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Lex Rhodia: The World’s Earliest known Maritime Law

The Lex Rhodia (Law of the Rhodes) is the world’s earliest code of maritime law. The law was published in the Digest by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century and was influenced by maritime law on the Greek Island of Rhodes. The law provided a basis to prevent and solve maritime disputes between seafaring merchants in the Mediterranean sea.


Photo Credit: metmuseum.org


Emperor Justinian I


Emperor Justinian I, was a former Byzantine Emperor who ruled from 527 to 565 CE. Justinian I was born around 482 CE in Tauresium, a village in Illyria, and was brought up by his uncle who took the throne after the death of Anastasius I Dicorus. He was most notably remembered for his ambitious foreign policies to restore the Western Roman Empire from hostile takeovers by the Persians and the Barbarians. He is also widely known for his production of a comprehensive guide to Roman law, The Codex Justinianus (The Justinian Code). He reigned for almost 40 years and he is still remembered today as one of the most notable Byzantine Emperors in history.


The Codex Justinianus


The Codex Justinianus was a comprehensive collection and guide to Roman laws that was published in the 6th century and consisted of a series of four textbooks:

  • Codex Constitutionum 529 CE

  • Digesta 533 CE

  • Institutiones 533 CE

  • Novellae Constitutiones Post Codicem 534 CE

It is important to note that none of the textbooks were written by Emperor Justinian I himself but by a group of scholars and jurists, however; they did include some of the laws created by Justinian I as part of their guide to Roman law. All of the texts in the Codex contained exhaustive research done by the committee as assigned by the emperor and were fully written in Latin. The Codex was a complete, extensive guide to Roman law and contained important legal notes from notable Roman jurists like Ulpian. It was also widely used as textbooks for law students at the time.


Lex Rhodia


When Emperor Justinian I commissioned the Codex Justinianus in the 6th century, the group of scholars and jurists who published the Codex took ideas, notes, and, laws from emperors and jurists precedent to them. They compiled an exhaustive collection of Roman laws that were created before Justinian I, including ones created by him.


The Greek Island of Rhodes was an important point for trading across the Mediterranean and was one of the wealthiest states in the Eastern Mediterranean area. It is important to note that Lex Rhodia was based on the Digest created during the 6th century in the Byzantine empire but it was also influenced by maritime customary law that was used on the Island of Rhodes since the Greek classical age. The Lex Rhodia was not a single statute but a series of regulations concerning commercial trade and maritime disputes. The laws primarily concerned the loss or damage of cargo.


Law of jettison


Carrying cargo was a risky business for merchants and shipowners alike. The damage or loss of cargo can have a devastating impact on traders especially if there wasn’t an alternate option to protecting the cargo such as during storms where the goods had to be thrown overboard to protect the ship or pirate raids. The law of jettison was one of the surviving parts of the Codex Justinian which states that the cost of cargo which has been jettisoned (dropping something from an aircraft or ship) must be shared by the shipowners, owners of the cargo, and passengers. This provided insurance for the loss of cargo which would affect merchants.


“...If the cargo has been jettisoned to lighten a ship, the sacrifice for the common good must be made good by common contribution.”

This principle of sharing losses, also called ”general average” proved a liability for loss.

This principle is still applied in maritime law.


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