Thursday, July 19, 2007

Women in the Roman Law Courts

I just finished listening to the unabridged version of Steven Saylor's new epic novel "Roma". I was particularly intrigued by a reference to a court case involving a significant number of Roman women who conspired to poison their husbands and male relatives. After an extensive investigation that reached into the villas of the wealthy, a number of the women were found guilty and executed. Knowing how carefully Steven researches his books, I felt certain that this incident must have been based on fact. So I began researching it. Although I haven't found this particular incident I did find an article about women who had the force of will to personally take on the Roman courts discussed as part of a larger work on The Parable of the Feisty Widow and the Threatened Judge (Luke 18.1–8) by Wendy Cotter of Loyola University that I found quite interesting:

"A. J. Marshall’s article ‘Ladies at Law: The Role of Women in the Roman Civil Courts’ 23 focuses attention on the evidence found in an essay of Valerius Maximus (c.14–30 ce). The title of the essay, ‘Women who Pleaded before Magistrates for Themselves or for Others’, is sufficient to indicate its oddity in that society, and his introduction explains why:

Nor should I be silent about those women whose natural condition and the modesty of the matron’s robe could not make them keep silent in the Forum and the courts of law.24

Women’s ‘natural condition’ belonged in the domestic, private sphere of the
home, not in the public male domain of the courts, and any woman who frequented
public male space would be seen to be inviting male attention and violating
‘the modesty of the matron’s robe’.25

There are three examples given of women who broke these codes of social
decency: a heroine, a charmer, and a scandalous busybody. First, Hortensia, the
daughter of a deceased senator-friend of Valerius, is said to have strode into court
interrupting the triumvirs to challenge their ruling that Roman women whose
husbands were at war should pay a war tax. The astonished judges sat dumbfounded
while she argued before them. Valerius shows himself benign towards
her as he recalls his friendship with her father,26 but Appian’s record of the same
event is devoid of that sentiment:

'While Hortensia thus spoke the triumvirs were angry that women should
dare to hold a public meeting when the men were silent; that they should
demand from magistrates the reasons for their acts, and themselves not so
much as furnish money while the men were serving in the army. They
ordered the lictors to drive them away from the tribunal.'27

The triumvirs are incensed that the women held a ‘public’ meeting, since women
belong in the private sphere and should be modestly unassuming in public.
Moreover, the anger of the triumvirs relates to a sort of sexual role reversal that
had taken place, for Hortensia was lecturing while the triumvirs, taken by surprise,
were silent and appeared passive. Their command that the lictors ‘drive
them away’ is an effort to reestablish the proper social and sexual roles, with men
inside the courts and women outside.

In the second story, Maesia of Sentinum seems to have possessed a charming
manner so that she impressed the judges with her well-formed arguments. They
sought to compliment her with the epithet of ‘Androgyne’ because, they reasoned,
‘she bore a man’s spirit under the form of a woman’.28 That is, to their
minds, the only reason that Maesia was able to argue rationally and fittingly was
because, in effect, she had a man’s spirit in spite of having a woman’s form.

Finally there is Carfania, the dreaded wife of a senator, who used her position
to attend court constantly and argue her own cases, ‘not because she could not
find advocates, but because she had impudence to spare’. Valerius Maximus calls
her ‘a notorious example of female litigiousness’, so that ‘women of shameless habit are taunted with the name Carfania by way of reproach’.29 In fact, Carfania’s
behaviour was never forgotten by Roman lawyers or magistrates, as seen in
the Ulpian Digest III.1.1.5, which forbids women to appear before a praetor,
specifically mentioning Carfania by name.30 Juvenal’s Satire 6 uses just such
a Carfania-like character called Manilia as an extreme example of social

There was never a case in court in which the quarrel was not started by a
woman. If Manilia is not a defendant, she’ll be the plaintiff; she will herself
frame and adjust the pleadings; she will be ready to instruct Celsus [a
fashionable lawyer] himself how to open his case and how to urge his

These examples demonstrate the intolerance in Roman culture of women’s
involvement with the courts... - The Parable of the Feisty Widow and the
Threatened Judge (Luke 18.1–8) WENDY COTTER C.S.J.Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

23 A. J. Marshall, ‘Ladies at Law: The Role of Women in the Roman Civil Courts’, Studies in Latin
Literature and Roman History V (ed. Carl Deroux; Brussels: Latomus. Revue D’√Čtudes
Latines, 1989) 35–54.
24 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings (trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey; LCL;
Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University, 2000) VIII.3.1–3.
25 See the examples offered by Valerius Maximus on ‘The Punishment of Wives in Early Rome’, among which he sites the decision of Gaius Sulpicius Gallus to divorce his wife ‘because he had caught her outdoors with her head uncovered: a stiff penalty but not without a certain logic. “The law,” he said, “prescribes for you my eyes alone to which you may prove your beauty. . . . If you with needless provocation invite the look of anyone else, you must be suspected of wrongdoing.”’ Another case involves Publius Sempronius Sophus, ‘who disgraced his wife with divorce merely because she dared attend the games without his knowledge’. Valerius Maximus concludes his review with the approving comment: ‘And so, long ago, when the misdeeds of women were thus forstalled, their minds stayed far from wrongdoing.’ - Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, VI.3.9–12.
26 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, VIII.3.3. See also the praise of Quintilian:
‘In parents I should wish that there be as much learning as possible. Nor do I speak, indeed
merely of fathers; for we have heard of that Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi (whose very
learned writing in her letters has come down to posterity), contributed greatly to their eloquence;
. . . and the oration of the daughter of Quintus Hortensius, delivered before the
Triumviri, is read not merely as an honor to her sex.’
27 Appian, The Civil Wars (trans. Horace White; LCL; London: Heinemann/New York:
Macmillan, 1913) IV.5.34.
28 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, VIII.3.1.
29 Ibid., VIII.3.2, emphasis mine.
30 ‘origo uero introducta est a Carfania improbissima femina, quae inuerecunde postulans et
magistratum inquietans causam dedit edicto.’ For this reference I am indebted to Marshall,
‘Ladies at Law’, 44.
31 Juvenal, Satires (trans. G. G. Ramsay; London: Heinemann/New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons,
1928) 6.242–5.
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