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Ancient universities of law

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

University of Bologna
University of Bologna

The knowledge of the origins of universities is mostly found in the Middle Ages, referring to the founding of the first university in Bologna, which took place around 1088. Of course, this university achieved great success in the process of restoring the former splendor to the Roman legal system, represented by Irnerius and the school of glossators he founded, however, it must be realized that the ancient Romans were pioneers in the field of organized law teaching and the study of its functioning.

The Romans had tremendous achievements in the process of developing private law, which is reflected in modern civil law. To this day, the experts and researchers of Roman law pay great respect to the ancient legal culture that influenced the legislation so strongly over the next two thousand years. Where and how did the Romans teach the law and develop their legal thought?

At the beginning of the principate, the Roman Emperor Octavian August introduced the so-called Ius publice respondendi ex auctoritate principis, which favored and financially supported the 30 greatest Roman jurists. The process of educating and teaching Roman law grew steadily and transformed from private to public under the patronage of Roman rulers. A phenomenon for those times was the establishment of the first law school in Rome and Beirut, which took place in the third century. This moment caused the constant development of public teaching of law, which functioned in the Empire, which was transformed from teaching reserved only and exclusively to the richest citizens, to teaching aimed at a larger group of society. This, of course, resulted in vulgarization of the law and its simplification, but for the population from the period of the crisis of the Roman state, it was the best solution to educate new legal elites. The law school in Rome attracted many students from the very beginning, which made the situation so dire in the 4th century that Emperor Valentinian I (364-376 CE) had to limit the number of entries and the possible duration of studies. The next impetus for the development of the teaching of law was the establishment of a third university in Constantinople in 425.

In the following years, the professionalization of teaching and the organizational system of the university progressed, which meant that in the 4th and 5th centuries a process of legal education was created, which is very similar to the present day. Studies of Roman law focused on the classical achievements of jurists and comprised a 5-year teaching period, and each year, as it functions today, was the next stage of “initiation” into Roman legal art. Let us briefly follow the five-year teaching cycle that ancient students dealt with:

  • In the first year, mainly the Gaius Institutions were studied, which were a textbook of Roman law and a general description of its most important elements. The students of that year were called “dupondii “, which in student jargon meant recruits.
  • In the 2nd year, students called “edictales ” read the commentaries on the edicts
  • In the 3rd year, students celebrated the feast of Papinian, a Roman lawyer called the “prince of Roman jurists”, whose works were studied all year round, which is why the students were then called “Papinianistae “.
  • In the fourth year, students studied the responsa of Paulus, but the teaching was mainly private here, because students were to independently research the works of the famous jurist and solve legal problems. They were called “lytae ” from the Greek, which refers to the solution of case studies.
  • In the fifth year, the students, called “prolyae”, got acquainted with contemporary imperial constitutions, which they also studied privately.

The fifth year ended the period of educating new adepts of Roman law and the period of using their knowledge in practice began, because in the period of dominate and in the Byzantine state in a very fast bureaucracy and administration grew at a pace, which meant the need for more and more officials. The Roman state in the 4th / 5th century underwent more and more problems and transformations, which undoubtedly facilitated Roman law and adapted it to the economic and social situation of that time.

As we can see, the Romans at the end of the Western Empire were able to initiate the beginning of the structured teaching of law that was necessary for such a vast Empire. The achievements of universities in Rome, Beirut and Constantinople were a determinant of the emergence of numerous smaller universities throughout the country, as well as a model of the law study system for subsequent generations. Throughout the Middle Ages, universities of law were almost exclusively limited to teaching Roman and canon law, which also for the most part was derived from the achievements of Roman jurists and universities. The achievements of the above-mentioned universities are reflected in the later famous Justinian reforms, because the committee creating Digests, Codex or Institutions also included professors from Beirut universities (called “mother of law “, and teachers teaching there “professors of the world“) and from Constantinople.

Author: Cyprian Herl (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Kazimierz Kolańczyk, Prawo rzymskie, §28, str. 71-72.

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