Why Was Roman Politics So Stabby?

Emma Southon’s book on murder in Rome depicts a state built on death.

Inmates perform play by William Shakespeare.
San Quentin State Prison inmates perform in a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser at San Quentin State Prison in California on May 15, 2015. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Washington is a Roman town. From the Senate at its heart to the columns adorning every building and the giant commemorative obelisk and the city’s (sketchy) claim to be built on seven hills, the capital imitated Rome. So did Moscow, boasting of its status as the “third Rome.” So did London, a provincial backwater in Roman times. The EU’s motto, adopted in 2000, is in Latin, as are over half of U.S. state mottos—and the inscription on U.S. currency. Rome remains an image to be looked to, a symbol of a great past stamped on the West.

But Rome was also a nightmare, a slave state topped by a tiny class of the very rich and horrible. The genius of Emma Southon’s new book, A Fatal Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, is that it simultaneously humanizes the Romans and alienates us from them, portraying a society that’s at once a familiar ancestor and a rabid monster.

A Fatal Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, Emma Southon, Abrams Press, 352 pp., .00, March 2021

A Fatal Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, Emma Southon, Abrams Press, 352 pp., $27.00, March 2021

Around a quarter of the empire’s residents were slaves: born or captured. Legally, they were nonpersons: property that could be tortured, mutilated, sexually abused, or murdered by their masters at will—and frequently were. The main form of public entertainment was going to the arena, either to gasp at very famous, very skilled gladiators trying to kill each other or to watch the certain doom of captives, criminals, and Christians. A jaded public demanded new and innovative ways to see people killed, from imitation naval battles to being raped to death by bulls.

The fate of women was not much better than slaves. The only reason why the murder of Apronia, thrown from a window by her husband, Marcus Plautius Silvanus, in 24 A.D., was investigated was because she was the daughter of a senator and famous general—and because Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus decided to play detective. Roman writers, Southon noted, “tried to avoid naming women if they could help it,” even when they were murdered.

If you were an emperor though, everyone was interested in who killed you—and emperors got killed a lot. No reputable firm would issue life insurance on any wearer of the purple. The average reign of a Roman emperor was 7.8 years—“half as long as the global average for monarchs and a third as long as all other European monarchs,” Southon wrote. Some 49 percent of all emperors were murdered or executed, another 9 percent took their own lives to avoid being murdered, and 9 percent died from unknown circumstances.

Partially that’s because of the chaos of the later empire—but only partially. Not even counting Julius Caesar, who was a dictator in the death throes of the republic, of the first 11 emperors, four were murdered (Caligula, Galba, Vitellius, and Domitian), two killed themselves (Nero and Otho), and one, Claudius, was probably poisoned. Compare that to the 12 official emperors of the roughly contemporaneous Eastern Han empire in China, which saw just one known murder.

The extreme stabbiness of Roman politics, Southon argues, was a byproduct of the Roman notion of liberty. At its core, that was quite simple: It was the right of powerful men to do what they wanted—as Southon puts it, “the freedom to fight among one another, according to the rules, to achieve political power.” When populist leaders from their own class started to challenge the rich and powerful toward the end of the republic, the response was direct violence—beginning with the beating to death of land reformer Tiberius Gracchus in 133 B.C. on the floor of the Senate itself. That unleashed over a century of regular violence between politicians and their followers. Even after Octavian and his successors took power as emperors, the Roman elite liked to maintain the idea that they were just a first-among-equals who happened to have been given absolute power—and who stood to be murderously corrected.

That idea of liberty-as-violence didn’t fall when Rome did. It was still current amid the British aristocrats who birthed the Virginia planter class in the 16th century and among their descendants in the Confederacy. When slaveholder Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, nearly beat abolitionist Charles Sumner to death with a cane on the Senate floor in 1856, he was exercising a very Roman privilege—as was John Wilkes Booth when he shouted “sic semper tyrannis” before murdering then-U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

But the book isn’t just about the privileged class whose murders were most well-documented. The vast bulk of the victims of violence have been, as Southon puts it, “swallowed up by the murky blackness of the past,” save for a few like 10-year-old Julia Restuta; her murder on the streets of Salona for her jewelry was memorialized in stone by her grieving parents. Most of them would have gone unnoticed and unavenged at the time, save by immediate family; the state’s interest in murder was distant and prosecutions almost entirely private.

Southon is very good on the forgotten and the ignored. “People whose babies died,” she wrote, “[or who killed their babies] buried them quietly, often in small pots, in their gardens and courtyards. They didn’t have public funerals; everything about it was private and domestic and quiet. Sometimes, over the centuries, those courtyards and gardens became accidentally full of buried babies, not because of mass slaughter but because babies are fragile and centuries are long.”

She is also a very funny writer and a highly colloquial one, and at first, that can seem flippant. “There’s also some dreadfully tedious medical arguments about the use of nails and different types of foot bone that are incomprehensible to me and therefore seem very convincing indeed, so I’m working here on the basis that people were mostly being nailed to crosses because that’s more fun,” she wrote. But she repeatedly, and sharply, reminds the reader that what she’s discussing is real lives and real suffering.

“In practice, Roman soldiers, who were probably nice young men who were good to their mums and had lovely wives and a few kids and maybe some had a dog and enjoyed a nice game of dice in the evening, would routinely hold a wriggling, bleeding beaten person down, a person probably begging for mercy, and line up a nail against the heel of their foot.”

Yet one thing that’s missing is a consideration of the most potent form of Roman violence: the army. For all of Rome’s indifference to human life and brutal elite politics, the appeal of the Pax Romana was real. As Southon wrote in her first book, “Peace meant the elimination of most threats to life during travelling or going about one’s day-to-day business and the placement of a standing army to protect you from external threats like angry Germans.” That peace, though, was built on a body of very mean men with javelins and swords and a willingness to exercise absolute brutality against anyone who threatened it. But that may be a topic for another book—one I hope Southon writes soon.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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