The Life of a Lawyer in the Late Roman Republic

In the highly competitive world of the Late Roman Republic, the city’s law courts served as a proving ground for Rome’s most notable orators to start their political careers.

Aug 10, 2023By Nick Scott, Bachelor of Law (in-progress)
life lawyer late roman republic


The law courts in the Late Roman Republic saw some of history’s most revered orators engaging in advocacy on cases that were, in many instances, highly politically charged. The importance of oratory within Roman public life meant that the courts provided an ideal proving ground for those aiming for a career in politics.


Advocates such as Cicero and Hortensius both traded on rhetorical skill while prolific jurist Sulpicius reached the office of Consul by relying on his legal expertise. Alongside these towering figures, countless other jurists and advocates took on a similarly influential role, defining a framework that would form the foundation of many modern legal systems.


The Changing Landscape of The Late Republic

temple of saturn arch of septimius severus roman forum
The Roman Forum, via Encyclopedia Britannica


In The Spirit of Roman Law, legal scholar Rudolf von Jhering made the statement that Rome conquered the world three times: first with force, second with religion, and third with law. The advanced development of this legal system resulted from the central importance it was allocated early in the Roman Republic. By the time of the Late Republic, this legal tradition had reached an advanced stage. Hundreds of years earlier, jurists were priests who were drawn exclusively from the wealthy Patrician class. By the 1st century BCE, the legal profession was made up of a wide range of social classes at a time when jurists and advocates played a significant role in influencing Rome’s political trajectory.


One of the key factors in this increase in accessibility was the introduction of published legal codes that began to cede the Roman Pontiff’s hegemony over an understanding of the law. The foundational legal code introduced in the Roman Republic was the Twelve Tables. Passed in 449 BCE this legislation, like many legal developments in the Roman Republic, it was prompted by unrest from a class calling for an expansion of their rights.


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Significantly, the Twelve Tables were displayed in the Forum and available for the city’s citizens to view. Another significant event was the Ius Civile Flavianum, a fabled legal text outlining legal actions from the previous calendar year. Published by a clerk, the text covered legal information which had previously been inaccessible to the public. Although many aspects of this story have been called into question by scholars, it reflects a process of legal demystification by the time of the Middle Republic, necessitating expert assistance for citizens in understanding the law.


A Roman Lawyer’s Education

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Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus at his villa at Arpinum, by Richard Wilson, 1771-1775 via The Art Gallery of South Australia


Legal education in the Late Roman Republic was heavily impacted by the fraught political backdrop of the period. Studying in Greek was viewed as a mark of sophistication and tradition and in 92 BCE, the Censors Domitius Ahenobarbus and Crassus condemned the teaching of rhetoric in Latin within the capital. This meant that learning Latin rhetoric, an essential skill for an advocate in Rome’s courts involved traveling outside of Rome. With many reputable schools of rhetoric east of Rome, the repressive environment in the capital was an incentive for promising students to travel for their higher education.


This was one of the factors that led Cicero to study rhetoric in Rhodes in 78 BCE as part of a wider trip through Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean that saw the famed orator learning at reputable schools in Athens and Asia Minor. Writing centuries later, Plutarch suggested that one of the factors behind the timing of this excursion had been Cicero’s safety concerns after the dictator Sulla had seized power three years earlier. In Rhodes, Cicero studied rhetoric alongside Sulpicius, who would go on to become one of Rome’s most accomplished jurists alongside his political career that saw him appointed Consul a year before Cicero in 51 BCE.


cicero denounces catiline late roman republic
Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari, 1888, via The Independent


For many Roman orators in the late Republic, their education was heavily influenced by the Hellenistic tradition. This had been criticized and suppressed by factions within the elite classes in Rome. Cato the Elder was famously opposed to the integration of Hellenic culture within Rome and formed part of a movement that saw praetor Marcus Pomponius pass a law banning Hellenic philosophers and orators from living in Rome.


Cicero’s education followed this Hellenistic tradition preparing him for his courtroom advocacy that would set the stage for his political career. He was often critical of jurists and this reflects wider tensions at the time. Jurists were often part of the capital’s elite families, representing a legacy of the aristocratic roots of the legal system in the Republic. It was more likely for skilled orators to be new men in the capital, using courtroom success to build their reputation.


Scaevola’s Career: Law in the Collapsing Republic

roman forum late roman republic
The Roman Forum, by Hodgkin, 1800-1860, via the British Museum


The life of one of Rome’s most notable jurists tracked many of the fault lines that defined the late Roman Republic. Quintus Mucius Scaevola was born in 140 BCE into an influential patrician family, his father, and uncle both having held the position of Pontifex Maximus or chief priest of Rome. Within Rome’s legal tradition, the role of Pontifex Maximus carried with it substantial legal authority. Although there was scope for novi homines, or new men, to enter the ranks of the legal profession by this stage, the highest positions of authority were still dominated by the city’s elite families.


Scaevola’s prolific legal career encompassed litigation in Rome’s courts, lawmaking in the Senate, and legal writing as a jurist. His most famous case, the Causa Curiana, came in 94 BCE against Lucius Licinius Crassus. In this case, Manius Curius had been named as the substitute heir in the wealthy Marcus Coponius’ will. The will stated that Curius would inherit Coponius’ estate until Coponius had a son who came of age. When Coponius died without a son, his family argued that this invalidated the will.


Crassus, representing Curius, successfully argued that he was now entitled to the complete estate. Although the dispute was typical of the highly technical inheritance cases that occupied many Roman courts, the case is famous as it saw two of the city’s most famous orators pit their advocacy skills against one another a year after they had served as co-consuls.


temple apollo rhodes
The Temple of Apollo in Rhodes, by Bernard Gagnon, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons


While serving as consuls in 95 BCE the pair had passed a law that is frequently cited as one of the primary causes of the Social War four years later. Lex Lucinia Mucia, taking its title from the middle names of the sitting consuls, marginalized Latin allies of Rome, denying them the rights that were available to Roman citizens. These allies rejected this marginalized status having fought alongside Romans and paid taxes to Rome.  In 91 BCE they rose up together to fight against Rome’s armies. The civil war was devastating with casualties of 100,000, almost a third of the total forces fighting in the conflict which ended in 88 BCE, on the agreement of expansion of citizenship status.


Another consequence of the war became immediately apparent with powerful generals now maintaining large standing armies close to Rome. In 83 BCE another civil war broke out this time between Roman generals Sulla and Gaius Marius, vying for control of Rome. Scaevola had been elected Pontifex Maximus six years earlier in 89 BCE after returning from his appointment as governor of Asia. In the conflict, Scaevola was assassinated in 82 BCE by supporters of Marius who doubted his allegiance. This was the first time a Pontifex Maximus had been killed publically.


Scaevola was had been a prolific writer and his work included an 18-volume legal treatise. His life reflects the complex world of the Late Republic in which a highly advanced legal system operated within a fraught social and political landscape.


Quintus Hortensius: Cicero’s Greatest Rival

view of the ruins of the roman forum
View of the Ruins of the Roman Forum, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1692-1765 via The Walters Art Museum


Born in 114 BCE, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus became famed for his Asiatic style of oratory. This style, founded by Greek orator Hegesias around 300 BCE, is defined by emotional and performative rhetoric. This contrasts with the more formal Attic style inspired by orators such as Demosthenes and utilized by Cicero in the late Roman Republic. Hortensius married into a wealthy family and became associated with the Optimates, a term used to describe a broad political group that favored Rome’s aristocratic classes.


As the Senate controlled the Roman courts throughout Hortensius’ legal career, his connection with this elite group provided an advantage. Hortensius’ propensity to play on this advantage drew criticism from Cicero. Having begun delivering speeches in the city’s courts almost 15 years before Cicero, Hortensius was already firmly established by the time Cicero began to rise to prominence. Although there were only 8 years in age between the two, Hortensius first spoke in court at 19 and was already in his mid-30s by the time Cicero made his first courtroom appearance around 83 BCE. His first case against Hortensius — Quinctius vs. Naevius — came in 81 BCE


allegorical panel orator followers
Classical Scene with an Orator and Other Figures, c. 1800, via National Trust, Waddesdon Manor


The pair more famously clashed around a decade later in 70 BCE in a prosecution against Gaius Verres for crimes allegedly committed while he was the governor of Sicily. Hortensius’ affiliation with the elite optimates meant that he was often defending senior public figures in cases with significant reputational and political implications. After switching allegiance during the civil war, Verres had maneuvered into the coveted governorship of Sicily. When he returned to Rome he was prosecuted by Cicero who had gathered evidence from Sicily detailing charges of corruption and extortion.


Statue of Cicero in front of the Palace of Justice, via The Guardian


In the highly politically-charged landscape of the Late Roman Republic delaying a trial until a sympathetic figure was in political office could swing a case. Lending some weight to the allegations of corruption leveled against Hortensius, this is exactly what the famed orator attempted to accomplish. Through a number of strategies, Hortensius attempted to take procedural steps to delay the case until the next year when Quintus Hortensius and Quintus Metellus were consuls. Cicero alleged that, with Quintus’ younger brother Marcus, a friend of Verres, in charge of the extortion court, the case would be found in the accused governor’s favor.


The speeches that followed are some of the most famous of Cicero’s legal career with the first attacking the approach taken by Verres’ lawyer and the second constituting a scathing appraisal of the charges leveled against Verres himself. The damning prosecution was so compelling that Hortensius advised Verres not to fight the case and to enter voluntary exile where he would remain for the rest of his life. Later, the two would be on the same side in many cases defending influential political figures together and in 45 BCE Cicero wrote a dialogue named after Hortensius which, although it is now lost, was an influential philosophical text until late antiquity, referenced in Confessions by Saint Augustine.


cicero before the senate late roman republic
Cicero before the Senate (denouncing Catalina), by Hans Werner Schmidt, via Meibohm Fine Arts


Much of the detail known about Hortensius is seen through Cicero’s writing. With no extant speeches available, it is necessary to rely on this perspective provided by Cicero which may have been impacted by the pair’s rivalry. Although the pairs’ styles of speech differed, there are a number of parallels between them with both Cicero and Hortensius embarking on political careers trading on a reputation developed in Rome’s courts. Cicero’s high-profile consulship and lasting literary legacy are two factors that separate him from his friendly rival with much of the granular detail about the political forces at play in the Late Roman Republic coming from Cicero’s extant speeches and personal correspondence.

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By Nick ScottBachelor of Law (in-progress)Nick Scott is a law student with a specific interest in legal history and comparative law. Alongside studying for a law degree, Nick is a contributing writer and has written for The Times and