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Around 158 CE, a Numidian man named Apuleius appeared in a Roman court at Sabratha, in what is today northern Libya. The son of a Roman magistrate, Apuleius had burned through a sizable inheritance traveling the empire in search of philosophical knowledge. He was summoned to defend charges that he unlawfully persuaded a wealthy widow to marry him.

Left behind from this trial is a text known to scholars of ancient history as the “Apologia.” Written by Apuleius himself, the Apologia provides a first-hand account of a Roman legal proceeding, offering a glimpse into the inner workings of Roman law and a vivid picture from inside the courtroom.

The Context

As noted above, the Apologia details the 158-159 CE trial of Apuleius of Madaura. During one of his many travels around the empire, Apuleius took an extended stay in Oea (near modern Tripoli), where his friend Pontianus lived with his mother, a wealthy widow named Pudentilla. In an effort to protect Pudentilla’s estate from greedy relatives, Pontianus encouraged Apuleius to marry Pudentilla.

Apuleius obliged his friend and the couple wed. A legal matter over her estate soon ensued, brought forward by Sicinius Aemilianus, the brother of Pudentilla’s deceased husband, and Sicinius Pudens, Pudentilla’s younger son.

About the Case

At heart, the Apologia is a close account of estate litigation. Apuleius is accused of engaging in criminal activity (more on that below) in order to win Pudentilla’s favour and bilk her out of her estate.

According to Apuleius, Pudentilla’s estate at the time consisted of an inherited fortune of 4 million sesterces (about $43m USD), a small farm property, a country house outside the city of Oea, some additional land and crops (wheat, wine, olives), 400 slaves, and cattle herds.

Upon marrying Apuleius, Pudentilla provided him with a dowry of 30,000 sesterces (about $325,000 USD), which Apuleius claimed was held in trust by himself. Apuleius also claims that he encouraged Pudentilla to provide her sons with a portion of her estate prior to her passing to demonstrate good faith that the rest of her estate would pass to them. Apuleius asserts he has little to no claim on Pudentilla’s fortune.

In an effort to wrest control of the estate, Aemilianus accuses Apuleius of practicing magic to make Pudentilla fall in love with him. Magic was a serious charge in antiquity—according to the Lex Cornelia, the practice of magic was punishable by death. Apuleius’ refutation of this charge comprises the bulk of the work.

Was Apuleius Victorious?

Apuleius is a skilled rhetorician, and he aptly confounds the charges brought against him with his eloquent, point-by-point refutation of the evidence. At numerous points in the text, Apuleius claims that the judge, Claudius Maximus, sees the allegations against Apuleius as false, so we are left to believe that Apuleius won the case.

But really, the true winners are us, as the Apologia provides us with a detailed record of a Roman court case, one which outlines crucial components of the Roman legal process. Here are three moments when we get a glimpse into the machinations of Roman Law.

You Got Served

At the beginning of the case, Apuleius addresses the court and describes being summoned:

“And then this man [Sicinius Aemilianus] had the temerity to make a declaration and, on the day after, gave me a little book in the name of my step-son, Sicinius Pudens, who is entirely a child, and he himself signed it with that man’s assistance.”

“Ac ne id quidem de professo audet, uerum postera die dat libellum nomine priuigni mei Sicini Pudentis admodum pueri et adscribit se ei assistere.”

– Apuleius, Apologia §2 (translation S. Veale)

What is interesting about this passage is that Apuleius describes receiving a libellum, Latin for little book (and the diminutive of liber). In many translations of this text, this word is often translated as “charge” or “indictment.”

However, the libellum tells us much about the material culture of the roman legal process. In fact, libellus was the term Romans used to describe a short piece of writing, usually official documents issued by the Roman government. The document described here outlines the charges levied against Apuleius, is physically signed by his step-son, Sicinius Pudens, and then delivered to Apuleius. In other words, Apuleius is describing nothing less than being officially served.

Testimony Was Timed

The Apologia indicates that courtroom testimony had a time limit. Towards the end of his testimony, Apuleius mentions to the judge that he wants to read a letter to the court, but that he might go over his speaking allotment:

“I know, Maximus, that these letters would be gladly heard. And if something were to be read, I should proclaim it in my own voice. I give you Avitus’ letters, since they have always provided me with pride and, even now, surety. Although it is permitted for you to pause the flow of water, I desire to read the letters of this most upstanding gentleman three or four times with as much time wasted.”

“scio te, Maxime, libenter eius litteras auditurum; et quidem si praelegam, mea uoce pronuntiabo. cedo tu Auiti epistulas, ut quae semper ornamento mihi fuerunt sint nunc etiam saluti. at tu licebit aquam sinas fluere; namque optimi uiri litteras ter et quater aueo quantouis temporis dispendio lectitare.”

– Apuleius, Apologia §94 (Translation S. Veale)

Apuleius makes a reference to his lack of desire to “stop the flow of water,” a reference to the water-clock which timed courtroom testimony. An import from Greek law, the water-clock governed how much time a speaker had to make their case.

A judge could decide to stop the water-clock if the proceedings were interrupted, or to closely examine documents. Apuleius is aware that he is running out of time and that he could request a time-out, but suggests that his next piece of evidence—a letter from an influential acquaintance—is so important that it’s worth reading, no matter how much time it takes.

Wills Were Written on Secure Tablets

After refuting his accusers, Apuleius ends his testimony beseeches the court to reveal Pudentilla’s will to confirm that he is not her beneficiary, thus negating the charge that he married her for money. Apuleius makes his demand thus:

“I give you now, the will from a mother to a hostile son. I, the one who is called a pillager by these people, have appealed every single word. I implore you to break open these very tablets, Maxime. You will find that the son is the heir. Truly, I am ignorant what this bequest has for me, beyond a slim honorary mention, so that, if she were to pass, I, the husband, would not have my name disregarded in my wife’s will. Take the will of your mother. Truly if it is deficient in duty, what way is it such?”

“Cedo tu testamentum iam inimico filio a matre factum me, quem isti praedonem dicunt, uerba singula cum precibus praeeuntem. rumpi tabulas istas iube, Maxime: inuenies filium heredem, mihi vero tenue nescio quid honoris gratia legatum, ne, si quid ei humanitus attigisset, nomen maritus in uxoris tabulis non haberem. cape istaut matris tuae testamentum, uere hoc quidem inofficiosum; quidni?”

– Apuleius, Apologia §100 (Translation S. Veale)

Apuleius here refers to the will being written on tablets, and more so, that they are secure—the judge has to order them opened. It is clear that the contents of the will aren’t common knowledge, rather something needs to be broken open to reveal their contents.

In Roman times, wills were written on a sandwich board of bound wood with (or without) wax inside, where writing would be scratched. Completed wills were tied with thread and sealed with wax in front of witnesses.

With respect to legal matters, women could not represent themselves—they had to be accompanied by their paterfamilias, the male head of household who was either a woman’s father or spouse, depending on her marital status. In Pudentilla’s case, both her father and previous spouse are dead, making her emancipated and somewhat in control of her own affairs. Still, Pudentilla’s will would have been supervised by her tutor, a male guardian who acted for a woman in the absence of a father or spouse.

Apuleius touches on an important point of Roman estate law here—that it would be undutiful, or inofficiosum, to bypass the proper successor of a will. This word, inofficisum, is a proper Roman legal term. In Roman law, if a will was found to be inoffisiosum, it could be voided. By demanding to open the tablets, Apuleius is suggesting that, if Pudentilla’s son were omitted from the will, the will would be considered deficient and void. But the meaning of “rumpi,” to break, is double-edged here, as the legal term for one type of invalid will was ruptum. Is Apuleius suggesting that opening the will would also be a dereliction of duty? Apuleius is a clever wordsmith, so we must consider it within the realm of possibility.


Apuleius’ Apologia is a rich text that provides us with a first-hand glimpse into the inner-working of a Roman courtroom and the Roman legal system. Though these details are often noted in passing, the reader quickly comes to understand the underpinnings roman legal procedure. Whether it’s being served with a court summons, delivering a defense in the courtroom, or disputing a will, Apuleius’ Apologia gives us an eyewitness look at what it was like to be on trial in the Roman Empire. We may never know what happened after Apuleius left the stand that day, but he left behind an abundant testimony to the Roman legal process.