The date of "0 A.D." is somewhat arbitrary as the date of what could be described as the Roman law's darkest moment. Roman justice, as it were, began, roughly, in about 27 B.C. and ended in either 476 A.D., if one is referring to the original Roman Empire, or as late as 1453 A.D., in regards to the offshoot Holy Roman Empire.

In this, as to the very rough edges of the Roman law and justice, reference is made to original the Roman Empire. By the time of Justinian in any event, many of the horrific punishments for crimes had been weeded out of the Roman law as it then stood.

When it came to capital punishment, no one, it seemed, could kill like the Romans. The virtues of the Roman law are universally worshiped except by the rare call in the wilderness such as that of the great German legal historian Theodor Mommsen but even his criticism did not focus on the severity and barbarity of the Roman law in regards to punishments for crime.

The Romans were far from having a monopoly on inhumane punishment. The Old Testament for example, has many examples of what are, nominally, God-sanctioned law and justice, but definately inhumane, cruel and unusual. What the Spaniards did during the heyday of the Inquisition Tribinal (1481-1834) in the name of God is an even more recent perverse application of so-called "holy law" to impose law and apply justice.

crucifixionThe English cannot assert any claim to a clean record on inhumane punishment either - see Crime & Punishment in Medieval England.

But what the Spaniards, the ancient Jewish and even medieval England may have been good at, the Romans were better. The practice of crucifixion is the best-known example.

The great sadness in terms of the history of humanity is at one point in time, a Roman, a human being, had to contrive these punishments and that at other points in time, other human beings, other Romans, attended and even celebrated the executions themselves.

The punishments for libel or even for being rowdy at night could be punishable by being thrown from a cliff or beaten to death.

Many historians explain the punishment for parracide, the murder of one's parents. For this, the Romans stuffed the convict into a goatskin with animals such as a dog and even a monkey, sewed it up, and drop it off at sea.

The religious vestal virgins had to pay attention to the Twelve Tables of 450 B.C. because that Roman law set up the punishment if they were ever found to have lost their virginity, subject to periodic inspection by high priests. She was buried alive.

Nero and Marcus Caius

Although the execution of Marcus Caius is documented by Roman historians, one can only reasonably suspect that his execution was not an exception.

The ColosseumThe Roman Emperor Nero suspected Marcus Caius of conniving with Nero's wife Octavia to plan a coup d'état. First, Nero had Octavia murdered. With her out of the way, Marcus Caius must have been perhaps the most worried man in the history of man while he lay in prison awaiting his fate with some knowledge of Nero's craziness.

Nero did not disappoint. He announced the execution to the citizens of Rome who filled the Coliseum, 62 A.D. able this is pure speculation, it is unlikely that there was any form of parental advisory at the portals of the Coliseum in regards to violence. But what the Roman citizens got to see that they was not only over the top it was in retrospect a very sad event because it was state-sanctioned capital punishment and undeniably in the annals of that great body of law, the Roman law.

Skimming over the details not just for convenience sake but also for reasons of simple taste (this is not fiction), Caius was wheeled into the Coliseum to Nero and his retinue, and a full house, a cheering crowd. Caius' clothes were removed and he was whipped with a device known as a flagellum (and from where the word flagellate later came). This whip, however, had sharp edges at the end of each strand. Apparently (and in this case the word is most certainly use to suggest and to hope that the historians are wrong), Caius was held down and the and rotated until most of his skin hung from his body in strips. Apparently, he screamed regularly a redundant detail that historians added, and especially when he was doused with vinegar to increase the pain.

On script, and with the clockwork of a modern rock concert, large gates were opened at one end of the Coliseum and a large bronze bull was brought in by slaves and set down in front of Nero's box in the arena. Caius is brought to the bull and the sword thrust through his midsection. A small door is open on the side of the ball and Caius is shoved inside with the door shut behind him and a fire lit underneath. Caius screams, again, according to historians, until they finally fall silent.

Unfortunately for Rome, Nero successor was Caligula who certainly earned his reputation as one of the cruelest emperors and Roman history.

 In their cruelty, the Romans presumably were trying to achieve deterrence, that their horrible pounishmewnts would so scare the population from committing crime that they would think twice.

Time Heals

If it true that time heals all wounds, time does nothing to diminish the disgust and embarrassment to the law and justice of the horrific testament of the severity and barbarity of Roman law.

But time has increased the wisdom of man and resulted in a softening and more humane way of punishing crime and, if he contributed to this at all, the public execution of Marcus Caius which will forever stand as a explanationning to the dangers of the rule of one man over others.

Again, as with all sad, difficult or regrettable events in the history of law, and they are legion, we would be doing a disservice to our future if we were to bury those events in the sands of time. it is only from our past errors, or our actions as one-time law and jusrtice Neanderthals, that we have progressed and can be placed solidly on that progression from animal to sentient being.

As this is written in the English language, proud lawyers of those islands just west of the North Sea from which the common law is native, proclaim the advancement, humanity and  justice of their justice system. But any observor need only look to the punishment of drawing and quartering, last exacted in 1817, to draw a fair parrallel with what Nero did two thousand years ago.

Almost every legal system has a dark side to its history. The legacy of the Roman law in this regards does, if nothing else, provides an alternate explanation as to why, in most depictions of her, Lady Justice wears a blindfold.


  • Bishop, George, Executions - The Legal Ways of Death (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1986), page 64-76.
  • Mercer, Jeremy, When the Guillotine Fell (New York: Mavmillan Press, 2008)