Cicero, Servius, and the lawyer jokes at Pro Murena 19-30

Michael de Brauw

Northwestern University

At Pro Murena 19-30, Cicero heaps ridicule on contemporary jurisprudence.  He says the jurists are concerned mostly with letters and spaces between letters (25); that their unintelligible language complicates and multiplies conflicts (26); and that there is in fact no difference between a good legal consultation and a bad one (28-29).  Commentators have said that such invective in Pro Murena was spoken purely for the sake of expediency (Bürge, Juristenkomik, 1975; Nörr, Rechtskritik, 1973:84-85).  They note that Cicero had friends who were who jurists—including the target of the abuse, Servius Sulpicius Rufus—and, moreover, that other passages appear to contradict Pro Murena 19-30 by expressing esteem for jurisprudence in general and Servius in particular.   It has thus been accepted that these sections make no significant comment on jurisprudence in the late Republic (Frier, Roman Jurists, 1985:165).  I suggest this is a mistake.  On the one hand, laughter is a window onto an audience's ideology (Corbeill, Controlling Laughter, 1996:8), and Cicero hailed from the same social and cultural background as his audience.  On the other, the passages most often cited as evidence for Cicero's approval of contemporary jurisprudence are open to re-interpretation in light of the social and intellectual developments in the field of law in the first century BCE.  In the first century, knowledge of civil law was part of the liberal education of any summus vir (De Orat. 1.166-203).  By the time of Pro Murena, however, civil law had become far more complex and had mostly passed into the hands of specialists (Wallace-Hadrill, in Habinek and Shiesaro, 1997:14-16, 20-21).  I suggest that Pro Murena 19-30 gives expression to a cultural backlash against the increasing specialization in the field of civil law and an attendant transfer of authority from aristocrats to technocrats.

In previous generations, the roles of jurists and orators broadly overlapped, and jurists, like orators, were expected to be civic leaders.  In Brutus, Cicero refers to Q. Mucius Scaevola and L. Lincinius Crassus as not only their era's best jurist and best speaker, respectively, but also, as "the best speaker among the jurists" and "the most knowledgeable in law among the orators" (145).  In De Oratore, he describes jurists of Cato's generation as not only legal but also moral authorities, who were consulted "not only about civil law, but also marrying a daughter, or buying an estate, and every kind of duty or business" (3.133).  His own generation, however, saw law separate from oratory and become increasingly specialized (Top. 51; De Leg. 1.14, 2.47; Pro Balb. 45).  Cicero also notes in De Officiis (2.66) that jurists of the first century no longer excelled in politics as they once had.  

Outside of Pro Murena, Cicero describes Servius as the shining exception to these trends.  As a jurist, Servius gave moral as well as legal advice; he was "not so much a counselor of law as of justice," who "never preferred initiating lawsuits to settling conflicts" (Phil. 9.10-11). Like the best jurists of old, Servius complemented his mastery of civil law with proficiency in oratory (Brut. 151-55), and he won the consulship (De Off. 2.66, Brut. 155).   In these laudatory passages, Servius' expertise in law is joined with other merits in order to demonstrate Servius' overall brilliance and moral character.  In Pro Murena, by contrast, Cicero paints Servius' jurisprudence as small and unimportant precisely by separating it from his other noble attributes.  ("I won't allow you to think that that whatever-you-call-it you've spent so much energy learning is anything special." Pro Mur. 23).  Cicero's various comments concerning Servius do not reveal contradictory views on the value of jurists.  Rather, they reflect a consistent notion that there is a right and a wrong kind of jurist.  The wrong kind of jurist is a litigious, jargon-speaking specialist.  The right kind jurist is a Roman aristocrat, who possesses multiple competencies as well as moral authority.
Pro Murena 19-30 was meant to be funny, but the ideological positions underlying the passage were serious.  In the first century BCE—just as now—lawyer jokes were not without social and political meanings.


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