Twelve Tables/U.S. Bill of Rights: The framers of the American Constitution consciously copied Roman Republican law, taking as their model the rapt description of Rome's "complex constitution" in Volume VI of the Polybius's History of the Rise of Rome. The "complex constitution" that Polybius described was the Roman system of "checks and balances" among the executive (Consuls), the legislature (Senate), and the judiciary (commitiae).

But something was missing. Fresh in the minds of the new "American" citizens were violations of individual rights during the colonial and revolutionary periods. Several states made their ratification of the 1787 Philadelphia constitution contingent on the addition of a "Bill of Rights." The First Congress of the United States, therefore, on September 25, 1789, proposed twelve amendments (see a Post Script below.). Why twelve?

Once again, the founding fathers had dipped into the Roman Republican past, and here they were paying particular homage to Rome's "Twelve Tables", which codified the rights of Roman citizens before their government. The word "codified" is important: the Twelve Tables were not new legislation, and no new rights were made up and "given" to the people. Rather, rights that had "always" existed were sorted out into categories, and each category was written on one table. The tables were intended to be available always for consultation.

The American Bill of Rights is easily available for consultation, ever more so as we have passed through the age of mass distribution and the current electronic age. It wasn't so easy in ancient times. Really ancient "codes," like Hammurabi's in 18th century BC Mesopotamia, were simply chiseled into rocks set up in the town square. The Twelve Tables were probably originally inscribed on wooden tablets ("codified" originally meant something like "carved onto tree trunks") and were on public display somewhere in the western end of the Roman Forum, where civil government buildings were eventually built. One of these buildings, the Tabularium at the base of the Capitoline Hill facing the Forum, was built to house the Tables, and other public legal documents were soon added. The Rome Tabularium grew to become a huge central depository, and by the end of the 2nd century AD it was a multi-story "national archive", towering with arches and statues, that stood across the entire western end of the forum. "Branch offices" of the Tabularium were erected throughout the empire for display of copies of the tables and copies of local public documents.

According to tradition, the Twelve Tables had originally been formulated from existing oral law in 451-450 BC by the Decemviri Consulari Imperio Legibus Scribundis (a complex sounding title that simply meant "ten consular guys with the power to write down laws"). The code was drawn up to appease the plebians, who claimed that their liberties were not fully protected by the unwritten law as it had been interpreted by patrician judges. Ten tablets of laws were inscribed in 451 BC and two more tablets (supplementary laws, which, among other things, prohibited marriage between plebians and patricians and validated existing laws that hadn't been included in the first ten tables) were added the next year. The Twelve Tables contained several categories of law and also included specific penalties for some infractions and underwent frequent changes during almost 1000 years of use.

The Tabularium building survived the centuries in the Roman Forum mostly because the building, or at least parts of it, has been in continuous use. What you see now from the Forum is the main Tabularium structure with medieval towers on each end and Michalangelo's renaissance Palazzo Senatorio as a crowning superstructure. The Tabularium part of the pile was reopened for public visitation when the Capitoline Museums were reopened in 2000. The same entry ticket gets you into the Museums and the Tabularium, and the AudioGuide that you can rent at the Museum door (various languages, including English, available) includes the Tabularium. So you should rush over and see the Twelve Tables! Unfortunately not.

The Tables, which by that time had been re-inscribed on bronze plaques, were destroyed in the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC. The partial contents of a number of the Tables are known, however, through references in later Latin literature. Fragments of the actual texts were preserved as quotations, but in some cases the variations in different quotations are very confusing. There is general agreement among scholars about the basics, and all of what they know is copiously documented on the Internet.

A short readable analysis of the Twelve Tables is available at

Extant text fragments are at*/Lex_XII_Tabularum.html (English), and (Latin)

P.S.: 1. The connection between Polybius (partially through Montesquieu) and the US Constitution is at

2. Only the last ten of the twelve amendments proposed by the 1789 First Congress got quick ratification and became the Bill of Rights. Proposal number one, concerning timing of pay raises for members of congress was finally ratified 200 years later and became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. Proposal number two, which would have specified the number of people in a congressional district, was never ratified. Thus the US has "proportional representation" in the House of Representatives: as population increases the number of folks in a congressional district rises rather than the number of congressional districts and congressmen.

3. A temple dedicated to Veiove (who is sometimes or partially identified with Jove/Jupiter) was on the eastern face of the Capitoline hill before the Tabularium was built. Not wanting to anger the god, the Romans simply built over and around the temple, which remained accessible inside the newer building. One side of the temple can now be viewed through a glass wall, but the catwalk over the entrance has been closed to the public since a tourist leaned too far over the edge and tipped over the side.

4. Hammurabi's code is not the first written code of laws as some of us were taught years ago. More recent finds have been dated to the 21st century BC. Hammurabi's remains the most complete and best documented ancient Middle-Eastern code available so it's still studied by incipient lawyers. Anything you might want to know about ancient law is at More specifically Roman stuff is at