<img src = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/fatalTOP-800×534.jpg" alt = "Birmingham University historian Dr. Emma Southon investigates in her new book the murder in the ancient Rome book, A fatal thing happened on the way to the forum. "/> Enlarge /. Birmingham University historian Dr. Emma Southon, investigates the murder in ancient Rome in her new book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
There was once a wealthy Roman named Vedius Pollio, who was notorious for maintaining a reservoir of man-eating eels into which he would throw any slaves he displeased, resulting in their gruesome death. When Emperor Augustus was dining with him on a memorable occasion, a servant broke a crystal goblet, and an angry Vidius ordered the servant to be thrown to the eels. Augustus was shocked and ordered the entire crystal on the table to be broken. Vidius was forced to forgive the servant as he could hardly punish him for breaking a cup when Augustus broke so many more.
This servant seems to have been spared, but many others had their "entrails" torn apart from the eels. And that's just one of the many terrifying ways the ancient Romans developed to kill those who displeased them or offended them, from crucifixions to feeding people to wild animals, to setting slaves on fire and Assassinating Julius Caesar on the Ides of March. Historian Emma Southon covers them all in her hilariously irreverent new book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, and shows us how people of ancient Rome lived, died, and what it means to be human.
The inspiration hit in April 2018 when the infamous Golden State killer Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested – a big day for real criminals like Southon. While speaking with another true crime fanatic and history teacher, Southon learned that her friend often used true crime as a teaching tool for certain cultural biases – for example, using Jeffrey Dahmer as a context for discussing homophobia in the 1990s. Fascinated, Southon searched for a true crime book about murders in ancient Rome, only to find that no one had written such a book. So she set out to correct this serious oversight, and the result is a wonderful mix of true crime and ancient history.
Southon was particularly impressed with the length of the public executions. "Just eating someone from a leopard wasn't fun enough [for the Romans]," she told Ars. "They had to find ways to build narrative tension: when will it happen? Where does the lion come from?" Crucifixions occurred in most public spaces, and the Romans were believed to have seen rotting bodies falling apart on a cross in their daily activities. "Just like true crime, it is horror that fascinates," said Southon. "You just want to poke around at the dark soul behind it and see what makes it tick."
Ars sat down with Southon to learn more.
Ars Technica: You spend a lot of time talking about the definition of murder first. How did you determine what murder in ancient Rome represents for inclusion in your book?
Emma Southon: Murder is very culture specific. It's not that easy to define. Murder is easy to define and has a clear definition: when one person kills another person. Murder is a word for something that is a crime and is different from murder. English law is very specific. American law, because there are so many different states, it's wild. There are so many different ways that murder is defined: you have first degree murder and second degree murder and then homicide and then first degree homicide and second degree homicide. It's so wide and so specific at the same time, but when you move 10 miles in any direction it's a whole different matter. So I could just say, "I'm just counting every murder as falling under the umbrella of the book," even though the Romans would never consider that murder. It's an emotional issue, and the law is often a lot more emotional than people think.
Ars Technica: Did the Romans even have a legal concept of murder?
Emma Southon: They did, but it was very specific in terms of the methods used: poisoning or carrying a knife. But if you've thrown someone off a cliff, that doesn't fall under this law. Much later there are things like the Law of Constantine, the first to prohibit the killing of enslaved people. For about a page, it lists all the ways in which you can no longer intentionally kill an enslaved person. "Don't set them on fire. Don't throw them off anything. Don't hit them with a rock." Why do you have to be so specific? This is because so often Roman laws don't target generic things. You react to something specific. Especially when you get into the Imperial Era, they are generally touted to respond to a specific problem rather than trying to pass a law that applies to many things.
But they're pretty sure it must be intentional. Like, "You said I couldn't set him on fire, but you didn't say I couldn't strangle him." Or, "You didn't say that I couldn't crucify him in my garden" or, "You didn't say that I couldn't feed him to a lamprey."
Ars Technica: You have a PhD in ancient history and you are a serious scholar, but one of the nicest things about your book is how you add humor to those stories – a rare thing for history books.
Emma Southon: I don't read that many popular history books because I find them pretty boring. Usually I'll skim them to see what the interesting parts are instead of sitting down and reading them. I only write books that I want to read. I'll write what I would tell you if I were in the pub with you. If I told you the story of the lampreys, that's how I would describe it. I want people to pick up the book and keep reading and say, "Wow, the Romans are pretty interesting and they have a lot more to offer than just three emperors and a couple of white togas."
/. La mort de césar by Vincenzo Camuccini, around 1804
Ars Technica: They rarely teach you the good things in history class.
Emma Southon: This is true. Anything hindered by curricula is the problem. The curriculum never says, "You know what to do? You should show them a tintinnabulum [a decorative bell on a pole] and then get people to talk about the tintinnabulum and why someone is using a lion Penis head could bring a penis for a cock [on it].
That's why I ended up writing ancient history. I wrote modern history in school until I was 16. It's all battles and treaties and Hitler and then a few treaties and battles. It was just so boring. Old story sounded funnier. I got a copy of Suetonius and read it and thought, "These guys are great." It's all just gossip and people who have rude images and ghosts and omens. And then I read Aristophanes, a Greek comedy playwright; It's just dicks joking all the way down. I thought, "Sure, I should always be here."
The story of ancient Rome is not that boring world of Cicero screaming or Julius Caesar marching around. It's this world where they'd get really upset if they bumped their toes during an important meeting, so they'd have to go home and end up all day because that meant the gods didn't want them to do it. Or where they'd been naked all the time in the bars and all of them had seen each other's penises. You are such a strange and contradicting group of people. I love her more every year.
Ars Technica: It is so difficult to figure out what really happened so long ago because of the lack of information and the historical sources that have survived sometimes contradict each other. How do you approach this problem?
Emma Southon: The sources are always a bit tricky for the Romans. It is so rare that you learn what actually happened because when you have two versions of a source, you have two different versions of a story, even if they were written by two people sitting next to each other. The Romans did not write history how we want to write history. You didn't write what really happened. They wrote history as literature, and what they wrote was closer to Robert Graves than what we would consider academic history.
Once you acknowledge this, you can see what story they are trying to tell. What are they reacting to? In what context was this written? What are you trying to do? Who is your reader? Who is your audience? "So you have to approach the Roman source. When you have a series of events appearing in each one, you can be pretty sure that they are all working from the same songbook, but they are all writing their own narrative about it. If you acknowledge this , you can let go of the idea of finding out what really happened, and you can also accept common myths as the stories people wanted to tell about the Romans.
People want Julius Caesar to be this great general who was an amazing person. They want this version of Julius Caesar because it tells the story of the Romans who form the bedrock of the "West" that American civilization and British civilization itself emulated. Caesar had an oratorical ability and a charm in itself. He could show up and people would pass out and people would chase him down the street because they loved him so much. But he was also a crazy, corrupt upstart who cared only for himself, who had committed genocide in Gaul, killed a million people in the most gruesome circumstances and then boasted about it and then came back, didn't give it do not take up his position and instead march to Rome. He always honored himself. Nobody could argue with him or speak to him.
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."
Ars Technica: We would like to say that history repeats itself.
Emma Southon: History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Ars Technica: That's a good way to put it. What can we learn from the Roman murder that applies to us today?
Emma Southon: When you are on Twitter, people with Cicero in their bio keep coming up to you who want to tell you something about western civilization and how great it was. They love the version of Rome that we show so often in popular media and that is so deeply anchored in our architecture itself. If you look at the world through Roman murder and how they treated people who thought they were important or not important, you see that this is either what [the Cicero fans on Twitter] want or that they don't realize what they stand for: a world fully supported by slavery, where it is very clear that some people count and some people don't. What makes you count is your family background and wealth, and that's about it.
Enlarge /. Historian Emma Southon brings humor and tons of colorful details to her murder story in ancient Rome.
Abrams Press / Emma Southon
Either you have to expose this stuff and force people to say they want [this kind of] western civilization and be explicit about it, or you have to get them to face it and hopefully they will back down. One of the things I wanted to do is show that it was pretty dark folks. You feel a little better now. To the best of my knowledge, we have never raped anyone to death by a bull [or a giraffe, in the legend of Locusta] for fun in public.
Ars Technica: Right at the beginning of the book you insert an epigram about how right and wrong geometric is. What about you?
Emma Southon: This is from Donald Black's Pure Sociology and I really liked it. There is another book I read: Is Killing Wrong? It's a very fun book to read in public. It describes the thing that the Romans made a reality that is less explicit in the modern world: the idea that rightness and falsehood have levels. If all you had left were our laws, as a historian 2000 years from now, you could write, "Murder was illegal and anyone who murdered someone was arrested and these were the sentences that were imposed on them . " because most of them are pretty clear.
You would think this was presumably universal, but if you look at the reality of the situation, you will find that if a black man kills a white woman, that is more wrong than if a white man kills a black man because of the black man Man will likely get a death sentence and the white man will not. A homeless person who kills a CEO will receive a much harsher sentence than a CEO who kills a homeless person. There are levels that our system actually considers right and wrong. I found this really useful as a lens as I combed my way through [archives] looking for all the [Roman] murders I could find. That is the geometric nature of the way we see right and wrong about murder.