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How One Roman Matron Caused All Women To Be Banned from Practicing Law

C. Afrania was so infamous that the edict against women advocates, first instituted in the 1st century BCE, was later extended to all of Europe. It then snowballed into something much worse...
How One Roman Matron Caused All Women To Be Banned from Practicing Law
Bust of a Roman matron. (16th century)

It took nearly 2,000 years for women to regain the right to practice law in the Western world. So long a time, that it's easy to believe women being barred from legal advocacy had always been the lot of women.

But it wasn't. Prior to around 50 BCE, Roman women were eligible to plead cases before magistrates as law advocates, same as men.

Amaesia Sentia was one of those women, who in 77 BCE  pled her case so eloquently and diligently that she earned the moniker Androgyne, because it was believed she must have had the spirit of a man within the body of a woman.

The spirit of a man, because although women were allowed to bring cases before the magistrates, the skills of oration, rhetoric, and advocacy were a masculine domain, dominated by men. A man's ability in these areas could make or break his career.

For this reason, many a man, such as Cicero and Julius Caesar, would take up legal advocacy as a way to build their reputation which would aid their climb up the cursus honorum (course of honour).

Is it any wonder then that a woman entering this domain, not occasionally, but regularly, and having success might become the bane of lesser skilled men?

Gaia Afrania was one such woman. The patrician wife of the senator Licinius Buccio, Afrania was a regular in the courts.

John William Godward, A Roman Matron (1905)

In Afrania's time, if non-citizens wanted their case heard by a magistrate, they needed a citizen to advocate on their behalf. Those with wealth could afford a famous advocate like Cicero, but those with little to nothing struggled to find anyone at all. Especially if the individual they wished to prosecute or needed defending against was an influential citizen.

Fortunately, for those who didn't mind a female advocate, Afrainia was more than happy to help.

Her litigiousness far surpassed any other woman, and women, according to Juvenal, tended to be quite litigious. So it's fair to say, Afrania was likely in court a lot. And she certainly built up a reputation.

But unlike the androgyne, Amaesia, Afrania's oration style was not praised. Through her many court cases, Afrania had begun to form enemies (most likely the men she humiliated by defeating them in court, let's be honest, we're all thinking it.) And in time, Afrainia's frequent involvement in trials, that otherwise might not have made it to court, began to vex the local magistrates.

And so an edict was passed, forbidding not just Afrania but all womenkind from advocating on behalf of others. To ensure that everyone knew who to blame for this loss of rights, Gaia Afrania was vilified.

Two Roman women stair down from a balcony at someone. One woman points.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Gallo Roman Women (1865)

Much of what we know about Afrania comes from Valerius Maximus (1st c. CE) who called the once legal advocate "a monster", which suggests he might be a tad biased. His attitude and the extreme reaction to Afrania's frequent advocacy raises questions over what sort of cases Gaia Afrania was taking and how often she won them.

To evoke this level of anger and such a strong reaction, it's reasonable to assume she may have went after after notable people with frequent success, won against otherwise powerful men, and/or became disruptive to the courts due to bringing to trial matters of less import, thus delaying more important matters from being heard.

Afrania's role in getting women banned from practicing law was recorded by Roman Jurist Ulpian (2nd-3rdc. CE). The edict and the reason for it was again preserved in the Digesta, a law codex compiled on the order of Byzantine emperor Justinian I (530–533 CE).

But her legacy doesn't end there. Afrania, who became known as Carfania (the C coming from the original spelling of Gaia as Caia, and the Latin way of abbreviating the first name. i.e. C.Afrania) became something of a folk legend. Her name mutating as it travelled around Europe, she served as the reason why women could not be law advocates.

And then a reason for something even worse.

In 1255, Afrania made an appearance as Calefurnia in the most important law book of the Holy Roman Empire, Sachsenspiegel (The Saxon Mirror), which had been translated and spread all across Europe. It seems Afrania, who had died in 48 BCE, was still influencing law over 1300 years later, though probably not in the way she had hoped.

Disorderly animals and people (including Calefurnia) photograph © UB Heidelberg, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The idea that women could not be law advocates by now was an obvious fact of life that needed no explanation. But the reason that women of the Holy Roman Empire could not represent themselves in court, the law book explains, is due to a woman named Calefurnia.

It goes on to claim that Charlemagne (9th century CE) had made a mistake, by giving women too much access to the courts to plead their own cases, as proven by Calefurnia, who driven by rage, scolded the emperor and mooned him--that is to say she turned around and showed him her posterior.

As a result of this supposed event, it was ordered that women must have a male guardian with them if they're to be in a courtroom. I guess to prevent them from that often uncontrollable female urge to moon people.

In addition to needing a babysitter, from this law, women could no longer testify, not even as an eyewitness, nor could they plead their own innocence.

In cases of rape, a woman was to present herself to a judge, with the visible appearance of someone who'd been roughed up, so that the male judge might appraise whether or not she'd been violated, because she had no voice within the legal system at all, not even to report a crime of which she was the victim.

The effects of the Calefurnia law extended outside the male domain of the courts and into the most feminine of domains, the birthing room. As mothers and midwives could no longer testify whether a child had been born alive and well, a man would need to be present at each and every birth worth recording.

And who was to blame for this sorry state? Why Calefurnia (C. Afrania), of course.

C.Afrania presenting her legal case to the king. Illustrations de La Champion des dames (1488)

What had begun as an educated woman taking up legal cases on behalf of herself and others, resulted in first, the stripping of the right of women to be legal advocates on behalf of others, and later, removing the voice of women within the legal system entirely. She was held up as the reason women could not be trusted and became a scapegoat for the oppression of women.

And it didn't end there.

Her infamy continued, as Afrania became the subject of bawdy poems and tall tales. She was doodled in obscene images in the margins of medieval and renaissance texts, with tail-like pubic hair and exposed buttocks. Her name become synonymous with a shameless woman. Afrania became the stuff of myth and legend.

Women wouldn't regain the right to advocate until the end of the 19th century to the middle of the twentieth.  Whether Afrania is to blame for abusing the court system or the men for not being able to take being outmatched by a woman, one thing seems certain... it was a bit of an over reaction.

The thyrsus staff of Bacchus. Entwined with grapevines and topped with a pinecone.

Sources:

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 8.3, 1st century. CE

Latin:

III. QVAE MVLIERES APVD MAGISTRATVS PRO SE AVT PRO ALIIS CAVSAS EGERVNT

INITIUM.  Ne de his quidem feminis tacendum est, quas condicio naturae et uerecundia stolae ut in foro et iudiciis tacerent cohibere non ualuit.

EXEMPLUM 1.  Amesia Sentinas rea causam suam L. Titio praetore iudicium cogente maximo populi concursu egit modosque omnes ac numeros defensionis non solum diligenter, sed etiam fortiter executa, et prima actione et paene cunctis sententiis liberata est. quam, quia sub specie feminae uirilem animum gerebat, Androgynen appellabant.

EXEMPLUM 2.  C. Afrania uero Licinii Bucconis senatoris uxor prompta ad lites contrahendas pro se semper apud praetorem uerba fecit, non quod aduocatis deficiebatur, sed quod inpudentia abundabat. itaque inusitatis foro latratibus adsidue tribunalia exercendo muliebris calumniae notissimum exemplum euasit, adeo ut pro crimine inprobis feminarum moribus C. Afraniae nomen obiciatur. prorogauit autem spiritum suum ad C. Caesarem iterum <P.> Seruilium consules: tale enim monstrum magis quo tempore extinctum quam quo sit ortum memoriae tradendum est.

English:

III.   Of Women that pleaded Cases before Magistrates

We must be silent no longer about those women whom neither the condition of their nature nor the cloak of modesty could keep silent in the Forum or the courts.

Example 1. Amesia Sentia, a defendant, plead her case before a great crowd of people and Lucius Titius, the praetor [77 BCE] who presided over the court. She pursued every aspect of her defence diligently and boldly, and was acquitted, almost unanimously, in a single hearing. Because she bore a man's spirit under the appearance of a woman, they called her Androgyne.

Example 2. Gaia Afrania, the wife of the senator Licinius Buccio, a woman disposed to bringing suits, always represented herself before the praetor: not because she had no advocates, but because her impudence was abundant. And so, by constantly plaguing the tribunals with such barking as the Forum had seldom heard, she became the best known example of women's litigiousness. As a result, to charge a woman with low morals, it is enough to call her 'Gaia Afrania'. She prolonged her life until Caesar's second consulship with Publius Servius [48 bce] as his colleague; for it is better to record when such a monster died than when it was born.

DIGESTA,  3.1.1.5
Ulpianus, On the Edict, Book VI.

Latin:

Secundo loco edictum proponitur in eos, qui pro aliis ne postulent: in quo edicto excepit praetor sexum et casum, item notavit personas in turpitudine notabiles.

sexum: dum feminas prohibet pro aliis postulare. et ratio quidem prohibendi, ne contra pudicitiam sexui congruentem alienis causis se immisceant, ne virilibus officiis fungantur mulieres: origo vero introducta est a carfania improbissima femina, quae inverecunde postulans et magistratum inquietans causam dedit edicto.

English:

The following edict regards those who may not advocate on behalf of others. In this edict the praetor debarred on grounds of sex and disability. He also blacklisted people known to be disreputable.

Regarding sex: he forbids women to advocate on behalf of others. The reason for this prohibition is to prevent them from involving themselves in the cases of other people contrary to the modesty in keeping with their sex and to prevent women from performing the functions of men. Its introduction goes back to a most infamous woman called Carfania who's shameless advocating annoyed the magistrate and gave rise to the edict.

Juvenal on women in general, Satire 6, excepts. Rome 2nd cent. AD.

"There's hardly a case in court where the litigation wasn't begun by a female. If Manilia can't be defendant, she'll be the plaintiff."


A. E. Sokol, California: A Possible Derivation of the Name. California Historical Society Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1949), pp. 23-30
Madeline H. CAVINESS, Women and Minorities in Sachsenspiegel Transactions of the Japan Academy, Vol. 72, Special Issue