Alfenus Varus and the Faculty of Advocates: Roman Visions and the Manners that were Fit for Admission to the Bar in the Eighteenth Century

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Members of the Faculty of Advocates, the Scots bar, had traditionally been trained in Roman law, on which they were typically examined for admission as advocates before the supreme civil court, the Court of Session. In the later seventeenth century, the social composition of the Faculty changed, as it became dominated by the sons of landed families. It became a more socially exclusive institution. This social exclusiveness was reinforced by studies in Roman law, which were expensive, as they had to be pursued abroad. Roman law and its interpreters also provided legal arguments that to be an advocate was to exercise a noble profession and the model of the ideal advocate was a combination of the Roman jurist with the Roman orator. In the later eighteenth century, however, after the development of law schools in Scotland, acquisition of knowledge in Roman law became less expensive. When two men of “low” social origins (both with alleged connections with shoe-making) attempted to join the Faculty, a crisis resulted, in which the Faculty tried to develop new exclusionary rules using the eighteenth-century languages of virtue, corruption, sentiment and manners, as the ignobility of having exercised a trade such as shoemaking was judged to indicate a person unsuited to practise as an advocate. Contradictions in attitudes to Roman law were, however, revealed in lectures dealing with the fact that the famous Roman jurist Alfenus Varus had allegedly been a shoemaker. Attempts were made to rescue Alfenus showing either that Roman shoemakers were “genteel”; or that Alfenus was in fact more noble. These episodes revealed that the Faculty’s traditional Roman model no longer functioned adequately to support the Faculty’s claim to status. The crises over admission did help move towards the later view of an advocate not as a possessor of a status, but as a professional man defined by technical skills and legal knowledge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)203-32
JournalIus Commune: Zeitschrift für Europäische Rechtsgeschichte
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • Faculty of Advocates; John Wright; Robert Forsyth; University of Edinburgh; Roman Law; Civil Law; John Wilde; Latin


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