A Visit to the Legal Profession’s Birthplace

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(John Sherrod stands in front of the Basilica Aemilia ruins).

In a break from all of the pasta and vino rosso, I toured the Forum in downtown Rome, Italy on a recent vacation. These ancient ruins were the exact place that Julius Caesar strolled about before that fateful day in March of 44BC. As I absorbed ancient history before me, I was most impressed by an area consisting of about 20 scattered marble stones that made up the Basilica Aemilia – perhaps the very place the legal profession originated. I marveled at this sacred location where lawyers first began doing their thing.

The Basilica Aemilia is one of several basilicas located on the Forum Romanum. The Forum Romanum was the heart of the city of Rome. A basilica was a hall of justice and public hall. The Basilica Aemilia was originally constructed in 179 BC by the censors Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior. The Basilica was repaired and rebuilt several times throughout history. The layout, however, remained consistent. The long rectangle layout was also the footprint that medieval Christians used for places of worship and that set up is still in use today in modern churches. This design allowed for more worshipers than the ancient temples provided.

The current understanding of the legal profession and the role of a lawyer, first truly developed within the Ancient Roman Empire. The development of the legal profession was aided during the first century AD, when a law which banned the payment of legal fees was abolished. This led to legal professionals receiving professional status. Eventually, by the late fourth century, there was a focus on the study and practice of law. In fact, legal professionals were required to be admitted to a bar before being able to appear before a court.

In Ancient Rome, the role of the attorney, titled “juris consulti” was similar to the roles attorneys play today. They were responsible for drafting legal documents, such as wills and contracts. Further, they were often found to aid in legal problem solving with public officials. Finally, many individuals, from advocates to citizens would approach attorneys for legal opinions and advice.

The legal system of Ancient Rome was influential in the founding of the English system, which is the basis of the American legal system. Of particular importance is the Justinian compilation of law. This compilation consisted of the Code, the Digest and the Institutes. The Code provided the actual law of the land, while the Digest and Institute were used more for legal education and training. Though most of the compilation was destroyed, parts of manuscripts were found, studied and recreated and titled corpus iuris civilis (“body of civil law”). This provided much of the foundation for Western legal systems. In particular, Ancient Roman law gave us important basic legal principles, such as requiring public knowledge of the law and judicial procedures and the idea that the law evolves based on precedent and changing conditions.

While being nothing more than a tourist, it suddenly occurred to me that I come from a long lineage of lawyers and am very proud to be a member of this profession. I highly recommend a visit to the Forum if you ever get the opportunity. Not only does it make for a great place to walk off all the carbs from good Italian cooking, but you are certain to be moved by the history surrounding you. Ciao!

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