Friday, July 15, 2011

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome

If Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome,” published by Europa Editions, formed part of the required reading for social studies and history classes, I’ll bet more students would realize that history is far more than strange names, dates and battles.
Angela provides context for the history of ancient Rome and its continuing impact on our daily lives by structuring his narrative as a description of a walk around the Eternal City on one day in the year 115 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. From dawn to dusk, Angela escorts us around the city, showing us where the ancient Romans lived and did business with one another, from latrines to the law courts of the Basilica Julia, part of the complex of buildings that made up the Roman Forum.
Because I’m a lawyer, Angela’s description of the latter particularly intrigued me. Angela begins by describing the basilica’s exterior, noting the knots of people and how to tell which are the lawyers (aristocratic airs, assistants with bulging files) and which are the clients (attentive gazes, worried looks). He mentions “witnesses on request,” people who trade testimony for payment. Then, Angela singles out one lawyer, describing his too-big purple toga, dyed black hair, and “beady eyes.” He characterizes this lawyer as an ambulance chaser, many of whom hang out outside the basilica looking for clients and cases.
Angela says our lawyer is completely incompetent and is being pursued by clients who have just lost a case and are demanding an explanation. Drawing on the works of the rhetorician Quintilian, Angela explains that after clients initially meet their lawyers in the piazza of the Forum, they make followup appointments at the lawyers’ homes. Then as now, lawyers often arranged their offices (the atrium of a lawyer’s home, in Angela’s example) to project and enhance the image they wanted to their clients; Angela describes one “shyster” as placing a bronze statute of himself on horseback in the atrium of his home so as to suggest that he possessed authority and prestige that in reality he lacked.
Angela’s vocabulary (or that of his translator, Gregory Conti) leaves me with the impression that lawyers don’t rank terribly high in his estimation. Sadly, that seems to be an eternal constant: the legal profession in the Eternal City, half a world away, suffered from negative image problems all too similar to those that lawyers are trying to combat today.
From the basilica steps, Angela proceeds inside to describe actual court proceedings. He begins by describing a trial with another less-than-stellar attorney whose histrionic delivery has put some of his audience to sleep and elicited snickers from others. Then, he moves to a different courtroom and describes how “a real prince of the forum” is handling—and winning—a probate matter.
Many years ago in school I learned, as so many of the rest of us have, that our system of laws has underpinnings in the imperial Roman legal system. I don’t remember learning any details about Roman law’s influence, though. Now, having read Angela’s book, I can relate some of what I’ve observed of the business and practice of 20th century American law to the courts of Rome 2000 years ago. The book helps bring ancient Rome alive in my mind.
As I’ve written in a related post today on my own blog, “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” has whetted my appetite for more details. Specifically, I’d love to read stories detailing the minutiae of the lives of individual ancient Romans—the ordinary, unremarkable folk, not the emperors and generals. I’d suggest that Europa Editions, or another publisher, look to the works of Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland file clerk who achieved immortality in his graphic novels detailing his everyday life from the 1980s through the early 2000s, for inspiration. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a followup series to Angela’s book that might include “A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Lawyer” and “A Day in the Life of an Ancient Roman Tailor?”