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Justin Hoch

Rebels, Robbers and Legal Punishments in the First Century

November 12, 2012
When Augustus became emperor of Rome, the quality of life greatly improved;
however, Roman law remained strict and punishment harsh. Just as the empire was seized
with violence and force, the Roman emperor sought to keep control with violence and
force while protecting the citizens at the same time. The Roman Empire developed out of
a need for a solid foundation and security for its citizens. With the standard set, some
citizens adapted to the changes, while other citizens rebelled. As crime, a concern of
every citizen, increased, the Roman Empire established punishments in order to retain
order. The structure of the Roman Empire led to the emergence of robbers and rebels.
Roman Law
By winning the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Augustus seized control of the
Roman Republic and began its transition into a powerful empire during the first century
AD. As Augustus promoted Hellenization and values shifted, the Empire relied on the
cooperation of its citizens in order to create stability. The Empire sought to balance social
and legal aspects. At the beginning, Augustus looked to control the Empire by using the
Republican constitution as a framework; however, power was concentrated in the
This was to slowly transition the people into a new structure while Augustus as
emperor held authority.
As the Empire grew in size and population, the government focused on changing
the structure of Roman law. The structure shifted from formulary jurisdiction to cognitio,
which involved inquiries and examination by professionals. This system called for a more
active role of the State, which resolved the cases.
In effect, the system became more
efficient as victims filed a statement, and then, the State heard the case. The jurisdiction
of the government was spread among imperial and senatorial provinces. In the former,
the emperor appointed a professional to be governor, which became a lieutenant under
the order of the emperor. In addition, he often stationed an army in these provinces on the
In contrast, the senatorial province allowed the people to appoint the governor,
who were appointed by the Senate and worked for the Senate.
This system greatly
benefited most of the provinces as their economy prospered and the quality of life
While Augustus consolidation of power effectively developed a strong empire,
the transition of legal systems produced negative effects too. Augustus attempt to keep
some legal tradition from the Republic clashed with the new values in society.
society changed, the process of court decisions and the role of the accusers constantly
changed. From the development of the Roman law, criminals, mainly of two categories
robbers or rebelsappeared as they acted against the State. Crimes against the State
included a wide range of actions, such as those that threatened the safety of citizens, used
subversion, or attacked the administration of justice.
The emergence of crimes caused
the government to set punishments in order to intimidate citizens and keep power with
the government.
Legal Punishment
With the increase in crime and the rise of rebellions, the Roman Empire enforced
penal action. The severity of the punishment often relied on two factorsones class
status and the type of offense. In court, the judge first asked what ones class status was,
and then what the nature of the act was.
The first factorclass statusdeveloped as the
disparity between rich and poor grew larger. The government offered preferred treatment
to citizens over aliens of the state.
Foreigners did not benefit the workings of society,
whereas, natural citizens could be reinstated into society and become valuable members
of society. Another class distinction focused on the difference between slaves and free
persons. Slaves possessed no rights and received the harshest of punishments, including
lashes, burning, beheading, and beatings.
Among free persons, the rich or those of
government rank could pay instead of serving their punishment. This led to corruption of
bribery in the upper echelons. In contrast, the lower class, poor and lacking necessities,
resorted to crime more often. In general, a citizen of lower status often received a harsher
In addition to status, the type of crime greatly influenced the type of punishment.
Depending on the crime, the government issued either capital or noncapital punishment.
Crimes that did not threaten the State or less severe crimes such as theft, adultery or
vandalism called for noncapital punishment. Forms of noncapital punishment included
fines, exile or loss of rank.
Judges often fined elites, who could easily pay the required
amount. Imprisonment could be used, but the Roman Empire did not see it as an effective
form of punishment. Showerman explains, with the prison used only as a place of
detention until the next step in law was takenthere could have been no great, long-
period, residential prisons like those of today.
As crime increased, Rome had few
prisons with the capacity to hold the numerous criminals. The Roman Empire enacted
proactive procedures to effectively punish its criminals.
Rather than place criminals in prison, the government preferred to impart fear
upon its citizens. In order to do this, it used harsh punishment for capital offenses, any
offense against the State. Capital offenses included any crime that affected the peace,
justice or morals of the State; disrupted the markets and economy; or attacked the public
or government officials.
Just as the offenses varied, the punishments varied too from
deportation to death. In addition, physical torture became a form of interrogation to force
information from a slave or conspirator.
The Empire went to great lengths to obtain
valuable information that would benefit the Empire.
In the first century, the most common type of capital punishment was death. The
form of execution differed throughout the Empire. Provinces executed criminals by
burning, beheading, crucifixion or other manners. Besides death, the government could
remove ones citizenship, restrict certain freedoms or limit ones family rights.
In hope
of discouraging such destructive, vicious crimes, the government proposed these
punishments for any crime against the State as an ultimatum and a means of instilling
great fear in the Roman citizens. Citizens, who valued their lives, feared death more than
any other punishment.
Arguably the most brutal form of punishment was death by crucifixion. The
Roman Empire introduced crucifixion as a painful, humiliating form of execution for
mainly slaves and serious criminals.
After the sentencing, the criminal began to carry a
large wooden cross to the location of the execution, which was usually on the outside of
the city. Traveling through the city, the crucifixion became a public display and affected
the psychology of witnesses as they became afraid of the governments power.
reaching the destination, the criminal was scourged and stripped of clothes by the Roman
soldiers and centurions, and then nailed to the cross by a carpenter. The guards left the
criminal on the cross to die as the tension between the arms and torso made it difficult to
breathe. Within a couple hours or even a couple days, the criminal died of asphyxiation,
or the loss of oxygen to the brain.
This common form of execution acted as a public
show of the extreme pain that the government could impose legally.
During the first century, the governments authority in the form of legal
punishment greatly expanded. The law procedure examined ones class status and the
type of crime to determine the punishment. This combination often produced harsh
punishments for the oppressed and disadvantaged. With the change in legal structure,
more crimes became more severe.
By upgrading the severity of crimes, the Empire
hoped to keep order with minimized crime. MacMullen describes the period as one of
steady degradation in the legal right of the individual to decent treatment, only a little
modified by touches of humanitas.
What seemed like a violation of human rights and a
threat to personal thought was considered legal punishment in the Roman Empire. While
harsh, the punishment imposed by the government created a secure environment for those
citizens willing to accept the law of the Roman Empire.
Even though the quality of life improved in the first century, some citizens did not
benefit from the progress. For example, those citizens trapped in the lower class lived in
poverty looking for a way to earn money and acquire food. One option for them was
robbery for personal gain.
In another case, some citizens did not accept the new changes
in the Empire and sought to express their own religious beliefs and legal procedures. As
these citizens disagreed with the Empire, they too resorted to robbery. Essentially, they
were social outcasts, but they found commonality in each other and formed groups with a
hierarchy structure.
The organization of these groups created a threat to the Empire and
its attempt to keep public order.
To effectively attack their victims, steal supplies and disrupt order, robbers often
separated themselves from society by keeping their identity secret and hiding in the
mountains. Attacking in groups, the robbers used deadly force and violence with great
strategy, often ambushing the provinces from the mountaintops and using daggers as
In addition to mass destruction, robbers asked for ransom in order to receive
money after taking the provinces supplies.
The violent actions of robbers devastated
the villages, ruined local economies and disrupted the highway system; therefore, robbers
became a central concern of the government.
As robbers greatly disturbed order in the Empire, the government sought to
control the criminals and regain stability. After examining the effect of robbers, the
government saw the need to rid society of such negative citizens. When the government
noticed the skill of the robbers and the extent to which they destroyed cities, the
government decided to fight violence with violence by placing the military in cities in
order to quell the robber gangs. As outsiders, the robbers functioned without the
protections of the law; thus, it was just for the government to react militarily.
employing armies to suppress the robbers, the Empire demonstrated its great strength and
capacity to all citizens, setting a precedent and emphasizing that the Roman Empire
would not tolerate a threat to order.
Most citizens feared the Empires vigor and violence, but others rallied around the
robbers. Robbers became heroes to the underprivileged. The sharp disparity between the
upper class and the lower class meant that the lower class struggled in times of famine
and economic failure, often receiving no assistance from the government.
As a
grassroots movement, robbers symbolized fighters of injustice in the Empire. Villages
supported the development of such groups because they believed social agitation was a
way to promote change in the Empire. Robbers enjoyed the support of others, but worked
for themselves. However, little resulted from the revolts because the Empire used violent
force to restore order and punish criminals, who threatened that order.
Robbery differed from theft because robbery used extreme tactics and violence,
whereas thieves simply stole items or pickpocketed.
Because many robbers worked
from the borders of the Empire, they were not secure under the protections of the law,
thus allowing the government to use military force. The government defined violent and
repeated robbery as an act against the Empire; therefore, it was a capital offense. If the
army caught a robber, they were subject to extreme punishment and death. In the first
century, the most common form of execution for a robber was crucifixion. The
unforgiving execution established the Empire as the definitive force over any group of
Similar to robbers, rebels in the Roman Empire developed as lower, oppressed
classes desired to fight against injustice in the Roman political system. While robbers
attacked villages with the intention of gaining supplies and disrupting order, rebels
focused solely on fighting the administration of the Roman Empire. A variety of
injustices, from unequal distribution of supplies to religious regulations, occurred
throughout the Empire.
A rebellion usually formed as one person of the village stepped
up and spoke out against the government. This often happened during times of famine or
economic troubles. Then, the leader gradually gained followers from his village and
nearby villages. The disadvantaged communities united in order to fight for change in the
While the Empire established a time of peace in the first century, rebels looked to
attack at the first sign of unrest or instability in the Empire. As ordinary citizens, the rebel
groups were unskilled in fighting and the Roman Army often crushed any rebellions at
the first notice of any commotion in the villages.
The Roman administration aimed to
keep order at all costs. From time to time, the rebels did stage a revolt of violence, one of
burning forts, killings soldiers and attacking the Empire. When the rebels fought with
violence, the Roman army first tried to intimidate the rebels by threatening complete
destruction. If the rebels did not comply, the Roman army exerted its strength and
brutally attacked the rebels.
One example of a rebellion against the Empire is Boudiccas attempt to rally the
tribes of England in 60 AD. As a province on the exterior of the Empire, England rarely
received supplies in a timely manner, so many English citizens complained about the
length of time it took for supplies to reach the province. Before complete unrest occurred
in England, the Romans used the classic tactic of divide and rule. As long as the tribes
were divided, the Roman army was the strongest force in Britain.
This common
strategy aimed to separate the tribes and prevent any unity between them. However, Nero
stopped the strategy soon after his reign began. This created an opportunity for a
When the king of the Iceni tribe died, he gave half of the English province to his
daughters and the other half to Emperor Nero hoping for protection in exchange.
However, the widowed Queen, Boudicca, was tortured and mistreated; thus, she was
inspired to rebel against the Roman Empire. In a form of rebellion, the English tribes
burned down military posts and killed thousands of Romans.
The power of the Roman
Army proved to be too much though as it quickly sent more troops to battle. Boudicca
committed suicide and the Roman Army claimed victory.
The uprising of Boudicca showed the slim possibility for a rebel victory, but,
more so, the violent and experienced nature of the Roman Army, which took measures to
win at all costs. Because rebellions turned violent and were an act against the state, the
Roman Empire classified it as vis crime, or one of violent and force.
Although the
magnitude of violence could directly influence the severity of the punishment, rebels
always received some type of capital punishment because they had acted against the State
and disrupted harmony in the Empire. The Empire used violence and pain to intimidate
other citizens, just as it did with robbers. One tactic of Emperor Nero was taking family
members from the leader of the rebellion as hostages.
While the Emperor might offer
compensation, he was never bound to fulfill a promise, for he would do anything to
squander a revolt.
In addition to revolts that arose because of ideological differences, the barbarians
were a strong group that clashed with the Empire because of their violent nature.
Barbarians congregated on the exterior of the Empire near the Rhine and Danube rivers,
often functioning without the Empires constrictions. However, barbarians presented a
violent threat to other tribes and other barbarians.
This became a central concern of the
Empire, an administration focused on creating peace among different classes and
societies. When the Empire confronted the barbarians, it used violence to control the
barbarians. The Roman soldiers fought in attempt of gaining honor and glory for their
Violence became a component of the Roman identity and victory, for when the
Roman army won, the soldiers showed little concern for the destruction and agony they
had just unleashed on the provinces. Violence became a public act as all citizens
recognized the devastation produced by merciless wars.
As the Empire refused to retreat or reduce their efforts during war, many
barbarians abandoned their allegiance and joined the Roman army. The addition of
barbarians only increased the level of violence though.
Along with being less
professionally trained, barbarians were less disciplined, thus creating excessive problems
for the generals of the Roman army. The generals enforced strict rules to control the
soldiers so that the enemy did not see any conflict in the Roman army. Conflict would
signal a crack in the armys unity and strategy. As barbarians became willing to join the
Roman army, the Empire became more united. Individuals deserted their values to accept
the laws and morals of the Roman Empire.
In the first century, the Roman Empire
established legitimate power to enforce strict and violent action in order to suppress any
rebellion and sustain harmony.
With the development of new laws and punishments that favored the upper class
and those in power, the oppressed and lower class citizens emerged as robbers, rebels and
other criminals. To establish new values and maintain peace in the Empire, the law
system effectively executed capital punishment whenever one acted against the state. The
Empires low tolerance for disorder feared most citizens, but at the same time, it showed
the extent to which the Empire will go in order to protect the security of citizens.
Through brute strength and military strategy, the Roman Empire established itself as an
elite power over the masses. In a time of transition, the Roman Empire succeeded in
establishing a new culture and legal system.

Jill Harries, Law and Crime in the Roman World (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2007), 11.
Ibid. 21.
William Morey, Outlines of Ancient History (New York: American Book Company,
1906), 412.
Colin Michael Wells, The Roman Empire: Second Edition (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1995), 131.
Harries, Law and Crime, 9.
Grant Showerman, Rome and the Romans (New York: The MacMillan Company,
1931), 406.
Ramsay MacMullen, Judicial Savagery in the Roman Empire, in Chiron 16, (1986),
Showerman, Rome and the Romans, 411.
Ibid. 414.
Ibid. 406
Harries, Law and Crime, 33.
Showerman, Rome and the Romans, 410.
Roman Crucifixion (Roman Colosseum, 2008). <http://www.roman->.
MacMullen, Judicial Savagery, 151.
Roman Crucifixion.
Andrew Riggsby, Roman Law and the Legal World of the Romans (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2010), 204.
MacMullen, Judicial Savagery, 153.
John Welch, "Legal and Social Perspectives on Robbers in First-Century Judea, in
BYU Studies, (Vol. 36.3; Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University, 1997), 143.
Ibid. 141.
Ibid. 142.
Ibid. 145.
Ibid. 147.
Hugh Fogelman, "Between Two Thieves" (Christianity-Revealed, 2003).
"Enemies and Rebels (Devillier Donegan Enterprises, 2006).
Riggsby, Roman Law, 200.

Enemies and Rebels.
H. A. Drake, Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices (Burlington, VT:
Ashgate, 2006), 345.
Ibid. 347.
Ibid. 19.
Showerman, Rome and the Romans, 26.