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Roman lawyers

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Or jurists were a specialized professional group in Roman society (see law, roman, sociology of) distinct from the humble clerks and notaries who copied documents and recorded proceedings. In the later republic and empire there emerged for the first time in history a class of secular legal experts who, whether they made a living from their profession or not, were regarded as the repositories of a special type of learning useful to the state and private citizens. Until the 3rd cent. bc knowledge of the law and its procedure was a monopoly of the patrician priesthood, the college of pontifices, whose advice was sought not only on the law of the state cult but also on secular forms. From then on (see coruncanius) some who were not members of the priestly college began to give advice on law; but until the end of the republic the same people were often expert in sacred, public, and private law. Their functions resembled those of modern lawyers. They gave opinions (responsa) to people who consulted them, helped them to draft documents or take other measures to avoid legal pitfalls, and advised on litigation and its proper forms. They were consulted by magistrates such as the urban praetor on the formulation of his edict and by lay judges on the law they should apply in the cases before them (see iudex). They taught mainly by allowing others to listen to them as they practised, but sometimes actively undertook to instruct pupils. Some lawyers wrote books. In principle their services were free, but they were not forbidden to accept gifts from those who consulted or were taught by them, though unlike other professionals such as surveyors and doctors there was even in the empire no procedure by which they could sue for a fee.

In the republic and early empire lawyers were few. Membership of this élite group of intellectuals depended on being taught by another member and enjoying a sufficient regard from the group as a whole for one's independence of judgement and depth of learning. It continued, even in the empire, to depend on professional opinion and not on official recognition or employment. Legal learning often ran in families. The existence of such a small, intimate body of specialists explains why in their writings lawyers so often cite one another's opinions. They aim to convince other lawyers. Advocacy was not in the republic and early empire a normal part of a lawyer's career, rhetoric being a separate discipline, but was not ruled out. In the republic and early empire lawyers often came from senatorial families, but legal learning could also be the avenue by which ‘new men’ (see novus homo) rose in the world. Lawyers often held public office.

As a prestigious non‐political group the legal profession presented Augustus with a problem since it comprised, for example, not only his supporter Trebatius Testa but the latter's republican pupil Antistius Labeo. He declined to bring the profession directly under his own control (Res Gestae 6) but devised a system by which certain lawyers were granted the privilege of giving opinions publicly on his authority. Tiberius gave the first such grant to a non‐senator.


Subjects: Classical studies

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