The Law of the Twelve Tables (Lex Duodecim Tabularum, more informally simply Duodecim Tabulae) were the ancient legislation that stood at the foundation of Roman law. The Law of the Twelve Tables formed the centrepiece of the constitutions of the Roman Republic and the core of the mos maiorum. The Twelve Tables must be carefully distinguished from the unrelated, much older "twelve shields" of King Numa Pompilius.
According to traditional, semi-legendary historical accounts preserved in Livy, during the earliest period of the Republic the laws were kept secret by the pontifices and other representatives of the patrician class, and were enforced with untoward severity, especially against the plebeian class. A plebeian named Terentilius proposed in 462 BC that an official legal code should be published, so that plebeians could not be surprised and would know the law.
For several years the patricians opposed this request, but in 451 BC a Decemvirate, or board of ten men, was appointed to draw up a code. They allegedly sent an embassy to Athens to inspect the laws of Solon in their work. The first ten codes were completed by the first Decemvirate in 451; the last two codes were completed in 450 BC by the second Decemvirate and the Law of the Twelve Tables was formally promulgated. The Twelve Tables were literally drawn up on twelve wooden tablets which were posted in the Forum Romanum so that all Romans could read and know them (cf. Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments).
The laws of the Twelve Tables are not a comprehensive statement of all law; they are a sequence of definitions of various private rights and procedures. They generally took for granted such things as the institutions of the family, and various rituals for formal transactions. They are somewhat comparable to a Bill of Rights, but the modern observer must be careful not to project a modern understanding of rights and government onto ancient institutions and laws.
For such an important document, it is somewhat surprising that the original text has been lost. The original tablets were destroyed when the Gauls under Brennus burnt Rome in 390 BC. There was no other official promulgation of them to survive, only unofficial editions. What we have of them today is brief excerpts and quotations from these laws in other authors. They are written in a strange, archaic, laconic, and somewhat childish and sing-song version of Latin. As such, though we cannot tell whether the quoted fragments accurately preserve the original form, what we have gives us some insight into the grammar of early Latin.
Like most other primitive laws, they combine strict and rigourous penalties with equally strict and rigorous procedural forms. In most of the surviving quotations from these texts, the original table that held them is not given. Scholars have guessed at where surviving fragments belong by comparing them with the few known attributions. It cannot be known with any certainty from what survives that the originals ever were organised this way, or even if they ever were organised by subject at all.
Excerpts from the Twelve Tables
TABVLA I (Civil procedure)
If someone is called to court, let him go. If he doesn't go, a witness should be called. Only then should he be captured.
If he shirks or flees, he should be captured. If illness or old age is an impediment, let him be given a carriage. If he doesn't want it, it should not be covered.
Only a landowner should be surety for another landowner. But any citizen can be surety for a proletarian.
When parties have made an agreement, announce it. If they don't agree, they shall state their case in the Forum before noon. They shall plead together in person. After noon, let the judge pronounce. If both are present, the case shall end at sunset.
TABVLA II (Civil procedure)
Serious illness. . . or else a day appointed with an enemy; . . . if any of these is an impediment for the judge or any party, on that day proceedings must end.
One who seeks the testimony from an absent person should wail before his doorway every third day.
TABVLA III (Debt)
A person who admits to owing money or has been adjudged to owe money must be given 30 days to pay.
After then, the creditor can lay hands on him and haul him to court. If he does not satisfy the judgment and no one is surety for him, the creditor may take the defendant with him in stocks or chains. He may bind him with weights of at least 15 pounds. The debtor may live where he wishes. If he does not live on his own, the creditor must give him a pound of wheat a day. If he wants to he may give more.
On the third market day, (creditors) may cut pieces. If they take more than their due, they do so with impunity.
Against an enemy, title is good forever.
TABVLA IV (Parents and children)
An obviously deformed child must be put to death.
If a father sells his son into slavery three times, the son shall be free of his father.
TABVLA V (Inheritance)
If a person dies intestate without heirs, the nearest male kinsman shall inherit. If there is no near male kinsmen, his clansmen shall inherit.
If someone goes mad, his nearest male kinsman shall have authority over his property.
TABVLA VI (Property)
When someone makes bond or conveyance and announces it orally, right shall be given.
No one must displace beams from buildings or vineyards.
TABVLA VII (Real Property)
Build roads; if they become dilapidated, passersby can drive their beasts whereever they want.
If rainwater does damage, he shall be made to fix it by the judge.
If one has maimed another and does not buy his peace, let there be retaliation in kind.
Someone who breaks another's bone by hand or club must pay 300 sesterces; for a slave, 150; if he has done simple harm against another, 25.
Someone who charms away crops, or another's corn. . .
If a patron defrauds his client, let him be outlawed.
If one has been called to witness, or hold the scales, unless he gives his testimony, let him be dishonoured and incapable of further testimony.
If a weapon flies unaimed from your hand, you will owe a ram.
TABVLA IX (Constitutional principles)
Private laws must not be proposed.
TABVLA X (Funeral regulations)
No dead man may be cremated nor buried in the City.
When a man wins a crown, or his slave or cattle win a crown for him, . . .
- Neve aurum addito. at cui auro dentes iuncti escunt. Ast in cum illo sepeliet uretve, se fraude esto.
TABVLA XII (Crimes)
If a slave has committed theft or harm. . . .
- Si vindiciam falsam tulit, si velit is . . . tor arbitros tris dato, eorum arbitrio . . . fructus duplione damnum decidito.