MESOPOTAMIA

~ An Encounter with Emperor Trajan ~

Encounter with the Emperor

Our sestertius is quickly put away inside a box and almost forgotten. But the Indian merchant soon retrieves it to take with him when he is about to depart on a long voyage into the Persian Gulf, to the mouth of the Euphrates. He has heard tell by the Arab merchants with whom he trades that things in Mesopotamia are changing: the dominion of the Parthians is crumbling, and the situation is chaotic. The Romans have conquered the northern part of Mesopotamia and are advancing triumphantly on all fronts. It looks highly probable that they’ll conquer the entire area (and eventually, they will). The Indian merchant knows how much the Romans appreciate (and are willing to pay for) the goods he can furnish; he has talked about it at length with Junius Faustus Florus and other Roman merchants. So he decides to take a trip, to make new contacts and start up some new trade relationships. If the Romans do make it all the way into the south, he wants to be among the first to open up the best trade channels. It’s a tremendous opportunity that could make him very rich. He has to give it a shot.

So he boards the ship of some Arab merchants he knows, who are on their way back to the Persian Gulf. Our coin is on the move again. The voyage goes by uneventfully, and once the Arab freighter reaches the gulf it heads toward the southernmost part of Mesopotamia, where the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates come together to create a large wetland area (the tip of today’s Iraq). This is the location of the port city of Charax, the meeting point of two worlds, the control center for all the seagoing commercial traffic between Mesopotamia and India. It is such an important city that it operates as an independent kingdom, a sort of Monte Carlo on the Persian Gulf. This is where our merchant decides he’s going to wait for the Romans.

He picked the right spot. In just a few months his wish is granted. The situation in Mesopotamia is rapidly coming apart. Trajan is moving through it relentlessly, the announcement of each new victory following on the heels of the last. The emperor is driving forward with the invasion he began a year ago. This year he has transported some preassembled bridges from the shores of the Mediterranean across the desert and used them to cross the Euphrates: a colossal enterprise. His army has conquered cities with famous names like Nineveh and Babylon.

Then his fleet of fifty ships sailed down the Euphrates. It is said that his name and titles were written in gold letters across the sails of the ships in his largest squadron. The ships were then pulled across land, with dollies and other systems, more than eighteen miles from the Euphrates to the Tigris, where they surprised everybody, conquering the city of Seleucia and the capital Ctesiphon. Caught by surprise, the enemy king fled, abandoning the city, his gold throne, and his daughter to the clutches of Trajan.

The Romans won, thanks to their lethally flawless organization; even today dragging bridges and ships across the desert is no easy enterprise. But they also benefited from internal conflicts within the Parthian kingdom. Now Trajan is the absolute master of Mesopotamia. There is evidence that coins were minted bearing the inscription Parthia Capta (“Parthia Captured”). The Parthians, bitter enemies of Rome, have now been swept away. Trajan is at the acme of his career as emperor. The empire has reached its maximum geographic extension, and it’s all happening right now, in the months between the spring and fall of 116 CE.

Before long, another clamorous piece of news arrives in Charax: the emperor is on his way. The whole city is waiting with trepidation. Until now, only one other Mediterranean emperor had come this far east: Alexander the Great, more than four hundred years ago. He was the one who founded the city, giving it its original name of Alexandria—as always after himself. Now, there’s Trajan.

The Roman emperor has arrived. Charax’s king, Attambelus, has already made an act of submission, and his realm has now officially become a territory of Rome. The insignia of the Roman Empire are now overlooking the Persian Gulf.

Trajan is traveling the streets of the city toward the harbor. The entire population of the lower part of the city is standing at their windows or lined up on the side of the road to welcome the victor. The first to arrive are the cavalry, soldiers, and legionnaires who take control of the harbor. They face no opposition, but we’re still technically in a state of war, and you can’t be too careful.

And then, here he is, on horseback, riding in the middle of his personal guard. He’s wearing a magnificent suit of armor, gleaming, with decorations that shimmer in rhythm with the gait of his horse. His presence is striking, considering how ordinary he looks. In this part of the world, the people have been accustomed for centuries to seeing all-powerful kings who emphasize in every possible way their detachment from the common people. Trajan is different. He does not adopt the pose of the powerful but behaves like an ordinary man, smiling and raising his hand to greet the crowd. Flowers are thrown before him and the people acclaim him, just as they would for any victor.

The first thing people notice about him is his white hair. Trajan’s hair went white many years ago, early for his age. It allows everyone, including the enemy, to recognize him on the battlefield. A few months from now, during a cavalry attack that he himself will command against the city of Hatra, the enemy archers will notice his hoary head and try to hit it. Their arrows come so close that some members of his personal guard are killed. This helps us understand the fiber of the man. He is sixty-two years old and still takes to the battlefield, fights with his head uncovered, leads the attack on horseback, marches, eats, and suffers with his men. That’s why he is so loved. But it’s also why he looks much older than his years. His face is full of wrinkles, his eyes sunk deep in their sockets.

The Indian merchant, standing at the front of a crowd at the harbor, notices it too. He came down here this morning to see some other Indian merchants off on their way back to Muziris. Theirs may be the last ship to sail before the wind turns against them. The chaos provoked by the arrival of the Roman emperor has kept him stuck at the pier, next to the ship, which has now cast off its lines and is slowly pulling away from the dock.

With a certain amount of apprehension the merchant notes that the emperor’s procession is heading his way. He stops just a few yards away and observes the ship as it heads out to sea. The emperor is told that this is the last ship of the season for India and that he has just managed to see it leave.

As the soldiers cordon off a passageway, their weapons drawn, Trajan dismounts and approaches the edge of the pier, surrounded by his bodyguards. Trajan looks out at the gulf, observes the ship with its sails billowing, gliding on the water, and exclaims, “I’m too old to go to India like Alexander the Great!” He says it almost to himself, but loud enough that a lot of those gathered around can hear, and so this thought of his will be transcribed and passed down to us.

The Indian merchant realizes that this is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and that he has to do something. He doesn’t speak Latin, but he has a way of demonstrating that he already has contacts with the Roman world. He pulls out our sestertius and holds it up high, showing it to Trajan’s entourage.

The emperor turns around to go back to his horse, but he notices the light reflecting off the coin. His curiosity piqued by seeing a sestertius so far from home, he signals one of the guards with a nod of his head, indicating the merchant. A strong grip strips the sestertius from the merchant’s hand and takes it to the emperor. Now Trajan holds it up and studies it, turning it over. He smiles. He remembers well the period when it was minted. Then he squeezes it in his fist and looks out at the sea. We can’t know what thoughts are passing through his head, but many historians believe that one of the motives that drove Trajan to come all this way, to these shores so far from Rome between present-day Kuwait and Iran, was economic.

By wiping out the Parthians, who operated as middlemen for all the commerce arriving in the Mediterranean from the Orient, he achieved three objectives: he defeated a fierce enemy; eliminated the enormous costs that the Parthians added on to every product that passed through their hands (revenues that they then used to finance their wars against Rome); and acquired direct control over commercial trade with India, China, and the Far East. It’s exactly like what he accomplished when he invaded Dacia, acquiring the gold mines and wiping out a ferocious enemy.

It seems that after this visit to the harbor in Charax, Trajan went back to Babylon to work out the economic details of this newly acquired direct access to the Orient, establishing, among other things, the tariffs to be imposed on the direct route between Rome and India (and China).

Trajan hands the coin to one of his guards and gets back on his horse. The soldier tosses it to the merchant and he too mounts his horse. The procession moves off, leaving the Indian dazed by the encounter. He’ll recount it many times in the future to his children and grandchildren.

Our sestertius, having passed through so many hands by now, from the hands of slaves to those of philosophers, from prostitutes to legionnaires, still has not completed its journey.

Indeed, after making some promising contacts, the Indian merchant, who has a very refined sense for business, leaves behind the sestertius, which is perfectly useless to him in India, not least because of its meager value (in the case of a gold coin, things undoubtedly would have been different). One morning, in a tavern in Charax, he trades a small ivory carving of his home town, to which he adds our sestertius, for a lovely dark metal jewel box, outfitted with a Roman lock.

The hand that takes our coin has killed a lot of people in these past few weeks. It belongs to a centurion, a brave man who will be remembered even in modern times for one of his exploits. Held prisoner in the city of Adenystrae when the Roman troops appeared on the horizon ready to attack it, he managed to free himself and, together with his fellow soldiers, kill the commander of the enemy garrison and open the great doors to the city, allowing the legionnaires to enter and conquer it.

The coin will be going with him back to Babylon. He will see Emperor Trajan offer sacrifices in the great royal palaces—more precisely, in the room where more than four centuries ago Alexander the Great died. And he will be present when news arrives of simultaneous insurrections against the Romans in a number of locations in Mesopotamia and of Trajan’s efforts to regain control of the situation. It will be a troubled time, with massacres on both sides. And his hands will be stained anew with blood when cities like Nisibis, Edessa, and Seleucia will be razed to the ground: soldiers, women, old men, and children will be run through with swords and shown no mercy.…

The Romans have extended themselves without securing the areas behind the front lines and on the perimeter of the lands that they have conquered. The Parthians have been able to reorganize and their counterattacks are murderous. In the end, Trajan, having defeated the main enemy in a big battle, is not able to control such a vast territory. He’ll decide to use diplomacy to resolve what he’s not able to resolve with arms because he has too few men and resources. He will appoint a king who is a vassal to Rome, Parthemaspates, to rule the territories of Parthia. And he’ll go back home to the Roman Empire. Many historians believe that Trajan plans to come back to Mesopotamia the next year to resolve the problem once and for all.

The letter that he will send to the Senate is eloquent: “This territory is so vast and endless, and the distance that separates it from Rome is so incalculable, that we do not have the reach to govern it. So, instead, we will give the people a king who is subject to Rome.”

So our sestertius will be making the return trip with the legions of Rome, by way of long marches in the boundless deserts of the Middle East, before finally reaching the shores of the Mediterranean, this time at Antioch.

Antioch

It’s the third largest city of the Roman Empire, located on the banks of the Orontes River just a short distance from the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it is a city of which almost nothing remains today, apart from some beautiful mosaics. Yet in antiquity it was known as Antioch the Great and Antioch the Beautiful. Julius Caesar raised it to the level of a metropolis and all the emperors enriched it with impressive buildings, including a sumptuous imperial residence. The surviving mosaics that decorated the palaces and the baths show scenes of the city: its streets and palaces, a theater, fountains, piazzas full of crowds, children playing, women walking, porters, street vendors, taverns, and so on. There are also some multistory buildings, just as we are seeing now as we follow the centurion, who after arranging his things in his quarters and a long session at the baths, is now out on leave.

Antioch, however, is a wounded city; it still shows the damage done by a powerful earthquake that struck the city while our sestertius was in India. A third of the city was leveled. It was a tragedy of frightening proportions.

When the quake hit, Antioch was more crowded than usual. In fact, Trajan was quartered there with his troops at the time. The city was full of soldiers, along with large numbers of people who had come from all around to ask for an audience, do business, make diplomatic contacts, or simply catch a glimpse of the emperor. In Book LXVIII of his Roman History, the Roman historian Dio Cassius describes the earthquake in such detail that it feels like being present at the cataclysm. It is an account by someone who had no scientific knowledge of earthquakes, as some of his examples show, but even so he manages to describe the dynamics of the quake with remarkable precision.

First there came, on a sudden, a great bellowing roar, and this was followed by a tremendous quaking. The whole earth was upheaved, and buildings leaped into the air; some were carried aloft only to collapse and be broken in pieces, while others were tossed in all directions as if by the surge of the sea.… The crash of grinding and breaking timbers together with tiles and stones was most frightful; and an inconceivable amount of dust arose, so that it was impossible for one to see anything or to speak or hear a word. As for the people, many even who were outside the houses were hurt, being snatched up and tossed violently about and then dashed to the earth as if falling from a cliff; some were maimed and others were killed. Even trees in some cases leaped into the air, roots and all. The number of those who were trapped in the houses and perished was past finding out; for multitudes were killed by the very force of the falling debris, and great numbers were suffocated in the ruins. Those who lay with a part of their body buried under the stones or timbers suffered terribly, being able neither to live any longer nor find an immediate death.

Nevertheless, many even of these were save, as was to be expected in such a countless multitude; yet not all such escaped unscathed. Many lost legs or arms, some had their heads broken, and still others vomited blood; Pedo the consul was one of these, and he died at once.… And as Heaven continued the earthquake for several days and nights, the people were in danger and helpless, some of them crushed and perishing under the weight of the buildings pressing upon them, and others dying of hunger, whenever it so chanced that they were left alive either in a clear space … or in a vaulted colonnade. When at last the evil had subsided, someone who ventured to mount the ruins caught sight of a woman still alive. She was not alone, but had also an infant; and she had survived by feeding both herself and her child with her milk.…

Trajan made his way out through the window of the room in which he was staying. Some being, of greater than human stature, had come to him and led him forth, so that he escaped with only a few slight injuries; and as the shocks extended over several days, he lived out of doors in the hippodrome. (Harvard University Press, 1925. Translated by Earnest Cary)

The earthquake coincided with a bloody revolt by the Jews in Antioch. This was later known as the Second Jewish-Roman War. (The first revolt, and probably the most famous, had broken out about fifty years earlier, under Nero, and was put down by Vespasian.) Some have argued that the destruction of the city was seen as one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah. The earthquake had incited the lower classes of the Jewish community, especially in the countryside, to unleash a revolt that caught everyone by surprise, including the Jewish elite.

But further study has shown that there were other reasons for the revolt. First was the burden of the fiscus judaicus, a tax imposed by Vespasian on all the Jews in the empire after the destruction of the temple. Another cause for the revolt was the tension between Jews and Greeks, especially in Egypt. The Greeks had managed to convince the Roman authorities to impose discriminatory measures against the Jews, who then felt that they were being treated as second-class citizens. This explains the intensity of the violence of the Jewish rebels against the Greeks. The earthquake was thus interpreted by the more fundamentalist sectors of the Jewish community as a favorable sign for an insurrection and sparked the revolt.

Unspeakable massacres were committed against civilians, Greeks, and Christians; entire cities were destroyed and burned from Cyrenaica (where the revolt began) to Cyprus, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Thanks to its walls, Alexandria was transformed into a sort of fortress, where people, especially Greeks, took refuge after fleeing the countryside. The city held out and was not conquered. To be sure, Trajan’s absence due to his involvement in the war in Mesopotamia encouraged the rebels.

But the Roman repression was fierce and relentless. And it is still going on as we arrive here in Antioch, with a manhunt for the ringleaders being conducted in Egypt and in all the other areas where the rebellion had broken out. The merchant from Pozzuoli, Junius Faustus Florus, arrived back in Egypt at exactly the wrong moment, just when the rebellion was in progress. Maybe he was trapped in Alexandria, or perhaps he boarded a ship and managed to escape just before the rebellion broke out. We’ll never know. But the revolt turned into a real groundswell that spread through vast areas of the empire. Even the Jewish communities in Mesopotamia rebelled.

The Jewish rebellion is not the only piece of bad news. During our absence from the empire some other grave events have occurred. Taking advantage of Trajan’s military defeats in Mesopotamia and the lack of troops on the frontiers, who had been recalled for the war, many of the border populations have attacked the empire. It happened in Mauritania in western Africa and on the lower Danube. There have even been attacks by some tribes in Britain, in the place where we were not long ago. The situation in the empire right now is not very peaceful. But everyday life goes on as always.

Murder

Our centurion is now walking through a still-intact neighborhood of Antioch. The tall buildings here seem to have suffered less damage than in other parts of the city.

All of a sudden he hears a shout. He looks up and sees what he believes to be a white blanket coming down from the building. In a fraction of a second he realizes that that piece of fabric is a tunic wrapped around a woman gesticulating and screaming. He sees her last terrified look before the crash. The impact is violent, the sound a muted thud.

The centurion, despite having seen death up close many times, remains paralyzed for a second, just like everybody else on the street. Then he rushes over to the lifeless body.

The woman died on impact, her face is relaxed, her hair loose. She looks like she’s asleep. Only her fingers and toes move, with their last nervous twitches. The blood starts to flow copiously on the pavement around her head.

Everyone tries to figure out where she fell from. The centurion had noticed a face peeking out of the building as she was falling. Now that face has reappeared for a fraction of a second.

A few minutes later, two armed guards make their way through the crowd of people who are staring at the body with morbid curiosity. Nobody thinks to cover her with a sheet. In this society where death is an everyday event, on the streets and in public buildings, like the big amphitheater in Antioch (where crowds watch people being torn to shreds by wild animals), nobody feels the need. It would be like using a sheet to cover a dead cat or a dead bird on the street.

Led by the centurion, the two guards quickly climb the steps of the building that the woman fell from. They knock repeatedly and then, with the soldier’s help, they break the door down. The little apartment (cenaculum) is in total disorder. There are signs of a violent altercation. A man who must be her husband appears out of nowhere. He’s beside himself and tries to convince us that she slipped while she was hanging the laundry out the window. But three long parallel scratch marks on his cheek tell another story.

In the Roman era, wife murder is a common crime, just as it still is, unfortunately, in our society. In the United States, three women are murdered by their intimate partners every day.

Evidence of the situation in Roman times is readily available in the gravestone epitaphs like this one:

Restitutus Piscines and Prima Restituta to their dear daughter Florenza, who was treacherously thrown into the Tiber by her husband Orpheus. Her brother-in-law December placed this stone. She lived sixteen years.

Meanwhile, back down on the street a huge crowd has gathered. They’re all talking about a scandalous crime that happened exactly one hundred years ago, under Tiberius. The man involved was a Roman magistrate, a praetor named Plautius Silvanus, accused by his father-in-law Lucius Apronius of having thrown his wife from a window. There was a trial, eagerly awaited and followed by the populace, held in one of the basilicas of the Forum, in which the accused claimed he was innocent because his wife had voluntarily jumped from the window to commit suicide. The incident, as you can imagine, was the talk of Rome. And public interest in the trial grew to the point that Emperor Tiberius himself had to get involved. He went personally to visit the bedroom where the woman had been killed, where the signs of her desperate struggle were still clearly evident. In view of his elevated social status and in order to avoid the death sentence and safeguard his estate from being confiscated to the disadvantage of his family, Plautius Silvanus was advised to commit suicide.

This case of murder is an opportunity to examine the level of crime in Roman cities. And, more generally, how violent the society was. There are some surprises.

Are Roman Cities Violent?

Let’s take Rome as an example. It’s the largest city in the empire and therefore it has the greatest security issues—though it must be said that Antioch and Alexandria are not far behind in the rankings of most dangerous cities. But we have more information and more firsthand accounts about Rome.

Walking around Rome at night without first having made a will was the act of a madman, according to the ancients. It must be recalled that Rome was the most populous city in the West until the Industrial Revolution, with about 1 million inhabitants or more. All of its problems were quadrupled compared to other cities, violence included.

Professor Jens-Uwe Krause has studied extensively the varied situations in which crimes were committed in the ancient city of Rome.

Disputes and often violence would often erupt over trivial matters like who had the right-of-way on the street. In a society in which much importance was given to differences in social class and status, it was almost normal that clenched fists, clubs, and rocks would fly at the slightest perceived insult or disrespect. Consequently, most fights took place in public places (to the great amusement of passersby), like the street, the market, or even the baths.

One famous case, cited by Pliny the Younger, involves a member of the equestrian order at the baths who was pushed lightly by a slave who wanted to let his master pass. The man launched an attack not on the slave but on his master, knocking him silly for having offended his dignity by allowing him to be touched by a slave.

Another contributor to violence and crime was alcohol, above all when young men were involved. Fistfights in taverns were very frequent and, going home drunk in the middle of the night they assaulted other people on the street.

The reputation of taverns, public houses, and inns after dark was terrible: the proprietors themselves had bad reputations and their places of business, in addition to hosting customers who were always ready to turn an argument into a brawl, also welcomed lowlifes and characters of ill repute such as murderers, sailors, thieves, and fugitive slaves, at least as Juvenal tells it.

Another danger on the streets of Rome was juvenile gangs. While we generally use this term in reference to unruly kids from the lower classes of society, in Roman times this was not always the case. Often it was exactly the opposite: groups of kids from rich families who went around the city causing trouble. They were the ones who, drunk or sober, broke down the doors of bordellos and gang-raped the prostitutes or other women alone on the streets. They were the ones who stole from shops or assaulted passersby (as Nero and his friends famously did when he was young).

Then there were robberies to worry about. The nighttime streets were the ideal place to commit them, especially against isolated groups or drunkards. And sometime the victims died in the process.

So unlike today, daily violence did not take place on the outskirts of the city or in bad neighborhoods but above all in the center city and in public places. Toward the end of the republic, given the lack of security, a lot of people carried weapons on their person. Knives, daggers, and swords were always at the ready.

As time went on the social situation became more secure. Furthermore, with the founding of the empire, Augustus issued a decree that outlawed the possession of arms, except for hunting or traveling (the Lex Julia de Vi Publica et Privata). All of this led to a reduction in the number of weapons in circulation. If we observe, for example, the deaths in the city of Herculanum during the eruption of Vesuvius, of some three hundred bodies unearthed, only one has a weapon: a gladius. He was a soldier, and so he was authorized to carry it. The scarce distribution of arms made it so that in the case of an altercation people used their fists, clubs, and anything they might find within arm’s reach, like rocks or stones. With a much lower incidence of fatalities.

The Penalty for Murder

And what of murder? If we look at a case from the fourth century, a death during a fight, we are amazed to find that the law is not equal for everybody, but more equal for some than for others.

Indeed, it depends on the murderer’s social status. If he belongs to the lowest class (humiliores), the sentence is practically death: ad metalla, that is in a mine or a quarry (until death), or ad gladium (damnation in ludum gladiatorum), that is, in the Colosseum in combat with convicts like himself or in the gladiator training school. If, on the other hand, he comes from the upper class, he gets sent into exile and half of his property is confiscated.

Familial violence is widespread. In fact, the brutality of the paterfamilias who inflicts corporal punishment on his slaves and his children is not punished by law, except in exceptional cases. And the same is true when the victim is his wife: beatings with fists, clubs, or whips are very common. According to Professor Krause, toward the end of the Roman Empire most women in the African cities were beaten by their husbands. So it happens that murder makes its way into the family as well. For Roman men who kill their companions or spouses, alcohol or an explosion of anger (over the discovery of adultery or some other offense) is often the cause. For the wife, usually, the story is quite different.

The percentage of women who commit murder would seem to be, from the documents, much lower than the percentage of men. And their techniques are more “refined.” Contrary to their husbands, there is no explosion of anger, but rather, premeditation. And the preferred murder weapon is very special: poison.

In republican Rome a series of murders by poison involving more than 150 women made it into the limelight. None other than Cato the Elder stigmatized this poison habit with a famous phrase: every adulteress is a poisoner.

The Lieutenant Columbos of the Roman Era

A murder case in Syria toward the end of the Roman Empire reveals many interesting aspects about Roman justice as it pertains to murder.

A man is killed at night in the courtyard of his home. His slaves not only failed to defend him; they hid, allowing his murderers to get away. The inaction of the slaves would indicate that the guilty party was known to the household. (In fact, Professor Kraus has highlighted the fact that in most cases, victims and their killers belong to the same social class.) The heirs of the victim took the case to court, and five of the victim’s fellow townspeople were arrested. They remained in prison, expecting to die, without sufficient evidence being brought to convict them.

The first enlightening aspect of this case is that in the Roman era a prison term is not a sentence as it is in our time. Here, it’s simple: either you’re acquitted or you’re condemned to exile, to the beasts in the amphitheater (ad bestias), to the gladiators, to the mines, etc. Nobody is sentenced to prison. In Roman eyes, prison is much too soft a form of expiation. It is only a place of transition, of pretrial detention, after which, those found guilty are sent somewhere else.

The second interesting aspect of the Syrian case is how one is brought to court in case of a crime such as theft or homicide. In Roman times there was no organized police force such as we have today, no ancient version of patrol cars that arrive with sirens blaring. To be sure, there are firefighters that, together with the vicomagistri, or neighborhood police, patrolled the streets. Augustus did institute urban police stations (cohortes urbanae), the equivalent of our precincts, in Rome, but for the control of the streets and apprehension of criminals after a crime there is a sort of widespread do-it-yourself approach. It’s the people themselves who separate the parties to a fight, keep an eye on suspicious strangers, and so forth.

There are no police detectives who conduct investigations. Instead the victim’s families do this on their own behalf, interrogating slaves and neighbors, gathering evidence, etc. Then they identify a suspect, contact a lawyer, and go directly to court. At this point the mechanism of Roman law is set in motion, with the duel between the prosecution and the defense.

Sometimes a case won’t make it to trial because the parties reach an agreement beforehand—the accused to avoid the risk of a heavy sentence, the accuser in order to avoid the expense of a trial and to receive some form of indemnity, for example, money. This happens often in cases of sexual violence against a girl from a poor family on the part of some male member of a wealthy family.

Later on another entity will appear on the scene able to resolve disputes before they get to court: the church. Given their prestigious role in society, the clergy will intercept a lot of disputes, arranging an agreement between the parties or issuing their own religious judgment.

A Culture More Peaceful than Ours?

At this point we can draw some conclusions concerning crime on the streets of Rome and in the cities of the empire, giving the lie to a lot of myths.

The first is that, as Professor Krause has demonstrated, there does not exist a criminal class in Roman society. There does not exist, that is, the figure of the “professional criminal,” in the style of Al Capone or Tony Soprano. And even where something similar does exist (for example, brigands), it’s still more the exception than the rule.

Those who commit crimes do so out of “extemporaneous” necessity. It may be an artisan or a small shop owner who, motivated by need, grabs an opportunity that happens to present itself, and then returns to his occupation. Or it could be someone temporarily adopting a criminal role for some special reason (for example, a slave who has been ordered to commit a crime). In short, in Rome there are no organized bands or criminal associations, such as the Mafia or the camorra. Roman criminals generally act as individuals or with the help of a friend or relative.

The second conclusion is that although Roman society has considerable physical violence (beatings of slaves, wives, children, etc.), there are many fewer weapons in circulation than we have today. Therefore, contrary to what is commonly thought, fights, armed robberies, and assaults are much less bloody than their modern counterparts.

The third conclusion is that, given how often they make use of the courts to resolve problems, we can see that Romans tend not to take justice into their own hands by using violence, and that they have faith in the judicial system. Even if, as we must recall, the system is not equal for all because it privileges and protects the upper classes, ordinary people go to court rather than take justice into their own hands.

Because of this widespread faith in the law and the judicial system, resorting to long-lived feuds and family vendettas, while extremely frequent in the Middle Ages, is unknown in Roman society. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, whoever felt their honor had been offended drew their sword, whereas a Roman (for matters more serious than the frequent public scuffles) went to court. And for an ancient and essentially “peasant” society, as Rome was, this is something extraordinary.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!