Recently, prisoners in several states have sued regarding the death penalty and the use of solitary confinement. The Trump Administration has eased some of the restrictions that were imposed by former President Obama and his Justice Department. All I can say is that the prisoners are lucky they did not live in the ancient world – there was no concept of cruel and unusual punishment.
The ancient Romans had no such punishment as life in prison. They could have considered housing, feeding, clothing, and giving medical care, at state expense for a person who broke the law, a total waste of public money. Rome, the capital, had over a million people in 100 C.E., and only one prison. When I visited its ruins years ago, I was surprised how diminutive it actually was. It was reserved only for important prisoners, such as leaders or kings that were defeated by the Roman army during war. The building would have been dark, damp, smelly, full of rats, and the convicts were chained. They might be tortured regularly and, after the emperor tired of displaying them in public during festivals, they were executed.
Many people are astonished that the Roman Empire, with a population at its height of over 35 million people, had many civil laws; such as those regarding property rights, sales of merchandise (slaves, for example, had a warranty), divorce, and policies regarding standard weights and measures. However, they had very few criminal laws, except those regarding patricide as well as incidents involving state security such as treason.
The Romans had no police force; people were expected to police themselves. Soldiers were stationed outside the city to keep order because anytime crowds formed, there was always a chance for riots as political unrest was usually just under the surface. Their other responsibility was to serve as the emperor’s bodyguards. Sometimes this did not function well, because if an emperor became unpopular, in some instances, the soldiers killed him themselves.
There were also no detectives or investigations of crime by authorities. This meant that, for example, if a man was murdered, it was the responsibility of the eldest male in his immediate or extended family to extract vengeance. This might be in the form of blood money. The murderer’s family would try to scrape together the demanded amount and give it to the victim’s relatives. In cases where money was not desired, or unavailable, the closest male of the murdered victim would thus hunt down and kill the perpetrator. This was what happened when Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C.E. In many cases, the criminal would flee the city before this could be carried out; but this too was dangerous. Traveling Roman roads without a large escort was risky.
The streets of Rome were extremely crowded and dangerous. If one was wealthy, he would not walk the streets alone, even during the daylight hours. About 40 percent of the population was slave; he would own many and he would have his slaves and his clients surround him and clear the way for safe passage.
Even the poor travelled with relatives, and no respectable woman travelled through the city by herself.
When Caesar entered the theater with his entourage on that fateful March day, the 60 co-conspirators cut him off from his retinue, before stabbing him to death. The Senate fled and the most powerful man in Rome lay alone, dead in a pool of blood for two hours before the fearful senators started to return.
In the Roman household, the father or eldest male had complete power over the rest of his family. In theory, he could order the death of his wife and children for any reason, with impunity, with slaves being particularly vulnerable. Most of the slaves were captured in war and, in all but a few cases, they would be slaves the rest of their lives as well as any children they might conceive. They were forbidden to marry, were not Roman citizens, and had no rights under Roman law.
The best hope a slave could have was to work in the household of a rich Roman who was decent in his treatment. Female slaves could be sexually assaulted at will and, according to surviving historical documents, this was, sadly, often the case. Household slaves could at least sleep in relative comfort and eat the scraps that were leftover from their master’s expensive banquets.
The worst place a slave could be was to work in the silver mines. There, in three feet of space between ceiling and floor, they toiled 10 hours a day, breathing in the dust. There were no roof supports, so fatalities were common. At night, they slept in chains bound to other slaves. If one slave managed to escape, the others were put to death for allowing it to happen.
Punishments for crimes – whether slave or free – were usually carried out in rapid succession. For minor offenses, this might include a severe beating, being flogged or branded on the forehead. More severe crimes might receive a punishment of putting out the eyes, ripping out the tongue, or cutting off ears. The death penalty included being buried alive, impaling and, of course, crucifixion.
The Romans did not hesitate to torture before putting someone to death. One such punishment was sewing a bound prisoner in a heavy sack with a snake, a rooster, a monkey and a dog, then throwing the sack into the river. One can only imagine the agony inside. This punishment was usually reserved for patricide, or a son who killed his father.
For this reason, almost all Roman homes had bars around the windows and literally barred their doors at night. The streets were unlit and no one ventured out after sundown. In the Bible, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped the man beaten and robbed, while other passersby ignored him. The Romans understood this all too well, for the incident would not have been unusual.
— Jesse Womack is a former teacher, Rotary Foundation Scholar, a Fulbright Fellow, a National Endowment of the Humanities recipient, an American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Scholarship recipient, a West Virginia History Hero, and past president of the Wyoming County Historical Museum Board of Directors.