A fatal thing happened on the way to the forum

My daughter gave me Emma Southon’s book “A fatal thing happened on the way to the forum” for Christmas. Apart from my longtime interest in history, there was a particular reason for this choice. Rebecca took five years of Latin in middle school and high school. She got a 5 on the Latin AP exam, which entitled her to college credit, although I’m not sure whether Colorado State awarded that credit on her transcript. Along the way, she learned 33 words for “kill” and supplied me a cheat sheet of these words along with the book. The lexicon turned out to be unnecessary, but it illustrates the scope of the task Southon undertook in writing this book.

Homicide, both intentional and inadvertent, was common in ancient Rome. Just how common is unclear, since many killings went undocumented. In ancient Rome, the idea of murder lacked the moral overlay that it has acquired today in most cultures. The most important lesson in the book is just how remote and foreign ancient Roman values and mores were from today’s, and how useless our perspectives on homicide and murder are in understanding how ancient Roman society worked and how its denizens thought about themselves and others. Insofar as there were any consequences at all, murder of the elite was punished because it was an affront to dignity and prestige:

“Life itself was not protected and no person had an individual right to life. What was protected by Roman elite cultural norms was dignitas, which is sort of the low-key, non-sacred form of imperial majesty. Dignitas . . . was earned through achievements in politics and war by men and was passed on via the family name to their sons and grandsons. It was an idealized face of elite masculinity . . . These external achievements made a man visible, important and worthy of life. They made killing them mean more than killing anyone else.” p. 237

If they didn’t possess prestige and dignity, the lives of murder victims mattered not at all. The lives of slaves, even freed slaves, meant nothing, other than their financial value to the owner. They were socially dead, so literal death was just a formality. In most cases, the lives of women and children meant nothing; they functioned solely as possessions of men.

The state had no interest in the lives of non-elite citizens. In modern America, the state investigates (or should) every homicide and prosecutes and punishes where guilty perpetrators are discovered. In ancient Rome, such matters were left to the families and relatives of the deceased. If they lacked the means to seek redress, nothing at all was done. If the matter was pursued, satisfaction was made by financial compensation.

In the case of elites, however, there was recourse to the courts:

“My absolute favourite court-based story from Rome is the story of Gaius Flavius Fimbria, whom Cicero called ‘a ferocious personality’ and a ‘lunatic.’ At the funeral of Gaius Marius . . . Fimbria stabbed the Pontifex Maximus, Quintus Mucius Scaevola. Scaevola was injured but not mortally. When Fimbria heard that he had failed to murder Scaevola . . . he lodged a charge against him instead. Baffled, a pal asked Fimbria what precisely he was prosecuting Scaevola for, as no one could work out what he was doing. Fimbria’s utterly wonderful response was that he was accusing him of ‘receiving [my] weapon into his body too gingerly.’ pp. 238-239

There were many types of murder and many classes of people who were murdered for many reasons. The chapters are organized by types of murder. Southon draws on a wealth of documentation (there are nine pages of end notes) to buttress her history, and is quick to acknowledge where sourcing is uncertain or dubious.

Not all of the book is funny. There are sections on the details of crucifixion and gladiator killings. Animals fared poorly, of course, but most humans at the time were held in no higher regard than animals and thus enjoyed no greater protection or consideration. Killing as entertainment is weird enough when it’s in the movies, but homicidal spectacle was a staple of Roman life. On the other hand, Southon’s account of the parking lot parties on the day Ted Bundy was electrocuted remind us that we haven’t progressed all that much.

Writing for a lay audience about ancient Rome, with its exotic and often redundant names, is challenging. Southon does a great job of enlivening what would otherwise be a soporific narrative by drawing on contemporary analogies to personalities and events to make them relatable to a 21st century western reader. She has an eye for good stories and a beguiling way of relating them (which seems odd, given the subject matter). Ultimately, this study of Roman murder shows us the lived experience of a blood-soaked Roman world underneath the marble columns, fancy mosaics, cool buildings, classic poetry and speeches, the barbarism that was integral to Roman “civilization.”