Rome’s Centumviral Court, often equated to chancery courts or courts of equity, was the legal arena in which ancient Roman lawyers arbitrated common/private/civil law cases. The Centumviral Court was the usual haunt of Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who became a lawyer when he was eighteen years old and eventually specialized in inheritance and financial law. Pliny practiced law in the Centumviral Court for decades (in addition to work in other legal and governmental fields). Over the years, Pliny the Younger found that there were quirks and gimmicks in the Centumviral Court that he deemed to be quite annoying, and near the top of that list of irritating fads was a curious trend that involved lawyers hiring audiences of paid applauders to cheer them on while Centumviral Court cases were in session. Pliny the Younger, personally, blamed a certain lawyer named Larcius Licinus (c. 1st century) for starting the craze by sending invitations (at first without any money involved) that asked for people to attend his court speeches. As Larcius Licinus’ audiences and supportive cheers grew through these means, younger lawyers apparently decided to start imitating his tactics. Among the new generations of lawyers in the Centumviral court, the trend became worse instead of better, eventually evolving into the pay-for-applause scheme that Pliny detested.
In a curious letter written to a man named Maximus, Pliny the Younger embraced his inner grumpy old man and ranted against the uncouth young whippersnappers in the Centumviral Court who were involved in the practice of buying applause. Pliny wrote of his own experience of having applause-recruiters try to hire his own attendants to cheer for a different lawyer, saying, “Yesterday two of my attendants (who would only just have come of age if they were citizens) were induced to add their applause for three denarii each. That is all it costs you to have your eloquence acclaimed” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.14). He continued that young wannabe orators with more money than they knew what to do with would spend small fortunes to fill the audience seats with fake adoring fans, hoping that having cheering masses in the court rooms would somehow boost their careers. Worst of all, with speakers relying on money instead of speechcraft to win applause, the quality of speeches and logical argument among lawyers was (according to Pliny) on a steady decline. In conclusion, Pliny the Younger pessimistically stated “the man who raises the most cheers is the worst speaker” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.14). These poor experiences in the Centumviral Court made Pliny the Younger look fondly on the prospect of retirement.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of an image labeled Cicero en schrijvende vrouw, anonymous, 1689, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.