Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome

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Of course, Cicero would not be arguing in favor of execution if it he truly considers exile equally as deleterious.

Yet, that exile is not only on the table but is actually regarded as a viable contender with death as satisfactory retribution for treason, exhibits the weight of social status in the minds of Roman citizens. Sallust records that the execution of the Catiline conspirators did not take place directly before the public—they were strangled in the Tullian dungeon: Walls secure it on every side, and over it is a vaulted roof connected with stone arches; but its appearance is disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness, and stench. Thus this patrician, who was of the illustrious family of the Cornelli, and who filled the office of consul at Rome, met with an end suited to his character and conduct.

What can be surmised, among other things, is that patricians are not usually executed in this period, while it is rather frequent for those of lower status. After the transition from Republic to Empire, executions become increasingly frequent and increasingly public as the emperor and his representatives exercise utter discretionary power over the life and death of his subjects—from both lower and upper classes. Since ancient usage made it impious to strangle maidens, young girls were first violated by the executioner and then strangled.

The last point is most relevant to our inquiry into the publicity of such punishments—the Gemonian stairs are a notorious site of execution, and high-ranking citizens condemned to death would often suffer this same fate.


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The stairs feature in another example from the reign of Tiberius, which indicates that, with time, the frequency of executions increases for those of the upper classes as well, and poses a different viewpoint on capital punishment as that offered by Sallust. Cassius Dio recounts the execution of the Praetorian guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, as follows: The populace also assailed him, shouting many reproaches at him for the lives he had taken and many jeers for the hopes he had cherished.

For the moment, it is true, he was merely cast into prison; but a little later, in fact that very day, the senate associated in the temple of Concord not far from the jail, when they saw the attitude of the populace and that none of the Pretorians was about, and condemned him to death. By their order he was executed and his body cast down the Stairway, where the rabble abused it for three whole days and afterwards threw it into the river.

They smash his statues, eradicating their collective memory of him, and reject his authority, power and status by eliminating the very symbols that represent them. There is a reenactment of what is to come in the act of deposing these statues from their bases and sending them tumbling to the ground, as well as their shattering to pieces—elsewhere, the crowd is said to have physically torn apart what remained of his body. The Gemonian stairs lead from the Forum Romanum and scale the Capitoline hill, running adjacent to the Temple of Concord. While many things can be said about the significance of their location, there is only room for a few of them here.

Most relevant is their visibility from one of the most frequented centers of Rome, and certainly the most traditional. The sight of the corpse tumbling past the Temple of Concord reinforces the role of execution as restoration of social order—it signals to the gathered public that harmony within the system has been achieved once more, and that it was the deed of the senate.

The degradation of his end had 11 On the power dynamics at play between Tiberius and the Senate, there is not enough room to elaborate here. One speech was heard from him shewing a spirit not utterly degraded, when to the insults of a tribune he answered, "Yet I was your Emperor. The first is the role of the mob, jeering and shattering the images of Vitellius in anticipation of the real act. These actions remain two steps removed, in their temporal inconsistency and in the deposition of plastic likenesses rather than the shortly no longer living Vitellius.

Category:Crime and punishment in ancient Rome

In the first, Sejanus is the spectator, in the second, the crowd. This discrepancy implies that the performance of executions must be a reciprocal undertaking in order for them to be regarded as satisfactory: not only must the crowd watch the administrative body carry out justice, but the condemned must watch the crowd watching him die. He must witness his own death in the only way possible—the degradation of his memory and his symbolic identity—so as to experience ultimate shame. This is the core of capital punishment.

Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome - CRC Press Book

It is not death or exile itself, but the humiliation that precedes it. This is humiliation only the witness of the public can provide, and is mirrored—even augmented— in the forms of execution used for the lower classes, namely, crucifixion and death in the arena sometimes both. The initial, formal similarity between these two types of execution is the assertion of inverted spatial hierarchy.

When crucified or killed at the summit of the Gemonian stairs, there is incredible irony put into place by their height above the crowd. The ironic reversal of talio gives a ritualistic impression, where a tightly controlled sequence of actions has the power to reinstate the disorder assumed by the crime—e.

This reversal is apparent also in the amphitheatre, though less obviously. As damnatio ad bestias often entailed dressing up convicts in the guise of mythological characters, this ironic reversal of status—the death of a god or hero—serves the same purpose. The driving mechanism for all of this is the indirect function of the public. Spectatorship grants power to the people in a mediated setting, which allows for the maintenance of order while still accounting for the social aspect of ius. The growing gap between those enforcing the laws and those forced to obey them is essential for the preservation of imperial order.

Without the first, the latter dominates. It is interesting, then, that the period around the late Republic sees both the adoption and spread of the amphitheatre,13 as well as the rise of crucifixion so to speak to include humiliores in addition to non-citizens. The temporal concurrence of these events can be seen as clearly symptomatic of increased public presence of capital death sentences and of substantial popular demand for their continued display.

The second consequence is that the staging of executions means the general public can still participate in the realization of justice without holding any actual judicial authority. The fulfillment of justice becomes a phenomenon of predominantly social, rather than civil, character. Political agency is swapped for spectatorship—so profoundly, in fact, that damnatio ad bestias entails for justice to be literally performed in the arena up until it is outlawed at the end of the eighth century.

Clearly, entertainment by public execution is an integral aspect of Roman cultural identity. Leiden: Brill, Aubert, Jean-Jacques. Auguet, Roland. Drapkin focuses only in part—and inadequately—on classical antiquity. Since there has been something of a minor proliferation. The works of Fanizza, Ducos, Rilinger and Cantarella call for special mention, as do the symposia edited by Thomas and by Diliberto. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.

No cover image. Read preview. Synopsis Crime and punishment have concerned humanity since the beginning of social life. They neither gave advice nor did they convict the felon.

A watery and crowded grave

They just supervised the hearing. The jury in a trial was made up of members over the age of thirty to make sure there was no risk or bribery. After the speeches had been delivered by the prosecution and the defense, the jurors voted without deliberation. In the 5th century BC, jurors cast their vote in secret. Each juror was provided with two tokens, one for conviction and the other for acquittal.

The Ancient Roman 'Sack Punishment' Will Give You Nightmares

The juror put one of these in a wooden urn whose tokens were disregarded, and the other in a bronze urn whose votes were counted. Judgement was passed on a majority verdict.


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In the 5th century B. In the following century, old-numbered juries were the norm and that is the custom today. In Ancient Rome the slaves had no rights at all.

Andrew M. Riggsby

They were thought of and treated like merchandise. However, slaves did cost money to buy so many of the punishments did not inflict lasting damage. The lash was the most common punishment.

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Another punishment was to be branded in the forehead. An alternative punishment included the slave being forced to carry a piece of wood around their necks wherever they went. This was called furca; and whichever slave had had been punish with this was called furcifer all the time after that. Slaves were also, by way of punishment, often kept in a work-house, or house of correction, where they had to turn a mill for grinding corn.