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Brutality: The Human Face Of The Roman Empire

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Topic: Brutality: The Human Face Of The Roman Empire
Posted By: caldrail
Subject: Brutality: The Human Face Of The Roman Empire
Date Posted: 16 Sep 2019 at 20:16

What do we mean by brutality? At what point does the infliction of harm become gratuitous? Do we judge brutality by modern morality or the expectations of ancient Roman society? It's important to begin this short overview from a known perspective because our judgements on the conduct of Rome are not entirely objective.


Rome is sometimes seen as the template for tyrannical imperialism. This is difficult to reconcile with the opinions and sentiments expressed by the Roman writers themselves, and indeed, seems to be based on little more than familiarity with the ideological tyrannies of more recent times. David Potter, author of Origins of Empire, describes Rome as "the most successful multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state in the history of Europe and the Mediterranean". Rome was a society that espoused moral values and austere lifestyles. A society that considered itself the epitome of civilisation. In much the same way we do today, as an expression of patriotic self-esteem. It was also an ambivalent society, for when wealth allowed, Romans enjoyed flouting their norms.


Let's be quite clear about this - brutality is part of human behaviour, as undesirable as many of us would ordinarily see it as. Our modern societies try to protect citizens by legislation and law enforcement, but the infliction of arbitrary and excessive harm is nonetheless something that lurks among us.


It lurked among the Romans too. Some might claim that it was much more overt than that, and to be fair, one would have to admit the extent of their brutality is notorious. I'm not going to dwell on the reports of individuals. As colourful and horrifying some of the antics that Roman caesars got up to might be, they represent a very tiny example of behaviour, one that distorts the overall picture. So therefore I put the Roman Empire on trial for brutality, judged by the common morality we share.



The Roman Legions

By far the biggest culprit were the common soldiers of Rome. In writings of the late republic and principate, one readily picks up the idea that Rome desired tough disciplined soldiers, able to follow orders without argument, able to withstand the rigours of campaigning, and to be frank - able to ram a sword into man, woman, or child without hesitation. It follows that a man prepared to be so violent isn't likely to be particularly well behaved. The Romans understood that.


As it happens, Roman legions were often a disagreeable lot. They did argue with orders and were far closer to mutiny than modern armies would tolerate. Even the charismatic Julius Caesar had to ask his soldiers for consent to continue a war during the campaign against his rivals. At the death of Augustus, legions in Pannonia and Germania mutinied after being allowed time off to mourn or celebrate, seeking resolution of the harsh treatment and injustice they received daily.


Heaven knows, lashes and wounds are always with us! So are hard winters and hard working summers, grim war, and unprofitable peace.

Speech of Precennius - Annals (Tacitus)


Nothing new there, Tacitus tells us. Harsh lives make harsh men. Roman legionaries would expect booty to reward their efforts at war, and their commanders were only too willing to please them by providing such opportunities.


If there is a requisition and a soldier siezes your donkey, let it go. Don't resist and don't grumble. If you do, you will be beaten and you will still lose your donkey.

Letters collected by Arrian (Epictetus)


By tradition, a Roman soldier swore an oath not to steal from his comrades on campaign. Oaths may have been a serious business but they didn't always deter. Frontinus records in Stratagems that one commander, either especially stern or exasperated, ordered that any soldier caught stealing would have his right hand cut off. By tradition, a dishonoured legion undergoes a decimation - one man in ten is randomly selected and beaten to death by his colleagues. Brutality serves as a deterrent.



Tough On The Streets

Where human beings congregate in large urban enviroments, the levels of violence begin to rise. Rome was no exception. A certain level of thuggery was accepted, as young men of good families would roam the streets at night looking for people to beat up. But this sort of behaviour would be more or less restricted to the virile and testosterone driven male gangs. It seems unlikely that all young men behaved in this way.


Your drunken bully who has by chance not slain his man passes a night of torture like that of Achilles when he bemoaned his friend, lying now upon his face, and now upon his back; he will get no rest in any other way, since some men can only sleep after a brawl. Yet however reckless the fellow may be, however hot with wine and young blood, he gives a wide berth to one whose scarlet cloak and long-retinue of attendants, with torches and brass lamps in their hands, bid him keep his distance. But to me, who am wont to be escorted home by the moon, or by the scant light of a candle whose wick I husband with due care, he pays no respect. Whether you venture to say anything, or make off silently, it's all one: he will thrash you just the same, and then, in a rage, take bail from you. Such is the liberty of the poor man: having been pounded and cuffed into a jelly, he begs and. prays to be allowed to return home with a few teeth in his head! Nor are these your only terrors. When your house is shut, when bar and chain have made fast your shop, and all is silent, you will be robbed by a burglar; or perhaps a cut-throat will do for you quickly with cold steel.

Satires (Juvenal)


But despite this potentially violent enviroment, there was also a curiosity among bystanders. Plutarch records how people rushed to the senate house to see the fallen body of Julius Caesar (and rushed away equally quickly just in case). There were of course occaisions when strong feelings arouse the citizens to anger. Riots were always a threat to the powerful in Rome because those caught by them might well be beaten to death, such as the fate of Cleander in the reign of Commodus. Little wonder then that the rulers of Rome were keen to divert the Roman mob with public entertainment.



Sports And Games

Without a doubt a major unifying element of the Roman Empire was the spread of games. Swordfights were performed for public entertainment with a very real risk of death or injury. Although fights to the death existed, the professional bout consisted of two men fighting with referees and rest periods until one or the other could not continue, his fate a decision of the games editor based more often than not on the mood of the crowd.


In the morning men are thrown to the lions and the bears; but it is the spectators they are thrown to in the lunch hour.

Letters (Seneca)


It does the people good to see that even slaves can fight bravely. If a mere slave can show such courage, what then can a Roman do? Besides, the games harden a warrior people to sights of carnage and prepares them for battle.

Letters (Cicero)


The traditional swordfight with an honourable decision over the fate of those who could not continue was one thing; by the late empire, this had transmuted to displays of fighting designed to wound as a means of heightening drama. Little wonder that some experts feel that the gladiatorial games had lost their purpose in Roman society, or that Augustine records the addiction of a newbie spectator to watching violence .


The Romans enjoyed other sports that carried a brutal edge. Boxing, where the bandages that protected the hand evolved into metal gloves designed to punish the opponent. The Pankration, or Greek wrestling, where there are only two rules to obey - no biting and no gouging of eyes - which got ignored in the heat of combat.


Animals were slaughtered by the wagonload to thrill the public for as long as the supply of animals was practicable and affordable. At first for novelty, later for spectacle, and finally to demonstrate the power of Rome over nature. The extraordinary numbers of animals slaughtered in the arena is mind numbing, driving some species to regional extinction - something the Romans themselves were well aware.




Another evil of human behaviour is the ownership of others. The problem has never entirely gone away despite the various moral advances in history. In ancient times, it was simply how life was. The Romans had mixed feelings about their possessions which were legally en par with animals. Some saw them as merely 'talking tools', others more willing to permit something approaching humane treatment. It was true that wealthy owners liked to free as many slaves as they could, in order to show how generous and humane they were, but one suspects a more expedient attitude was the motive.


On the one hand, rural and industrial slaves might expect a short hard life, pushed to physical extremes and exposed to unhealthy enviroments. Others might be valued companions, loyal employees, teachers for their children, or entertainers to please the family and guests.


The slaves engaged in the operation of the mines secure for their masters profit in amounts which are almost beyond belief. They themselves are however physically destroyed, their bodies worn down by working in the mine shafts both day and night. many die because of the excessive maltreatment they suffer. they are given no rest or break from their toil, but rather are forced by the whiplashes of the overseers to endure the most dreadful of hardships; thus do they wear out their lives in misery.

The History of the World  (Diodorus Siculus)


Poor Psecas, whose own hair has been torn out by her mistress, and whose clothes has been ripped from her shoulders and breasts by her mistress, combs and styles her mistress' hair. "Why is this curl so high?" the mistress screams, and at once a whipping punishes Psecas for this crime of the curling iron and sin of a hairstyle.

Satires (Juvenal)


In one case, a slave had killed his master. Law demanded that all the household slaves should be executed as well.


However, a crowd of protestors , trying to protect so many innocent lives, gathered and began to riot. They besieged the senate house. Within the senate house, some senators were anxious to eliminate excessive cruelty, but the majority were of the opinion that nothing should be changed.

Annals (Tacitus)


Sadly the outburst of popular support for the plight of the slaves achieved nothing - Nero enforced the rules.




We have to accept that brutality exists in human societies. In any such society, there is a general level of behaviour that is either tolerated or unsuppressed. Clearly this operates in both ancient and modern eras. Roman law was a reactive process, because free men had the right to free will and self determination. If you chose to exceed acceptable behaviour, then you were liable for punishment, if you were caught or brought to justice.


However this means that men in authority were able to exercise whatever brutality they believed they could get away with. No doubt most maintained some semblance of moral behaviour, others were willing to test the boundaries, especially if far from close inspection. Yet much of this impression is based on reports of individuals such as badly behaved patricians and emperors. The Roman writers use the stories of brutality to describe the vices of an individual, to show what a villain he was, and one suspects that a great deal of this is exaggerated for dramatic effect.


Seneca records his dismay at arena violence. Cicero records that a man was better off doing something useful than sat idly watching fights. And as much as we abhor the idea of gladiators fighting to potential death or injury for public entertainment, it was also recorded that these men were only too keen to please their masters, illustrating that violence is a part of the human psyche and sometimes socially acceptable.


So - was Rome a brutal society? By design the Roman Empire was a benign state that allowed its diverse population to prosper in a spirit of competition and opportunity, a society with avenues for social advancement in spite of strict class divisions, a society that respected local customs as equally valid as Roman law, but it also had a greater capacity for greed and cruelty than we would allow. Brutality served a purpose in the Roman world, a tool that the ruthless found expedient. In other words....


What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman - because I have been among humans.

Letters (Seneca)


Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 19 Sep 2019 at 16:11
Some of the punishments seem exaggerated, it does not take the edge off Rome. Cicero writes about a man who refused to participate in the census but rather than lose his property and being sold into slavery, Publius Annius Asellas lost only his right to vote. 

Did the Emperor of a given time have the greatest influence on the level of violence committed by the plebs?  

Would you say that riots were generally the result of class disputes or the actions of leadership at the level of Emperor?

Excellent postThumbs Up

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 19 Sep 2019 at 17:37
Yes we are brutal as Rome all over the world in some respect, with the addition of broadcast public shaming.

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: franciscosan
Date Posted: 21 Sep 2019 at 09:31
The Christians were the first to appreciate Juvenal (who expressed all the decadence of Rome).

the HBO series Rome was pretty good in how it portrayed ancient Rome of the time of Julius Caesar and Octavian.  There is one scene were a young Octavian reaches out and smacks a slave girl, just because he can.  The streets of Rome in the show resemble Calcutta more than they do period movies from the '50s do.

Christianity arose in many ways from the brutality of Rome.  How do you counter someone who is willing to rely on brutality to enforce the status quo?  Now, how do you counter someone who is relying on brutality to create a new status quo?  

Posted By: caldrail
Date Posted: 29 Sep 2019 at 21:31
Christianity had a bad press in the Principate. In fact, it was only because of Nero's punishment of Christians in ad64 (He burned loads of them as lampposts at night for 'causing the fire') that sympathy for their sects began to take root. Make no mistake. In a society where punishments are incredibly awful innocence was a quality that instinctively many felt should be protected, hence the riots when household slaves were to be executed because one of them had murdered his master.
The attraction to Christianity was the communal aspect. Whereas pagan Roman worship was a matter of entering the temple in the same manner as an atrium of a patrician's house and trying to make a deal in the same way, albeit to some unresponsive unseen all-powerful being, Christianity said you couldn't do that, rather you had to earn privileges by piety and so forth - but worshipped in a communal sense.
In other words a home grown religious genre was going to be replaced by a foreign style genre with a different rationale. Early Christianity was not united - it wouldn't come close until the 4th century at the behest of Constantine - and there's little doubt that most sects were simply there for the bishop in charge to profit from his flock (sound familiar?). After all, it was the prospect of increased wealth and influence that Constantine used to tempt Christian sects to unite. The love of money, a very Roman flaw....


Posted By: franciscosan
Date Posted: 30 Sep 2019 at 14:29
I think that there is a terrible temptation to have a state-authorized church.  One not only thus gets religion into politics, but also politics into religion.  Not that it isn't there already, but I think it is best to have separation of church and state, it is one thing that has kept American religion vibrant.  Anyone can go a block down and start up a new church.

I think that Christianity has a long learned endurance towards brutality.  For real Christians, they are not meant to be 'of this world,' and so it is hard to bribe them.  They just won't play well with others (like the Jews to a certain extent).  Of course, one conclusion is that to shut them up, you will eventually have to kill them.  That is what happened with MLK jr. and far from shutting him up, he has become a martyr.  Which on the one hand, amplifies his message, on the other hand, since the man is dead, one can 'manage' that message much more easily these days.

Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 01 Oct 2019 at 01:39
Below is the abstract for an article that can be downloaded free from Google. Or, Caldrail you might consider getting an account with Know if you use Google they will be all up in your stuff.
Brent D. Shaw The Myth of Neronian Persecution.
I'm going to dig into it. This argument has presented itself before before but brief youtube video hardly covers the subject. I was happy to find this article available it's a rather new perspective,2015. -
A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 c.e. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s.

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: franciscosan
Date Posted: 05 Oct 2019 at 15:12 has free accounts, but I'm sure they'll try to sell you on the upgrade.
Just so you know.

I'm afraid too much writing these days, reflects the 'realities' of the '60s, the 1960s.

I am not sure what really happened with the great fire.  I tend to believe that the Christian involvement was false, but on the other hand, I think Nero is such a great villain and madman that we emotionally want to blame it all on him.

Tacitus was David Hume's favorite author.

Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 16 Oct 2019 at 01:09
The article is sizzling with foot notes and the idea of Peter & Paul dying together seems contrived and is a nice wrap up for Roman history during first century. Paul and Peter both escape prison when they were separate- then they die together?
Also the fact that this was never questioned or verified through other sources yet is in every history lesson, is kind of appalling history. The standard, I think, is four sources.

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: caldrail
Date Posted: 16 Oct 2019 at 21:30
There were plenty of radical Jews and proto-Christians wandering around Neronian Rome. There is serious research going on about the Great Fire and Christian involvement (it assumes ancient terrorism in effect and such behaviour is noted in the sources. Mischief is mentioned, and dangerous knife attacks in the preamble to the Jewish War by Josephus for instance).
However, it is still very likely that Christian sects with such a bad rep were made scapegoats of. Clearly someone was planning to benefit from destruction. Landlords seeking to profit from sale of land? Imperial agents seeking to burn the homes of Senators and thus hamstring hidden politics that Nero could not control? The jury is still out.


Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 17 Oct 2019 at 11:47
If you had to rate Roman Emperors was Nero the worst in terms of brutality?

Tiberius on Capri would be my vote.

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: Guest
Date Posted: 17 Oct 2019 at 13:17
I'll offer just a few words on brutality-Masada, Waco and Jones Town.

In the first case it was a choice of mass suicide versus the might and cruelty of Rome, Waco, again a religious event got out of hand, and Jones Town a voluntary mass suicide.

Now, how they relate to Rome is the absolute cruelty of the deaths, such as how Roman era communities would try to escape the mass cruelty that would be visited upon them by conquering Romans, the cruelty of everyday scenes such as the Coliseum, and the casual cruel methods of execution.

Looking around the world, we haven't advanced much, have we?

Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 18 Oct 2019 at 01:10
Originally posted by toyomotor toyomotor wrote:

I'll offer just a few words on brutality-Masada, Waco and Jones Town.

In the first case it was a choice of mass suicide versus the might and cruelty of Rome, Waco, again a religious event got out of hand, and Jones Town a voluntary mass suicide.

Now, how they relate to Rome is the absolute cruelty of the deaths, such as how Roman era communities would try to escape the mass cruelty that would be visited upon them by conquering Romans, the cruelty of everyday scenes such as the Coliseum, and the casual cruel methods of execution.

Looking around the world, we haven't advanced much, have we?
Waco might have been a law enforcement event that was out of control. Twitter is the new Colosseum now an accusation of racism can mean total ruin. Casual Hate. 

Of course ISIS showed us a few horrible ways to die. Recently in the US a man walked into a laundromat and started bludgeoning a random woman whom he did not know with a ball peen hammer, while her six month old baby watched.

Individual acts have been as cruel as Rome. Now violence is a one man show since everyone carries a tv station in their pocket , instant access to millions. Read about a mega pedophile in UK who was quickly done away in prison. The scope of this man's evil exposes a greater evil when we see that so many others were following his advice.

We have advanced, the scale has changed still we are quite capable of evil.

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: caldrail
Date Posted: 28 Oct 2019 at 20:21
Quote If you had to rate Roman Emperors was Nero the worst in terms of brutality?
That's difficult to judge. Nero wasn't overtly brutal but he wasn't shy of death sentences if he felt the need - besides the burning o Christians after the ad64 fire he also raised much needed cash by blackmailing wealthy individuals into leaving their dosh to him in their wills, demanding their suicide or a persecution on their families. Remember that Trajan tells us that the first five years of Nero's reign were the best governed in Roman history to that date (which of course means his mother and advisors were guiding him).


Posted By: franciscosan
Date Posted: 31 Oct 2019 at 10:40
I would argue that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot show that moderns are capable of a depth of brutality, unfound in antiquity, for it is more systematic, more complete.  Rome would inslave you, but you at least had some value as a slave, and an acculturation process as slaves eventually (sometimes after generations) where manumitted.  Different from the systematic 'cleansing' of "undesirables." 

Posted By: caldrail
Date Posted: 03 Nov 2019 at 22:20
The value of Roman slaves varied. Earlier republican slaves were quite rare, almost certainly derived from conquest (prisoners given enslavement instead of death), but the emergence of Rome as a world power in the later Republic saw masses of slaves flood the market and an attitude of unconcern. Note the slave revolts (including Spartacus). Humanitarian thinking starts from around then and dominates at the end of the West.
In Roman law, the question of enslavement is not properly defined and there is continual debate about their status and ramifications in legal proceedings. On the one hand, since the Twelve Tables the Romans considered that legally all men were equal (Really? Unless you were wealthy or enslaved that is) yet at the same time slaves were en par with animals in that they could not decide for themselves. The view that they were human develops along with Stoicism during the imperial period.
Manumission had humanitarian considerations yet it was often done as a means of advertising character. A generous owner would free as many slaves as possible - something Augustus felt obliged to limit by law.
Brutality toward slaves was never going to go away because it depended on the owner. Public slaves were well treated. Private slaves potentially either with respect or contempt, but the Servi Rustica could only ever expect to be worked to death.


Posted By: Vanuatu
Date Posted: 07 Nov 2019 at 12:38
Vercingetorix, a chieftain of Gaul was held for five years by Julius Caesar and then killed in 46 BC as part of Caesar's Triump(wiki).

Any comments on the reason for keeping Vercingetorix alive?

Was it a common thing for a Roman emperor to keep defeated leaders alive?

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate. (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Posted By: caldrail
Date Posted: 10 Nov 2019 at 22:03
The Romans had little experience of it until their power mushroomed in the late Republic. Caesar used Vercingetorix for propaganda. The Gaulish leader was pretty well doomed and only kept alive to serve as a display to the public. Caesar meant the same for Assinoe, Cleo[part's younger sister who had made an unsuccessful bid for power, but the reaction of the crowd to a young woman paraded in chains meant that Caesar could not risk his standing in the eyes of Roman mob by having her executed (Marc Antony had her bumped off to please his royal mistress).
Warfare had a strong religious element that is often overlooked. The earliest raiding parties of Roman tribes were bound by sacred oaths and religious rituals. The standards paraded by legions held such significance (hence the dismay by Augustus when three legions got annihilated and their 'eagles' captured - there would never be a 17th, 18th, and 19th legions again even though the eagles were later recovered). The sacrifice of a captured enemy leader is thus essential to maintain good relations with the God of War. Good fortune from the gods required observance and commitment. Please note that Vercingetorix died by ritual execution in private.
Compare this to the later rebel quenn of Palmyra. Reputedly she was allowed to live on as the wife of a senior Roman provided she recanted her status and any mention of her past, living quietly until her passing. Or perhaps Caractacus, the rebel Briton, brought before the Senate to account for his actions. He made a rousing anti-Roman speech before them - the Senators were very impressed with his courage and allowed him to live on under house arrest with an official pension. Perhaps the surrender of Vercingetorix was so less impressive. Rome had a history of war leaders committing suicide in defeat rather than face dishonour.


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