Murder Most Foul: Robert Garland Asks What Murder Meant to the Apparently Bloodthirsty Greeks and Romans

By Garland, Robert | History Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Murder Most Foul: Robert Garland Asks What Murder Meant to the Apparently Bloodthirsty Greeks and Romans


Garland, Robert, History Today


WHAT DID MURDER MEAN in the ancient world? Did it exist? How was it defined? We have no statistical evidence of its incidence within ally population. There is little information about motives or even about methods. We never hear of serial killers, other than the Roman emperors. We know little about the socio-economic inducements to murder. Our evidence from the Greek world is random and largely restricted to Athens. It comes mainly from the orators, whose services as speech-writers were engaged by plaintiffs and defendants who happened to be wealthy enough to pay them. Very rarely, however, do we know the verdict. Our evidence from the Roman world is mainly limited to a handful of high-profile murders of politically prominent individuals. Murder apart, we know next-to-nothing about the general level of violence in ancient society, which makes it virtually impossible to identify continuity or change. And yet such evidence as we have sheds light on a subject of perennial fascination for our understanding of the tensions and conflicts latent in human society.

It is by no means obvious what type of killing properly belongs under the heading of 'murder'. What we would classify as murder today was in some cases justifiable homicide, in others mandatory.

The Law of the Twelve Tables (c.450 BC), the earliest surviving Roman law code, ordered parents 'to kill quickly a deformed infant'. The paterfamilias or head of the family had the right, in theory at least, to execute summarily any member, including in primis his slaves. When the slave of a knight named Publius Vedius Pollio accidentally smashed a precious goblet, Pollio ordered him to be tossed into a pond stocked with man-eating lampreys--a particularly painful and protracted death. As matters turned out his life was spared, but only because he appealed to Pollio's guest, the Emperor Augustus.

If a slave murdered his master the entire household was executed. On one occasion in the first century AD no fewer than 400 slaves suffered this fate. Although the prospect of indiscriminate slaughter on such a scale provoked a riot among the citizens of Rome, the Emperor Claudius intervened to ensure that the executions went ahead peacefully. In Athens, by contrast, the evidence suggests that slave owners, though free to inflict bodily injury, could not put their slaves to death.

In both Athens and Rome it was the victim's next-of-kin who was required to bring a murderer to justice. If, therefore, the killer was unknown to the victim, there was a good chance that the crime would go unpunished. In the absence of any police force--an institution unknown to the ancient world--a large number of murders must also have been undetected. The only recorded autopsy for forensic purposes was performed on Julius Caesar's corpse by a physician named Antistius, who pronounced that the victim had been knifed twenty-three times.

Many homicides were settled privately, either by the payment of blood money or by vendetta, a practice that might evolve into an endless series of revenge-killings. What we do not know is which method was more prevalent, nor how the ratio between the two might have varied over time.

The distinction between justifiable and unjustifiable homicide was not identical to our own. Athenian law permitted the killing of an assailant who struck first; of a burglar who broke into one's home at night; and of an adulterer found in flagrante delicto. An interesting instance involves a certain Euphiletus, who killed his wife's lover after discovering the pair in bed together. Instead of killing him instantly, however, he first rounded up his neighbours as witnesses and then slew him--we are not and bow--in their presence. Tantalisingly the verdict is not recorded, so we do not know whether Euphiletus was acquitted for having acted in flagrante delicto or condemned for having acted in cool calculation. If convicted, however, he would have faced the death penalty since the homicide was intended. …

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