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How Was Life as a Lawyer in Ancient Rome?

The Late Roman Republic was a period chock-full of political drama, rampant corruption, and the rise and fall of powerful figures. But, amidst all the action, there was a group that often did not get the limelight they deserved: The lawyers.

Yes, lawyers have been around for quite some time, and their role in ancient Rome was as vital (and sometimes as scandalous) as it is today.

Nils / Unsplash/ Better known as “Orators,” lawyers in ancient Rome held a prestigious rank.

Roman Lawyers: A Brief Introduction

Lawyers, or juris consulti as they were known in Rome, were essentially the legal consultants of their day. They did not necessarily argue in court but instead offered legal advice based on their interpretation of the mos maiorum (ancestral custom) and laws passed by the Roman Senate.

Often from the equestrian or senatorial classes, these professionals were typically well-educated, wealthy, and respected within society.

The Day-to-Day Grind

Think being a lawyer today is tough? Imagine having to memorize the Twelve Tables, an early Roman legal code, without any digital help or printed books! These legal eagles had to internalize vast amounts of legal precedents, interpret them, and then dispense advice – often doing so publicly in the Roman Forum.

Davi / Pexels / Known as ‘juris consulti,’ did not argue in courts. Instead, they offered legal advice based on the ‘mos maiorum.’

Clients would approach them, discuss their legal problems, and the lawyer would give his responsa, or official response. While a lot of their day was spent in scholarly pursuits, lawyers were also known to socialize in Roman bathhouses, wine shops, and, of course, the iconic Roman feasts. So, networking was the game, and they played it well.

The Nitty-Gritty: Legal Dramas and Scandals

While their primary job was to interpret the law, that did not mean they were averse to a little drama. Some lawyers gained notoriety for their eloquent speeches and were often roped into the political intrigues of the day.

One notable figure was Cicero, a famous orator and lawyer of the Late Republic. His legal defense speeches, like the one for Sextus Roscius on a murder charge, were full of wit, charm, and masterful rhetoric. Likewise, he also had his fair share of political intrigue. And was a significant player in the power struggles that defined the era.

Pixabay / Pexels / Back then, legal battles sometimes turned into proxy wars for powerful families or political factions in ancient Rome.

Getting Paid: Show Me the Sestertii!

Roman lawyers were not technically allowed to charge fees for their services! But, just like today’s world, they found ways around it. They would often receive gifts from grateful clients. These “gifts” could be anything: A beautiful villa, a pouch full of sestertii, or even a prized slave. As you can imagine, a successful lawyer could amass significant wealth and influence in this manner.

The Evolution and Legacy

As the Republic neared its end and the Empire began, the legal profession underwent changes. The creation of a more formal court system and a systematic legal code made the role of lawyers even more integral.

But the foundations laid during the Late Republic – of jurisprudential thought, the value of oratory, and the nuances of networking – continued to shape the profession for centuries to come.

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