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Sexual Harassment in Ancient Rome by Justinian

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Flavius Justinianus (482-565) was born in the Roman province of Macedonia, located in the Balkans (southeastern Europe, north of Greece). He rose through the army and eventually became the Emperor (ruled 527-565) of the "Eastern Empire" during the century after barbarians conquered the western part of the Roman Empire. He spent much of his reign trying to reconquer the west and restore the stability of the Roman Empire.



After the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, the Mediterranean became divided into eastern and western regions, with Roman authority intact in the east, but barbarians ruling over large portions of the west and more barbarian groups arriving from the northeast. The historical sources are not as complete for the sixth century CE as they were for the earlier Roman period, but it appears that there was a great deal of warfare for the control of territory and the right to pass it on to successors.

Justinian, the emperor who ruled in the east from 527 to 565 CE, made a fairly successful attempt to reconquer the west. He was able to extend his authority to Italy, parts of Gaul and the North African Coast, but the border was not stable and there was little economic activity between Romans and non-Romans. As a result, many Roman settlements were abandoned in the west and the population of cities along the border (like Paris, London, and Cologne) declined.

Map of the Roman world during Justinian's rule,
Map of the Roman world during Justinian's rule, 527-565

To strengthen his authority (and that of Constantinople over the west), Justinian ordered his administration to standardize Roman law, which consisted of hundreds of years of contradictory imperial decrees, decisions by local commanders and opinions by legal scholars (called jurists).

By standardizing the law, Justinian hoped to reduce the incentive for Roman subjects to rebel, and to eliminate the waste that resulted when different officials made conflicting decisions. Justinian appointed a commission of jurists which collected all of the constitutions created since the time of Hadrian and published the results as the Codex Justinianus in 529. Next, they collected legal opinions and published them as the Digest (or Pandects) in 533. They also issued a general textbook of Roman law, the Institutes, and in 565, Justinian's own legislation was collected and published as the Novellae. As a result, Roman law became a more logical and coherent body of rules. That gave it a great deal of prestige, but also made it much more difficult to amend.

Justinian's other accomplishments included a huge increase in the construction of forts, public baths, palaces, bridges, roads, and even whole towns. The Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople (shown here) is one of the most impressive examples. He also encouraged a literary revival, and reorganized Eastern Christianity to make him, as emperor, the most powerful authority on religion.

How to Read a Law

This selection contains the opinion of Labeo, a jurist from the first century CE, on types of behaviors towards women that constituted crimes punishable by law. Besides describing criminal behavior, it also provides definitions and exceptions. It does not, however, specify who decides when and exception is justified.

Church of St. Sophia
St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople


  1. What problem was this law intended to solve?
  2. What was the purpose of a woman's "companion"?
  3. What criteria did Romans consider in determining whether iniuria had been committed? What kind of exceptions were allowed? What other criteria were considered irrelevant under this law?
  4. Can you think of any problems that might have resulted from Justinian's efforts to strengthen and reunify the Roman world?
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