Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Enduring Appeal of the Roman Empire

 From Crime Reads:

Rome had a codified legal system from earliest times, which is good. As ever, lawyers did well. If our detective solves a crime which goes to the special murder court, it will be 250 denarii for an advocate opening a case, and 1000 denarii for pleading it – at a time when a sewer-cleaner earned 25 denarii a day. I have never found details of what an informer, or private detective, might charge, but you can work it from the prices of staples – which for the glum ’tec means, the cost of enough wine to forget the proverbial misery of his or her investigative life. A detective who isn’t moaning about this misery isn’t worth writing or reading about.

For historical mysteries we need crimes. What is the earliest anecdote about ancient Rome? Romulus murdering his twin brother. A ‘domestic’. Quickly followed, let us not forget, by the rape of the Sabine women. Romulus actually peopled his new city by making it a haven for runaways and criminals—giving it a lively character from the off. Textbooks imply Roman society was tightly structured; you were a citizen or a slave and, if a citizen, you were patrician, plebian or that curiosity in between where better jobs and most trade occurred. Textbooks sometimes fail to stress that it was perfectly possibly with energy and talent to move between these social layers; an extreme example is Narcissus, under the Emperor Claudius, who was born a slave but rose to run the Empire and to become astonishingly rich. It seems likely that Narcissus became so rich from accepting bribes. More good news for the crimewriter: where people can upgrade themselves legitimately, there are bound to be others using illegitimate methods. And if you accept that human nature never changes, there will always be material because there will always be greed and jealousy, political, personal, financial and sexual.

It is revealing that they had a special court for murder cases. This had evolved in a period when gangsters and hooligans ruled the streets; from dealing with thugs who carried knives it went on to specialize also in poisonings. Rome had a nervous view of any kind of drug, allied to its loathing of magic. Possessing someone’s horoscope implied a sinister interest in when and how they might die… Most murders are family affairs, of course, and the Romans were keen on family. (Read more.)


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