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

By Judy E. Gaughan | Go to book overview

SIX
LICENSE TO KILL

In a book about the relationship between homicide and political power, the killings of Roman tribunes and their supporters, starting with the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 132, hold a particularly profound place. In 133 B.C.E., Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio, nominally a private citizen but in fact a powerful man in Roman government, led a band of senators into the tribal assembly and participated in the killing of two hundred Roman citizens, including the tribune of the plebs—a Roman official by the name of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. The homicide of Tiberius Gracchus and its many consequences led to attempts to legitimize instances of homicide so that certain Roman officials could protect the res publica by killing those they considered dangerous to its safety. This attempt at legitimizing such killings was a decree of the senate known to modern scholars as a senatus consultum ultimum (scu).

But the Romans demonstrated great ambivalence about it,1 neither completely accepting the concept of justifiable homicide for the protection of the res publica nor ever able actually to outlaw it. In this ambivalence is reflected Roman attempts to negotiate political power in the context of a rapidly expanding territorial empire. In particular, discourse surrounding the justification, or lack thereof, of the scu seems to reflect the notion of diffuse versus centralized power in Roman government. The attitude toward these homicides remained ambivalent throughout the republic.

To demonstrate that the attitude of the Romans toward justifiable homicide for the protection of the res publica was ambivalent, and to determine the reasons for this, I examine the incidents of such homicides, paying particular attention to four aspects: the repercussions for those magistrates who killed Roman citizens allegedly for this reason, the occasional hesitancy of magistrates to employ the decrees of the senate for killing, the laws written to forbid such acts and the extent of their effectiveness, and the

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