Murder in Ancient Rome

Murder in Ancient Rome

By Mark Knowles

Looking at how various authors’ plots were first conceived within this blog makes for very interesting reading. I remember mine vividly. I was a relatively inexperienced supervisor stood half frozen on a crime scene one morning by a canal in central London. I was discussing with another officer how such scenes might have been handled in early Victorian times, when The Metropolitan Police was still in its infancy. He told me a story (possibly an urban myth) about a constable who had once prodded a body he had found to the other side of a canal so that it entered another borough’s jurisdiction. I can only assume that this officer had a severe aversion to paperwork!

This got me thinking about how – or indeed if – murders were dealt with in Ancient Rome by the city authorities. ‘vestigia‘ means ‘footprints’ or ‘traces’ in Latin, from where we get the modern concept of an investigation, but there is really no evidence, written or otherwise, that tells us anything about basic procedures at scenes of crime. We do know, though, about various punishments that could be meted out to offenders, suggesting that there were at least some means of getting them into court in the first place. I decided on my next set of rest days to become a member of the British Library to research the ‘vigiles‘, the night watch, and the concept for the book really came from there.

The world of Roman criminal and civil law is a forbidding one for outsiders. Fortunately, the efforts of the Byzantine emperor Justinian to compile a digest of laws, and to resolve their frequent clashes, make the job a little easier. Stern reprimands and fines could be issued against minor breaches of criminal law, just as they are today. At the other end of the spectrum, however, crucifixion was still employed. Arguably even worse, though, was the poena cullei, which was reserved for parricides. This involved the offender being sewn up in a sack with a motley assortment of animals, such as dogs, vipers, cockerels and even monkeys.

Whilst The Consul’s Daughter doesn’t feature too many animals, it does try to evoke a sense of the atmosphere and danger that was part of life within a sprawling pre-industrial city, especially during the hours of darkness. My early experiences as a uniformed beat officer walking the streets of London, especially the cobbled variety lit by streetlights barely more powerful than gas lamps, gave me a sense of what it might have been a bit like for my early Victorian counterparts. It is hard to project back much further than this, though, especially into ancient history. Part of the joy of writing the novel was to imagine, using my own experiences along with all the available archaeological and literary evidence, what life would have been like for patrolling night-watchmen in that fascinating but deadly city.

Get your copy of Mark’s historical thriller, The Consul’s Daughter, here!