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First Women Lawyers of Ancient Rome

Roman marble sculpture of a lady with her hair up
Roman marble of a patrician woman. Credit: Irene Ivanaj / Greek Reporter

In the 1st century BC, the Roman Republic underwent a moment of severe crisis following the death of Caesar. This was during the transformation to its second phase as an empire. Prosperity and territorial expansion had filled Rome with money and slaves.

The Roman state in transformation

Rome was a republic, but it had never been a democracy. Since the beginning, patricians each had a group of plebeians who could turn to them for political favors.

Bureaucracy was a solid institution. It was a way through which individual patricians and their families could place their heirs at the heads of temples, offices, and even whole provinces. Its main function was the convoluted and flexible institution of Roman law and its practices.

In the second half of the 1st century BC, Rome was in a state of moral decay. Women attorneys were considered to be a part of this, according to Roman historians. Valerius Maximus, for instance, mentioned his predecessors to prove a point that women could never be lawyers and advocated for the prohibition of the practice of law by women. There were three notable female lawyers in Ancient Rome:

  1. Caia Afrania
  2. Hortensia
  3. Mesia

The ancient world was, however, also profoundly patriarchal, and Roman society was based on the concept of pater familias.

Women were kept out of the forum and political arena. When the Romans came into contact with the Etruscans, a society where women held land ownership rights and wielded political power through religion, Roman historians humorously questioned whether Etruscan children were given their mother’s name as well. 

Caia Afrania, Defense Attorney Extraordinaire

Caia Afrania was a patrician woman from an ancient noble Roman family who was married to Senator Licinius Buccius.

When she was summoned to the courthouse, she decided to show up to tell her own side of the story instead of hiring an orator who was an expert on the law. She won the case, and it wasn’t long before potential clients requested her services. The orator was actually not a lawyer who was to study the case but rather someone who could show up to tell the client’s point of view as if bearing witness.

One anecdote in particular tells of Afrania gaining prominence because of her oratory defense of a woman who had been charged with killing her husband. Afrania managed to free her client although she “seemed clearly guilty.”

Another anecdote by Valerius Maximus tells of Afrania renouncing her mother’s inheritance and leaving it to her sister.

Eventually, Afrania’s oration activities attracted gossip and prejudice, and she was falsely accused of having bedded judges to sway them before rulings. Whether this was true or not, it was at least part of the grounds on which, during her lifetime, women would be banned from holding any position of public oration.

She was described as: “Quarrelsome…impudence in person…” as her voice “resounded in the courthouse like a dog barking,” the “personification of female duplicitousness… so much so that questionable women were nicknamed Afrania.”

Hortensia, Women’s Lobbyist

Hortensia was a Roman matron, who had been raised in a comfortable middle-class lifestyle among literature and culture.

In 42 B.C., the triarchy, or triumvirate, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus decided to tax 1,400 patrician women to help pay for the costs of the civil war and try to put a stop to the extreme comfort and luxury in which Roman patrician women lived.

A delegation of matrons attempted to get through to the wives of the triarchy hoping to avoid taxation but were chased away by Fulvia, Antony’s wife, from her home.

Women were not allowed to speak in the forum, so Hortensia showed up at the courthouse and gave a speech memorized by the greatest masters of rhetoric of her century, including Quintilian, Cicero, and Appian of Alexandria. Hortensia said:

You’ve never allowed us power and now you want to tax us when we don’t have a say?  You tell us we’re at war? When have we not been?

You cannot leave us to the indecent and indecorous state of a woman with no dowry or homes. These are possessions without which it is impossible to live as free women. We could give you our jewels out of the kindness of our hearts as our mothers before us when we had to defend our land from enemies, but the capital you want to take from us, you’ll use it just to go to war with each other.

The triarchy had to back down and tax only four hundred matrons who owned more than a hundred thousand coins, but, from that moment on, women were banned from speaking on behalf of others. 

Maesia, Androgyne

Valerius Maximus himself did not have any kind words for those women who had taken it upon themselves to speak as only trained patrician orators would have done. He reserves a chapter of his book to the “Women Who Defended Themselves or Others in Courthouses.”

Therein he wrote: “It cannot be omitted of those women of whom neither natural sex nor  the earnestness of female habit managed could muzzle in the Forum and in the courthouses.”

Maesia was unjustly accused of an unknown crime, and in relation to this Maximus wrote:

She defended herself with so much courage that she was absolved with a unanimous verdict…

…under the guise of woman was a virile spirit that earned her the nickname ‘Androgine.’

Androgyne was considered a derogatory term in Ancient Rome, alluding to a missed ideal of femininity.

After the crisis caused by the death of Caesar, the era of Octavian Augustus in Rome was a time in which women gained real prominence in society and politics as did Cleopatra, Livia, and Agrippina.

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