A key way that Romans marked other Romans out as unRoman in some way was infamia. Infamia was the disrepute incurred by an individual as a result of condemnation for an offense or as a consequence for certain disreputable activities. The repercussions of infamia were both social and legal in nature; those who incurred infamia, known as infames (sg. infamis) suffered legal and political handicaps as well as loss of existimatio (reputation).
There was never a unified concept of infamia in Roman law. Infamia was instead given its legal meaning over the course of many centuries through a combination of laws, decrees of the Senate, and edicts issued by the praetors and emperor. To add to the confusion, the terms infamia and infamis could also be used in non-legal contexts to refer to societal disapproval more generally.
An individual could become infamis either as a result of certain activities (e.g. working as an actor or prostitute, committing bigamy) or certain offenses (e.g. theft, defrauding a minor). In the latter case, infamia could follow condemnation in court, other times it was enough to have simply committed the offense (see the list below). Note that not all the activities which incurred infamia were actually illegal.
The legal consequences of infamia saw a change in emphasis from the Republic to the Empire. During the Republic, the legal handicaps revolved around public law; infames were restricted from holding office and, in some instances, from voting. During the Imperial period, infames also lost some of their private law rights. These included the ability to bring criminal accusations against others, appear as advocates, represent another in litigation, act as witnesses in court or for formal procedures (e.g. writing wills).
For a Roman senator, being branded with infamia effectively meant the end of his political career. However, the legal handicaps associated with infamia probably did not have a dramatic effect on the day-to-day lives of most infames. The inability to hold office would have meant nothing to the vast majority of Romans; restrictions on postulating in court did not apply to oneself or close relatives. Some groups, especially women, never possessed these rights to begin with. Certainly, some infames individuals, especially actors and entertainers, were able to acquire immense wealth and popularity, in spite of their status.
However, depending on the original offense or activity, infamia was usually accompanied by other penalties and social stigmas. For example, starting under the emperor Augustus, a woman who committed adultery, in addition to being branded infamis, could also lose a large portion of her estate and be forced into exile.
Who was considered infamis?
- ➢ Persons convicted of theft
- ➢ Persons convicted of robbery with violence
- ➢ Persons convicted of iniuria
- ➢ Persons sued for breaching a contract of partnership
- ➢ Persons sued for breaching a fiduciary agreement
- ➢ Persons sued for mismanaging the guardianship of a minor or woman
- ➢ Persons sued for breaching a mandatum or depositum
- ➢ Persons convicted of fraud
- ➢ Persons sued for defrauding a minor in a contract
- ➢ Gladiators and gladiator trainers
- ➢ Persons who falsely deny a debt under oath
- ➢ Persons who declare bankruptcy
- ➢ Persons who cause their surety to pay to a debt
- ➢ Persons whose possessions are seized and sold at public auction
- ➢ Persons banished from Italy in a trial
- ➢ Persons who are dishonorably discharged from the army
- ➢ Persons sued for lodging a false accusation
- ➢ Persons who receive a reward for bringing in the head of a Roman citizen
- ➢ Prostitutes
- ➢ Actors or anyone who recites on stage
- ➢ Brothel-keepers and pimps
- ➢ Women who did not respect the mourning period for family members, including husbands
- ➢ A paterfamilias who married off a widow in their power before her period of mourning was over
- ➢ Men who knowingly marry a widow before her period of mourning was over or a paterfamilias who knowingly allows someone in their power to do so
- ➢ Persons who are married or engaged to two people simultaneously or a paterfamilias who allowed such an arrangement to occur
- ➢ Women who commit adultery
Chiusi, Tiziana J., and Reinhard Zimmermann. “‘Fama’ and ‘infamia’ in the Roman Legal System: The Cases of Afrania and Lucretia.” In Judge and Jurist : Essays in Memory of Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, edited by Andrew Burrows and David Johnston. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Bond, Sarah E. Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019.
Gardner, Jane F. “Behaviour: Disgrace and Disrepute.” In Being a Roman Citizen, 110-54. London: Routledge, 1993.
Greenidge, A. H. J. Infamia: Its Place in Roman Public and Private Law. Aalen: Scientia, 1977.
Nicholas, Barry. “Infamia.” Oxford Classical Dictionary.December 2015. http://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-3282?rskey=8oGufi&result=1.
Smith, William. “Infamia.” A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0063.
Gardner, Jane F. 2010. Being a Roman Citizen. London.
Student review: The book chapter “Behaviour: Disgrace and Disrepute” in Being a Roman Citizen is an excellent resource for students wishing to learn more about infamia, especially students who are interested in infamia as a sociological phenomenon. Unlike most earlier works on infamia, which focus almost exclusively on the legal aspects of infamia, Gardner is interested in how the law translated into the lives of those deemed infames and how infames fit into Roman society as a whole.
On the whole, resources on infamia tend to be highly technical and written for an academic audience. This book chapter is by far one of the more accessible sources for students on infamia. Gardner actually provides translations for the Latin passages she cites; she does frequently use Latin terms, but she does give the English each time the term is first introduced. That being said, the chapter does assume some knowledge of Roman law. Because of the nature of infamia, this may make some sections, especially the section on restrictions to legal representation, quite difficult to understand for most students.
- A very broad offense in Roman law, but typically involves intentionally and unjustifiably insulting another person. ↵
- Underage children and women (no matter their age) without a living father were required to have a guardian (Latin tutor). ↵
- These were types of contracts. ↵
- If their banishment was lifted, so was their infamia. ↵
- This is part of a practice known as proscription. A list of persons who could be killed without impunity would be posted in a public space by the government. Anyone who killed a 'proscribed' person would be entitled to a monetary reward. The most famous proscriptions took place during the 1st century BCE under the dictator Sulla and the Second Triumvirate. ↵
- The length of time varied based on the family member and sometimes their age.The lenght was a year for a husband, and perhaps none or under a month for a baby. ↵
- Roman men had near absolute power over all their children and male-line descendents. For both men and women, the consent of their patresfamilias (sg. paterfamilias), if he were still alive, was required to contract a marriage. ↵
- Adultery only incurred infamia beginning under the emperor Augustus. The jurist Ulpian (fl. 2nd century CE) specifies that it was enough to have committed adultery and that a conviction was not necessary for a woman to become infamis. link to the section about adultery? (I know someone else is working on the topic) ↵