The Twelve Tables

Like the Code of Hammurabi, the Twelve Tables of Law of the Roman Republic form a great teaching tool, because while the laws may not have been enforced, no one passes a law against something that isn’t happening, or against something they’re unconcerned about. So they form a great insight into the early Roman Republic. 

I am always amused by these laws, from Table VIII:

3. If one is slain while committing theft by night, he is rightly slain.

13. It is unlawful for a thief to be killed by day…. unless he defends himself with a weapon; even though he has come with a weapon, unless he shall use the weapon and fight back, you shall not kill him. And even if he resists, first call out so that someone may hear and come up.

If nothing else, it emphasizes how the Romans lacked street lighting, and how anxious they were about nighttime (Law 26: “No person shall hold meetings by night in the city”) – as though it’s cheating to use the cover of darkness to commit crimes. It reminds me of the only time I’ve been in Montana, where, I discovered, there are lower speed limits for nighttime driving. 

But I am always amused to discover a Roman law that’s actually more lenient than the ones in force today. In Georgia, if someone breaks into your house, no matter what the time of day, you are allowed to respond with deadly force, as God and the Constitution intended. The daytime theft law that the Romans had sounds like something that might be on the books in Massachusetts – a “duty to retreat” or something like that. What prompted the Romans to institute this criminal rights statue, I wonder? Were too many people getting killed, with the killer than claiming that the deceased was trying to rob him? Was it a bone that the rich were willing to throw to the poor, in the same way that they allowed for the existence of the Plebeian Assembly?

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