By Elena Stolyarik for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
Since ancient times, justice has been one of the fundamental concepts of civilized society. Through the centuries its allegorical personification has often been represented in art, including in the iconography of coins and medals.
The Roman legal system is historically renowned. Even before the Roman Republic was established in 509 BCE, the Romans had a judicial system based on customary law. However, the Twelve Tables, written in 449 BCE, became the foundation of Roman law. As the Roman Republic grew into an empire, its rulers faced the increasing challenge of governing populations with diverse laws. This led to the development of the concept of ius gentium (“law of nations”), which was the body of legal customs shared by peoples throughout the empire, considered by the Romans to be based on the principles of ius naturale (“natural law”), which were the basic natural rules governing living beings (such as self-preservation).
Worship of Justice as a goddess of the Roman pantheon was introduced under the first Roman emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BCE – 14 CE), and that veneration was continued by other emperors in the following centuries. In January 13 CE, Augustus’ soon-to-be successor Tiberius dedicated a statue of Iustitia in Rome. A beautiful bust of Iustitia also was represented on bronze coins issued under Tiberius.
The coins of Nerva, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Pescennius Niger, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Severus Alexander also depicted Justitia, showing her as a goddess with a patera, scepter, or rudder in her hands.
The Roman personification of Justice was connected with another personification, Aequitas, the goddess of the virtues of equity and fairness. She represents fair trade and honesty and especially the fairness and impartiality of the emperor (Aequitas Augusti). She is usually shown with a balance and holding a cornucopia or hasta pura (a kind of ceremonial spear).
Despite the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Roman law continued in use in the Byzantine Empire, experiencing a great systematization under Justinian I (r. 527 – 565 CE). He formed a commission of jurists to compile all existing Roman law into one body. Their work, known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, collected and summarized all of the classical jurists’ writings on the law as well as the edicts of previous emperors. This work was updated with new laws issued by Justinian. Christian traditions were deeply connected with legal thought in the life of the Byzantine Empire; Christ was often portrayed as a divine judge, and in terms of legal theory, the emperor was regarded as God’s representative on earth and was held to be the fount of justice.
An important contribution to the development of the modern judicial system was made by one of the greatest rulers of medieval England, King Henry II (1154–1189). His reforms imposed standardization of procedures throughout the kingdom, at a time when local customs governed justice in most places. Henry’s courts, applying uniform rules and following the guide of recorded precedent, formed the basis for the English common law. Soon the law had become even higher than the king himself, as was made manifest when his son King John was forced by rebel lords to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. This document provided protections for individual rights in jurisprudence and declared the liberties held by “free men” (mainly the aristocracy).
Through the centuries, monarchs have represented themselves as protectors of their people through fair judgment, military prowess, and protection of basic human needs. These principles were often reflected allegorically through representations of Justice, Peace, and Prosperity along with images of the rulers.
However, when people felt that bad leadership was depriving people of the basic necessities and the rights that were promised to them, a different idea of social justice could emerge. In France, this led to the idea that justice should be applied without regard to wealth, power, or other status, which helped bring about the French Revolution in 1789.
The motto of the Revolution—Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”)—is still cherished in France to this day. But despite these idealistic slogans, the revolution involved massive loss of life. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded in 1793, as were more than 10,000 other people during the Reign of Terror of 1793–1794.
The radical politicians who led the Terror were connected to the influential political club known as the Jacobins. But factional divisions among the Jacobins brought an end to the Terror when 21 of the most radical Jacobins, including Maximilien Robespierre, were sent to the guillotine. All of these public executions were meant to symbolize the ideals of revolutionary equality before the law and revolutionary justice.
The slogans of the French Revolution reappeared when the Russian Revolution began in February 1917, with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government, led by liberals and socialists, attempted to establish widely recognized liberal values such as freedom of speech, democratic voting for representatives, and equality before the law. However, the Bolshevik party, headed by Vladimir Lenin, organized a coup, taking over the government buildings on November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the old Russian calendar). The next day they seized the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Government was based.
In the election of the Constituent Assembly soon afterward, the Bolsheviks won only about 24% of the seats in this body. As soon as it convened, they forcibly dissolved it and replaced it with the Bolshevik-controlled Congress of Soviets.
The October Revolution was not universally recognized in the country, and it was followed by the struggles of the Russian Civil War (1918–1921) and the “Red Terror” that accompanied it. During that time, many aristocrats and supporters of the imperial government were killed. Nicholas II and Alexandra and their children—four Grand Duchesses and Tsarevich Alexei—were shot and bayoneted to death on the night of July 16–17, 1918.
The Russian Civil War was not simply a conflict between communists and monarchists. Both sides were involved in massacres of the civilian population when members of said population were considered to be potential “enemies”. The Bolsheviks even theorized violence as “mass terror”, which they conceived of as an instrument for achieving social justice by eliminating groups they considered to be enemies of the new communist regime. Most crucial for them was to put this violence under party control in order to direct it at “class enemies”, who were classified as “enemies of the people”.
However, further repression in Soviet Russia during Joseph Stalin’s regime was directed at the Bolsheviks themselves, and many devoted revolutionaries were executed. As in France, the generalization that “the Revolution devours its children” held true.
History demonstrates that in the quest for justice of any kind, emotions are bad advisers. They lead to violence and instability, threatening rather than building a civilized society. Equal justice must be impartial for everyone and should be based on rule of law. As the Romans said: dura lex sed lex – “the law is harsh but it is the law”.
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