Tag Archives: crime

Mythbusting Ancient Rome: cruel and unusual punishment



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It is commonly thought that anyone in ancient Rome who killed his father, mother, or another relative was subjected to the ‘punishment of the sack’. But is this true?
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Shushma Malik, University of Roehampton and Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University

Early Roman history is full of stories about the terrible fates that befell citizens who broke the law. When a certain Tarpeia let the enemy Sabines into Rome, she was crushed and thrown headlong from a precipice above the Roman forum.

Such tales not only served as a warning for future generations, they also provided a backstory for some of Rome’s cruellest punishments. Tarpeia is one of many legendary figures who appear in Livy’s History from the Foundation of the City; regardless of whether she was a real person, it became established practice to throw traitors from the “Tarpeian Rock”.

However, not all of the cruel and unusual punishments we associate with the Romans were carried out in practice or uniformly enforced, and some changed significantly over time.

Obey thy father

Roman society was fundamentally hierarchical and patriarchal. A Roman paterfamilias (the family’s oldest living male) had, in theory, the power to kill someone within his household with impunity. This included not only those physically living under his roof, but the wider family of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews as well.

However, historians have debated whether the power may have been largely symbolic and little used in practice. Filippo Carlà-Uhink has argued that the power did exist, but didn’t give heads of the household carte blanche to act as they pleased. For example, the senator Quintus Fabius Maximus Eburnus is said to have killed his son for his “dubious chastity”. But punishing a crime of a sexual nature was not seen as the proper use of a father’s power, so Quintus himself was tried and exiled.

In order for the use of such power to be justified, the son had to have committed a crime against the state. When Aulus Fulvius was killed by his father for his involvement in the conspiracy of Catiline (63 BC), the head of the household was not prosecuted. This was because Catiline and his followers had committed treason by plotting to murder the consul Cicero and seize power for themselves.

A watery and crowded grave

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about Roman criminal justice concerns the penalty for parricide. Anyone who killed his father, mother, or another relative was subjected to the “punishment of the sack” (poena cullei in Latin). This allegedly involved the criminal being sewn into a leather sack together with four animals – a snake, a monkey, a rooster, and a dog – then being thrown into a river. But was such a punishment ever actually carried out?

The epitome of Livy’s History from the Foundation of the City records that in 101 B.C.:

Publicius Malleolus, who had killed his mother, was the first to be sewn into a sack and thrown into the sea.

In practice, the penalty for parricide often just involved feeding the offender to wild beasts.
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There is no mention here of any animals in the sack, nor do they appear in contemporary evidence for legal procedure in the late Roman Republic. In 80 B.C., Cicero defended a young man called Sextus Roscius on a charge of parricide, but the murderous menagerie is conspicuously absent from his defence speech.

The animals are attested in a passage from the writings of the jurist Modestinus, who lived in the mid-third century A.D. This excerpt survives because it was later quoted in the Digest compiled at the behest of the emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D.:

The penalty of parricide, as prescribed by our ancestors, is that the culprit shall be beaten with rods stained with his blood, and then shall be sewed up in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake, and a monkey, and the bag cast into the depth of the sea, that is to say, if the sea is near at hand; otherwise, he shall be thrown to wild beasts, according to the constitution of the Deified Hadrian.

The snake and the monkey feature in the satirical poems of Juvenal (writing during the age of Hadrian), who suggested that the emperor Nero deserved to be “sacked” with multiple animals for murdering his mother Agrippina. But the dog and the rooster do not appear until the third century A.D., when Modestinus was writing.

The punishment fits the (Roman) crime

So was anyone ever actually punished with all these creatures? The emperor Constantine’s penalty for parricide only specified that snakes should be added to the sack. Parricides were commonly punished in other ways such as being condemned to the beasts, which was very popular in the Roman world.

One of the four animals that was said to have been placed in the sack was a snake.
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Many historians have thought that the practicalities of sewing up a dog, a monkey, a rooster, a snake, and a human in a sack together indicates that the penalty was never actually enforced – for one thing, it would be as much a punishment for the executioners as it would for the condemned.

The Romans themselves believed the poena cullei was an ancestral custom – but as with many customs, it was based on preconceptions about the nature of ancient punishments. The best-known version of the penalty for parricide, with all the ferocious fauna included, was a product of the later Roman empire. It was designed to terrify, rather than to be enforced.

The poena cullei entered the standard accounts of Roman criminal law because it fascinated medieval scholars who tried to identify the symbolism of the animals. Florike Egmond has shown that this inspired the introduction of the sack filled with creatures as a punishment in Germanic law, reflecting the belief that a civilized society should follow Roman judicial practices.

To the relief of Germans in the medieval and early modern period, such punishments were rarely carried out. On one occasion, images of the animals were sewn into the sack, as they were considered sufficient substitutes for the real thing.

Thinking of dodging the census?

There was a steep price to pay if Romans did not take part in the census.
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Taking part in the Roman census was compulsory as the state needed a complete record of citizens’ property for tax purposes. According to the first-century B.C. historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the sixth king of Rome Servius Tullius decreed that anyone who did not participate in the census would lose their property and be sold into slavery.

But questions remain over whether this punishment actually happened – Dionysius was writing centuries after the sixth king’s reign, and Servius Tullius was probably fictional anyway. Dionysius’ contemporary, Livy, records a different penalty – citizens who failed to register were threatened with death and imprisonment.

There is no recorded example of either penalty being enforced. Ancient historian Peter Brunt has proposed that this may have been because Romans always turned up to be registered in order to ensure that their rights as citizens would be guaranteed. It’s worth noting, however, that neither Dionysius nor Livy suggested that the law was still in use in their own time – the harsh punishments may have reflected a later conception of cruelty in early Rome, rather than any historical reality.

Writing in the late Republic, the famous lawyer and politician Cicero states that one man, Publius Annius Asellus, decided not to present himself at the census in order to circumvent an inheritance law – and he only lost the right to vote. The Roman authorities had bigger problems as they were rarely able to carry out the census effectively in the first century B.C. (the first #censusfail). Besides, if you were fighting abroad, living outside of Italy, or unable to travel owing to extreme poverty, the Romans in charge could be quite lenient.

The ConversationThe penalties of census slavery, the power of the father, and the punishment of the sack reflect the Romans’ own conception of their ancestors and the idea that authorities must impose harsh penalties in order to deter offenders. But we need to be careful in reconstructing the histories of such punishments. As the case of parricide shows, the versions we are familiar with today are often a collage of sources from different periods assembled to create one specific punishment that seems authentically “Roman”.

Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics, University of Roehampton and Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Roman History, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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True crime: why the Irish counterfeiting wave of the late 18th century was a myth



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Satirical Bank Note (1820), highlighting how easy it was to be hanged for spending fake money, despite how prevalent it was.
George Cruikshank and William Hone

Adam Crymble, University of Hertfordshire

The claim that immigrants or minorities are more criminal than the general population is a common trope. From Donald Trump’s claim that Mexicans in the US were “bringing drugs … bringing crime. They’re rapists”, to the frequent portrayal of African-Americans as having a criminal mentality, to how black men are disproportionately stopped by the police under “stop and search” laws in the UK. Other studies have explored how “driving while black” can increase a drivers’ likelihood of being charged with a traffic offence.

People have long blamed those unlike themselves. Are immigrants and minorities more criminal than locals, or just more likely to get caught – or even just more likely to be blamed? An example of Irish living in London at the beginning of the professional police era shows that who ends up in front of the judge is more dependent on how the crime is policed than on who is responsible. If police tactics unduly target minority groups, then this inflation of the criminal statistics can, and has, been used to paint minority groups in a negative light.

Bank notes not worth the paper

London experienced a massive crime wave between 1797 and 1821, linked almost entirely to counterfeiting and forgery. The problem got so bad that people began to worry if the cash in their pocket was real – aware that they could be executed for knowingly spending bad money. Bank notes had only recently been introduced in England and, as historian Randall McGowen has remarked, they were “scarcely more than a printed form with a number, a date and a clerk’s signature”. Forgers even had the gall to produce the fake bank notes in prison, selling them onward for a fraction of their face value to anyone brave enough to attempt to pass them off in the city’s shops.

A George III gold sovereign from 1817, when coins were made of gold – unless they were fakes.
Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA

Even coinage, then comprised of actual silver and gold, was at risk. Talented button makers and engravers turned their attention to the technically similar processes of making false coins, which would be made with a cheaper metal and rubbed with aqua fortis (nitric acid) or aqua regis (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids) to make the fake appear either silver or gold respectively.

Soon the city was crawling with fake money, including more than 250,000 forged banknotes. Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate of the era, estimated 120 sellers were each distributing hundreds of false coins onto the city’s streets. He singled out the Irish as one of the problem groups behind the crime wave.

Justice deserved?

Peter King’s previous research on Irish crime claimed the justice system did not show an anti-Irish prejudice and that the Irish criminals got what was coming to them. Certainly there are records from London’s courtrooms to support this.

For example, Irishmen John Fennell and James Gillington were arrested in 1799 after having allegedly forged more than 600 bank notes with a home-made printing press. But at the other end of the spectrum the records are filled with Irish such as John Brown, who tried to pay for his glass of gin at the pub with a false coin. Looking at the numbers alone the Irish do seem to have been a problem – but these numbers hide the extent to which policing strategy affected who got arrested in the first place.

Initially, the authorities relied almost exclusively on tips from shopkeepers who had been offered false money. It fell to them to detain suspects and call for the watchman who would make the arrest. This meant people spending false money had a far greater chance of getting arrested than those involved in the more profitable aspects of manufacture and wholesale.

The Irish were more involved in the petty but very public act of spending the money – those aspects of the crime most associated with poverty. As new arrivals, the Irish were at a further disadvantage, and cunning locals were only too happy to trick their new “friends” into buying a round at the bar with the false coins they supplied. With the system of policing set up to almost exclusively target these minor players, the courtrooms filled with poor Irish which led to their reputation for criminality.

Enter the detectives

Despite these arrests the problem of forgery worsened. So, in 1812, the Bank of England changed its strategy, encouraging specialist detectives to hunt for the real counterfeiters. With generous rewards as incentives, these detectives soon managed to infiltrate the criminal networks. This often involved using accomplices in the crime to trick the counterfeiters and wholesalers into selling to an undercover agent, in exchange for a reduction in their own sentence.

For the first time the Bank was encouraging local criminals to “out” other local criminals and, as they did so, the ethnic makeup of defendants appearing in the court began to change: the number of English defendants rose 27-fold in the years immediately after the change in policing strategy.

The ConversationThis research highlights what gets missed when policing focuses on crime perpetrated by ethnic minorities. No one at the time noticed the dramatic reduction in Irish defendants but, by the 1810s, the claim that the Irish were behind the forged currency crime wave was unsupportable. This wasn’t because the situation had changed for the criminals, but because the police had changed where they were looking for them – and discovered that the real culprits behind the crime wave were the local English, and probably always had been.

Adam Crymble, Lecturer in digital history, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Historic Heists



Accused of Infanticide: Evolution of a Criminal Offence in Popular Culture, 1680-1849 (by Tammy Cairns)


PublisHistory Blog

Accused of Infanticide: Evolution of a Criminal Offence in Popular Culture, 1680-1849 (by Tammy Cairns)

Infanticide has always been a highly emotive crime which draws upon pre-conceived ideas of femininity and maternal instinct. From the early modern period up until today, women accused of this crime have been vilified as unnatural beastly characters, capable of killing their own offspring and trying to conceal the evidence. Despite how these women have been portrayed, between 1600 and 1803 the law and parliament substantially altered how those accused were prosecuted and tried for their crimes. Throughout this essay I will be looking at the Old Bailey Proceedings between 1680 and 1849 in order to determine how infanticide changed from a crime where the defendant needed to prove their innocence, to one in which the courts needed to determine the defendant’s guilt. The trials recorded on the Old Bailey Online only highlight the number of cases that went to trial, this in no way portrays the true number of…

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Article: Historical Attempts to Steal Documents


The link below is to an article that looks at six examples of attempts to steal famous documents.

For more visit:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/50503/6-people-who-tried-steal-famous-documents


Article: United Kingdom – Lambeth Palace & the Stolen Books


At the BookShelf

The link below is to a fascinating story of books that were stolen from Lambeth Palace over a number of decades.

For more visit:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22249700

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Article: The New York Mafia


The link below is to an article that looks at the New York Mafia.

For more visit:
http://www.dirjournal.com/info/a-brief-introduction-to-the-new-york-city-mafia/


Today in History – 26 April 1865


United States: John Wilkes Booth is Killed

On the 14th April 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated the President of the United States of America at Ford’s Theatre, in Washington D.C. Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, managed to escape the scene of his crime and fled on horseback to a farm in northern Virginia. It was here, 12 days after his attack on the president that Booth was shot and killed.

John Wilkes Booth was born on the 10th May 1838, into the well known Booth family and became a well known actor in his own right. But it would be his assassination of Abraham Lincoln that he would always be remembered for.

Eight other co-conspirators were tried and convicted for their parts in the assassination and other roles in the plot that resulted in the death of the president. Four of these were hung a short time later.

 


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