Ancient Roman Law
Posted on 11th October 2021
The Roman judicial system was based upon the Twelve Tables conceived in 450 BC which was to form the written text, in effect a statute book, upon which all future law was derived. It had been so enshrined because the plebians, or common people, had complained that the law, known orally only to a select elite, was used with impunity to discriminate against them. As a result, two ten-man commissions, the so-called Decembvirs were established to codify the law and the Decemviri Legibus Scribundis that resulted set forth the basis of the law for all Roman citizens.
There was no Public Prosecutor in Rome and during the Republic it was possible for any Roman citizen to press charges, though this had to be done via a patron who would vouch for the justification of the case.
The charge also had to be made in writing and the accuser able to provide subscriptores, or witnesses. Details of these would then be handed over to the Praetor, an elected official, who would preside over the case. There was at this time, no professional judiciary in Rome.
Trials in civil cases were held al fresco and they became part of the rich panoply of Roman life as both a source of gossip and entertainment with the more sensational cases would often attracting huge crowds. It was as important therefore, for lawyers to be talented rhetoricians as it was to be well-versed in the law, perhaps even more so, for they had to plead their case before a Jury.
The Jurors themselves, some 450 Roman citizens were chosen annually in elections. They were mostly merchants and artisans as none of the nobility, Government Officials, their relatives, freed slaves, and non-citizens could stand for election as juror. Any trial involving the Roman aristocracy would invariably be held before the Senate it not being seen as right or proper that the common people should have any say in the affairs of their betters.
Rome had no libel laws and so trials were often brutal affairs in which accusation and insult was pointed and plenty, rumours freely spread, and gossip readily believed. As a result, the law was a profession that could be as perilous to the lawyer as it could to either the plaintiff or the accused. But it could also be the path to great wealth and fame.
A successful lawyer could soon acquire celebrity status and The Forum, which was not only the centre of commercial activity in Rome but was also the home of the Law Courts, would often be thronged with people wanting to get a glimpse of their heroes.
Arguably the world’s greatest ever Advocate Marcus Tullius Cicero, who came from a relatively humble, though by no means poor background, was to rise to become Senator, Consul, and one of the most powerful and influential men in the city. Yet he had started out at the bottom of the legal ladder and just one disastrous case lost could have effectively ended his career before it had even begun.
Lawyers would directly address the crowd that had gathered to be entertained hoping to illicit a response that would influence the Jury.
The people gathered were unlikely to possess a detailed knowledge of the law, though some would have attended on so many such occasions that this could not be taken for granted, nevertheless it was the art of rhetoric that became the essence to winning or losing a case.
Because there was no Public Prosecutor it being felt necessary to dissuade people from overloading the judicial system with frivolous cases, and so as a deterrent a Prosecutor who failed to make his case could be branded on the forehead with the letter K for Kaluminator, or False Accuser, which could in effect ruin his career. Such penalties made for often fraught occasions with accusations being levelled at the lawyers as much as they were the plaintiff and the accused.
As lawyers were in direct competition with one another for cases having good judgement and being able to turn down a fee where necessary were also essential to a successful career.
Once the summing up of the case by both parties had been completed the Praetor who presided over proceedings would request from the Jury their verdict.
There was no retirement to consider the verdict, they had been able to discuss it among themselves as events unfolded before them, and their decision was expected immediately, and it was a simple majority verdict with no right of appeal. This they wrote down on a tablet, A for Absolvo or C for Condemno. These were then handed to the Praetor who would hold up the appropriate tablet to the crowd for them to see, and they would then show their approval with cheers and applause, or disapproval with howls of derision.
With the passing of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire the person of the Emperor became the final arbiter in all judicial matters, though he rarely took an interest in legal proceedings other than when it was a capital case involving a prominent person from which the expropriation of property and funds would accrue, or it was a treasonable offence.
The Emperor was not himself required to make use of the judicial system and could condemn and execute at will, though he risked the possible opprobrium of the people by doing so. That ‘the mob ruled Rome’ was a fact rarely taken lightly.
Tagged as: Ancient & Medieval
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