Summer 2015

The Robber and the Robbed

Theft in ancient Rome

Jerry Toner

Mosaic from the “House of Orpheus” in Pompeii warning would-be thieves of the presence of a guard dog, first century CE.

At night, the emperor Nero used to disguise himself as a slave and go wandering through the streets and taverns of Rome. This was before the Great Fire of 64 CE—which Nero was to be accused of starting himself—when the streets of the city were narrow, twisting, and dark. The emperor would lurk in the shadows until someone passed by and then leap out and violently assault him (although one victim fought back and pummeled the emperor to within an inch of his life, an act for which Nero later forced him to commit suicide). Nero would then break into shops and steal from them. Safely back at his palace, he would auction off his loot to the highest bidder. When it became well known that the emperor himself was indulging in such a wanton crime spree, many others began, not surprisingly, to copy his example. It was said there were so many marauding gangs that at night Rome became like a city that had been captured by the enemy.

What is remarkable about this story is that it shows that a man who was head of the Roman legal system and the ultimate judge and source of Roman law was happy to behave like a common thief. Now, the story may well be an invention designed to discredit an emperor who was unpopular with the literary class, but, true or not, the tale also highlights the major place that crime had in ancient Roman society. Most of us think of ancient Rome as a generally well-ordered and disciplined society, but the Roman Empire was rife with crime and theft. People at all levels of society, from the rich in their villas to the poor in their taverns, were affected by such antisocial behavior. Rome was not a safe place to keep hold of property.

The Roman world had no police force in the modern sense, only a group whose primary purpose was to put out fires in the city of Rome itself. Most people had to fend for themselves. If someone steals from us now, we know to head straight to the police to get them to investigate. If a thief stole from a Roman, the victim himself had to bring a civil court case against the accused. The cost and difficulty of this served to deter most. It took money and connections to get the law to look at your case. This personal nature of the accusation also highlights the minimal role that the state had to play in dealing with theft. The state provided the means to hear and judge the case and the means to punish the guilty, but it was up to the victims to collect the evidence and bring the case to court.

Another option was to petition the emperor to ask him to hear the case. One such petition from second-century CE Roman Egypt—given to the emperor’s representative there, the local governor—provides us with a good idea of the kind of theft that affected ordinary life. Written on papyrus, it is from a man called Andromachus, a native of the town of Tebtunis, who complains that two men called Orsenouphis and Poueris had made a brazen attack upon his house in the village. They beat him up and then stole a variety of goods from him: a white tunic and robe, a cloak, a pair of scissors, some beer, and a quantity of salt. But the fact that a petition was sent did not mean it was given a hearing; the system could never cope with the demand. On a two-day visit to a single town in Egypt, one governor received 1,804 petitions, an impossibly large

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