Domitius Ulpian

Domitius Ulpian (died 228), or Domitius Ulpianus, was one of the most distinguished Roman jurists. He served as praetorian prefect and chief adviser to the emperor Alexander Severus.

Ulpian was born in Tyre in Phoenicia in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. He had a fine legal education and had considerable experience with legal practice. He appears to have reached the high administrative positions of his career by holding varied positions in the Roman civil service. Earliest references to him are to the period when he was mainly known as a legal scholar. Scattered references in his massive written works date most of them to the reign of the emperor Caracalla (211-217). However, Ulpian's productions are so numerous that presumably much of the groundwork was done earlier, under Septimius Severus (193-211), and then completed under Caracalla.

Roman legal science had always depended heavily upon extensive commentary on a relatively limited and unorganized body of law. Under the empire, the quantity of law had increased, and attempts at systematization, which were to culminate in the great legal codes of the 6th century, had begun. However, the jurisconsults, or legal consultants, remained important both in the Emperor's council and the law courts. These men published voluminously on various aspects of the law.

Ulpian belongs solidly in this tradition. His published works appeared in a wide variety of forms. There were commentaries on set pieces of Roman law such as the praetorian edict, the guide to legal procedure which had formerly been issued individually by each successive praetor but which had been standardized under the emperor Hadrian (117-138). These commentaries were often line-by-line or even word-by-word interpretations of the piece of law under examination.

Another genre of publication was the Responses, short answers to legal questions, whose content probably stemmed in part from Ulpian's own experience at the bar. There were pedagogical works such as the Institutes, a type of general survey of the Roman legal system. Very important also were the writings of Ulpian on the administrative and legal functioning of various magistracies. The latter were especially useful in bringing together legal material scattered in the various edicts of the emperors.

A valid judgment on the ability of Ulpian as a legal scholar is difficult because only fragments of many of his works exist. Certainly his legal scholarship was impressive; he was one of the most learned and competent students of Roman law, if not the most brilliantly original. The strength of his influence can be judged by the fact that his legal writings formed one of the chief sources of the Digest of Justinian.

The publications of Ulpian stop rather abruptly after 217. One account states that he was sent into exile under the emperor Elagabalus (218-222). If this is true, he must have been recalled soon after the accession of Alexander Severus, for his rise in office under that emperor was rapid. Earlier he had served as a legal counselor (assessor) under Papinian, another great legal scholar who had combined his legal and administrative talents in the office of praetorian prefect (203-211). By March 222 Ulpian had reached the office of prefect of the grain supply, a position near the top of the Roman civil service. By December, Ulpian was praetorian prefect, the top in the civil service. He shared the position with two officers, Flavius and Chrestus.

The Severan emperors had appreciated the need of having a top legal mind in the most important administrative post in the empire. However, the praetorian prefect was also a military commander, and the combined role produced grave tensions for a man like Ulpian. Alexander Severus held him in high esteem and heeded his advice carefully. However, Ulpian evidently tried to keep too tight a reign on the guard, and this led to his downfall. One plot was discovered in time, and Ulpian's two colleagues as praetorian prefect were removed. A second plot was more successful, and in 228 Ulpian was murdered in the presence of Alexander Severus.

Further Reading on Domitius Ulpian

The Digest of Justinian contains many excerpts from Ulpian. J. Muirhead, The Institutes of Gaius and Rules of Ulpian (1880), contains a translation of Ulpian's Regulae (Rules). H. F. Jolowicz, Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law (1932; 2d ed. 1952), places Ulpian in the context of Roman legal development.

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