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Crimes against Christians.

An American endeavoring to survice in an urban environment in 1980s may well ask what was the state of crime--and its corollary, punishment--at the height of the Roman Empire, say, in the years 97 or 197 or 297 of the Christian era. We hear, see and fell that the United States is, like Rome, at the apogee of her glory. And indeed, one can find many similarities between the criminal side of our civilization, reported in all our news media, and the manifestations of unruly human nature that concerned the Romans in their court journals, in their histories by eminent men and in the judicial proceedings arranged for the poorest trader or the smaller farmer (the legal papyri of roman Egypt).

Ancient crimes could cover the docket of a modern federal or state courthouse. First come the crimes of mortal violence and sex. Following these, we can consider crimes of lesser violence, including (among others) assault, battery, riots and brigandage. Crimes for money and reputation make up the last major group, which includes theft, robbery, fraud, libel, embezzlement and corruption. Other crimes might merit a mention. Being a Christian (until Constantine the Great came to Rome in 312) represented a special type of crime--treason, or what we might call nonviolent civil disobedience or sedition today. It is not easy to realize that the Christians, thought of as martyrs in Western civilization since the Middle Ages, were seen in their lifetimes as dangerous protesters and social outlaws and outcasts.

Against these various crimes must be set the agents and institutions of law enforcement, including police, whether legionnaires on active duty or informers lurking in the colonades around the Roman Senate; the courts; and the prisons, be they dungeons in major cities, the silver mines of Attica, the galleys in the harbors of Ostia or Alexandria or the rocky little islands in the southern Aegean. Punishments were many and varied; they were usually noted for their refined cruelty. Incarceration or long-term detention under livable conditions was not one of them. Only a few distinguished ex-rulers of fallen politicians were confined to quarters, so to speak. The average criminal went fairly rapidly to the cross, to the arena filled with hungry lions and tigers, into hard labor or, at best, into permanent exile. There was little hope of parole and even less of full rehabilitation into society.

The research for relationships between crime and punishment in the Greco-Roman world and America in the 1980s is complicated by the passage of time. In two thousand years the oral traditions, popular ballads and most of the written records of imperial Rome have disappeared. But we are more fortunate in what survives than we might realize at first. The laws and cases of law collected in the last days of the Roman Empire give us a full picture of types of crimes, if not of their journalistic details. Inscriptions left by the condemned in mine shafts and graffiti on the walls of gladiators' training schools provide clues. The thousands of papyri found in the dry soil of Greek and Roman Egypt provide a thorough picture of petty crime and the criminal process in one corner of the empire. Above all, in the early history of the Christian church, in the tales of saints and martyrs, we have a rich and romantic picture of Roman justice at work on all levels of society.

In general, the record of crime that has survived from ancient Rome to modern times is snobbish, filled with the indiscretions of the aristocracy and misdeeds of the elite. The "media" in any age tend to remember the murder of a senator instead of a street cleaner. Although adultery doubtless took place nightly in the multistory apartment houses along the Tiber or on the slopes of the mountains at Ephesus, pursuit of an emperor's granddaughter for illicit pleasure made infinitely better literary copy for Suetonius, writing in the time of Hadrian (117 to 138).

The anonymous slave who made off with a slab of roast beef got a quiet crucifixion or, at best, a noisy lashing with leather thongs for his boldness (or desperation). If such a slave or poor freedman wasn't nailed up along a roadside to starve, bleed or choke to death on the rugged cross, he might make a morsel for a favorite imperial tiger or thrash for a few agonizing minutes in a pool filled with deadly "eels," the like of which was available on many an imperial private estate.

Murders among the very rich and well connected were lovingly reported by the ancients. Nero kicked and killed his pregnant wife, Poppaea, and we can read about it today in the chronicles of Tacitus and Suetonius. The murder of a slave or an expendable peasant was remarkable only if it was part of a longer story or if the deed was particularly inhuman and unjust. When Gaius Gracchus, around 125 B.C., wanted to illustrate the "lawlessness of our young men," "their entire lack of self-control," he used the story of a young envoy from Asia who had ordered a herdsman beaten to death by the roadside with the thongs of the diplomat's magisterial sedan chair because the rustic had asked, in jest, if there were a corpse inside the closed carriage.

That a formal apparatus, a detective bureau, for solving murders hardly existed even in imperial Rome is demonstrated in the defenestration of Apronia by her husband, Plautius Silvanus, a praetor. The case was personally investigated, solved and brought to justice before the Senate by none other than Emperor Tiberius (14 to 37) himself. The ruler of the Roman Empire suspected Silvanus' story that his wife had sleepwalked out the window. Tiberius went to the bedroom and found a evidence of a struggle, clawing fingernail marks on the window sill; the emperor used the methods and secured the results of any successful police officer seen in "Hill Street Blues" nowadays.

The maddest murders naturally were associated with the most demented emperors and the pandering lackeys who seemed to survive in their reflected heat. A hatchet man of Emperor Caligula (37 to 41), one Protogenes, merely "dated a sinister glance" at political opponent Scribonius Proculus in the Senate, uttered a simple accusation and sat back while the senators tore their colleague to pieces; they stabbed him with their senatorial pens and heaped his dismembered body at the feet of the emperor.

Poison was a popular weapon of the Roman imperial court. Doctors, such as Xenophon of Cos, did away with emperors, notably Claudius, whose health they were sworn to protect; and emperors, such as Domitian, were suspected of poisoning worthies, such as the governor general Agricola, to collect a share of the inheritance. Juvenal's Satires, written around 115, when the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent, hint at the squads of rich wards, defenseless stepchildren, little princes like Claudius' son Britannicus, unsuspecting husbands and rich old uncles by the dozen fed a slice of toad's lung, a cake blackened with aconite or a generous portion of a treated sow's womb.

When plagues or epidemics struck Rome, as under Domitian and later under Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus, rumors of killers striking with poisoned needles raced through the capital. Doubtless some old scores were settled under the cover of medical emergency, as has happned in the terrorism of Northern Ireland and the civil war in lebanon. Popular consternation over such mass poisoning may seem ridiculous to the modern reader, but similar concerns can grip a medium-sized city nowadays when, as in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a rash of unexplained deaths occurs at the local hospital.

Adultery was a notorious crime of sex in Roman times, since wounded pride and extensive financial holdings in the form of dowries and inheritance could be involved. The first emperor, Augustus (who died in the year 14), was too embarrassed to punish adulterers who later married, but he forced a favored freeman into suicide for carrying on with "Roman matrons," unnamed.

As punishment for adultery, a common woman might be clad in a man's toga and ridiculed in public, but aristocratic ladies (especially those involved with senators teetering on the edge of treason) were banished. Men who committed adultery with notorious imperial princesses, like Augustus' daughter, Julia, were often executed. Julia spent the last 20 years of her life on an Apulian islet, banished for her excesses. Late in Tiberius' reign another high-born woman, Aemilia Lepida, was forced to commit suicide for confirmed adultery with a common slave.

An offended husband had every reason to suffer in silence if his wife was wealthy. By complaining and insisting on judicial due process, a tribune under Trajan saw his career ruined, his wife sent to an island and half her dowry with a third of her inheritance forfeited to the state. Small satisfaction it was that the lady's centurion lover suffered loss of rank and banishment.

Incest was treated as a major crime, although circumstances could be as judicially murky as cases of adultery. One Sextus Papinius resisted his amorous mother as long as possible; after succumbing, to her and then to his anguish, he jumped off a cliff (or, possibly, out of a window). Mother groveled before the imperial Senate and pleaded weak womanhood, and her life was then spared. She spent the next ten years in exile, while her younger son grew up out of danger. Was incent the crime, or its effect on her noble son? The tawdry career of Emperor Elagabalus (218 to 222) demonstrates that publicly known vices and perversions might not be punishable in themselves but could lead to an emperor's brutal assassination if they interfered with sound government.

Many cases of assault and battery, then as now, were complicated by sex and drinking. When a municipal magistrate named Hostilius Mancinus sued a madam named Manilia, it was not in exercise of his professional responsibility to inspect taverns and brothels, but because he had wished entrance to one of the latter after hours when tipsy. Mancinus tried to break down the door, and Manilia stoned him.

Even knowing the probable consequences, men were as tempted by money in the age of Judas as they are in our world of bank robberies or stock swindles--and were just as adept at "cooking the books" and other shenanigans. In many instances, the refinement of monetary crimes in the far-flung and complex Roman Empire rivaled the most sophisticated financial frauds of the 1970s. In a world of urban sprawl and affluent country retreats, the real-estate operator and land speculator could work on either side of the thin line between sharp practice and criminal scheme. Many civic buildings project turned into bottomless pits of money for corrupt contractors and conniving proconsuls. Although the lack of paper money as we know it today kept counterfeiting to a manageable level, plated gold and silver aurei or denarii were produced, in and out of government mints, in sufficient quantities to make scores of magistrates and entrepreneurs wealthy. And the forging of wills or letters of credit made many an imaginative manipulator into a man of substance--even though the hands of a banker caught passing bad coin might be cut off and nailed to his changing table for all in the financial district to see.

The court journals and, in one instance, a painting of Pompeii provide information about another activity that was illegal, but popular with the aristocracy--rioting. Ambitious magistrates staged stimulating, self-promotional spectacles and sports-fights, often in flimsily constrcuted amphitheaters that collapsed with considerable loss of life. Officials seeking the publicity necessary for higher office, secretly or without shame, enjoyed the chaos and bloodletting that could result from a healthy riot. The emperor Nero himself broke a praetor's head while egging on partisans at a theater-contest.

This short survey of crime and punishment in antiquity can conclude with a few observations from Juvenal on crime and the nature of man, set forth in his Satires.

In the inequities of the law: "Many commit the same crime and fare differently: one man gets the gibbet, another a crown, as the reward of crime."

And on the inevitability of punishment: "What man have you ever seen that was satisfied with one act of villainy? Our scoundrel will yet put his feet into the snare; he will have to endure the dark prison-house [presumably only briefly, on his way to harsher justice] and the staple [meaning the executioner's stake or the hook] or one of those crags in the Aegean sea that are crowded with our noble exiles. You will exult over the stern punishment of a hated name, and at length admit with joy that none of the gods is deaf [or blind].
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Title Annotation:Roman Empire
Author:Vermeule, Cornelius
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1984
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