We are wise to be cautious when men too strongly denounce their peers or benefactors; it is often an unconscious way of concealing an unsatisfied obligation. The bonds of affection are strained by the tension of an indebtedness long in arrears. The debt grinds on the bearer, aggravating pains which then find a negative outward expression. The origin of all castigation is some torment awaiting alleviation.

I was reminded of this psychological dynamic in a passage from Ammianus Marcellinus’s history, which is known to us as Res Gestae. It is a detailed and very competent work, covering in its surviving form a period of the late Roman Empire from A.D. 353 to 378.

Ammianus was a Greek or Syrian from Antioch who enjoyed a military career, serving as a staff officer to the emperors Constanius II and very likely Julian. He was also attached to the command of a general named Ursicinus, the governor of Nisibis in Mesopotamia. His duties took him across the Roman world from Gaul to edges of Persia; he was an acute student of human affairs, generally reliable and free from vituperation.

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But, alas, not entirely free. Many of his superiors were ousted in the power struggles that marred the history of the Empire in its later stages; and Ammianus found his fortunes rise and fall with those of his sovereigns. He took up residence in Rome sometime around 380, and was likely among those directly affected by the expulsion of foreigners decreed in 383 as food shortages necessitated public rationing (cf. XIV.6.19). He also had a strong dislike for the Anicii, a powerful family in Rome at the time (XIV.8.13). We do not know the circumstances that brought him into collision with this group.

We may note, with amusement, the spectacle of a plain-speaking Syrian general from the wilder provinces trying, and failing, to ingratiate himself with the moneyed political classes in Rome. They would not accept him, and he knew it. He had the military man’s distaste for demagoguery, law-courts, and orators, and revenged himself on them in certain passages of his history, to which we will now turn. The best histories are the products of carefully ground axes.

Ammianus denounces the profession of “forensic oratory” (hanc professionem oratorum forensium) in a remarkable digression in a later book of his history (XXX.4). Forensic oratory was a euphemism for the profession of law. He believes that the profession had declined greatly from the august days in which lawyers were “devoted to learned studies” (attenti studiis doctrinarum) and judges gained office through ability and refinement. He continues:

This trade of forensic oratory…the cunning of certain Orientals raised it to a degree hateful to men of principle…with which I became acquainted while living in those parts… [XXX.4.4]

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A courts building in modern Rome

Bad lawyers come in four categories, Ammianus tells us. They are the following:

1. The Scammers

The first class are those who “sow the seeds of all sorts of quarrels” and “wear out the doors and thresholds of widows and single men” with inducements to lawsuits. Failing in this, they invent quarrels. They lead men astray by “crafty speeches” and similar legerdemain with the goal of emptying their victims’ purses.

2. The Fake Experts

The second class of unscrupulous lawyers are those who “profess to a knowledge of law” (qui iuris professi scientiam) but who have never actually practiced law. The claim to reveal destinies and interpret fortunes by a reliance on speculation that masquerades as authority. In a brilliant turn of phrase, Ammianus that these men “assume a serious expression and try to make even their yawning marketable.” (vultus gravitate ad habitum composita tristiorem, ipsum quoque venditant, quod oscitantur).

3. The Attack Dogs

These are those lawyers who try to make a name for themselves by using their “venal tongues” to attack everyone and anything, in the hope of achieving notoriety. They set traps for the unwary, and hope for them to be so ensnared. The victim of such chicanery will be entangled for years, and will have the marrow sucked from his bones (non nisi per multa exsiliet lustra, ad usque ipsas medullas exsuctus).

4. The Clueless Or Ignorant

These are the “shameless and ignorant” lawyers who know nothing, yet urge all types of unsuspecting people to engage in frivolous litigation. “And when they are allowed to defend lawsuits, which rarely happens,” Ammianus growls, “they only learn the name of their client at key points in the dispute.”

And when the find themselves unable to perform, they bury their incompetence in “unbridled license and abuse” (ad effrenatam deflectunt conviciandi licentiam). They are so stupid that “they cannot even remember if they ever possessed a legal textbook.”

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In spite of these four classes in the legal rogues’ gallery, there still remain good lawyers practicing before the tribunals. There are some who subscribe to the old Ciceronian ethic, which held that “One may honorably refuse, without criticism, to defend a man; but one may never agree to defend a man, and then deliberately do so negligently.”

It is refreshing and droll to note that lawyer-hatred has been with us for thousands of years. Presumably we could even go back further, and find inscribed on the sacred monuments of Egypt or Babylon some curse hurled against the profession of advocacy. Everyone hates lawyers. Until they need one, of course.

Ammianus lived out the remainder of his years quietly in Rome. No doubt the lawyers who had tried to deport him, or the sharp-tongued legal advisors of the Anicii family, had soured him permanently on the profession.

But perhaps it is just as well. It is just these little angry digressions that make his history so fascinating. History is best written by the disgruntled. Reading through Ammianus’s diatribe against the lawyers of his day makes one suspect that he might have been on the wrong end of a divorce settlement, and left with a pile of unpaid legal bills. All in neatly arranged papyrus rolls.

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