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What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Nov 07, 2014

Only recently, a finely carved stone female head was unearthed by archaeologists in England. The face is said to represent the Roman goddess Brigantia and has been buried for more than 1,800 years. At the time of Caesar’s landing in Briton all ideas of private property in land were unknown to the Celtic inhabitants. Problems of inheritance simply did not exist. By contrast, inheritance issues arise with frequency in the 21st century, producing conflicts within families.

This week in Spain, Esteban Marchena García, born to 17-year-old servant girl in 1955, after an affair with the late Seville-based landowner Juan Velez Utrera, was awarded a substantial inheritance from his father’s estate. Utera had refused to recognise García as his son and when he died in 2001 and García was not a beneficiary of the estate. The case came to court after Spain changed its inheritance laws in 2006, allowing women and children born outside marriages the same right to inherit family fortunes as their legitimate siblings.

In England and Wales, cohabiting partners (unmarried/no civil partnership) receive none of the inheritance rights of married couples and in the event of a relationship breakdown there is no guarantee that either partner would be required to support the rest of the family. It is important for cohabitees to have a will at the very least to help administer assets upon death.

As the law of property developed in England and Wales, the right of inheritance was given by the Celts to male kinsfolk, rigidly excluding females from any possibility of inheriting land. The Romans, on the other hand, tended toward the opposite direction. Roman law established equality of the sexes in intestate succession and repudiated the ideas from which primogeniture would emerge. A more pleasing outcome altogether for daughters.

In 2006, when the scandalous Lord Lambton died leaving his entire estate of around £12 million to his first-born son under the historic law of primogeniture, his five daughters received nothing. Yet, Lord Lambton spent the last twenty years of his life living in Italy where, under Roman jurisdiction, his assets would be split equally between each of his six children, regardless of their gender. For these reasons Lord Lambton’s daughters insist that their inheritance entitlement should go beyond their brother’s legal right to a promise their father made before his death, primogeniture and English law.

Other distinguished families will go on to grapple with the modern effects of primogeniture following the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which ends exclusively male succession.

So it appears that, “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health” (sic. Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’), the Romans also had a hand in establishing our inheritance rights and equality between the sexes some two thousand years ago. I wonder what Brigantia would make of it all?


Fiona Spinks

About the author

Fiona Spinks

Fiona joined Nockolds in 2011 and is a Notary Public and Principal Associate. As a Notary Public, Fiona is able to authenticate documents for use ...

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