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Law Jokes in the Late Roman Empire

Ryan Pilipow

University of Pennsylvania

This paper examines a shift in the discourse surrounding legal experts in the Roman world. In the early Empire, experts were characterized as overly pedantic men. In the late Empire, the portrayals of lawyers turned hostile as legal experts were depicted as greedy, immoral men. I argue that the shift was the result of the growing ubiquity and visibility of legal experts in the late Empire, especially after the Constitutio Antoniniana of 212 CE. Using the legal sociologist Marc Galanter’s study of lawyer jokes in the United States in the twentieth century, I propose that the transformation of the discourse surrounding legal experts in both Roman and American cultures shared significant similarities.

The discourse surrounding late Roman legal experts is exemplified in Ammianus Marcellinus’s diatribe against lawyers (30.4). In the diatribe, Ammianus divides contemporary legal experts into four categories of increasing ineptitude and maliciousness. Some scholars (Pack 1953) have read the diatribe as the result of an unfortunate experience, thereby representing a disastrous reality of legal practice. Other scholars (Matthews 1992) interpret the diatribe instead as “satirical” and as moral coloring. By analyzing this diatribe in light of new scholarship on the literary abilities of Ammianus, however, we can appreciate the satiric construction of the diatribe more fully and even classify the diatribe as an emerging feature of the discourse critical of legal experts. Studies of the literary nature of Ammianus’s work abound (e.g. Kelly 2008), especially of Ammianus’s allusions to Roman satirists (Rees 1999, Ross 2015, and Sánchez-Ostiz 2016). While Ammianus’s satiric digressions are rich with classical allusions to Juvenal and Horace, the object of his derision, legal experts, is novel. Nörr’s study of criticism of law, legal practice, and legal experts in the late Republic and early Empire suggests that there was something radically different about the discourse surrounding legal experts in the late Roman Empire. By reading the diatribe as an exercise in Roman satire, we can come to appreciate how the literary discourse surrounding legal experts had shifted dramatically, reflecting a significantly changed legal culture.

I conclude my reading by comparing the late Roman discourse surrounding legal experts to the tropes and jokes about the American legal system and lawyers in the 1980s. Galanter argues that American legal practice experienced a significant push from the civil rights movement to become more transparent and more available to traditionally disadvantaged populations. The new immediacy of legal experts and their practice in the US led to a disapproving discourse about American legal culture. A similar phenomenon occurred in the late Roman Empire after the Constitutio Antoniniana, as Roman law became more widely exploited by the inhabitants of the Empire. The exploitation of Roman law in turn led to a negative appraisal of the experts of that legal system. In my conclusion, I argue that the discourse about legal experts, when seen through a comparative lens, does not indicate a faltering Empire—as a decline model of late Roman history would have it—but rather a robust and dynamic legal practice in the late Roman Empire.

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Law and Society in Late Antiquity

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