Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic

By Judy E. Gaughan | Go to book overview

FOUR
MURDER WAS NOT A CRIME,
449–81 B.C.E.

If murder was not a crime, what was? Before the middle of the second century B.C.E., there were no crimes. This does not mean that before the middle of the second century the Romans experienced either total nihilistic anarchy or beatific peaceful relations, only that the mechanisms for dealing with disputes, even violent disputes, must almost always have been beyond the purview of the government. Social structures such as the familia and the patron/client relationship must have served as the mechanisms for the resolution of myriad disputes. There also were additional methods of private arbitration when these more personal forms of resolution were unmanageable.1 Although the precise mechanisms are unknown, what is known is that the government did not legislate regarding criminal acts until the middle of the second century B.C.E., when the legislation was tied to the creation of standing criminal courts, the quaestiones perpetuae.

The Romans’ territory expanded more than exponentially during the period between the mid fifth century and the early first century B.C.E.; the changes resulted in an increase in the size and complexity of Roman government; and this complexity and size included, eventually, quaestiones perpetuae (the standing public courts that dealt with acts “done in violation of those duties which an individual owes to the community and for the breach of which the law has provided that the offender shall make satisfaction to the public”2). Nevertheless, murder still was not a crime. Certain offenses involving homicide did become actionable—at first irregularly and some, eventually, regularly—in Roman courts, but homicide per se was not the reason these activities were actionable in a public venue. The reason often had little to do with the act of one human being killing another.

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