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The Civil Law System – Global Legal Collection Highlights

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The following is a guest post by Eduardo Soares, a foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering Portuguese-speaking jurisdictions.  Eduardo has previously published posts about the Brazilian law collection, capoeira and the law, and on a Law Library report on citizenship pathways and border protection.

01 - Legis XII Tabularum Collecta
Marcile, Théodore, 1548-1617. Legis XII Tabularum Collecta. Paris, 1600,

Foreign and comparative law research involves not only an ability to locate and understand the texts of laws, but also knowledge of the legal system in which the laws are enacted and enforced. As with the common law system, to understand the civil law system it is important to learn about its history and development. In this post, I highlight some key resources, held in the collections of the Law Library of Congress that contributed to the establishment of the civil law systems in place in a number of countries.

Law of the Twelve Tables

The beginning of Civil Law (or Codified Law) dates back to 450 B.C. in Ancient Rome, when the first system of dispute resolution was put in writing in what is called the Law of the Twelve Tables (Lex Doudecim Tabularum).  The Law of the Twelve Tables can be described as the first attempt to create a general code encompassing public and private issues, as it consolidated earlier traditions into a set of laws.

Before the Law of the Twelve Tables there was no such codification in the legal history of Rome. Customs and royal laws with a strong religious character represented the legal regime at that time, which had a great deal of vagueness and imprecision.

The Law of the Twelve Tables sanctioned the authority of the codification, which superseded the use of customs and favored a more elaborated set of rules, with rights better assured to all and not only to a limited few.

Corpus Iuris Civilis

04 - Codex Justinianus - Corpus Iuris Civilis
Justinian, Emperor of the East (483-565). Codex (Corpus Juris Civilis). Nuremberg, 1488,

Civil law was further developed in the 6th century A.D., when by order of the Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565), existing Roman law was codified in what is called the Corpus Iuris Civilis or Code of Justinian, which was composed of four compilations: the Digest (Digestae), the Institutes (Institutiones), the Code (Codex) and the Novels (Novellae).

The Digest, certainly the most important of the four, consisted of a compilation of the iura, which were selected passages on a variety of legal topics extracted from the works of the best Roman legal writers. The Institutes were a textbook of introduction to the law summarized in the Digest. The Code contained the constitutions (constitutiones), which were laws, decrees, and written answers of Roman emperors to a legal inquiry that had been issued by the previous emperors. The Novels were a posthumous compilation of the constitutions promulgated by Justinian.

Notwithstanding the inexistence of the original work of the Law of the Twelve Tables, a researcher who is interested in the Lex Doudecim Tabularum or in the Corpus Juris Civilis can find several precious works from as early as 1478 in the collection of the Law Library of Congress.  A few examples of these works include:

03 -  Institutes of Justinian  - Corpus Iuris Civilis
Justinian, Emperor of the East (483-565). Institutes of Justinian. MS. 1300,

The above works are stored in the Law Library’s rare book collection, which may only be accessed by appointment. Nathan, our rare books curator, kindly helped with the selection of some of the materials portrayed in this post.

The amount of material covering Roman law and civil law in the collection of the Law Library of Congress is impressive. A few examples of books written in English include:

If you are interested in exploring Roman law and related subjects, or any other legal topic, the collections of the Law Library are available for use by researchers.

02 - Corpus Iuris Civilis - Digest
Justinian, Emperor of the East (483-565). Corpus Juris Civilis. Geneva, 1583. First collected edition of Justinian’s Code to be called “Corpus Juris Civilis,” edited by Dionysius Gothofredus.


  1. Thank you for this great read, pretty helpful!

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