Human Rights in Ancient Rome

By Richard A. Bauman | Go to book overview

7

THE NEW IMAGE OF HUMANITAS: PART ONE

Preamble

The title of this chapter is not misconceived. The introduction of one-man rule by Augustus in 27 BC was a watershed in the perception of human rights, as in so much else. As the Roman hegemony began being transformed into the Roman empire under the realisation that Rome was no longer a small city-state on the Italian mainland but a global village, so old ideas were infused with new vitality and old lamps were exchanged for new. Some of the changes were merely cosmetic, but others probed below the surface of precedent. Others, again, broke entirely new ground.

In some areas, however, progress in humanitas was blunted by relapses into inconsistency, Clementia, for example, moved beyond its modest Republican dimensions, evolving into both a cardinal virtue of the emperor and a fully-fledged canon of criminal interpretation. The change flowed from the increasing personification of the Great Man as the fountainhead of human rights. But clementia's more lenient approach to crime and punishment was offset by punitive differentials. Punishments were made in a way that was either humane or inhumane, depending on the status of the wrongdoer, and society seemed indifferent to the standards of humanitas that had motivated Cicero's fulminations against barbaric methods of execution. But such was the ambivalence of the time that one major feature of human rights was pursued more vigorously than ever before. Ill-treatment-still focussed primarily on non-Romans-was suppressed more effectively than it had been in the Republic.

To some extent humanitas now played a lesser part in the practical enforcement of human rights than its offshoot, clementia; it did not have the same direct impact on people's daily lives.

-67-

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