

In case the defendants died before the completion of the proceedings, their heirs were required to continue with the proceedings by taking the original defendant’s place. This is the same case with the modern democracies. Through the application to the court, the heirs or the administrator mentioned in the case are allowed to proceed with the case. Court appeals were not common in the Roman legal system because many people feared that they would be penalized if the appeal lacked good grounds. On the other hand, in the modern democracies, the court appeals are common and granted by the judge if any of the parties does not agree to the ruling passed.

The Roman lawyer’s roles differ so much from those of the modern lawyer. The defendant and the plaintiff were solely responsible for their representations, and in the entire proceedings the lawyer would act on behalf of the client by giving a speech and offering strategic advice. It is the same case with the modern democracies where the lawyer acts on behalf of the accused. The lawyers had no training in law but were chosen for their good skills in speaking. Their training involved following speeches of other counsels and later putting them into practice. Lawyers were exclusively men and were interested more in practical solutions than theory unlike today where the lawyers are conversant with the rule of law. The modern lawyers are familiar with various sections of the law that help them make decisions regarding the direction to take in a particular case.

The rules for permitting evidence were very relaxed, and the court contemplated the spoken and written work as legally binding. It is different from the present where the evidence of the prosecutor and his/her witnesses play a significant role in deciding the direction which the case will take.  

According to the Roman legal system, the prisons were not used for the punishment of the criminals as is the case in the modern democracies. Instead, they were used for temporarily holding the people awaiting their execution or trial. Everyone who defied the court magistrate was also imprisoned. The prisons were meant to afflict the unfortunate for the reason that the affluent people were held at friend’s home in house arrest and later prosecuted during the trial. In modern democracies, prisons are used for imprisoning the offenders. This may involve the confinement of an individual and hard labor. The work is meant to deter the offender from repeating the crime. Prisons are also intended for the confinement of people for the time the judge has ruled. This may vary from a few weeks to life imprisonment. Apart from imprisoning an offender, the judge may also impose fines as a way of punishing the offender. One of the primary objectives of punishing the criminals by the democratic government is to deter future crimes.

In conclusion, the Roman legal system was biased and favored certain groups of people within the society with some of its judgments being inhumane. The division of people into classes shows that the law did not treat all the people equally. Penalties were imposed on the poor while the wealthy people walked freely after committing crimes. The incarceration of the poor shows discriminations and selective application of law within the Roman legal system. The strict penalties imposed for small crimes also indicate that there was a little value attached to the criminals. Though modern democracies borrow a lot from the ancient law, it is evident that there is great respect for humankind. The modern law treats all the people equally regardless of their social status and the position that they hold in the government. Unlike the ancient law, democratic governments have well-established institutions ensuring that the law is observed and maintained.

Oct 7, 2020 in Law
Final Paper "Buddhism"
Could Austria-Hungary Have Deterred Russian Mobilization in 1914?

Related essays

Discount applied successfully