In the ancient world, both in Rome and Greece, human life was not considered sacred; therefore, murder and cruelty were widespread. The notions of justifiable and unjustifiable homicide have been significantly different from the way people see it nowadays. The purpose of this essay is to consider how citizens of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome perceived homicide and the death penalty from civil, domestic, and political perspectives.
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In ancient Athens, there were no police, investigative bodies, or bailiffs. Citizens, in most cases, took the law into their own hands, which resulted in the widespread impunity of those who committed a crime. Therefore, citizens often turned to relatives, friends, neighbors, and just passers-by for help. It was judged to initiate a murder close to the public and spiritual places, such as temples.
In Athens, masters were prohibited to kill slaves; however, they could inflict bodily harm. Moreover, there were numerous armed units consist of young Spartans – kryptias (Garland 13). It is commonly known that Spartans were accustomed to cruelty and willingness to kill. The first victims of the grown warriors were slaves and helots, and killing them was legal. Members of the kryptias had to go around the Spartan lands, observed the behavior of the helots, tracked potential rebels, and killed suspicious ones.
However, there was a body of advisers, consisting of representatives of aristocratic descent – The Areopagus. The court possessed significant influence and could sentence criminals to death. Areopagus allowed a citizen to kill another person if the latter 1) got into the house and wanted to commit a robbery, 2) attacked first, 3) wanted to harm a friend or family member (Garland 10).
In Rome, there was a law code called the Law of the Twelve Tables. The law code regulated almost all sectors of human life: family relations, inheritance rights, some aspects of criminal, and administrative law. According to the law, if a slave killed his master, all master’s slaves had been subjected to death (Garland 9).
In Athens, it was ‘legal’ for family members to get revenge on murders. At the same time, it was the Athenian citizens who ensured that family members of murder victims imposed a penalty incommensurate with the seriousness of the crime (Garland 10). There were no codified criminal and civil codes, but there was the chief domestic homicide court, the Areopagus, which was established to deal with cases of manslaughter (Garland 11).
According to the Law of the Twelve Tables, the head of the family had the right to kill any member of Ancient Rome. Moreover, he was encouraged to kill a physically or mentally disabled infant. The story about Remus and Romulus and the legend about Horatius show that the foundation of the Roman Empire is imbued with the idea of domestic violence (Garland 11). The cases demonstrate that the welfare of the state has been the highest priority for the Roman citizens. In the days of the Republic of Ancient Rome, the head of a patrician family could condemn and execute his son, and sell him into slavery.
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There were many cases of motivated assassination in Rome and Athens when politicians killed one another to achieve their personal goals. For instance, in Roman Empire, mass prescription took place soon after Sulla came to power in 82 BC, precipitating the beginning of the dictatorship. The list with the names of those who should have been killed was posted at the Roman Forum. They were Sulla’s enemies and wealthy Romans, which could prevent him from coming to power. The method of execution was cutting off the heads, which were put on public display. Public execution was the ordinary practice in Rome, and the severity of the punishment was directly related to the severity of the crime committed.
The wave of political murders in Rome culminated with the assassination of Julian Caesar. As a result of political infighting, more than three hundred people were killed in the “state’s sponsored terror” (Garland 12). Another example of political assassination is connected with the Julio-Claudian dynasty’s members, who are thought to be serial killers. The wife of Emperor Augustine, Livia, was involved in the murders of many family members to secure the succession of her son (Garland 13). Moreover, gladiatorial games promoted violence among Roman citizens (Garland 15).
In contrast, the Greeks seem to have had little taste of political assassination. There are few examples of it, and one of them is associated with Cylon, who failed to establish tyranny and was murdered by his captors (Garland 13). However, numerous Ancient Greek myths are telling about the commitment of murder as a part of a character’s story.
The application of the content analysis method has allowed us to consider and compare how citizens of Ancient Greece and Rome treat death, executions, and murders. Information on how citizens of the Greek world perceived manslaughter is territorially restricted to Athens and Sparta. Information about Roman citizens’ perception is limited to some cases of political assassinations and family strikes. The ancient world failed to investigate the cause of murderous violence, but the roots of murders are understandable.
Garland, Robert. “Murder Most Foul.” History Today, vol. 54, no. 2, 2004, pp. 9-15.