How bad was the crime in ancient Rome

On the trail of ancient crimes

"It's infinitely unsafe in Rome, always in the Roman Empire. Because there are gangs that attack people, kidnap them and then have their middlemen who then bring them to the slave market."

You always had to be on your guard in the Roman Empire, explains the ancient historian Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto. Not just from kidnappers.

It is also best to keep your possessions under lock and key, confirms Marcus Reuter, museum director at the Römermuseum Xanten.

"It was found in the rubble from the middle of the third century: a classic safe, iron-clad, with locks and keys. That is the lock that is next to it, what is then inserted here, a relatively complicated mechanism, the key is put in here. "

The Romans traded with India and China and built 100,000 kilometers of highways. They created a legal system that still serves as a model today. But they didn't know a police force. The state did not feel responsible for the safety of its citizens and crimes were commonplace. Reuter collected cases for a special exhibition in Xanten.

"We have a wife who is slain by her husband after 22 years of marriage. We have a ten-year-old girl who was slain by robbers for her jewelry. We know an experienced veteran who was killed on a trip. We even have a centurion who was killed on a business trip in the Alps. "

These capital crimes are known from inscriptions on the gravestones of the victims. Lead tablets that came to light during excavations provide an overview of stolen property:

"A pen, two frying pans, gloves, a coat, used sheets, for example."

In short: what was not nailed down was stolen. Apparently the victims had little hope that the perpetrators would be caught, so they resorted to magic: they carved curses into the tablets and wished the thieves cancer and worms on the necks.

Others didn't stop there. On June 17, 193, the citizens of Akiaris and Onnophris filed a theft report at a military post in the province of Egypt:

"On the night of the 15th of this month, people we don't know came to the private property in the village of Bubaston and dragged our boxes of vegetable seeds, no less than twelve boxes, to another drying site. So we're filing and request that the necessary investigation be carried out and that we be permitted to retrieve what has been stolen. "

The advertisement, written on papyrus, was preserved in the dry desert sand. It is one of many.

"The entire archive of a commander has been preserved from a cavalry camp, also in North Africa, we have had all of his official mail for years - and every third document that was presented to him was criminal complaint. And from these criminal complaints you can actually see that the injured parties started investigations before their reports and actually had a perpetrator more or less specifically in mind. Among them are very curious cases like a woman, she had a number of sheep and these sheep were not stolen from her, but their wool was sheared off and only the wool was removed and she discovered her shaved sheep in the morning and she already had a suspicion, said it by name and then submitted it. "

Sometimes arrest warrants were then issued, similar to today. Marcus Reuter says, however, that the authorities were not very interested and not very effective in prosecuting the law.

The fact that crime was so widespread was partly due to the extreme wealth gap in Roman society: the narrow upper class, the long-established nobles, the large landowners and large merchants reveled in immeasurable wealth. Individual families owned a dozen villas and thousands of slaves. At the lower end of the population pyramid, however, stood the broad stratum of small farmers and artisans, whose families constantly lived in fear of hunger and poverty. As a result, from the early republic to the late empire, there were social tensions and unrest again and again:

"We know from inscriptions that very many poor people suffered more and more from the increasing tax burdens in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and a number of such petitions to the Roman emperors have been preserved, where they explicitly declare they could No longer working in their traditional fields, it is no longer worth it, they then also threaten, all they really have left is to flee to the highway robbery. "

Many professions did not bring in enough to support a family: sailors and dock workers were out of work every winter because shipping was stopped. Bakers could fall into ruin at any time due to scarce harvests or rising grain prices - and grain was sometimes artificially shortened by speculators, because white-collar crime was also not unknown in the empire.

"When someone is alone and has a family to support, their existence is always threatened."

But the peasants in particular - as peasant soldiers once the pride and strength of Rome - repeatedly got into trouble, says Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto. Be it through oppressive taxes or through the endless wars of the Roman Republic: as long as they stood before Carthage or marched through Asia Minor, nobody at home could plow, sow and reap. Episode:

"That the small farmers are impoverished by the long absence from the farm and that they then have to sell their farm to the large landowners, who then only have to work as day laborers with these large landowners or to migrate to the cities and then we have the education of an urban proletariat. "

Herrmann-Otto, professor at the University of Trier, has examined ancient poverty in a large project of the German Research Foundation: The interdisciplinary special research area "Strangeness and Poverty" recently completed its work and is now providing insights into its results in a spectacular exhibition in Trier.

"The men can do a lot more there. So if they are a bit skilled in their craftsmanship, they can set up a small craft business. But what do women do? A large proportion of women go into prostitution. But that's for an older woman not possible anymore."

The Roman state did not pay social benefits. As little as he was responsible for the personal safety of his citizens for their support in illness and in old age. The family offered the best protection. The legitimate children looked after the family man, who legally retained power over his descendants until his death. The mother received help from illegitimate children - which no one found offensive - or returned to her father's house. If slaves or freedmen belonged to the "Familia", they also had to support their rule.

The social environment also provided a certain amount of support. When a senator got into trouble - he could also lose his estate during long military service or perhaps lose his fortune in a speculation - his peers would help him for a while. The less wealthy were members of associations.

"We have profession-specific associations, religious associations, but we also have the associations of the common people, the so-called support associations, the funeral associations. But you have to see the following: Everyone who is a member of the association has to pay a membership fee, that is cannot be poor as a beggar. "

For example, those who paid their obolus were invited to banquets, received loans to buy themselves out of slavery, or the association financed the funeral after his death so that his soul could find peace.

But if he couldn't pay any more, the assistance ended quickly. The basic belief of the Romans was "Do ut Des": I give so that you give. Where no consideration was to be expected, there was no support. Help out of compassion and compassion was unknown. This idea first spread Christianity, in ancient Greece and Rome, on the other hand, poverty was considered self-inflicted.

"Poverty always means: you have been unsuccessful, you are responsible for it yourself, you are on the verge of crime and, if you are still crippled, sick and in torn clothes, you are a joke."

Before someone fell that deep, as long as he could work, there was one last resort:

"There is this possibility, which is so inconceivable for us, but which says something about the functioning of this society, that these people start to sell parts of their families. First of all to sell the children, sell the wife and then themselves also sell yourself. "

Officially, a free Roman was not allowed to sell himself into slavery - but there was always a middleman. And that actually opened up a new perspective on life, because a slave was rarely brutally exploited, but rather cared for relatively well. He even had the chance of social advancement - a better chance than a freelance farmer or a small craftsman ever had: If someone received an apprenticeship from his master, he could become a private tutor or estate manager, and sometimes even in the highest offices of the Reich administration rising up. And don't forget: many slaves were later released. In Latin literature, the figure of the freedman who has brought it to wealth and influence is very widespread - even if the upper class despises him as an upstart.

And who fell through the mesh of this safety net - like old people who could no longer work and had no children?

"There are three places in Rome where you can find these absolutely poor: A bridge, that is the Subliquius Bridge over the Tiber, there are the beggars, then you will find them on the arteries, especially on the Via Appia between the tombs and Then there is a so-called beggar town, the one called Aricia, which lies in such a bend and of course these people have nothing else to do than attack all the travelers. "

It was not just the desperate who became criminals; many citizens who had an opportunity acted criminals - and many rich people who wanted to get richer. One of the reasons why the crime was so widespread in the Roman Empire was that a certain amount of crime was accepted.

For example, if you look at large landowners who were already wealthy and who used their power to simply clear away peasants whose land bordered their property - we know that from various legal disputes - there is an attempt to try, no matter how unfair To use means to get even higher.

And nobody found that disreputable, explains Michael Sommer, lecturer at the University of Liverpool and a specialist in the Roman mentality. You simply used your possibilities - like the already very wealthy Licinius Crassus, who purposefully increased his real estate portfolio. The historian Plutarch reported about it:

"When he saw how many houses in Rome went up in flames or collapsed because the buildings were too close together, he bought slaves who were builders and architects. Then when he had accumulated more than 500, he made it his practice, houses to buy that were on fire, and those in the neighborhood, which the owners, out of fear and insecurity, were selling for a ridiculous price. In this way he brought most of Rome into his possession. "

"Such means, they were perfectly legitimate. That doesn't mean that everyone approved them, but it could be reconciled with the moral concepts of the Roman elite."

Crime ultimately arose from the ancient way of thinking, which was by no means as strongly determined by ethical precepts as it is taken for granted in the Christian world today. In ancient Rome, people were guided by the maxim: Everyone is next to himself. So a provincial governor collected taxes for Rome - and at the same time for his own pocket. If a senator wanted a house, a piece of land, a business that belonged to a common citizen, he had him removed. And if the citizen saw a chance to take away a copper kettle in the pub around the corner, he did it. It would have been stupid not to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves!

"Christianity has spread ethical standards of action. And we must not assume that in pre-Christian antiquity. There are other standards that may seem cold to us today, but which nonetheless also functioned in their own way."

In the Roman Empire, the law of the fittest did not prevail, emphasizes Sommer. The empire would not have existed for 1200 years if there had been no awareness of injustice and no laws.

"That is the idea that also underlies our modern constitutional state: That the law of the thumb should not apply in human dealings with one another, not the law of the strong, but the law is precisely designed to protect the weak against the strong. This thought is actually incredibly dominant in the entire ancient philosophy of law. "

People were not the same before the law: slaves and women counted little in court, the citizen was considered more than the stranger and the senator enjoyed a leap of faith in the craftsman. In this respect, the Roman Empire cannot be described as a "constitutional state". But every citizen could claim his rights - at the next military post and, if necessary, from the emperor himself. The authorities did not always take decisive action, but every now and then they also set a limit to the arbitrariness of the powerful. Nobles have appeared in court against their peers who had taken the land away from peasants. And sometimes the emperor was personally committed to his simple subjects:

"On a trip to Syria, the Emperor Caracalla was confronted with land being taken from people in a small Syrian village by large landowners. And he decided in favor of the villagers. Injustice had happened and the Emperor had the task of restoring justice. "

The state only intervened emphatically when laws that affected its own interests were violated: Anyone who did not pay taxes, who evaded service in the army or who did not recognize the authority of the emperor was persecuted and punished with all severity: Man had him crucified or torn apart by wild animals in the arena.

Typical of the legal practice is probably Cicero's famous indictment against Gaius Verres, the governor of the province of Sicily, says museum director Reuter. With the allegations of greed and corruption, the prosecutor apparently turned against it -

"That a governor has enriched himself excessively from his province. The problem was apparently less that he was corrupt, but that he also cheated the state out of tax revenue."

For Cicero, on the other hand, the big appearance was a welcome opportunity to advance his political ascent.

The mentality of the Do-ut-Des, the "I give so that you give", only changed in the 3rd century with the spread of Christianity, which instead propagated charity and brought moral commandments into everyday life. From now on the word of Christ applied: "What you did to the poorest of my brothers and sisters, you did to me." Elisabeth Herrmann-Otto believes, however, that the old principle still lived on, because whoever gave to the poorest was not acting entirely selflessly.

"The poor are then intercessors again, they pray for their benefactors to God. So, they give back after all."