The political ideas of Romans has been explained under the following two headings: 1. Roman Theory of Law 2. Other Political Ideas.
1. Roman Theory of Law:
The earliest Roman legal system was based on religious regulations, customs and conventions about justice. In those days the divine authority was also recognized.
Offenders were punished in the name of religion and by religious laws. The early Romans had very little concept about manmade or positive laws. But this approach to law could not fulfil the requirements of society and rulers, because religious laws could not serve the purposes which arose out of new situation.
In 450 B. C. modest attempts were made for the codification of religious and customary rules and regulations and the Twelve Tables were the most spectacular result. Twelve Tables were the beginning of new legal system.
But the laws contained in the Twelve Tables proved their incompetence and inadequacy to tackle the new situations arising out of the expansion of Roman Empire. Moreover, the importance of religion declined and politics came to dominate the affairs of state and society and this needed the reformulation of ancient laws.
Fortunately the jurists and lawyers of Rome released their best efforts to reformulate and codify the laws so that they could meet the new situations. In this way the Romans took a leading part in codifying the laws.
When Rome became the most powerful imperialist power of Europe and its empire expanded far and wide the laws of the Twelve Tables and other newly formulated and codified laws could not meet the social, political, cultural and other challenges.
In the opinion of Gettell “The body of civil law growing out of the Twelve Tables was narrow and formal. It contained many survivals of early religious ideas and of conditions peculiar to Rome and involved many technicalities that were destructive of justice. This exclusiveness and rigidity was gradually broken down by the edicts of the proctors, the responses of the juris consults and constitutions of emperors”.
The most spectacular aspect of Roman legal system is its useful and practical classification. In Rome there were two great law books—Digest and Institutes.
These two law books contain three types of law:
(a) Jus civile,
(b) Jus gentium, and
(c) Jus naturale.
The first was the municipal or civil law. A part of the municipal law contained the customary law. However, the manmade laws constituted the major part of municipal law.
The municipal laws were characterized by particularity. The municipal laws were enacted to meet the requirements of particular regions or states. The Roman rulers made these civil laws for the administration of particular states.
Into the civil or municipal laws were included right to property and other individual rights and also the rights of family. Thus the Roman jurists accepted positive steps to protect individual’s rights. But the municipal laws had very little applicability and relevance for the administration of foreign lands and for this reason the judicial magistrates (or as they were called praetors) were asked by the rulers to formulate new laws to deal with the problems of foreigners. This is known as jus gentium or law of nations. Today we call it international law.
The jus gentium was not manmade law and naturally in some cases there were inconsistencies and loopholes. The praetors with the help of their acumen and freedom interpreted the jus gentium.
It included the customs, conventions of foreign countries and their subjects. But the interpretations were always guided by justice and reason.
The final form of law enunciated and developed by Roman jurists is law of nature. The central theme of such law is natural reason and idea of justice. Roman lawyers believed that nature was not made poorer by law.
Moreover, there is maximum reason and rationality in nature. Nature never betrays to anybody. Hence the law of nature should be the guiding force of human and state affairs, Roman jurists also believed principles and reasons of certain basic laws were implanted by nature in the minds of every individual.
Talking about the law of nature Maxey makes the following observation: “The chief characteristics of the law of nature were its inherent reasonableness, its universal application, its freedom from technicalities and its intrinsic fairness and justice … it was simply taken for granted and allowed to remain in the abstract”.
2. Other Political Ideas:
The Roman political thought is famous not simply for the formulation and codification of law but also for the enunciation of several other political ideas. It is interesting to note that these political ideas have emerged from the concepts of law.
Sabine says that the interpretation of the law of nature by the Roman lawyers aimed at the conceptions such as equality before law, fair dealing or equity, faithfulness to contract, rights of the individual to be protected by the authority.
The natural law also emphasized that freedom is a birth-right of every individual. In other words, every individual has the right to freedom, life, and property. Contractualist Locke also said that people of the state of nature abandoned that atmosphere for the protection of life, liberty and property because these natural rights were in-danger in the state of nature. He also said that the state of nature was ruled by the law of nature.
However, Roman’s emphasis upon natural law created a number of political concepts. Natural law is also the source of another important political concept—equal protection of law. Since every person has the right to life by virtue of natural law like others he will be protected by law.
From the Roman theory of law we come to know that people are the ultimate source of authority. Sabine writes “the Roman law crystallized the theory that the authority of the ruler is derived from the people”.
A Roman lawyer once said “The will of the emperor has the force of law, because by the passage of the lex regia the people transfers to him and vests in him all its own power and authority”
This may be interpreted variously. It means that the sovereignty is vested in the people. When people are the final source of authority we may say that the authority cannot be autocratic. The Romans, though imperialists, were also democratic minded. That is, there was a prevailing form of democracy in Rome.
Interpreting the political ideas emanating from the Roman legal system, Sabine says that behind the enactment of law or the administration of state there must be the consent of the people.
The authority could promulgate ordinance or issue a decree but all these must be subject to the endorsement of the people. In Rome there was system of open assembly like Greek city-states.
It has been stated by scholars that Romans assembled in open place to take decisions about the law and administration. From this we may conclude that Roman legal system gave birth to representative or direct democratic system.
To the Romans liberty consisted in expressing free will about the affairs of the state. Romans treated individuals as legal agents and the state as a legal institution. This indicates that in the Roman political thought individuals had special status; they were not absolutely subordinate to the whims and authority of the state.
They were neither vague nor abstract. To speak the truth, compared with the Platonic or Aristotelian concept of individual, the Roman idea was far better and more articulate. The State owned the responsibility to protect the rights of the citizens.
The Creek political philosophy thought of an organic concept of state which obliterated all sorts of separateness between the individual and the state.
In Roman political ideas we do not find the corroboration of such thought. Individuals in Roman political thought were not mere passive units of certain social classes, but active members of a legal institution.
In a very brief passage Ebenstein makes an interesting comparison between Greek and Roman thought. He says—”Plato and Aristotle knew of the Polis, the city-state and of social classes, but not of people. The conception of the people in western thinking is a contribution, not of Roman philosophy, but to Roman public law”.
The Roman legal system also established the norms for the relations among the nations. In those days the relations among the nations were viewed in legal terms and not in political and economic terms.
However, it laid the foundations of relations among nations or what we call today international relations. Even today the relations among nations—though they emphasize political and economic issues—do not rule out legal issues.