Fun Facts about Ancient Roman Law & Punishment
Valerius Maximus in his Memorable Deeds and Sayings remarked that laws are not unlike spider webs: they catch the weak (the poor) and let the strong (the rich) through. The legal system in ancient Rome was no different from today's legal system in this regard.
There are quite a few fun facts about Roman law that are not very well recognized today. Some of them are actually less fun on account of the severity of the punishment certain crimes received, so be forewarned that you may read things that are quite shocking. Let's delve deeper into the world fun facts about Roman law.
What happens when a slave kills his owner?
Tacitus in his Annals inform us of a case in which the city prefect by the name of Pedanius Secundus was assassinated by his slave. The reasons are not clear: Pedanius might have backed out of an agreement to free his slave at a certain price or there might have been a sexual rivalry between the two men.
Anyhow, as ancient custom would have it whenever a slave murdered his owner, all slaves of the same household should be executed. In this case the majority of these slaves were innocent women and children, but the Senate chose to adhere to the custom and in spite of public protests and appeals for mercy, all slaves of the household of Pedanius’s were slaughtered. Four hundred of them.
What happens when a person kills his or her father?
According to Justinian's Digest, the customary punishment for parricide - the act of killing one's father - was that the person is whipped with blood-colored sticks, then sealed up in a sack with a rooster, a dog, a viper and a monkey. They would then be cast into the deep sea. In case there was no sea nearby, they would simply be thrown before wild beasts. This law was passed by Emperor Hadrian the righteous.
On the contrary, Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his Roman Antiquities writes that in many periods of ancient Roman history, parents had the right to kill their children without explanation. In some cases, they were required to rear all their male children and also their ﬁrst-born daughters unless they were born crippled or with deformities. In such cases, they were to be shown to at least five neighbors, and if all agreed the child could be killed.
What happens if one disrespects an office bearer?
According to Cassius Dio's Roman History, consul Servilius Isauricus was once treading a road in his usual swagger when he came across a man on horseback who was so bad-mannered that he did not dismount for the consul. The horseman literally galloped right past him.
When Isauricus later noticed the man on trial in court in the Forum, he went out of his way to bring up this incident before the jurors, and they consensually condemned the man without further ado.
Fun Facts about the Dignified Roman Court
Lucius Piso was on trial for oﬀending Rome’s allies. He was begging for mercy on the ground planting kisses on the jurors’ feet. Suddenly it started pouring with rain and it ﬁlled his mouth with mud. Upon seeing this the jurors were of the mind that Lucius had suﬀered enough and let him go. (Valerius Maximus Memorable Deeds and Sayings)
A boy was brought before the judge and was asked why he was crying. He was supposed to display fear and distress at the prospect of his father being cruelly punished, but instead he said he was crying because his attendant had just pinched him. Which was true by the way. (Quintilian Education of the Orator)
Quintilian condemned the practice of eating and drinking while giving a speech in court, but such pauses gave the speaker’s supporters a chance to applaud his eﬀorts. The supporters were actually hired and were called Sophocleses from the Greek term sophōs, meaning bravo! or laudiceni, meaning 'people who get a dinner for their praise' (Pliny Letters)
On the Romans' insistence on the word of the law
Valerius Maximus writes in his Memorable Deeds and Sayings that Livius Salinator had no problem taking the voting rights from 34 of the 35 tribes when after having condemned him, they subsequently named him consul and censor. He was of the mind that they must be either irresponsible or corrupt. The Maecia was the one single tribe that he did not censor, which had neither condemned him nor judged him worthy of oﬃce.
According to Livy (History of Rome, Book 77), Publius Sulpicius Rufus was killed after Sulla had outlawed him in the 80s BC. The slave who gave away Publius's whereabouts was rewarded and set free. Then he was thrown over a cliﬀ for committing the crime of betrayal of his owner.
Pliny in his Natural History writes that a Roman judge would never rule against the obviously impossible if there was no law prohibiting it. For instance, when a woman claimed to have given birth to her child after 13 months of pregnancy, the judge accepted the claim, because there existed no statute limiting the time of a pregnancy.
Justinian's Digest reports that in case a woman learned about her husband's death after the statutory period of mourning was over, she was required to put on her mourning dress and then immediately take it off, because the mourning period started right after the person's death regardless of the fact that no one might know about it. Also, men were not required to mourn the death of their spouses.
Other Fun Facts On Roman Law
Apuleius, the author of the Golden Ass, wrote a treatise on aquatic creatures in which he used several technical terms deriving from Greek. As a consequence, he was tried for witchcraft, and accused of having used magic spells to persuade a rich widow to marry him.
Justinian's Digest reports that the testimony of a slave was considered as evidence in a court of law only if it had been acquired through torture.
Lucius Domitius, Governor of Sicily, issued an edict in which he prohibited the possession of weapons in an attempt to get rid of highway robbery that was undermining regular life in his province. Now, when an extremely large wild boar was served him for lunch, he summoned the shepherd to tell him how he had managed to kill the boar. When he confessed that he had made use of a hunting spear, he had him cruciﬁed for possession of a weapon. (Valerius Maximus Memorable Deeds and Sayings)
According to Pliny's Natural History, it was customary to crucify robbers on the very road where they used to prowl. The Greek historian Polybius talked about a place in Carthage where he saw man-eating lions crucified as a warning for other lions to steer clear of such practices.
More by this Author
One of the most interesting optical inventions Leonardo worked with was a camera obscura. Leonardo wasn’t the first person to use one of these, but he was the first person to connect the way a camera obscura...
Learn about the evolution of Egyptian battle tactics throughout the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt.
Learn basic Arabic words and phrases as spoken in the Gulf States, and use them as a polite gesture when traveling to Dubai.