Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic
Embarking on a unique study of Roman criminal law, Judy Gaughan has developed a novel understanding of the nature of social and political power dynamics in republican government. Revealing the significant relationship between political power and attitudes toward homicide in the Roman republic, Murder Was Not a Crime describes a legal system through which families (rather than the government) were given the power to mete out punishment for murder.
With implications that could modify the most fundamental beliefs about the Roman republic, Gaughan's research maintains that Roman criminal law did not contain a specific enactment against murder, although it had done so prior to the overthrow of the monarchy. While kings felt an imperative to hold monopoly over the power to kill, Gaughan argues, the republic phase ushered in a form of decentralized government that did not see itself as vulnerable to challenge by an act of murder. And the power possessed by individual families ensured that the government would not attain the responsibility for punishing homicidal violence.
Drawing on surviving Roman laws and literary sources, Murder Was Not a Crime also explores the dictator Sulla's "murder law," arguing that it lacked any government concept of murder and was instead simply a collection of earlier statutes repressing poisoning, arson, and the carrying of weapons. Reinterpreting a spectrum of scenarios, Gaughan makes new distinctions between the paternal head of household and his power over life and death, versus the power of consuls and praetors to command and kill.
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This is a well-written book about a fascinating subject. Okay, it is a bit dense in parts, stretching the concentration, but this is easily forgiven as the author gets to her point. The thrust of the book is about the necessity of holding the power of life and death in a state where the method of government changed radically over time. When one man is in power, for example the early kings of Rome, or the later emperors, or dictators in between, the power of life and death was a necessary tool to ensure their personal power. During the republic, when power was transitory, and split between two consuls, and the magistrates appointed by the senate, it was vital that no one man had this power. The book is written strictly chronologically, from the early kings, up to the time of Sulla, the dictator, whose proscriptions are well-known. It becomes apparent that, during the republic, any crimes, including murder, had to be crimes against the state, 'res publica', to have any real meaning. Most crimes, especially ones that involved homicide, (incidentally, I had not appreciated that homicide meant any killing, while murder meant deliberate killing) were dealt with within the family, usually by the 'pater familias', or by private individuals bringing a prosecution before magistrates or the people. This often meant, not death, but some form of exile, sometimes voluntary. On occasions, in the cases of obvious crimes against the state, special permission was given to the consul of the day to do what was necessary. Almost always this act came back to bite him at a later date. To accept that permission was to make yourself a hostage to fortune, and give your enemies a charge to bring against you. A well-known example of this is Cicero, who, as consul and in the name of the safety of the state, ordered the killing of Catalina, and eventually paid the price. In stark contrast the dictator Sulla, whose proscriptions meant that he designated his personal enemies as enemies of the state, got away with it and went into peaceful retirement. Gaughan writes well, and uses a multitude of references. There are good, useable, notes at the end, and a comprehensive bibliography. For anyone interested in the vagaries of Roman Law in the transition from Republic to Empire this is well worth a read.
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