Policing Rome: Maintaining Order in Fact and Fiction
By the age of Cicero and Caesar Rome probably had a population of roughly a million and was the largest city in the ancient world, double its closest rival, Alexandria. In spite of the glories of Augustan architecture in the next generation, most people were poor and lived in crowded conditions that in recent centuries have engendered well documented crime and violence. Rome remained over a million through the fourth century, began to drop over the fifth, and fell catastrophically in the sixth. (1)
Two parallels come readily to mind. London from 1200 was several times the size of any other place in England; by 1600 it probably had 200,000 notoriously turbulent people, doubling over the following century. Bristol, Norwich and York were next at about 50,000. (2) Paris was at least as large; Lyons next, under 100,000. That is to say, in the times of Gordianus and Falco Rome was much bigger than London or Paris in 1700, and those cities were famously tumultuous. Was Rome as unsanitary, disorderly and crime-ridden as they? What sort of control did the government attempt to impose? This essay provides partial answers.
Keep some fundamental points in mind as we move into the story of police at Rome. One is simultaneously a paradox. Although the word police has a classical origin—the Greek politeuein "to act as a citizen [polites] of a polis"—the metropolitan police forces we are accustomed to did not exist in the ancient world. A few cities had some form of institutionalized keepers of the peace (a body of public slaves at Athens, eirenarchs ["magistrates of the peace"] attested elsewhere), but municipal police forces are a 19th century phenomenon: the British "bobbies" named for the Prime Minister Robert Peel appear in the 1830s.
Second, there were different types of law at Rome: religious law defined the dealings between the Roman state and the gods and was the province of the college of priests (pontifices) under the Pontifex Maximus; public law included legislation and, in our terms, constitutional issues; criminal law dealt with issues that threatened to disrupt society as a whole; and finally civil law. With a few exceptions, the Romans classified as civil law practically all dealings between individual citizens. Many actions we regard as crimes the Romans treated under civil law, for example, ordinary theft and assault. (3) Unless stated otherwise, "Roman law" means the civil law which has been so influential in the evolution of western legal principles. The revived study of Roman civil law (ius civile) at Bologna, in the form of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, constituted the basis of the curriculum in Europe's first university in the early 1100s.
Third, only in fairly recent times have governments assumed responsibility for societal welfare. For centuries there were no social agencies, so the issue of administering them simply did not arise. The state used diplomacy to deal with foreign powers, protected society from enemies by creating armies on an ad hoc basis and disbanding them when the danger has passed, and maintained correct relations with the gods. Inside the boundaries and on earth citizens largely fended for themselves. Families and larger kinship groups such as clans and tribes assisted and protected their members. In 133 BC Tiberius Gracchus began a revolution with a bill calling for the state to ensure a supply of grain at stable price for the people of Rome. (4) This was a contentious issue for decades, led to the policies of Clodius in the 50s (particularly the establishment of the grain dole), and culminated in the decision of Augustus to assume responsibility for the food and water supply and public entertainment — part of the process by which he and all later emperors were patrons of the urban populace.
And fourth, societies have been slow to distinguish between routine maintenance of public order on the one hand and use of massive force in the form of the army on the other. Voting in popular assemblies, citizens selected magistrates who in times of danger called up citizens to serve as soldiers. Ideally, armies were thus temporary militias rather than permanent bodies. Any magistrate who attempted to employ standing military units against the citizens who had chosen them was a tyrant, associated in Greek and Roman thought with political oppression. An ingrained suspicion of permanent armed forces in the civilian area pervaded Roman thought. Besides, any society which sets up such a force must face further questions: who would control and command it, and who would ensure that it stayed out of politics? These questions only got answered in the 19th century, and of course in many places the police still suppress differences in political opinion under the guise of maintaining order.
Consequently, by our standards Rome had a rather high degree of disruption and low-level criminal activity: basic robbery, mugging and even assault and murder. Also, private persons as a matter of civic responsibility were expected to contribute to the common well-being by watching out for themselves and their neighbors. A relatively violent and self-dependent society was an acceptable trade-off for the assumed alternative, tyranny and the loss of freedom.
In times of crisis ordinary citizens might prove unable or unwilling to remain orderly: the lower classes might rampage tumultuously through the streets, or the upper classes conspire to deprive others of their liberty. Slaves on the whole were not much of a public problem: masters kept control of their households. There was no massive slave revolt until the late 130s BC (on Sicily), and then came Spartacus' sixty years later. Special levies of the army dealt with both.
I. The Traditional Res Publica (5)
We have already observed one root of this principle, that the government dealt only with broad issues affecting the entire citizen body and rarely got involved with individuals. Nobody thought otherwise. Many criminal actions fell under civil law at Rome: they were seen as matters of private concern between two citizens. In essence: you burgle my house or cut down my vineyard or olive orchard, and the state will authorize me to use tough measures to regain what's mine. Such issues were important to the people involved, but not to the whole society. (7)
A second root is the power of the pater (not "father" but oldest male agnate) over members of his household (domus or familia). He had an overriding responsibility for the household's well-being, controlled the actions of its members, and was empowered to take legally-binding actions. Roman legend transmitted many examples of patria potestas. This power was not some primitive mentality which faded out as Rome became more sophisticated; rather, it was never lost. (8)
A third factor is the gradual evolution of Rome from a rural agricultural village society into an increasingly urbanized society. Rome came to be by far the largest city in the ancient world. In the early centuries patrons handled many of the sort of affairs for their clients that we today would look to public agencies to do. The old bonds of clientship, essentially a rural institution, slowly broke down as Rome urbanized, and simultaneously rootlessness and violence increased.
The state concerned itself with criminal actions almost only when they were so great as to threaten the state's interests, including its imperial territories. Permanent criminal courts appeared slowly: the first standing or public court (quaestio perpetua or publica) came in 149 BC and was the first attempt to control extortion by provincial magistrates. Sulla's reforms of 81 set the number of standing courts at seven: repetundae (extortion), maiestas (treason), de sicariis et veneficis (dagger- men and poisoners, i.e., murder), ambitus (electoral corruption), peculatus (embezzlement), de falsis (forgery and counterfeiting), and vis (public violence). Although the designation "public" reflects the Roman belief that they were concerned with threats to public order, there was never a public prosecutor, nothing corresponding to our district attorneys or attorneys general. (9)
It was part of civic responsibility and duty—aspects of freedom—that citizens brought their own suits in civil law and protected themselves in criminal law. There was no bar and technically no lawyers. Instead Romans sought advice from jurisconsults, men who knew the existing law and were experts in the technical, complicated, and often archaic procedures (actiones) that had to be used in court. By the late Republic we find one evil side of self-help, when generals used their soldiers and the wealthy hired gangs of thugs and toughs (not necessarily clients) to terrorize opponents into submission.
Another evil consequence of the lack of police and public prosecutors was the rise of informers (10) — like M. Didius Falco, and to some extent Gordianus. In theory this was a matter of civic virtue and public spirit, as citizens helped maintain stability and order by bringing suits on behalf of the public well-being . How well it worked at the level of ordinary folk is not clear, but we hear a lot about it at the highest levels of politics in the multitude of cases of treason (literally the "wounded" or "diminished majesty" of the state, maiestas laesa or minuta) sprinkled through Tacitus' Annals, where informers are among the most wicked inhabitants of Rome.
Colorful aspects of self-help were the doctrines of endoplorare and occentatio: a victim was entitled to call on relatives and neighbors for help, when in hot pursuit of evildoers. The hue and cry of this rough popular justice, akin to Europe's chiarivari and skimmingtons and eventually superseded by the civil law principle of fourfold compensation, led to the abusive oratory, and stinging comments by politicians on opponents, poets on politicians and soldiers on generals. Cicero's "Catilinarian" and "Philippic" (particularly the second) orations come readily to mind, as do the songs Caesar's men sang about their beloved commander and recorded by Suetonius (Caesar 49.4; 80.3). Think also of the countless graffiti, the pasquinades of the "talking statues" of Rome from 1500 on, editorial cartoons, and jokes on the internet. One could also countersue for defamation (iniuria). Patrons informally policed their neighborhoods and handled their clients' legal affairs.
Magisterial Powers in the Republic:
Rome's lower magistrates—the aediles and tresviri capitales—had a very limited right of compulsion, adequate only to regulate markets, public baths, eateries, brothels and to fight street crime by arresting riff-raff. They were never intended to maintain public order as a whole. On the other hand, the higher magistrates—praetors and consuls—had lictors and imperium (the right to command, especially to give orders to soldiers). Lictors were bodyguards of a sort but mostly unarmed escorts, neither police nor magistrates; they carried the fasces as symbols of magisterial authority. Six lictors per praetor and twelve per consul were incapable of dealing with extensive disorder. We should envision them as clearing a path for a magistrate, perhaps shoving their way through a crowd but mostly relying on the peoples' recognition of magisterial dignity to move out of the way. They could no more control a riot than a beagle can replace a German shepherd.
Notice the frequency of symbolism, ultimately the ingrained Roman acceptance of a body of traditions which for centuries the citizenry accepted without challenge, uthinkingly adhering to the way they had always done things. Notice too that both the citizen body as a whole and the ruling classes displayed this mentality. Another quaint symbol was the requirement that the ten tribunes of the plebs were to stay within Rome's sacred city boundary (the pomerium) and leave the door of their houses standing open.
The Romans did not have jails and prisons. Untrustworthy types were confined pending trial or execution. On conviction, the condemned did not serve time behind bars but paid a fine, was executed (how depended on one's rank), or went into exile. (12) Those who knew they would be found guilty often withdrew into exile before sentence was pronounced— a status then confirmed through banishment from water and fire (interdictio aqua et igni, being given shelter) — as did Verres in 70, Cicero in 58, and Milo in 52.
As is well known, the traditional machinery of the state gradually but steadily deteriorated from the later second century BC onward, and the pace accelerated from 90. This is not the place to narrate the collapse of the res publica or assign blame in detail. One obvious culprit was Clodius and his use of the tribunate and urban mobs as violence-prone gangs of his clients. The old-style magistrates with lictors could not control the large-scale, systematic violence. Complex events overwhelmed a system that was totally incapable of adjusting and adapting to new demands. Also ominous was Cicero's doctrine of appealing to all right-minded citizens (the boni)—those who agreed with his definition of public order. (13) Perhaps worst was the introduction of the regular army in politics to maintain public order: the deliberate sacrifice of traditional rights of the citizens (14) and an admission that the system was failing. Undisciplined soldiers caused as many problems as they cured.
II. Augustus and New Institutions in the Empire: (15)
In the area of maintenance of public order we find several improvements. First and most famously, the Praetorian Guard. The only army unit stationed in Italy, this imperial bodyguard was in charge of security of the palace and the imperial family. Splendidly uniformed for special occasions, they often appeared in civilian clothes and with weapons hidden. The next emperor, Tiberius, concentrated all 9 cohorts of ca. 500 men each in the camp whose walls still stand near the train station. Its commander was an equestrian Prefect. (16)
Secondly, there were the three urban cohorts of 500 men each. Housed alongside the Praetorians, they apparently acquired daytime police duties and thus kept an eye out for ordinary street crime. Although they could be called out in the event of large-scale violence (sedition, riot, illegal organizations, suppression of "undesireables" of whatever sort), on the whole they seem to have reacted to rather than sought to prevent crimes. There is no evidence that the cohortes urbanae patrolled on beat, and they were not detectives. Further, they do not seem to have been involved with "high-profile" crimes such as treason and murder. Their commander was the senatorial Prefect of the City. (17)
If we put the Praetorian and Urban Cohorts together, in the first and second centuries AD we have perhaps 6000 men controlling a city of ca. 1,000,000. Around 200 the Praetorians were doubled to about 9000 men, but even so the total was maybe 11,000.
Thirdly we come to Augustus' reorganization of the city into the neighborhoods (vici) grouped into 14 regiones. Associated with this was the creation of the Night Watch (Vigiles) in AD 6 after a fire: 7 cohorts of probably 560 each, with each cohort responsible for two regions. Each cohort had its own barracks (called castra, casermae or stationes) and, as each was responsible for patrolling two regiones , there were 14 stations for storage of equipment (excubitoria). (18) A tribune commanded each cohort, and the overall commander was an equestrian prefect with judicial powers.
The Vigiles were primarily a fire-fighting unit, but they doubled as a night watch, presumably because most fires broke out at night. Secondarily they evidently acquired some police duties, presumably for the same reason—most crimes occurred at night. We can envision patrols checking up on bars and brothels, routine trouble-makers and low-lifes. Such criminals as they arrested they turned over to their commander, who was a subordinate to the City Prefect. The praefectus vigilum had criminal jurisdiction over runaway slaves, thieves, muggers, arsonists and those who sought to sell stolen goods. (19) Two of his subordinates are on record: the commentariensis, who supervised jail records, trial proceedings, and torture, and carried out sentences; and the quaestionarius in charge of interrogations and perhaps conducting enquiries and investigations. Here we have Falco's friend L. Petronius Longus. The paramilitary Vigiles are the closest the city ever came to an institutional police force. They were the only group to engage in regular patrols. A big question remains unanswered: did they patrol to prevent crime and actively try to solve crimes? Evidence is not clear — probably not. (20) They were firefighters, not crime fighters; any police work was secondary and accidental.
III. After Augustus:
- Tom Watkins, Department of History, Western Illinois University
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