Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Criminal Lawyer

Among those who profited by the crimes and cruelties of Nero's later days was a certain Aquilius Regulus. If he belonged to the house whose name he bore, he must have been of good family, for; the Aquilii could boast of a high antiquity.

He had undoubtedly, as we shall find, respectable connections. But he was miserably poor. All his father's property had been seized for the benefit of creditors; the father himself had been banished. But the young Regulus had the gifts and qualities which help men to prosper in evil times. He had ready speech and courage, and he was not hampered by principle. He became, as we should phrase it, a barrister in the criminal courts. The profession had two branches held in very different esteem. A counsel who prosecuted was looked upon askance; a counsel who defended was respected. Regulus chose the more profitable and less reputable. His victims were numerous, and his profits large. He accumulated in the course of two or three years a fortune of 70,000. His Imperial patron, to whom he is said to have given the cynical advice to include the whole Senate under one indictment, bestowed on him the honour of one of the great priesthoods.

Nero fell, and the position of the man who had been the instrument of his cruelty became precarious. When Galba, Nero's successor, adopted as his own heir a Piso, belonging to a family which Regulus had greatly injured, the ex-informer saw that he was in danger.

Three days afterwards, Piso was murdered along with his adopting father; Regulus is said to have made a present to the soldier who dealt the fatal blow, and even to have indulged in the brutality of fastening his teeth in the head of his murdered enemy. Before many months he was called to account for these misdeeds. Otho, who superseded Galba, and Vitellius, who superseded Otho, perished in the course of a few months. With Vespasian a better order of things was established.

The punishment of those who had made a profit out of the reign of terror was loudly demanded, and Regulus was one of the impeached. He found a defender in his half-brother Vipsanius Messalla, a gallant young soldier of the highest character, who had taken a distinguished part in the campaign which had put the new dynasty on the throne. Thanks partly to the eloquence of his advocate, partly to the fact that men too powerful to be overthrown were equally guilty with himself, he escaped.

For a time he devoted himself to the lawful exercise of his profession. The younger Pliny, who hated him, bears a not very willing testimony to his merits as an advocate. "I can't say that I regret him," he writes, some little time after Regulus's death, "but I certainly miss him." The reason was that Regulus took his profession seriously. He was really anxious about the cases he undertook; he laboured at them even to the extent of injuring his health; he did not grudge the trouble of writing out his speeches and this though his memory was so bad that he could not learn them by heart. He never failed to consult the soothsayer about any important cause. "A superstitious practice, doubtless," remarks his critic, "but showing that he was intensely interested in his work."

Other instances that Pliny gives of the pains that the man took about his work are hard for us to understand. That an advocate would use—even hire, if there was need—fine rings or fashionable clothes to make an impression on his judges, we can understand. But why he should paint one eye, his right, if he was engaged for the plaintiff, his left, if he was pleading for the defendant, it is hard even to guess. If he had painted both, we might suppose that he meant to give additional expression to them. Equally perplexing is the white patch which he would transfer, according to the side on which he was engaged, to the right eyebrow or the left. Possibly it was a superstitious fancy. Whatever was the motive, such care showed his interest in his profession, an interest, which, Pliny complains, had decreased since his death.

It was customary for an advocate to ask the court for as much time as he thought he might want for his speech. At the time at which he was writing it was common for an advocate to be content with little more than half an hour, sometimes with less than ten minutes. Regulus, on the contrary, had always asked for a very large allowance of time, with the result, of course, that a proportionate amount was granted to his opponents. It had also been his practice to take the greatest pains to bring together a good audience. "It was pleasant," says Pliny, who had been often opposed to him, "to speak as long as you like without anyone being able to complain, and to address an audience that someone else had collected for you. Still," he goes on, "Regulus did well to die; only he would have done better still to die sooner."

The fact is that under Domitian there had been a reign of terror, scarcely less frightful than that under Nero, and that Regulus had gone back to his old practices, and had done more mischief than before, though not so openly. Pliny tells an anecdote which shows what pitfalls were in the paths of honest men in those days. He was acting as counsel for a lady of the name of Arionilla, and had occasion to quote a dictum of one Metius Modestus, an eminent lawyer who had been banished by Domitian. "What is your opinion of Modestus?" interposed Regulus. It was an awkward dilemma for Pliny. It would have been base to censure and dangerous to praise his friend. "I will tell you when the question comes before the court," he replied; an answer so judicious that afterwards he could only attribute it to inspiration.

The question was repeated. "It is against the accused not the condemned that witnesses are called," was the second reply. Unwilling to be baffled, Regulus put the question a third time in a somewhat different form. "Well, what do you think about the loyalty of Modestus?" But Pliny was equal to it. "For my part," he said, "I do not think it right even to put questions about convicted persons!"

After the death of Domitian Regulus felt himself again to be in danger. Again he escaped. What had helped him before, helped him again. And he was wealthier than ever. One of his ways of enriching himself is curiously unlike anything in modern manners. Regulus was a notorious legacy hunter. The impudence he displayed in following this second profession, as it may be called, was sublime. His relations with Piso have been mentioned; yet when Piso's widow was dangerously ill, he forced himself into her presence, and got a hearing from her by pretending a knowledge of astrology. He asked her on what day and at what hour she had been born; she told him; after going through a show of elaborate calculation, he gravely assured her, "You are at a critical time; but you will escape; still for your satisfaction I will put the matter before a soothsayer whom I am in the habit of consulting."

A day or two afterwards he informed her that he had done so, and that the aspect of the sacrifice altogether confirmed his prognostication. So comforting an assurance demanded reward, and Verania, who seems, by the way, to have been a very silly woman, put his name in her will for a legacy. She grew worse however, and her last words were a bitter complaint of the cheat, made all the worse by the fact that the lying rascal had sworn by the life of his son. Of course he was not always so successful. All Rome was amused to find that a rich man in whose last hours he had shown an indecent interest had left him nothing. The millionaire had made a new will. Till it was signed, Regulus had been urgent with the doctors to do their very best to prolong their patient's life. After it had been executed he changed his note. "Why do you prolong the poor creature's torture?" was his cry. The testator might have been thought to have heard him, for he left him nothing.

But the man's crowning achievement in the legacy-hunting line was his conduct to his own son. Juvenal might be thought to have indulged in an exaggeration past all belief when he speaks of a tottering father paying court to his own soldier son in the hope of being made his heir, yet what Pliny tells us about Regulus and his son makes it credible. This was what Regulus did. The boy's mother, who had an independent fortune, was afraid to make him her heir as long as he was in his father's power. To do so might precipitate both her death and his. Regulus therefore emancipated him. The son inherited. And the father used the most unworthy arts to secure his affection and his fortune!

In the end the boy died. The father made a preposterous parade of his sorrow. The lad had kept several of the little horses from Gaul that were fashionable at the time, a number of dogs, small and great, and aviaries full of nightingales, parrots, and blackbirds. All these creatures Regulus caused to be destroyed at the funeral pile.

He had the idea of imitating the customs of the heroic age, possibly the slaughter of the Trojan captives at the burning of the body of Patroclus. He gave commissions for numerous statues and portraits of the deceased. Paintings in colour, masks in wax, statuettes in gold, silver, bronze, iron and marble were to be seen in every studio in the city. He wrote a biography—actually a biography of a boy, says Pliny, to whom such a thing was an absolute novelty—and read it aloud to a vast audience which his wealth enabled him to collect. He had a thousand copies made, and scattered them broadcast through Italy with a request to the local authorities of the towns and villages that the best reader among them would recite the memoir.

So much for what Pliny has to say of our "criminal lawyer." It is curious to see what a very different picture the court-poet Martial gives of him. In his verse the great advocate has every virtue and every talent. If he wants to express his conviction of the guilt of a criminal, he cannot think of a more forcible way of stating it than this—could Cicero be called back from the dead or Regulus retained among the living, the eloquence of neither could avail. He was the wisest, the most devoted to duty, and the ablest of men, and beyond all question the special care of heaven, this last being proved, the poet thinks, by the fact that the colonnade of his great house in the suburbs had fallen in without doing him any harm. His carriage it seems had just passed out before the catastrophe took place.

But Martial is enthusiastic in his praise of the tyrant Domitian, a creature whom the most zealous "whitewasher" of misunderstood characters in history has not attempted to rehabilitate: we are inclined to take his good opinion, not given, it is probable, without a consideration, as of very little worth, and to accept in preference the estimate of another contemporary, Herennius Senecio, himself one of the victims of Domitian. "Regulus," said Senecio, suggests to us a new definition of an orator. A bad man who does not know how to speak."