Special Episode – Murder in Ancient Rome

One of the funniest pieces of theatre set in Ancient Rome has to be A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). Now there is a book about murder in Ancient Rome that matches the title inspiration for comedy as well.

We sat down to talk to historian and author Dr Emma Southon about her new book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Dr Southon is also one of the hosts of the podcast History is Sexy and author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore. We were excited to discover that not only does Emma share our affection for Julio-Claudian women, but she is a fellow murderino and lover of Drag Race at heart.

Special Episode – Murder in Ancient Rome with Dr Southon

Why is there so much DEATH in Ancient Rome?

Listeners of our podcast have probably already noticed just how many murders take place in Rome’s mythology and history. The foundation myth about the twins Romulus and Remus has fratricide at its very core. The overthrow of the kings and the beginning of the Republic was triggered by a rape and the suicide of Lucretia. These moments are probably mythological, but the fact that the Romans chose to tell such stories about themselves says a lot about their culture.

The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David

Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David.
The tale of the Horatii is probably mythological. The three brothers volunteered to fight three brothers from one of Rome’s enemy cities, one of whom happened to be engaged to their sister. All the combatants perished, except one of the Horatii, who thus secured victory for his city. Upon his return to Rome, his sister wept as she knew her betrothed was dead. Her brother promptly ran her through, and his father defended the murder as justified. You can learn more about this episode in Rome’s early history in our Episode 38 – Tullus Hostilius.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To add to this rather blood-soaked mythology, the history of Rome is punctuated with murders that take place at what are now seen as pivotal historical moments. The rather graphic murder of the Gracchi brothers during disputes over land reform, the assassination of Julius Caesar, and then we get to the empire and there are almost too many to list! The assassination of Gaius (Caligula), the murder of the emperor Claudius by his wife (and niece!) Agrippina the Younger, the brutal end of the emperor Vitellius in the civil wars of 69 CE, and the memorable stabbing of the emperor Domitian (straight to the groin!).

These are just the highlights, so it is clear why someone like Dr Emma Southon needed to sit down and think about just what all of this murder can tell us about Roman society.

What is the difference between murder and homicide?

Homicide is the act of killing another person, but murder is a social construct. With murder, you need to take the circumstances of the killing into account. Was there intent? Was it planned? Each modern country has different ways of constructing the crime of murder, but one thing that unites most nations in our world is that they do have a law about murder. That was not actually the case in Ancient Rome. Even though they were very proud of their first law code, The Twelve Tables, there was no legislation included regarding the killing of another human being. And they weren’t in a rush to amend that either!

Dr Emma Southon takes us on a hair-curling journey through a variety of killings in the Roman world.

What to expect in this episode?

  • Murder by and of the elite
  • Murder in the imperial family
  • Murdering emperors
  • Murder in the family
  • Murder in a marriage
  • Murder by magic
  • Murder by the state
  • Murder of and by slaves
The Coloseum in Rome - a site of murder

An view of the Flavian Amphitheatre (or Colosseum).
The Romans were big believers in capital punishment – who has the time or resources for rehabilitation? A criminal had done something to make Rome suffer, and so their death would also involve suffering. Executions were something that crowds of people would watch for amusement in theatres like this one, although they were often far less popular than beast hunts and gladiatorial shows… both of which also involved death and murder!
Image by Davi Pimentel from Pexels

What becomes disturbingly clear is just how much murder there must have been in the Roman world, some real and some imagined. Given how little material has survived from the ancient world, to have a picture like this emerge is quite shocking. Even more sickening is how clearly Roman society valued certain lives far above others. The study of murder highlights how little your death mattered without the ‘right’ connections and status. The fact that modern societies are still wrestling with these issues is perhaps the most sobering take-away.

We highly recommend picking up a copy of Emma’s book to get the full scoop on all of these topics. And if all of this doesn’t give you your true crime fix for the day, then you should probably consider seeking professional help!

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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