TBR Review: A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum: Murder In Ancient Rome, by Emma Southon

51630983. sy475
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published September 17th 2020 by
Oneworld Publications
ISBN:1786078376 (ISBN13: 9781786078377)

In Ancient Rome all the best stories have one thing in common – murder. Romulus killed Remus to found the city; Caesar was assassinated to save the Republic. Caligula was butchered in the theatre, Claudius was poisoned at dinner and Galba was beheaded in the forum. In one fifty-year period, twenty-six emperors were murdered.

But what did killing mean in a city where gladiators fought to the death to sate a crowd? Emma Southon examines real-life homicides from Roman history to explore how perpetrator, victim and the act itself were regarded by ordinary people. Inside Ancient Rome’s unique culture of crime and punishment, we see how the Romans viewed life, death, and what it means to be human.


I heard Dr Southon on the ‘You’re Dead To Me’ podcast about Agrippina the Younger last week and thought she was a fascinating person, so I ordered her book about murder in ancient Rome and the audiobook version of her book about Agrippina the Younger. I’m probably going to listen to that in the next few days.

The author covers murder in the widest sense, of the death of a person by another through malice. She includes deaths that the Romans would not have called murder, because the only people who’s death is considered murder is a person with dignitas and fama. Those were the 1% or the rich, educated men of the senate and imperial family. Women didn’t count. Poor people didn’t count. Slaves and children didn’t count. There was no police force or investigations, families dealt with problems themselves. If they know who committed the crime, then they might have a sit down meeting of the familia consilium with the miscreant and arrange reparations. Or they might just kill the person.

Only the crimes that mattered to the writers of histories, like Cassius Dio and Tacitus, were the crimes that affected the rich and educated senatorial class, because they only cared about their own class. They could write scathing commentary about the plebs going to the games, but they had front row seats along with the rest of their social class. They didn’t consider the deaths caused in the games to be murder, although we might.

Throwing your wife out of a window was fine, so long as her mum wasn’t a friend of an Emperor’s mum.

Killing someone else’s slave was the same as breaking their vase. You had to pay compensation to the owner for the loss of property.

Southon writes very fluently, and very swearily, about murder in Rome during the late Republic, early and high Empire. The chapters are well organised and informed by a great scholarly knowledge. I can’t wait to argue with my cousin Louis about it.

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