The falling sky clause occurs in a passage of Heauton Timorumenos, by Terence, suggesting that it was a common saying in his time. In the scene, Syrus suggests a scheme through which Clinia might deceive another into taking actions that would further his love interests. Syrus lays out his plan, while Clinia, who must act it out, finds faults with it, finally asking, "Is that sufficient? If his father should come to know of it, pray, what then?" To which the Syrus replies, "Quid si redeo ad illos qui aiunt, ‘Quid si nunc cœlum ruat?’" — "What if I have recourse to those who say, ‘What now if the sky were to fall?’", the suggestion being that Clinia has no other options available, so to worry that the plan will, obviously, fail if the father finds out makes no more sense than worrying about the fact that it will also fail if the world were to suddenly end.
This concern recalls a passage in Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, Book I, 4, where ambassadors of the Celtae from the Adriatic sea, tall men of haughty demeanor, upon being asked by Alexander what in the world they feared most, answered that their worst fear was that the sky might fall on their heads. Alexander, who hoped to hear himself named, was disappointed by an answer that implied that nothing within human power could hurt them, short of a total destruction of nature.
In a similar vein, Theognis of Megara urges "May the great broad sky of bronze fall on my head / (That fear of earth-born men) if I am not / A friend to those who love me, and a pain / And irritation to my enemies." Whereas Aristotle asserts in his Physics, B. IV, that it was the early notion of ignorant nations that the sky was supported on the shoulders of Atlas, and that when he let go of it, it would fall.
On the other hand, Horace opens one of his odes with a depiction of a Stoic hero who will submit to the ruin of the universe around him: "Si fractus illabatur orbis, / impavidum ferient ruinae" — "Should the whole frame of Nature round him break, / In ruin and confusion hurled, / He, unconcerned, would hear the mighty crack, / And stand secure amidst a falling world." (Odes 3.3.7-8, translated by Joseph Addison.)
In De Ira (On Anger), Book I, Chapter XVIII, Seneca tells of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, a Roman governor and lawmaker, when he was angry, ordering the execution of a soldier who had returned from a leave of absence without his comrade, on the grounds that if the man did not produce his companion, he had presumably killed the latter. As the condemned man was presenting his neck to the executioner's sword, there suddenly appeared the very comrade who was supposedly murdered. The centurion overseeing the execution halted the proceedings and led the condemned man back to Piso, expecting a reprieve. But Piso mounted the tribunal in a rage, and ordered the three soldiers to be executed. He ordered the death of the man who was to have been executed, because the sentence had already been passed; he also ordered the death of the centurion who was in charge of the original execution, for failing to perform his duty; and finally, he ordered the death of the man who had been supposed to have been murdered, because he had been the cause of the death of two innocent men.
In subsequent versions of this legend, this principle became known as "Piso’s justice", a term that characterizes sentences that are carried out or passed from retaliation — whose intentions are technically correct, but morally wrong — and this could be construed as a negative interpretation of the meaning of Fiat justitia ruat caelum.
The phrase fiat justitia does not appear in De Ira. though Brewer's attributes the story to Seneca. The phrase is sometimes attributed to a different Piso, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, possibly a confusion with this case.
The exact phrase as used for approval of justice at all cost — usually seen in a positive sense — appears to originate in modern jurisprudence. In English law, William Watson in "Ten Quodlibetical Quotations Concerning Religion and State" (1601) "You go against that general maxim in the laws, which is ‘Fiat justitia et ruant coeli.’" This is its first known appearance in English literature.
The maxim was used by William Prynne in "Fresh Discovery of Prodigious Wandering New-Blazing Stars" (1646), by Nathaniel Ward in "Simple Cobbler of Agawam" (1647), and frequently thereafter, but it was given its widest celebrity by William Murray, 1st Baron Mansfield's decision on June 8, 1768, on the case concerning the outlawry of John Wilkes (and not, as is commonly believed, in Somersett's Case, the 1772 case concerning the legality of slavery in England). Another famous eighteenth-century usage appears in David Hume's 1748 essay "Of Passive Obedience", although Hume argued that justice must occasionally be sacrificed to the public interest.
The maxim is given in various forms:Fiat justitia, ruat cœlum/coelum/cælum/caelum (spellings)
Fiat justitia et ruant coeli (Watson)
Fiat justitia et coelum ruat (John Manningham, Diary, 11 April 1603)
Fiat justitia, ruat coelum (Lord Mansfield)
More recently, Judge James Edwin Horton referred to the maxim when he recalled his decision to overturn the conviction of Haywood Patterson in the infamous Scottsboro Boys trial. In 1933, Judge Horton set aside the death sentence of Haywood Patterson, one of nine black men who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama. Judge Horton quoted the phrase when explaining why he made his decision, even though he knew it would mean the end of his judicial career. This is referenced with the title of a film based on the case, Heavens Fall (where the line is quoted). Similarly, Lord Mansfield, in reversing the outlawry of John Wilkes in 1768, used the phrase to reflect upon the duty of the Court.
The phrase is engraved on the wall behind the bench in the Supreme Court of Georgia and over the lintel of the Bridewell Garda station in Dublin. The Tennessee Supreme Court uses the phrase as its motto; it appears in the seal of the Court and is inlaid into the floor of the lobby of the court's building in Nashville. During World War II, the 447th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force used the phrase as its motto, which appeared on the group's official unit markings. Ohio's Old Perry County Courthouse features an English translation of the phrase over its main entrance, which has gained extensive attention due to its mangled wording: "Let Justice be done. If the Heavens should fall." The University of Saskatchewan College of Law uses the first half of the phrase as their motto, simply: "Fiat Justitia".
In the Oliver Stone 1991 film JFK, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) says the variation, "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall," in reference to his investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy. In the 2006 Vin Diesel comedy Find Me Guilty, the phrase (mis-spelt as "Fiat Justica et Ruat Caelum") is inscribed on the front of a federal judge's bench, and is translated by a defense attorney as part of his opening statement.
Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, contains a possible reference to the maxim at the very end of the text. Protagonist Marlow says, "It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle."
George Eliot has Mr. Brooke mangle and misattribute this phrase in Middlemarch, where he says, "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."
The anime series Aldnoah.Zero features the phrase as a tagline alongside the show's logo. It is also speculated that the ending of the series' first half is a retelling of "Piso's Justice", concerning the fate of the three men.
In an episode of Hawaii Five-O, Steve McGarrett has to deal with an extra-legal Star Chamber court that addresses cases of accused who got away with their crimes because of some technicality or procedural error. The leader would end their deliberations with the quote, then proceed to the verdict, usually death. McGarrett reads the quote in one scene, then translates it.