The Inheritance Battle Between Attia Viriola And Her Stepmother In Ancient Rome

Attia Viriola was a prominent woman who lived in the Roman Empire during the late 1st or early 2nd century. She came from an influential family, and her power was further enhanced by her husband, a man who ranked high as a Roman senator and a praetorian. After her marriage, Attia remained in close contact with her parents. Her mother, unfortunately, met a relatively early end, but her father lived an admirably long life for his ancient time, thriving up to his eighties. In fact, Attia’s father was still socially and physically active enough to decide to remarry when he was at the age of eighty. The elderly gentleman accomplished his goal to find a new wife, but this subsequent marriage would end up throwing the family into turmoil and legal battles.

As is not uncommon after remarriages, tension formed between the new spouse and the rest of the family. Heated discourse and infighting between the relatives escalated quickly, and the eighty-year-old newlywed husband evidently became enraged by the vocal disapproval that the rest of the family was showing for his new wife. Attia Viriola, likely the loudest critic, must have underestimated how her father would react to the criticism. Whatever the case, rather than listen patiently to the concerns of the rest of the family, the cantankerous old man instead decided to use legal means—after only around a week of marriage—to cut off ties from the critics in his family. Attia Viriola, in particular, found herself disowned by her father. To complicate matters further, Attia’s father seemingly died not long after this backlash, meaning that family members like Attia Viriola were still in a state of disownment when it was time for the inheritances to be doled out.

Despite the disadvantage of being disinherited, Attia Viriola did not back down without a fight. After all, she was a prominent woman with a powerful husband and a network of influential supporters. Nevertheless, her opponent, the archetypal evil stepmother, came from a similar background and had her own faction backing her claims. As a result, when the inheritance case came to trial, both women had with them their own respective legal teams packed with prestigious lawyers to battle it out in the courts. Fortunately for Attia Viriola, she managed to hire Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), a statesman and lawyer who happened to be one of the most preeminent inheritance law experts of his day. Pliny commented on the case in a letter to one of his friends, writing, “Here was a woman of high birth, the wife of a praetorian senator, disinherited by her eighty-year-old father ten days after he had fallen in love and brought home a step-mother for his daughter, and now suing for her patrimony in the united Centumviral Court” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.33). The court case was a tough, anxiety-inducing ordeal, and even the judges were split fairly evenly for a time, causing a dramatic stalemate. Nevertheless, Attia Viriola’s legal team eventually prevailed. Pliny the Younger humbly claimed that this happened, “By pure chance, though it might have been thought otherwise…” (Letters, 6.33). Ultimately, Attia Viriola’s inheritance was restored, whereas the cases of rival claimants, including the step-mother, were rejected.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Magnanimity Of Scipio, Painted By Gerard Hoet (c. 1648-1733), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Warsaw).

Sources:

  • The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.

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