In the beginning of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.), the law was held privately by the priests and the aristocratic class (Senate). Abuses of the plebian class were common, and it didn’t take long for the people to agitate for better rights and legal protections from these abuses. As early as 494 B.C., there was a mass demonstration and strike by workers demanding basic rights.
After decades of continuing unrest, the Senate agreed to publish the laws for all to see. Ten scholars, called Decemvirs, were designated to compile and publish the law. The result of this effort was the Twelve Tables – posted in the Forum in ~450 B.C.
The surviving portions of the Tables are an interesting mix of religion, private law, and criminal law. The first two deal with legal procedure, the third with debt, and the fourth and fifth describe rights of the head of the family and inheritance. Table six outlines law pertaining to acquisition and possession, while table seven deals with land ownership. Table eight covers injuries, table nine public law, and table ten sacred law.
Here are some examples:
Table I No.1 - If anyone summons a man before the magistrate, he must go. If the man summoned does not go, let the one summoning him call the bystanders to witness and then take him by force.
Table IV No.1 - A dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed.
Table IV No.5 - A child born after ten months since the father's death will not be admitted into a legal inheritance.
Table VI No.3 - A beam that is built into a house or a vineyard trellis one may not take from its place. This is used today in the case of selling a house and leaving the appliances.
Table VII No.1 - Let them keep the road in order. If they have not paved it, a man may drive his team where he likes.
Table VII No.10 - A man might gather up fruit that was falling down onto another man's farm.
Table VIII No.9 - For a person the age of puberty to dispasture or cut down a neighbor’s crop by stealth in the night, shall be a capital crime, the culprit to be devoted to Ceres and hanged; but if the culprit be under the age of puberty, he shall be scourged at the discretion of the magistrate, or be condemned to pay double the value of the damage done.
Table VIII No.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.
Table VIII No.27 - Associations or clubs may adopt whatever rules they please, provided such rules be not inconsistent with public law.
Table IX No.4 - The penalty shall be capital for a judge or arbiter legally appointed who has been found guilty of receiving a bribe for giving a decision.
Table X No.8 - Gold should not be burned or buried with the dead, except such gold as the teeth have been fastened with.
Table XII No.1 - Marriages should not take place between plebeians and patricians. This was reversed in 445 B.C.
The original Tables displayed in the Forum were destroyed during the Gallic invasion of 390 B.C.