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Brutality: The Human Face Of The Roman Empire

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What do we mean by brutality? At what point does the infliction of harm become gratuitous? Do we judge brutality by modern morality or the expectations of ancient Roman society? It's important to begin this short overview from a known perspective because our judgements on the conduct of Rome are not entirely objective.

 Rome is sometimes seen as the template for tyrannical imperialism. This is difficult to reconcile with the opinions and sentiments expressed by the Roman writers themselves, and indeed, seems to be based on little more than familiarity with the ideological tyrannies of more recent times. David Potter, author of Origins of Empire, describes Rome as "the most successful multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state in the history of Europe and the Mediterranean". Rome was a society that espoused moral values and austere lifestyles. A society that considered itself the epitome of civilisation. In much the same way we do today, as an expression of patriotic self-esteem. It was also an ambivalent society, for when wealth allowed, Romans enjoyed flouting their norms.

 Let's be quite clear about this - brutality is part of human behaviour, as undesirable as many of us would ordinarily see it as. Our modern societies try to protect citizens by legislation and law enforcement, but the infliction of arbitrary and excessive harm is nonetheless something that lurks among us.

 It lurked among the Romans too. Some might claim that it was much more overt than that, and to be fair, one would have to admit the extent of their brutality is notorious. I'm not going to dwell on the reports of individuals. As colourful and horrifying some of the antics that Roman caesars got up to might be, they represent a very tiny example of behaviour, one that distorts the overall picture. So therefore I put the Roman Empire on trial for brutality, judged by the common morality we share.


The Roman Legions

By far the biggest culprit were the common soldiers of Rome. In writings of the late republic and principate, one readily picks up the idea that Rome desired tough disciplined soldiers, able to follow orders without argument, able to withstand the rigours of campaigning, and to be frank - able to ram a sword into man, woman, or child without hesitation. It follows that a man prepared to be so violent isn't likely to be particularly well behaved. The Romans understood that.

 As it happens, Roman legions were often a disagreeable lot. They did argue with orders and were far closer to mutiny than modern armies would tolerate. Even the charismatic Julius Caesar had to ask his soldiers for consent to continue a war during the campaign against his rivals. At the death of Augustus, legions in Pannonia and Germania mutinied after being allowed time off to mourn or celebrate, seeking resolution of the harsh treatment and injustice they received daily.


 Heaven knows, lashes and wounds are always with us! So are hard winters and hard working summers, grim war, and unprofitable peace.

Speech of Precennius - Annals (Tacitus)


Nothing new there, Tacitus tells us. Harsh lives make harsh men. Roman legionaries would expect booty to reward their efforts at war, and their commanders were only too willing to please them by providing such opportunities.


If there is a requisition and a soldier siezes your donkey, let it go. Don't resist and don't grumble. If you do, you will be beaten and you will still lose your donkey.

Letters collected by Arrian (Epictetus)


By tradition, a Roman soldier swore an oath not to steal from his comrades on campaign. Oaths may have been a serious business but they didn't always deter. Frontinus records in Stratagems that one commander, either especially stern or exasperated, ordered that any soldier caught stealing would have his right hand cut off. By tradition, a dishonoured legion undergoes a decimation - one man in ten is randomly selected and beaten to death by his colleagues. Brutality serves as a deterrent.


Tough On The Streets

Where human beings congregate in large urban enviroments, the levels of violence begin to rise. Rome was no exception. A certain level of thuggery was accepted, as young men of good families would roam the streets at night looking for people to beat up. But this sort of behaviour would be more or less restricted to the virile and testosterone driven male gangs. It seems unlikely that all young men behaved in this way.


Your drunken bully who has by chance not slain his man passes a night of torture like that of Achilles when he bemoaned his friend, lying now upon his face, and now upon his back; he will get no rest in any other way, since some men can only sleep after a brawl. Yet however reckless the fellow may be, however hot with wine and young blood, he gives a wide berth to one whose scarlet cloak and long-retinue of attendants, with torches and brass lamps in their hands, bid him keep his distance. But to me, who am wont to be escorted home by the moon, or by the scant light of a candle whose wick I husband with due care, he pays no respect. Whether you venture to say anything, or make off silently, it's all one: he will thrash you just the same, and then, in a rage, take bail from you. Such is the liberty of the poor man: having been pounded and cuffed into a jelly, he begs and. prays to be allowed to return home with a few teeth in his head! Nor are these your only terrors. When your house is shut, when bar and chain have made fast your shop, and all is silent, you will be robbed by a burglar; or perhaps a cut-throat will do for you quickly with cold steel.

Satires (Juvenal)


But despite this potentially violent enviroment, there was also a curiosity among bystanders. Plutarch records how people rushed to the senate house to see the fallen body of Julius Caesar (and rushed away equally quickly just in case). There were of course occaisions when strong feelings arouse the citizens to anger. Riots were always a threat to the powerful in Rome because those caught by them might well be beaten to death, such as the fate of Cleander in the reign of Commodus. Little wonder then that the rulers of Rome were keen to divert the Roman mob with public entertainment.


Sports And Games

Without a doubt a major unifying element of the Roman Empire was the spread of games. Swordfights were performed for public entertainment with a very real risk of death or injury. Although fights to the death existed, the professional bout consisted of two men fighting with referees and rest periods until one or the other could not continue, his fate a decision of the games editor based more often than not on the mood of the crowd.


In the morning men are thrown to the lions and the bears; but it is the spectators they are thrown to in the lunch hour.

Letters (Seneca)


It does the people good to see that even slaves can fight bravely. If a mere slave can show such courage, what then can a Roman do? Besides, the games harden a warrior people to sights of carnage and prepares them for battle.

Letters (Cicero)


The traditional swordfight with an honourable decision over the fate of those who could not continue was one thing; by the late empire, this had transmuted to displays of fighting designed to wound as a means of heightening drama. Little wonder that some experts feel that the gladiatorial games had lost their purpose in Roman society, or that Augustine records the addiction of a newbie spectator to watching violence .

The Romans enjoyed other sports that carried a brutal edge. Boxing, where the bandages that protected the hand evolved into metal gloves designed to punish the opponent. The Pankration, or Greek wrestling, where there are only two rules to obey - no biting and no gouging of eyes - which got ignored in the heat of combat.

Animals were slaughtered by the wagonload to thrill the public for as long as the supply of animals was practicable and affordable. At first for novelty, later for spectacle, and finally to demonstrate the power of Rome over nature. The extraordinary numbers of animals slaughtered in the arena is mind numbing, driving some species to regional extinction - something the Romans themselves were well aware.



Another evil of human behaviour is the ownership of others. The problem has never entirely gone away despite the various moral advances in history. In ancient times, it was simply how life was. The Romans had mixed feelings about their possessions which were legally en par with animals. Some saw them as merely 'talking tools', others more willing to permit something approaching humane treatment. It was true that wealthy owners liked to free as many slaves as they could, in order to show how generous and humane they were, but one suspects a more expedient attitude was the motive.

On the one hand, rural and industrial slaves might expect a short hard life, pushed to physical extremes and exposed to unhealthy enviroments. Others might be valued companions, loyal employees, teachers for their children, or entertainers to please the family and guests.


The slaves engaged in the operation of the mines secure for their masters profit in amounts which are almost beyond belief. They themselves are however physically destroyed, their bodies worn down by working in the mine shafts both day and night. many die because of the excessive maltreatment they suffer. they are given no rest or break from their toil, but rather are forced by the whiplashes of the overseers to endure the most dreadful of hardships; thus do they wear out their lives in misery.

The History of the World  (Diodorus Siculus)


Poor Psecas, whose own hair has been torn out by her mistress, and whose clothes has been ripped from her shoulders and breasts by her mistress, combs and styles her mistress' hair. "Why is this curl so high?" the mistress screams, and at once a whipping punishes Psecas for this crime of the curling iron and sin of a hairstyle.

Satires (Juvenal)


In one case, a slave had killed his master. Law demanded that all the household slaves should be executed as well.


However, a crowd of protestors , trying to protect so many innocent lives, gathered and began to riot. They besieged the senate house. Within the senate house, some senators were anxious to eliminate excessive cruelty, but the majority were of the opinion that nothing should be changed.

Annals (Tacitus)


Sadly the outburst of popular support for the plight of the slaves achieved nothing - Nero enforced the rules.



We have to accept that brutality exists in human societies. In any such society, there is a general level of behaviour that is either tolerated or unsuppressed. Clearly this operates in both ancient and modern eras. Roman law was a reactive process, because free men had the right to free will and self determination. If you chose to exceed acceptable behaviour, then you were liable for punishment, if you were caught or brought to justice.

However this means that men in authority were able to exercise whatever brutality they believed they could get away with. No doubt most maintained some semblance of moral behaviour, others were willing to test the boundaries, especially if far from close inspection. Yet much of this impression is based on reports of individuals such as badly behaved patricians and emperors. The Roman writers use the stories of brutality to describe the vices of an individual, to show what a villain he was, and one suspects that a great deal of this is exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Seneca records his dismay at arena violence. Cicero records that a man was better off doing something useful than sat idly watching fights. And as much as we abhor the idea of gladiators fighting to potential death or injury for public entertainment, it was also recorded that these men were only too keen to please their masters, illustrating that violence is a part of the human psyche and sometimes socially acceptable.

So - was Rome a brutal society? By design the Roman Empire was a benign state that allowed its diverse population to prosper in a spirit of competition and opportunity, a society with avenues for social advancement in spite of strict class divisions, a society that respected local customs as equally valid as Roman law, but it also had a greater capacity for greed and cruelty than we would allow. Brutality served a purpose in the Roman world, a tool that the ruthless found expedient. In other words....


What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman - because I have been among humans.

Letters (Seneca)

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On 9/16/2019 at 2:28 AM, caldrail said:


So - was Rome a brutal society? By design the Roman Empire was a benign state that allowed its diverse population to prosper in a spirit of competition and opportunity, a society with avenues for social advancement in spite of strict class divisions, a society that respected local customs as equally valid as Roman law, but it also had a greater capacity for greed and cruelty than we would allow. Brutality served a purpose in the Roman world, a tool that the ruthless found expedient. In other words....


Well written post.

Without military strength, a frequently vulnerable and weak empire would have been quickly and thoroughly snuffed out of existence by its many enemies and regional rivals.

Without a firm and formalized legal system,  a developed ancient society would quickly collapse into anarchy.

Without a tolerance for diverse cultures and a willingness to incorporate foreign ideas into mainstream Roman military and social culture (under the framework of Roman law and custom, of course), Rome would have neither expanded beyond its earliest borders nor have developed its cultural richness and influence.

Rome's nearly unique success in the ancient world was a confluence of these and other factors. Brutality was just one of the many important reasons for Rome's unparalleled success and  influence in the ancient world



On 9/16/2019 at 2:28 AM, caldrail said:

What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman - because I have been among humans.

Letters (Seneca)

Interesting quote by Seneca. Being on team Petronius, I had to research the context of this quote by the rather unpleasant Seneca:



I greatly enjoyed this very thought-provoking post. Thank you.



guy also known as gaius 

Edited by guy
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I agree with @guy, great post.

I'd like to focus especially on war, since it's the cruellest activity. We understand very well that every war brings its dose of brutality and Romans were not an exeption at all; but I think that usually people don't face the issue in the right way, especially if they don't know history very good.

We tent to compare ancient civilisation with our present, not with other civilisations of the past. So, let's try a quick comparision.

1) In abstract terms, did Romans prefer to destroy at all the enemies or to conquer without too useless losses? 2) When they used violence, were they proud of it? 3) Did propaganda show brutality without constraints, focusing on the sorrow of the losers and bloody war scenes?

The answers are: 
1) Romans' ideal way to rule was "to spare the subjected and to vanquish the proud" (parcere subiectis et debellare superbos, like Vergil wrote), so they didn't abandon themselves to gratuitous violence: why should they? Romans were very practical and they knew that mass killings costed time, money ant the result was only to create irreducible enemies among the survivors. For them it  was more convient to turn enemies in subjected who paid taxes.
2) No, in that case they tried to hide it. Propaganda or not, Romans believed in the "bellum iustum" and animal violence was obviusly against this ideal. Bloody Ceasar's campaigns in Gaul were shocking for most of the senators and I believe to remember that there was a sort of investigation by the senate for this early war crimes.
3) Again, no. Romans loved to display their rule like a one which brought peace, wellness and order: in a word, "civilisation".

What I wrote above refers a lot to propaganda, that's true: but propaganda says a lot about poeple's mindset. For us it is obvious that rulers don't want to show violence against enemies and present them like good guys, but it's absolutely not a rule: it's plenty of ancient populations who, on the contary, loved to show their power by the cruel subjugation of the enemy. Here some examples from the Ancient Near East.

The sumerian army marchs stepping on the corpses of the enemies.

King Naram-Sin reaches the god climbing over piles od corpses.

King Ashurbanipal and his wife celebrates the victory in war with a banquet; in the right corner the decapitated head of the enemy king hangs from a tree.

One of Ramesses II's epithet was "the one who smashes enemy's head".

And so on.
There are so many other examples, everyone which celebrates the king and the army as distroyer of enemies and Mesopotamian art could be very bloody, like we'll never see in Roman art. Is it just propaganda? Right, but not every propaganda is the same and it shows the ideal world that rulers pretend to create. There are no scenes of Roman emperors who merrily feast victory while a head hangs over their head.

So, this is the problem: we take for granted that our (modern) mindset is normal in every time and every place. That isn't. Among the ancient populations, Romans were one of the less cruel; or, at least, they were no proud at all of using violence. And that makes an enourmous difference.

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca was magnanimous, but a sick man fighting all life with the possibility of death. In my opinion, he was to stay living permanently on Corsica away from Rome and Emperor Nero.

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Not as such. He fell foul of Caligula which nearly resulted in his mandatory suicide, but accusations of an affair caused Claudius to exile him. He returned to become tutor to Nero and together with Burrus, ensured the young Nero was, in the opinion of Trajan, responsible for the best five years government Rome ever had. After Burrus died Seneca lost support and tried to distance himself from Nero who wouldn't let him go, but after being implicated in the Piso Conspiracy, Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

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