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Summary: An interesting monograph on the topic of murder in the Roman Republic and Empire, but marred by the very large ax the author has to grind. Recommended with reservations.


A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon, should be of interest to the general student of Roman History and the history of law, because it covers because it explores an intriguing question: how did the Roman people and state view the deliberate killing of one person by another outside the context of war? In our time, murder, the unlawful killing of one person by another, is viewed as a grave crime warranting the intervention of the State through the police and courts. But how did the Romans, from whom we take many of our concepts of the Rule of Law, themselves see it?


Southon, who holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, over the course of nine chapters explores these differences, which can be striking. Looking at homicides ranging from the highest classes of Roman society, emperors and consuls, to the lowest – slaves, gladiators, and prostitutes – she looks at a fundamental question: whose deaths were, in the Roman perspective, even worth caring about? From there she goes on to “Okay, this person is dead. Now what?”


(It should be noted that Southon uses a very broad definition of murder, essentially equating it with homicide: “…I have used a very comprehensive definition of ‘murder’ to include basically all killing. Rightness and wrongness are products of social space, where gender, status, race, location, means, time, wealth and infinite other variables shift and move and come together to create rightness and wrongness that are never static. Because of this, I have interpreted the concept of murder very (very) broadly.”)


In looking at these questions, Southon makes two valuable observations (at least, two that stick with me days after finishing the book). The first is that not all lives mattered. In our Judeo-Christian/Anglo-American ethics and jurisprudence, the ideal is that the murder of “someone important” is no different from the murder of a nobody: killing a homeless person is just as much a crime as killing a billionaire or a celebrity. Each is of equal worth as a person and each has an equal right to life.


Southon points out, I think rightly, that the Romans (and, I suspect, much of the Ancient World) would scratch their heads at that. Society was rigidly divided into those who came from powerful families and did important things and who had dignity, the honestiores, and those who didn’t, the infames (“infamous”) who were barely above animals. Romans and the Roman State simply didn’t see the killing of the latter as any big deal. Stab Julius Caesar, for example, and the civil war is on. Beat Publius the slave to death because he broke a vase and, oh well, you can always buy another slave.


She’s also right to point out the inferior and more vulnerable position of Roman women, though I think she errs by omission by failing to point out the status of women in, for example, in Classical Greece was far worse. In Rome, at least, women could own property and businesses. They were, however, still at the mercy of their husbands and fathers.


And this leads to another interesting observation Southon makes, that murder in Rome was not a crime against the sovereign (the Crown in the UK and the People in the US), but often a private family matter. Killings were often kept “in house” lest exposure cause scandal and a stain on the family reputation. If someone committed a crime worth killing for, such as plotting to poison dear old Pater to get his money, it was usually up to the family to deal with it themselves. There was no public prosecution as we think of it.


One could seek to take a killer to court in Rome, but this was again a matter of a family bringing its case to a court and hiring an advocate to speak for them. (Cicero being among the most famous) A variant on this lead to one of my favorite stories in the book, regarding how the Emperor Tiberius personally investigated the case of a woman found dead and determined her husband had murdered her. But, again, Southon’s point holds true: all of the actors in this story were Important People whose lives were considered to have worth. One doubts very much if the Emperor would have investigated the killing of a tavern keeper’s wife.


Southon, as I see it, approaches her topic from a leftist-feminist perspective, looking at class, gender, and power relationships. This itself I have no problem with, even if it’s not a perspective I share; different lenses or filters bring other facts into focus that can provide insight.


The problem as I see it, one that hurts an otherwise worthy book, is Southon’s tone and style. The book, and especially its notes, are written in a casual, even foul-mouthed style as if one were talking with a colleague in a bar over beers one evening. And there is plenty of “Can you believe they would do this shit?” anger on behalf of the victims throughout, as well as humorous references to modern pop culture. (Southon co-hosts a podcast called “History is Sexy,” so I gather this style is her metier.)


At first, I found this refreshing and enjoyable, but, after a couple of chapters, it became tiresome. I found myself thinking “Okay, I get it! The Romans were scum and they casually killed people in really horrible ways. The horse is dead, you can stop beating it now.” After a while, I was yearning for just a dollop of boring old scholarly objectivity. In short, the attempt to be relatable and casual with the reader wound up distracting from the message she was trying to get across.


Format note: I read “A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” in Kindle format. The copy was clean, with no editing or formatting mistakes that I saw. Too often, Amazon tolerates these. I was happy to see the publishers took care with this book.

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A series of storms has been lashing the eastern Mediterranean lately, and one caused a cliff to collapse near Ashkelon, revealing a 2,000-year old Roman statue in gorgeous condition:

A long-lost Roman statue buried for thousands of years has been unearthed by massive winter storms that have lashed the coast of Israel this week.

The mysterious white-marble figure of a woman in toga and ‘beautifully detailed’ sandals was found in the remains of a cliff that crumbled under the force of 60mph winds and enormous 40ft waves.

The statue, which lacks a head and arms, is about 4ft tall and weighs 440lbs. It was found at the ancient port of Ashkelon, around 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.

It dates back to the Roman occupation of what was western Judea, between 1,800 and 2,000 years ago.

The incredible find, which was discovered by a passer-by, will now be put on display in a museum.

‘The sea gave us this amazing statue’, researcher Yigal Israeli said. ‘The statue fell into the sea when the ancient maritime cliff collapsed’.

Neat! I wonder what kind of hideous, ancient curse it bears?

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