An American endeavoring to survice in an urban environment in 1980s may well ask what was the state of crime--and its corollary, punishment--at the height of the Roman Empire, say, in the years 97 or 197 or 297 of the Christian era. We hear, see and fell that the United States is, like Rome, at the apogee of her glory. And indeed, one can find many similarities between the criminal side of our civilization, reported in all our news media, and the manifestations of unruly human nature that concerned the Romans in their court journals, in their histories by eminent men and in the judicial proceedings arranged for the poorest trader or the smaller farmer (the legal papyri of roman Egypt).
Ancient crimes could cover the docket of a modern federal or state courthouse. First come the crimes of mortal violence and sex. Following these, we can consider crimes of lesser violence, including (among others) assault, battery, riots and brigandage. Crimes for money and reputation make up the last major group, which includes theft, robbery, fraud, libel, embezzlement and corruption. Other crimes might merit a mention. Being a Christian (until Constantine the Great came to Rome in 312) represented a special type of crime--treason, or what we might call nonviolent civil disobedience or sedition today. It is not easy to realize that the Christians, thought of as martyrs in Western civilization since the Middle Ages, were seen in their lifetimes as dangerous protesters and social outlaws and outcasts.
Against these various crimes must be set the agents and institutions of law enforcement, including police, whether legionnaires on active duty or informers lurking in the colonades around the Roman Senate; the courts; and the prisons, be they dungeons in major cities, the silver mines of Attica, the galleys in the harbors of Ostia or Alexandria or the rocky little islands in the southern Aegean. Punishments were many and varied; they were usually noted for their refined cruelty. Incarceration or long-term detention under livable conditions was not one of them. Only a few distinguished ex-rulers of fallen politicians were confined to quarters, so to speak. The average criminal went fairly rapidly to the cross, to the arena filled with hungry lions and tigers, into hard labor or, at best, into permanent exile. There was little hope of parole and even less of full rehabilitation into society.
The research for relationships between crime and punishment in the Greco-Roman world and America in the 1980s is complicated by the passage of time. In two thousand years the oral traditions, popular ballads and most of the written records of imperial Rome have disappeared. But we are more fortunate in what survives than we might realize at first. The laws and cases of law collected in the last days of the Roman Empire give us a full picture of types of crimes, if not of their journalistic details. Inscriptions left by the condemned in mine shafts and graffiti on the walls of gladiators' training schools provide clues. The thousands of papyri found in the dry soil of Greek and Roman Egypt provide a thorough picture of petty crime and the criminal process in one corner of the empire. Above all, in the early history of the Christian church, in the tales of saints and martyrs, we have a rich and romantic picture of Roman justice at work on all levels of society.
In general, the record of crime that has survived from ancient Rome to modern times is snobbish, filled with the indiscretions of the aristocracy and misdeeds of the elite. The "media" in any age tend to remember the murder of a senator instead of a street cleaner. Although adultery doubtless took place nightly in the multistory apartment houses along the Tiber or on the slopes of the mountains at Ephesus, pursuit of an emperor's granddaughter for illicit pleasure made infinitely better literary copy for Suetonius, writing in the time of Hadrian (117 to 138). …