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Author Details Institutionalized Murder and Violence in Ancient Rome

Author Details Institutionalized Murder and Violence in Ancient Rome


Shocking, disturbing and wholly ungodly methods of murder in ancient Rome have been brought together in a brutally graphic new book. Dr. Emma Southon is a historian at the University of Birmingham in England and in her new book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, the author explores various modes of murder in ancient Rome. Showing how the people of ancient Rome viewed life, death, and what it means to be human, Southon writes about crucifixions, feeding people to wild beasts and folk being set on fire.

One particular story tells of an occasion when Emperor Augustus dined with Vedius Pollio, and a servant broke a crystal goblet. Enraged, Vedius immediately ordered the servant to be thrown to the eels but Augustus ordered his men to smash all the crystal at the table. Even Vedius Pollio couldn’t kill the man for having broken one goblet when Augustus’ men broken so many more. And so, the writer discusses the life of one Vedius Pollio, a rich Roman who was a friend of the Roman emperor Augustus, who was infamous for maintaining a reservoir of man-eating eels into which he would throw slaves who displeased him.

But ancient Rome is packed with such tales, indeed the legend of the founding of the city itself is one of murder: that of Romulus slaying Remus.

Murder, believe it or not, was even part of idea of Genesis. (wjarek / Adobe Stock)

The Roman Institutionalization of Hyper-violence and Murder

When Dr Southon began her research she was “struck” by the elaborate nature of public executions in ancient Rome. The researcher discovered that crucifixions occurred in the most public spaces and that Romans had become immune to the horrific sight and stench of rotting bodies “falling apart on a cross as they went about their daily activities.” Speaking with Ars Technica Dr Southon said “murder is very culturally specific and it's not that easily defined” so in her new book she attempts to “catalog” the various forms of homicide used in ancient Rome.

Dr Southon said Emperor Constantine's law was the first to outlaw a number of the approved ways of murdering slaves, including “don't set them on fire,” “Don't throw them off things,” and “Don't hit them with rocks.” While this legal charter stopped a handful of methods of murdering slaves it opened the flood gates for anything “not” mentioned in the law, like for example, “being thrown off Tarpeian Rock, being scoured or burned to death.”

Burning people at the stake like this was a known form of murder in ancient Rome. (katafree / Adobe Stock)

A Lifetime Dedicated to Murder

Dr Southon details cases of poisonings, floggings, beatings, people being thrown from windows, off cliffs and into rivers. She writes of people being stabbed in their hearts and eyes and criminals becoming condemned to death at the hands of gladiators.

Crucifixion was a torture and method of execution specifically designed to be humiliating, agonizing and extremely public. Therefore, it was reserved for what Dr Southon calls the “lowest of the low,” and for all that knew such a person.

Ancient Roman laws dictated that “every single enslaved person living under the same roof as the murderer would be executed.” And in her new book Dr Southon tells of one tragic event when “400 men, women and children were rounded up, paraded through the streets and taken outside Esquiline Gate where, for hours, they were tied or nailed to crosses and left for days to die.” One slave killed Lucius Pedanius Secundus, their owner, and 400 died in the aftermath, which perhaps also expresses the worth of life in this extremely classist society. And for the most severe crimes, like for example the act of parricide (killing a family member) the mode of death was a thing of nightmares. Be warned, if you are of a weak constitution skip past the next paragraph.

A nineteenth-century depiction of the crucifixion of rebel leaders in 238 BC, which predates the nailing to the cross of Christ by nearly 250 years!. (Victor Armand Poirson / Public domain)

A nineteenth-century depiction of the crucifixion of rebel leaders in 238 BC, which predates the nailing to the cross of Christ by nearly 250 years!. (Victor Armand Poirson / Public domain)

You Were Warned…

Those found guilty of parricide were beaten with blood-colored rods before being tied up in an ox leather sack. The sack would ultimately be thrown into the sea so the guilty would drown, but death was ever that simple, or clean, in ancient Rome. While the battered and bleeding murderer lay broken in the sack: “a dog, a cockerel, a monkey and a snake were also placed inside before it was stitched up and tossed in the sea,” where an ungodly mess would ensue.

Dr Southon said part of the reason for the body being placed in a sack was so that the murderer’s body wouldn’t contaminate the earth after death and she urges readers to: “think for five seconds about the horror of being trapped in a bag with a terrified dog, and then we'll move on to the added chaotic tangle of terror that the cockerel, monkey and the snake bring to the process of drowning.”

I advise you not to think about this too deeply for what you will imagine will only serve to utterly horrify you. However, maybe in some way balancing this all of, while the author details hundreds of horrific deaths in her new book, according to an article in Daily Mail, there are many historians who question whether any such forms of punishment existed.

Top image: Murder in ancient Rome was also performed by the elite on the elite and group stabbing was not unusual.      Source: rudall30 / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Where Rome is concerned, staid historians, writers, ultra-conservative politicians and political commentators etc almost invariably speak of them as 'civilised'.

This is fuelled by a wholesale swallowing of Roman propaganda that belittles the 'uncivilised barbarians', whereby such propaganda is viewed mistakenly as truthful history.

Even Roman technological advances are routinely overstated. Arriving at an earliest known date for such an advancement that coincides with the Roman Empire or occurs on Roman territory may, at times, merely mean that a pre-dating occurrence has not been found. It does not necessarily prove an absence of an earlier presence elsewhere, especially given the relative paucity of pre-Roman archaeological or written evidence concerning many aspects of life. The Roman footprint is so large as to bury much of what little there was to find.

In short, it is common in some circles to ignore the manifest evidence for the barbarity of the Romans themselves, and focus on the bits that such circles prefer to talk about.

The reverse is also true, whereby academics of the political hard left, who have become legion, attempt to rewrite the historical record of indigenous peoples, for example, in relation to subjects like government, law and technological advancement, with excessive zeal.

The common-sense middle-ground is now a wasteland. History is littered with politics, as is the study of it.

Indeed, if one is an arch-consevative, fawning over the best of Roman history is for you. If, however, one is a neo-Marxist, one may find a niche in the study of pre-Colonial Australia and how the British Empire was always brutish.

It is good to see something that bucks that trend. History is meant to be both true and not false, rather than cherry-picked elements which best suit a desired narrative.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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