Law and Conversation

July 15, 2011

A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer

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I’ve posted today over on The Europa Challenge Blog on Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” a fictional walk through the Eternal City on one day in the year 115 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. From dawn to dusk, Angela takes us around the city, showing us where the ancient Romans lived and did business with one another, from latrines to the law courts of the Basilica Julia, part of the complex of buildings that made up the Roman Forum. Hope you’ll click on over there to read my post!

Much as I enjoyed Angela’s description of life in ancient Rome, it left me wishing for even more details, particularly about lawyers and the practice of law. He writes of witnesses who traded testimony for money, which I’d definitely like to know more about. If that was a common practice in imperial Rome, how did the judges assess witnesses’ relative credibility and arrive at a good decision? Were some or even many of those witnesses well known to the judges as professional tale-tellers? Did all witnesses expect to be paid for telling the truth? Were the courts an unregulated marketplace where the most golden-tongued witnesses and lawyers were likely to win? Did they function as well as, better than, or not nearly as well as modern courts in dispensing justice? Were there systems for mediating cases outside of court, or for appeals?

Angela’s brief description of Roman lawyers and courts also made me wonder whether any ethical rules for attorneys existed in imperial Rome. He said clients would initially meet their lawyers in the piazza of the Forum and then make followup appointment at lawyers’ homes, but how did lawyers and clients arrive at agreements for representation? Today, at least in the US, ethical rules prohibit lawyers from soliciting business, based on the principle that lawyers shouldn’t go around stirring up disputes. On the other hand, there’s nothing prohibiting an unrepresented person from approaching and hiring a lawyer who happens to be in or outside the courtroom where he’s making his first appearance, as appeared to be happening in Angela’s scenario. Were there formal ethical rules in Ancient Rome? If so, were they similar to today’s rules of professional conduct? Was there a commission that enforced them? Were ancient Roman lawyers ever disciplined or disbarred?

I can imagine that lawyers in imperial Rome, as those today, generally had to focus their practices in certain areas of law instead of trying to handle all types of cases. Was there a distinction between criminal and civil law, or transactional law and litigation? Was there motion practice? What evidentiary rules existed, and what was the standard of proof? How did lawyers know what the law was? Did they have law libraries in their offices? Was there a central law library for lawyers in ancient Rome? Was there a law librarian who would help lawyers find what they needed? Was case law important, and were case files kept and archived? I’ve read that memory played a much more important role in learning in ancient times; how did that affect the practice of law in ancient Rome?

I wondered, too, about ancient Roman lawyers’ business practices. Did they have areas within their homes that were equivalent to today’s law offices, or did they rent space outside their homes to meet with clients and transact legal business? Did they form associations analogous to present-day law firms? Given Angela’s description of Roman homes as generally dark and not terribly pleasant places to spend time, I’m wondering whether Roman lawyers generally transacted their business with clients, witnesses, and opponents in public places, such as the basilica, piazzas, and restaurants. And were certain types of law practice more prestigious than others? Was there a 2nd century equivalent of, say, ERISA practice, or loan workouts, or white collar crime, or family law? To what extent did the concept that injured people should be made whole by those who injured them exist?

Most of all, I’d like to follow one of those lawyers around for a day—say, the attorney Angela describes whose unhappy clients were chasing him down for an explanation after losing their case. Was our man a struggling lawyer living in a dingy no-water walkup on the top floor of a Roman insula, or apartment building, with all sorts of building code violations? He probably wouldn’t have wanted his clients to come to his home, would he—and it probably wouldn’t have been feasible for him to entertain his clientele there, either, would it? So what did he do?

Maybe our lawyer lived in more congenial surroundings. Did he take potential clients out to dinner, or entertain them in his home, or take them to see the bloody spectacles at the Colosseum for fun? Did well-to-do individuals and businesses conduct “beauty contests” to choose their lawyers, as some businesses do today? If so, how did those competitions proceed, and did our man compete?

We’ve probably all learned in school that the public baths were important to ancient Roman society. I’d like more details about that, too. Did the public baths function as health clubs do today, and did they have membership fees for different levels of privileges at their facilities? Did women and girls go? How often? What about slaves—did they ever get to visit the baths? Were there separate days or hours or facilities within the baths for them? Did our lawyer make certain to show up at the baths at prime times and schmooze potential clients, judges, and other lawyers? Did he swim laps and exercise, or just lounge about? Did he engage in whatever was the competition of choice among professional men? Just what was the Roman equivalent of golf, tennis, or racquetball?

I’m also wondering about even more personal details of our lawyer’s life. Was he married? Did his in-laws like him? How did he and his wife happen to meet and marry? Was she the daughter of a lawyer, and did he take over her father’s practice? Did he discuss his cases with her, and did she help him with his strategy and arguments? Did they push their sons into legal careers, and arrange for their daughters to marry lawyers? How did they relate to their slaves? Did they ever think or talk about the morality of owning other human beings, or about tormenting and slaughtering animals and people for fun, or question other aspects of their daily lives?

Angela provides fascinating insights into all aspects of imperial Roman life, so that I can imagine possible answers to many of these questions. But his book is an overview of Roman life and culture, not the story of any individual Roman. In the absence of an imperial Roman Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who achieved immortality in his graphic novels detailing his everyday life from the 1980s through the early 2000s, I’d be thrilled to see Angela or another historian-storyteller follow up “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” with a series that might begin with “A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer.”


  1. If I remember correctly, any well-born Roman male seeking to climb the cursus honorum would at least dabble at a legal career. It was one of the first public duties undertaken by a young ambitious citizen, possibly even done concurrently with his military training (any Roman who hoped to advance in life had to have some knowledge of, and experience in, the profession of arms). Most argued a few cases and went on to other things. (The praetorship was largely a judicial office — but that was just beneath the consulate itself on the cursus honorum.) I think Marcus Tullius Cicero is the most famous Roman lawyer — a rarity among prominent Roman statesmen in that his career was not particularly military. There are a number of biographies of Cicero, of course, and quite a bit of his own correspondence survived the ages.

    Comment by Jack Leyhane — July 16, 2011 @ 9:33 am | Reply

  2. What a good suggestion to read Cicero, Jack–which, alas, I have not! I do, however, have Robert Harris’s “Imperium,” a fictionalized biography of Cicero that’s the first volume of a trilogy, on my shelf among many others that are waiting for me to read!

    Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — July 16, 2011 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

  3. […] about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The […]

    Pingback by Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012 « Law and Conversation — January 2, 2012 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

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