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Crime and Punishment in the Roman Empire: Justice and Inequality

In the Roman Empire, crime & punishment went hand-in-hand with social status and cultural norms.

Crime and Punishment in the Roman Empire: Justice and Inequality
Fear in the eyes of a Roman soldier about to receive the brutal punishment of decimation. Illustration:DALL-E

Crime and punishment in ancient Rome were deeply intertwined with the city's social hierarchy, legal system, and cultural norms. The multifaceted nature of Roman justice, the evolution of legal practices, the role of societal status in determining punishment, and the various forms of punishment employed throughout the Roman Republic and Empire are all part of a topic that can shock some.

The foundation of Roman law was the Twelve Tables, established in the early Republic. This codification of laws was a response to the plebeians' demands for legal transparency and equality. However, the application of these laws often depended on one's social status, with patricians enjoying more leniencies compared to plebeians and slaves.

The Twelve Tables served as a public declaration of the rights afforded to each citizen within both the public and private domains. These tables codified what had been implicitly understood within Roman society as unwritten laws. The exposure of these laws enabled a more equitable society by bridging the gap between the educated, law-savvy patricians and the largely uneducated plebeians, who lacked legal knowledge. By making these unwritten societal norms accessible to all, the Twelve Tables acted as a protective measure for plebeians, offering them a chance to sidestep financial exploitation and contributing to a more balanced Roman economy.

Social Status and Punishment

In Rome, the punishment for crimes varied significantly based on the perpetrator's social standing. For example, while a patrician might receive a fine or exile for a particular offense, a plebeian or slave could face death or severe physical punishment for the same crime. This disparity underscores the deeply ingrained social hierarchies within Roman society.

Forms of Punishment

Capital Punishment and Exile

Capital punishment was common for severe offenses, such as treason or patricide. Methods included beheading, crucifixion (reserved for slaves and non-citizens), and being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock. The Tarpeian Rock, known in Latin as Rupes Tarpeia or Saxum Tarpeium and in Italian as Rupe Tarpea, is a sheer cliff located on the southern side of the Capitoline Hill. In Ancient Rome, it served as an execution site where individuals convicted of serious crimes such as murder, treason, perjury, and theft by slaves were thrown off by the quaestores parricidii, leading to their death. The height of the cliff was approximately 25 meters (80 feet). There is a Latin phrase, Arx tarpeia Capitoli proxima ('the Tarpeian Rock is close to the Capitol'), a warning that one's fall from grace can come swiftly.

Exile was another form of punishment, often used for political figures or those whose presence in Rome was deemed harmful to the state's moral or political health. "Exile," originating from the Latin term "exilium" or "exsilium," refers to banishment, the state of being exiled, or the location of exile, and is also derived from "exul" or "exsul," which describes the individual departing. Polybius, a renowned historian of the Roman Republic, noted that "exilium" represented a voluntary decision by which a citizen could evade legal consequences by leaving the community.

For example, in ancient Rome you could be exiled if you were wearing purple. Tyrian purple, a striking color derived from the murex sea snail, stood as one of the most coveted and costly dyes of the ancient era. The production of just an ounce of this dye necessitated the use of thousands of snails, leading to the steep pricing of garments tinted in this color. Consequently, purple emerged as a symbol of authority, distinction, and affluence within Roman society, with emperors and senior officials donning purple togas to highlight their elite status and differentiate themselves from the general populace.

Nonetheless, the Romans, with their well-defined social hierarchy, did not allow the adornment of purple to be a matter of individual choice. According to Roman sumptuary laws, strict regulations controlled the display of such luxury, including the wearing of garments in this prestigious color. These laws, regularly reviewed and modified, sought to uphold the societal moral framework by curbing lavish excess and preserving the distinct divisions among different social tiers.

Roman citizens who crossed the line by wearing purple without authorization faced repercussions. Those caught in such acts were typically fined, a punishment that not only impacted them financially but also humiliated them publicly, serving to discourage others from challenging social conventions.

When wearing purple was interpreted as a direct affront to the emperor or the state, the consequences were harsher. Offenders could have their property seized or, in more serious situations, be exiled. These strict actions highlighted the importance of color as a societal marker in Rome and demonstrated the extent to which the authorities would enforce social hierarchies.

Corporal Punishment and Slavery

Lesser crimes often resulted in corporal punishment, such as flogging. In some cases, individuals were sentenced to work in the mines or public works, essentially becoming slaves to the state. This not only served as a punishment but also contributed to Rome's infrastructure and economy.

Notable Punishments and Laws

The Lex Poetelia Papiria (326 BC) abolished debt bondage, reflecting a shift towards less severe treatment of citizens.

The punishment of the sack (poena cullei) for parricide involved sewing the guilty party into a sack with various animals and throwing it into a river. This punishment, while rare, symbolized the ultimate betrayal of familial bonds.

The person was first whipped, or beaten, with virgis sanguinis ("blood-colored rods", probably) and his head was covered in a bag made of a wolf's hide. On his feet were placed clogs, or wooden shoes, and he was then put into the poena cullei, a sack made of ox-leather. Placed along with him into the sack was also an assortment of live animals, arguably the most famous combination being that of a serpent, a cock, a monkey and a dog. The sack was put on a cart, and the cart driven by black oxen to a running stream or to the sea. Then, the sack with its inhabitants was thrown into the water.” (19th-century historian Theodor Mommsen)
The punishment of the sack (poena cullei). A possible representation by DALL-E

Decimation, a military punishment, involved killing one in ten soldiers of a unit for cowardice or mutiny, underscoring the importance of discipline in the Roman military. When a cohort, consisting of approximately 480 soldiers, was subjected to decimation as a form of punishment, it was organized into groups of ten. Through a process of drawing lots, the soldier who drew the shortest straw in each group was put to death by his nine peers, typically through methods such as stoning, beating, or stabbing.

The survivors were then usually forced to subsist on barley instead of the standard wheat rations for several days and had to sleep outside the camp's protective walls for a period. Given that the selection for execution was based on chance, any soldier within a decimated group could be targeted for death, without consideration for their individual guilt, rank, or achievements.

An image depicting a decimation incident in an ancient Roman legion. Illustration: DALL-E

The Role of the Family

The Roman family (familia) was a microcosm of the state, with the paterfamilias holding absolute authority over his household. This included the right to punish family members, even with death, although such extreme measures were likely rare and subject to social scrutiny.

Crime and punishment in ancient Rome were not just about maintaining law and order but also about reinforcing social hierarchies and values. The severity of one's punishment often depended on their social status, reflecting the deeply hierarchical nature of Roman society. While some Roman legal innovations laid the groundwork for modern legal systems, the use of punishment as a tool for social control and the stark differences in treatment based on class are stark reminders of the complexities and inequities of ancient Roman justice.