Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.57

Jens-Uwe Krause, Kriminalgeschichte der Antike.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2004.  Pp. 228.  ISBN 3-406-52240-8.  €24.90.  

Reviewed by Joerg Fuendling, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn (
Word count: 3112 words

All the ingredients for a success story came together when the idea of this book arose. First of all, Jens-Uwe Krause (henceforth: K.) was the author to choose, given his profound knowledge of Roman social history and especially his earlier work on prisons in the Roman Empire. Equally right was the decision to imagine an affordable book not for ancient historians alone; the appeal to students of law and criminology must be vast, and there must be thousands of readers of historical crime fiction outside waiting for "the true story". There definitely is a need for a book like this, restrained in its use of endnotes and with a well-assorted bibliography. And there is no comprehensive study of the topic as a all.

On the way to publication, though, an alarming number of things went wrong. Themes are missing, sources have been misread or torn out of context, and the whole book is littered with unguarded assumptions that collide with what K. himself correctly states to be the limits set by both our evidence and good practice. Even worse, many of those statements clash with the material he presents. The cumulative effect of these faults is at times infuriating and makes the book unreliable as a work of reference. This may well be called a tragedy; K. has digested a vast amount of information, as both the scope of his quotations and his apparatus prove. All the more inexplicable, then, is what happened.

First of all, title and scope. What we are promised is a history of crime in (Graeco-Roman) Antiquity as a whole. What we find inside is far less: not quite thirty pages on Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and the bulk of the volume devoted to Rome from about 200 BC to AD 600. K.'s explanation that we cannot write a valid history of crime in archaic Greece or the early centuries of Rome (p. 11) does not hold good for all that is missing -- the Hellenistic kingdoms, for instance. Apart from this, one cannot help but wish that K. had focussed on Rome, if not the Empire exclusively; the sources involved badly needed an additional thirty pages (and more), while the Athenian component remains sketchy. Finally, the simultaneous treatment of Republic, Principate and Later Empire may not have been a good strategy.

In both parts of the book a shorter chapter on prosecution and punishment of criminal offences ("Verfolgung und Ahndung von Straftaten") precedes a typology of criminal activities, from insult to manslaughter to theft. The prosecutions chapters present first the means for arresting a criminal, police forces or an interested party's own resources, then a description (perforce condensed) of the procedures in court and of punitive measures at the judges' or magistrates' disposal.

It would have been appropriate to insert some words of clarification about aspects the reader will miss very soon. There is barely a detail on prisons -- understandably, K. did not want to repeat himself, but only a fraction of this book's readership will know his earlier monograph. Most inconvenient is the absence of political crime and virtually all crimes related to political goings-on. Their inclusion might have added size to the volume, yet how complete is a criminal history of the Republic without accusations de repetundis -- or of Imperial Rome minus crimina laesae maiestatis? Still, absent they are, without an explanation. We hear of such a thing as corrupt governors (52) and people being deported for high treason (74), but they lurk in the shadows.

There is more. The list of crimes presented is sadly incomplete; K. notes this fact at an unexpected spot (186). No forgery of money -- a mass phenomenon, as numismatics show -- or of documents (that Roman nightmare, the tampered will), not to mention quasi-legal legacy-hunting (that nightmare of Pliny the Younger). While there is a comprehensive portrait of banditry, pirates receive only passing mention that they still existed after the war of 67 BC (p. 173; a few words on beachcombing on p. 154 invite expansion). Worse are the catalogues of punishments, scarcely useful in their present state. Substantial items are scattered across the whole book. Even in the index one looks in vain for branding, mutilation and the ubiquitous whippings (glimpsed in the text on pp. 78f.). Disorder prevails.

What does appear is far too often left unexplained. Take the comparative appeals of Athenian modes of execution. K. tells us that death by hemlock was considered more merciful than quasi-crucifixion on a stake (22) -- but was it? (Aconite poisoning is a good deal more frightening than Plato suggests.) Elsewhere we read about condemnation ad metalla (74) but not a word about the lingering death this entails. We are spared the details of what Athenian husbands were free to do to adulterers caught in the act (41): a radish thrust up the offender's anus or his pubic hair being torn out (Aristoph. Nub. 1083; Pl. 163), which might put K.'s praise of the Athenians for abolishing spontaneous revenge into perspective (32; no mention of Aeschylus on this issue). Why, on the other hand, was it so annoying to suffer deportation to an island? K.'s explanation, that banishment amounted to the loss of civil rights but not of freedom (74), invites misunderstanding, since modern convicts are not slaves though far from free. The grim possibility that the island in question might be a barren, storm-tossed rock (as for many an unhappy Julio-Claudian) will escape most readers. Roman governors are portrayed as free to punish at their discretion (73), with no hint of the increasing practical limits (imposed by the emperor or by Roman citizenship). While K. very soon mentions the basic fact that ancient police forces were at best rudimentary (14), the corollary, that there were no public prosecutors, crops up far too late (188).

K.'s view of ancient efforts to curb crime is, on the whole, more than optimistic. This notion, let it be said, could not have been served worse than by its repetition ad nauseam. With puzzling ease K. manages to pronounce that quantitative comparisons between Greece or Rome and later ages are inadmissible, and yet he compares them in the same breath. Exemplary for this leap of faith is p. 134 (cf. 59; 104; 115): it is impossible to say if Rome saw more or less murders than Late Medieval cities... but presumably less. In the end K proclaims, heedless of his own caveats, that antiquity was better off both quantitatively and qualitatively (204). Scholars of medieval history will be puzzled to hear that the possession and ready use of weapons (proper war gear like swords; cf. 119) was a keystone of each man's self-definition throughout that dark age (205). Peasants, most of the clergy and other important people might object. The only evidence quoted for this is Gregory of Tours; even if K. felt free to exclude Gregory from belonging to Late Antiquity (well before AD 600), his sweeping statement would demand more than a single witness.

Optimism defeats critical awareness more than once. Take K.'s very pronounced conviction that in ancient societies -- be they rural or urban -- crime will out (57: "Keine Straftat konnte da lange verborgen bleiben"). An Egyptian village overseer physically attacks his colleague for conducting an official search on 'his patch', rather than assisting (55), and yet we read that it was easy to discover offenders, thanks to the all-knowing countryside face-to-face society (56). The very premise is defective: not all those who know will tell. K. himself diagnoses an atmosphere of distrust (109), so why should neighbours helpfully meddle in others' affairs or, assuming they did, seek divine information on thieves and robbers (62)? Similarly lopsided is the implicit surmise that thieves are either professional criminals or their victims' neighbours but cannot be both at once (65). How, then, could there be a regular thieves' market in Antioch (81)? Why K. readily allows for collusion between criminals and city notables (165) but not those in the country (168), where at least the local peasants were suspected (166), remains his secret. At any rate, he is adamant on the impossibility of escaping the law for long: in his opinion the inhabitants of each and every Roman road knew each and every single inhabitant, so nobody could disappear into a crowd (57f., cf. 38 for Athens). Then why do slaves do just that on p. 194 ("Andere tauchten in den Städten unter"; the same phenomenon pp. 130; 199)?

The same applies to the protestations that very few, "die allerwenigsten" (169), ever suffered a bandit attack or knew a victim. That Symmachus appears to have not been harmed (171) is about the least representative case K. could have chosen, given his own reference to the retinue of prominent Romans as a sought-after protection for individual travellers (169). Worse follows. To underline his notion that all bandits will lose in the long run (172) K. describes how even the dangerous Isaurians are forced to seek an armistice after 367/8. Handbooks tell a different story. The Isaurians are back under Theodosius I; troubles continue from 400 to 408, as the anxious letters of St John Chrysostom show; and Isaurian risings did not end before 498.1

The push to positive thinking is virtually everywhere, with harrowing results. A blatant example of court protection of a criminal (53) is followed by the remark that it is still a good thing that there were searches after all, so let us not be unjust and harp on the deficiencies ("Wir sollten nicht ungerecht sein und nur auf die Defizite sehen": 53 cf. 56). People fight regardless of a magistrate's presence: well, they might have brawled even more had there been no magistrates at all (55).

During this brightening-up process, shocking logical blunders occur. The minimal strength of documented police forces in the cities of the Empire and their rudimentary equipment obviously ("offensichtlich") suggest that these units were adequate to keep up the measure of public order that Rome desired (120). I cannot help but apply this amazing view to the Roman army: if the Empire kept 30 legions under arms, this was "obviously" because that force was sufficient for all military tasks. Look at the average Parthian War with its desperate shuffling about of detachments and the conclusion disintegrates; repeat it for the Late Empire and its full absurdity will emerge. The paltry police forces were what the Empire and its cities were able to maintain, given the narrow limits of money, manpower and conflicting priorities. They might gladly have accepted -- and needed -- more.

Riots are another bad example. Rural violence in Egypt is classified as comparatively harmless, using sticks, not swords (108) -- though peasants surely possessing a knife or two and some sickles; turn to p. 116 where Tiberius Gracchus is beaten to death by his fellow senators using sticks and cudgels. What does K. make of this? That possession of weapons was uncommon even in the Late Republic (ibid.). But senators, if anyone, had swords from their soldiering days at home ('improvised' weapons made the killing look more spontaneous). Most riots at Rome, we are assured, did not end in bloodshed (104); it comes as a surprise after a page of evidence for an everyday life bristling with violence and aggression (97-100) that K.'s Romans invented the peaceful riot. He completely ignores that our sources are interested in riots as a political factor not in the people harmed or killed. Suetonius shows the emperor Claudius being pelted with bread crusts (Claud. 18,2), not what the Praetorians presumably did next. Read Tacitus on a small riot at Puteoli which -- as is explicitly stated -- had just risen to threats and stone-throwings: the Guards march in, and "the fear of them, together with a few people's executions, restored concord to the inhabitants" (Ann. 13,49).

The use of sources is faulty to the point of not reading beyond the single line of interest. Once the state intervenes in a bandit-infested area in Italy, the gangs are on the losing side -- thus Juvenal according to K. (60). What Sat. 3,305-308 does state is that the bandits just change places to prey upon the citizens of Rome. At the same time K. assures us that gangs could never operate for long but leaves out Dio's statement that Bulla Felix pillaged Italy for fully two years "under the emperors' very eyes" (77,10,1-7). And yet K. quotes exactly that passage on p. 159! Dio's stories about murders by poisoned needles (130f.), in their turn, are treated as hard facts. But in both cases persons die "as it were, all over the world", and in the second case the news of an epidemic precedes the poisoning tale. The conclusion is obvious: the needles are just a Roman variety of alleged well-poisoners spreading the Black Death. Apart from the context, far too often the type of sources is ignored. Cicero's snide remarks on 'loose' women in defence of Plancius constitute public opinion (181). One of Symmachus' Relationes to Emperor Valentinian I (and to the interested public) is to certify that Rome was "pacified" in these days. What else could the city prefect have said on that occasion, even if crime abounded? But no: Symmachus certainly knew what he was talking about, so it is true (134). Just one of many argumenta ad hominem.

A number of crucial items are scattered all over the book, never to be treated continuously. For instance, the considerable level of anxiety about falling victim to criminals (89; 97; 132f.; 157). Less understandable is K.'s lack of attention to the military as a major source of criminality. All the elements are present but left unused. Hint after hint that the Roman army contained many part-time perpetrators (129) and prime recruits for armed gangs (160), especially among veterans and the partisans of unsuccessful usurpers (161; 170), but all this remains isolated. No comment on the license to kill a trespassing soldier at night, especially a deserter (66); on the contrary, K. takes Honorius' directions of AD 403 to kill any deserters the provincials can lay hands on (C. Th. 7,18,14) as proof that ex-soldiers qua robbers were no serious danger because no army help was necessary (p. 160f.). What if the army was part of the problem or had to fight (or take part in) the new wave of rebellions after 395? This is a worrying example of how structural history can end if one is oblivious to what happened from year to year. K. does not care much for events: revolts are limited in time and region, and therefore of small impact (170). Try the age of Gallienus: Kienast's Kaisertabelle lists eight genuine usurpers from 253 to 268; add the Palmyrene and Gallic empires, and the regional limitations we are talking about include Gaul and Britain, Spain, Moesia, Achaia, Syria, Egypt, Upper Italy.

The period K. most eagerly defends against claims of unrest is the Late Empire, which he treats as a monolithic unit. All sorts of improvements are on record. There were more public servants to police smaller provinces (49). No wars, no crises to hinder them? The killing of slaves became infrequent, and so did excessive punishments (122; the quotation from Priscus of Panium is anti-Hun propaganda). Violence itself, both criminal and 'non-criminalised' ("nicht kriminalisiert"), was on the retreat from Roman life, K. contends. It seems that usurpations and invasions do not qualify as "non-criminalised violence". The gruesome punishments of Late Roman law were in many cases executed very infrequently, if at all (78), but if criminality did at times abound, stern justice promptly restored public order (135). This is K. having his cake and eating it. A convicted homosexual or adulterer could hope not to be burned at the stake; he might even survive, if he could count on influence or political circumstances. The case of two murderers escaping death (79) does not show leniency but the fear of the Green circus faction, itself symptomatic of an erosion of state authority. K. simply skips the existence of revolts like the Circumcelliones in Africa or the Bagaudae in Gaul when he says that violence of tenants against landowners is of little quantitative importance throughout the Empire -- again the irresistible temptation to compare (114).

Still, even in K.'s eyes not all was right, even at the best of times. With palpable indignation he goes out of his way to denounce un-democratic Athenian 'class justice' (22f.). Pursuing this line he commits his familiar mistakes. Most reports on violence at Athens concern young aristocrats; under K.'s hands this grows into a significant share of violence as a whole (29), then -- at Rome -- into the lion's share of all urban violence (192). At the bottom of this is, yet again, bad thinking. The probability of source awareness (let alone transmission) for a routine pub brawl is minute; not so for an aristocrat heading for high offices who assaults citizens. If the total violence of all the "aristocrats" (surely far less than 5% of the male population) is to exceed what all the "others" did, the nobles must have thrashed people at a very brisk pace. It is preposterous, moreover, to exclude a violent role for the Roman plebs on the grounds the poor were too busy to attend the circus games or the (amphi)theatre (192).

A small but painful part of the book is downright wrong. A man courting an adolescent boy at Athens was definitely not considered a danger to the polis, nor were the opening hours of the gymnasia intended to prevent pederasty in general, rape perhaps, or just stumbling in the dark (42f.). It is also not true that forging a sword needs little technical expertise, as K. contends (119). Of course, any ordinary smithy might produce a blunt, roughly sword-shaped lump of iron, but this unwieldy thing would break at first try. (Also compare the Roman bans on sword exports.)

Typos are rare and do not exceed some missing commas.2 The numeral "hundert(tausend)" is twice capitalized where it should not (70). In general the book's presentation is very attractive and creditable to the publisher. O si sic omnia. As things are, the bibliography is to be commended while the rest can hardly be used without in-depth examination of virtually every statement. A second edition, preceded by much rethinking and far-reaching modifications, seems all we can hope for. Again, Krause has the wherewithal to give us the book on criminal history that we need badly, and he ought to do it, especially after the time and efforts already spent. This is not that book.


1.   A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire. A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, Oxford 1964, Vol. I, 224-231; Alexander Demandt, Die Spätantike. Römische Geschichte von Diocletian bis Justinian 284-585 n. Chr., Munich 1989, 313. For Chrysostom see now Roland Delmaire, "Jean Chrysostome et les brigands isauriens", in François Chausson, Étienne Wolff (edd.), Consuetudinis amor. Fragments d'histoire romaine (IIe-VIe siècles) offerts à Jean-Pierre Callu. (Saggi di storia antica, 19.) Roma 2003, 217-230.
2.   E.g. 72 "wie im klassischen Athen [,] so auch im Römischen Reich" cf. 99 "wie auf den Strassen und Märkten [,] so auch in den Thermen"; 137 "unabhängig davon [,] ob") or letters: Lex Sca[n]tinia (183), Berufskriminelle[n] (188).

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