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

By Judy E. Gaughan | Go to book overview

FIVE
CAPITAL JURISDICTION,
449–81 B.C.E.

The Romans are infamous in history for their many ingenious methods of killing and for the abundance of the killing that took place during their regime. Much of this killing, however, was not a product of the republic. Indeed, what is so striking about the republic in this regard is that, outside of war and the military, officials and institutions of republican government seldom killed anyone.1 Even the gladiatorial games of the republic are striking in how few deaths took place compared with the number of deaths in such games during the empire.

Furthermore, capital punishment included not just the literal caput (“head”) but also loss of citizenship, and so “capital punishment” did not even necessarily mean death. In addition, when a citizen was condemned to death in an assembly or by a quaestio, that citizen could (and apparently nearly always did) choose to leave Rome at any point during the judicial proceedings—up until the very last moment—and thus suffer exile rather than death.2 From a modern perspective, then, the Romans were less barbaric than the United States is today with its continued employment of capital punishment, yet the reason for the rarity of death as a punishment was not so much a matter of humanity as a matter of the perceived role of the government, the extent of its power, and the nature of Roman politics.

As a general rule the Romans did not want their government to have control over the life of a citizen. The result of such thinking was that throughout the republic, the power to kill lay in the hands of the people privately; as individuals involved in a dispute beyond the purview of the government; or publicly, grouped together in an assembly. In Chapter Three I argued that the Romans originally limited the power to kill citizens to the Roman assemblies because the assemblies were the institutions that most closely resembled the community as a whole. This is not to say that the assembly was not also an institution of government, but only that

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