Lost Roman law code discovered in London
27 January 2010
Researchers at UCL History have discovered part of an ancient Roman law code previously thought to have been lost forever.
Simon Corcoran and Benet Salway made the breakthrough
after piecing together 17 fragments of previously incomprehensible
parchment. The fragments were being studied at UCL as part of the Arts
& Humanities Research Council-funded ‘Projet Volterra’ – a ten-year
study of Roman law in its full social, legal and political context.
Corcoran and Salway found that the text belonged to the
Codex Gregorianus, or Gregorian Code, a collection of laws by emperors
from Hadrian (AD 117-138) to Diocletian (AD 284-305), which was
published circa AD 300. Little was known about the codex’s original
form and there were, until now, no known copies in existence.
“The fragments bear the text of a Latin work in a clear
calligraphic script, perhaps dating as far back as AD 400,” said Dr
Salway. “It uses a number of abbreviations characteristic of legal
texts and the presence of writing on both sides of the fragments
indicates that they belong to a page or pages from a late antique codex
book - rather than a scroll or a lawyer’s loose-leaf notes.
“The fragments contain a collection of responses by a
series of Roman emperors to questions on legal matters submitted by
members of the public,” continued Dr Salway. “The responses are
arranged chronologically and grouped into thematic chapters under
highlighted headings, with corrections and readers’ annotations between
the lines. The notes show that this particular copy received intensive
The surviving fragments belong to sections on appeal
procedures and the statute of limitations on an as yet unidentified
matter. The content is consistent with what was already known about the
Gregorian Code from quotations of it in other documents, but the
fragments also contain new material that has not been seen in modern
“These fragments are the first direct evidence of the
original version of the Gregorian Code,” said Dr Corcoran. “Our
preliminary study confirms that it was the pioneer of a long tradition
that has extended down into the modern era and it is ultimately from
the title of this work, and its companion volume the Codex
Hermogenianus, that we use the term ‘code’ in the sense of ‘legal
This particular manuscript may originate from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and it is hoped that further work on the script and on the ancient annotations will illuminate more of its history.
Media contact: Dave Weston
UCL History is distinctive for the sheer breadth of its expertise, which spans the fourth millennium BC to the contemporary world. The department specialises in the Ancient Near East and the modern Americas. UCL History also covers the full range of European history from the classical Mediterranean societies, through the medieval and early modern periods to the present day.