INFAMY – The Crimes of Ancient Rome
Jerry Toner
Profile Books
314pp
Hardback and eBook, £16.99


In his latest work, Infamy, The Crimes of Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner, a Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics, Churchill College, Cambridge University, sets out to explore the legal world of ancient Rome and to weigh it in the balance – and it makes for quite a story. Far from providing us with an academic discourse on Rome's legal history, Toner takes us on an engaging journey through the many aspects of the public and private life of ancient Rome and how they were played out within the context of Rome's legal system.

Rome, Toner points out, can at once be viewed as a place riven with brutality and corruption and also as an example of a largely ordered, successful society which delivered peace and prosperity to millions. What we are presented with is somewhat of a complex combination of the two. Like the Greeks, the Romans set out early to regulate their society with rules to impose good order. Their earliest known laws are the 'Twelve Tables', which date from the 5th century BC. The later Republican period produced laws, edicts and decrees and Augustus strived to introduce a new era of justice and peace.

Various codes were later produced by jurists, then came the renowned Code of Justinian in the 6th century AD which presented and revised existing laws and introduced new ones. But while Rome's legal system generally sought to maintain social order, it was plagued by inequalities, inefficiencies and inconsistencies, which Toner illustrates with an array of cases which include the pitiful and the frankly, shocking. Toner systematically examines the nature, extent and treatment of various aspects of criminal activity from violent crimes to crimes against property, against the gods and against morality, war crimes and the way in which terror, often facilitated by the law of treason was used by emperors to cower and suppress their opponents.

The legal system was a vital feature of Roman life and many a member of the ruling class, including Cicero and Julius Caesar, made a name for themselves in the courts of Rome. Yet to us the procedures seem somewhat primitive. The vast majority of cases were private and the poor had little recourse to justice, though this conundrum continues to plague many modern systems. There was, of course, no police force or state prosecution in the modern sense and victims – particularly the poorer ones -– were frequently left to their own devices to seek justice as best they could which often meant petitioning authorities and bureaucrats for redress.
The gathering of evidence included the routine torture of slaves. Although punishments could depend on the social status of the individual, many were frightful: criminals could be crucified or thrown to wild animals in the arena.

Toner includes the terrible case of the prefect of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, who was murdered by his slave in AD 61. The penalty for this crime was the execution of all the household slaves which in this instance meant 400 individuals including children. Even this seemed severe at the time but the Senate, after reviewing the case, opted to impose the traditional sentence.

Violent crimes were often committed at the highest level for political purposes. While seeking to keep the populace and a competitive aristocracy in check with laws, Roman emperors were often a law unto themselves, dispatching people – including their own family members – with alacrity to remove troublesome individuals or potential competitors or to seize the assets of the doomed. Officials in provinces could abuse their power and a celebrated example is the case of Verres, the governor of Sicily, who Cicero prosecuted in 70 BC.

Still, for all its practical shortcomings, Roman law continued to develop and laid the foundations for many modern legal systems. In examining and illuminating the life of the ancient Romans from a legal perspective, Toner has provided us with an entertaining, instructive work, which is thought-provoking and often poignant.

Diana Bentley

 

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