Fiat justitia ruat caelum is a Latin phrase, which is a part of the law jargon. With Penlighten’s aid, find out the meaning of "fiat justitia ruat caelum" to comprehend it in a better way.
Short and Sweet
Often, the shortened version of the phrase, i.e., fiat justitia, is used compared to the original one. It means let justice be done.
Several legal systems are heavily influenced by the Roman law system. England, its former colonies, and America use variations of the Roman law. It is called “Common law.” It is the reason why several Latin phrases are used in law profession even today.
The Latin legal maxims like a quo (from which), a priori (from earlier), ad hoc (for this), affidavit (he has sworn), i.e. (that is), etc., are commonly used in various professions than only in legal profession. One such phrase is fiat justitia ruat caelum. The phrase is seen being used without any legal context as well.
For example, in the English writer George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, a character refers to the term―You should read history–look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing. They always happen to the best men, you know. But what is that in Horace?–fiat justitia, ruat … something or other. With this example, let us find out more about this phrase.
The literal translation of the phrase fiat justitia ruat caelum is Let there be justice (while) collapses Heaven. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it means let justice be done though the heavens fall. The phrase denotes that justice should be carried out regardless of the situation or consequences. It calls for an urgent necessity of justice.
► The origin of the phrase dates back to the first century BCE. However, it was more of a general philosophical statement at that time rather than a technical legal term.
► In earlier times, only the “sky or heaven falling” part of the phrase was in use. One of the first noted occurrences of this phrase is in the famous Roman playwright Terrance’s writing. The Roman storyteller’s Aesop’s collection of fables includes a fable named The Sky is Falling.
► The noted Roman lyric poet Horace even uses the “falling sky” term in one of his odes to depict a hero submitting to the ruin of the world around him.
► However, it was Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist Seneca and his work regarding a legend that was attributed with the origin of the expression “fiat justitia ruat caelum.” In his work De Ira (On Anger), Seneca narrates a story of a Roman statesman Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. One day, in a fit of anger, Piso ordered the execution of a soldier. The soldier had returned alone from his leave without his comrade. Piso took this as a sign that the soldier had killed his comrade.
However, just before the execution, the lost comrade arrived at the scene. A centurion overseeing the execution stopped it, as the appearance of the comrade proved that the guilty soldier is actually innocent. The matter was presented before Piso again to suspend the execution orders. However, this made Piso so angry that he ordered three executions. He ordered the original execution of the soldier to be carried out as the order was already given. In addition to that, he ordered the death sentence to the centurion who did not carry out his job of overseeing the execution. The third order of execution was given to the comrade as he was supposed to be dead, and his return caused two innocent people to lose their lives.
Piso saw to it that “justice” be carried out even if it was morally wrong. Though the phrase “fiat justitia ruat caelum” does not appear explicitly in the story, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable attributes the negative interpretation of the story to the phrase.
►The interpretations of the phrases changed from negative to positive over the years. The phrase first appeared in 1601 in William Watson’s Ten Quodlibetical Quotations Concerning Religion and State. It appeared again in 1646 in Fresh Discovery of Prodigious Wandering New-Blazing Stars by William Prynne and in 1647 in Simple Cobbler of Agawam by Nathaniel Ward.
The maxim became popular after the noted judge William Murray’s, 1st Earl of Mansfield decision of the John Wilkes case in 1770. The discipline of law continued to use the maxim, and another mention of the phrase can be found in David Hume’s essay Of Passive Obedience (1748).
► American writer Alan Donegal tries to explain the nuances of the maxim as well as the main idea in it. He writes “that precept was enunciated in a culture in which it was held to be impossible that the heavens should fall as a consequence of doing what you ought.”
► Judge James Horton referred to the maxim while explaining the change in his decision regarding the Scottsboro Boys trial in 1933.
►The phrase is written on the lintel of Bridewell Garda station, Dublin. It is also engraved on a wall in the Supreme Court of Georgia, USA. It appears on the main gate of Ohio’s Old Perry County Courthouse. The Tennessee Supreme Court uses the phrase as their motto.
► The phrase is used by a character in the movie JFK (1991) regarding the investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The phrase appears as a variation in the movie Find Me Guilty (2006), written in front of the judge’s bench.
► Joseph Conrad uses the phrase in his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness towards the end.
The phrase does appear in the context of law. However, nowadays, the use of this phrase is not limited to law jargon. It is used in modern films and other artistic venues too.