BMCR 2022.10.24

Financial penalties in the Roman Republic

, Financial penalties in the Roman Republic: a study of confiscations of individual property, public sales, and fines (509-58 BC). Mnemosyne Supplement, 447. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xv, 234. ISBN 9789004498662 $120.00 / €99,00.

This monograph, which is based on Sofia Piacentin’s doctoral thesis, provides a detailed and thorough exploration of the role and use of financial penalties in the Roman Republic. The chapters survey what is known about the different practices of imposing financial penalties, analyze the punitive aims or purposes of those penalties as well as their place in Roman law and public finance, and provide new ways to understand changing attitudes towards property and its relationship to membership in the community. Other scholars have studied aspects of this subject in the past: François Hinard published a monograph on property confiscation in the proscriptions of the late Republic, Marta García Morcillo has researched the role and use of auctions to sell confiscated property, and many historians have discussed fines as an aspect of different Roman legal proceedings, but the current work attempts to provide a more comprehensive discussion by exploring financial penalties as a specific set of Roman practices that evolved considerably over the course of the Republic.[1] Piacentin is particularly interested in the relationship between the two broad categories of financial penalties used by the Romans: the practice of consecrating a person’s property and dedicating it to a divinity (consecratio bonorum) and the practice of confiscating property and making it a public possession (publicatio bonorum). In this she engages with the work of Francesco Salerno, and she argues that each category had its unique properties and purposes, and that both existed as separate and unique types of penalties throughout the Republic.[2]

After a brief introduction that discusses the historiography of financial penalties and sets out the main themes of the work, nine chapters are organized into three sections that study financial penalties in a loosely chronological order, while a tenth chapter provides a general conclusion to the book. Each chapter focuses closely on a particular aspect, period, or purpose/use of property confiscation.

Part One contains three chapters that examine the early history of confiscations and fines. Chapter One looks at the stories of financial penalties imposed on famous figures from the early Republic such as P. Valerius Publicola, Sp. Cassius, Sp. Maelius, M. Manlius Capitolinus, Vitruvius Vaccus, and the members of the Decemvirate. Piacentin is rightly cautious about the questionable historicity of these figures and events, and she keeps her focus on the received tradition of how such events were remembered by later generations. She argues that these stories reveal two different types of financial penalties that were used for different circumstances: individuals who threatened the safety of plebeian magistrates could have their property consecrated and dedicated to a divinity (consecratio bonorum), whereas the property of would-be tyrants who sought to make themselves demagogues was confiscated and given over to the public in one of several ways (publicatio bonorum), including through auctions. She therefore argues that consecration and confiscation were two different types of financial penalties with different political purposes from the beginning of the Republic. Chapter Two surveys records (mainly in Livy) of aediles imposing fines and using them to finance public works such as building temples, paying for statues or dedications, or extending the celebration of festivals. These types of fines are shown to have been an important source of income for developing the monumental appearance of Rome, and they also provided up-and-coming politicians with the resources for self-promotion. Chapter Three examines inscriptions that record financial penalties in early Latin- and Oscan-speaking communities in Italy. These records appear on different types of dedications (mosaics, votives, statue bases, tables, and sundials), and Piacentin suggests that frequent references to the cult of Hercules may indicate that the fines that funded these dedications were aimed at (or presented as) punishing those guilty of commercial or pastoral crimes, such as grazing too many cattle or sheep on ager publicus. She therefore suggests that the fines were aimed at those who committed offenses against the community rather than (for example) at those who infringed on sacred land owned by a particular temple or cult. She also argues that fines were an important source of revenue and were often used to repair and enrich local sanctuaries.

Part Two contains two chapters that explore specific crimes or circumstances in which financial penalties were imposed (or threatened) during the final three centuries of the Republic. Chapter Four examines the military sphere and fines for military disobedience (such as refusing to appear for enlistment) and for failure in command (especially for disastrous defeats). It argues that such penalties were frequently used to enforce enlistment of common citizens, but that they were rarely used to punish generals for military defeats or poor performance in command. Chapter Five explores financial penalties in the political sphere, such as those imposed (or threatened) on priests seeking to abandon religious duties to pursue consular military opportunities, and those used to punish crimes such as embezzlement, extortion, and misuse of booty. These fines were aimed at members of the upper classes, and often were only used as threats to coerce an individual’s behavior. Such fines often appear to have been multiples of the minimum property qualification for placement in the first class of infantry in the census, which suggests that they were intended as threats to knock a man out of that prestigious census class, thereby demoting substantially his standing as a citizen, his role in the comitia centuriata, and his ability to pursue civic opportunities such as holding higher office. Such fines, therefore, were meant to downgrade a man’s status, but not necessarily to eliminate him from the community.

Part Three contains four chapters that examine how traditional respect for the protection of private property began to break down in the late Republic as Rome slid into a long period of civil wars. Chapter Six discusses the penalties imposed against Gaius Gracchus, M. Fulvius Flaccus, and L. Appuleius Saturninus, and argues that they reveal a changing attitude towards private property. Financial punishment became a means to destroy utterly a person’s social and political status within the community by confiscating all his property. Not only did these three men lose their lives, but accusations that they aimed at kingship (regnum) became a tool to justify confiscations as further penalties. Chapter Seven continues this theme by exploring the way Sulla and Marius declared each other a public enemy (hostis) to justify the confiscation or outright pillaging of the property of political enemies. Since such hostis declarations were performative more than legal, it is argued that they demonstrate how property confiscation was growing beyond a mere penalty of capital charges and was starting to be used as a political weapon to destroy a person’s place in the community.

Chapter Eight argues that Sulla’s proscriptions marked the final break with the traditional protections on private property. Whereas financial penalties had traditionally threatened to diminish a man’s standing socially and politically, Sulla’s proscriptions sought to eliminate political rivals entirely to enable him to pursue his agenda more effectively. Not only were proscribed men executed, but all their property was confiscated, making proscription both profitable and politically useful for eliminating rivals. Piacentin notes that a consequence of so much confiscated property coming on the market at once depressed land values for years, suggesting that the main purpose of these vast confiscations was not to realize the maximum value of the goods seized, but to destroy utterly the proscribed person’s standing as a citizen. At the same time, she demonstrates how this new targeting of property caused elite families to develop strategies to protect as much of their property as possible should they become the target of such confiscations. The capacity to indiscriminately confiscate property laid the groundwork for the autocracy of the Principate.

Chapter Nine takes a deep dive into Cicero’s exile and the confiscation of his property (especially his house on the Palatine) in 58 BC. When Clodius as tribune introduced a bill to the people proclaiming Cicero’s exile, he also appears to have taken the additional step of including the confiscation of his property into the bill, suggesting that exile did not automatically include confiscation of property (a contested point among scholars). Clodius destroyed Cicero’s house and consecrated a part of its land, on which he built a shrine to Libertas. Piacentin uses this well documented case to explore further the difference between confiscation and consecration of property, arguing that Clodius used the latter since it carried the potent political message of being a penalty traditionally used to punish those who attacked (or seemed to attack) plebeian magistrates. She also argues that this demonstrates that confiscation and consecration of property had always been separate and different types of financial penalties, and that the former had not replaced the latter over the course of the Republic. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the procedures and actors in the confiscation (or pillaging) of the rest of Cicero’s property, and his efforts to recover his possessions after his return to Rome. A tenth chapter provides a general conclusion that pulls together the ideas in the book.

Piacentin does an excellent job of gathering what information we have about financial penalties in the Republic, and she examines them thoroughly within their historical contexts. Her arguments are compelling, and they demonstrate that the use of financial penalties was more nuanced and complex than is generally assumed; there were different types of financial penalties that served different political purposes at different times. Confiscation and consecration of property conveyed different messages, and each could be used to different degrees and ends, either to diminish a man’s social and political standing, or to destroy entirely his membership in the community. In this respect Clodius’ consecration of part of Cicero’s property gains new dimensions as a revival of past practices that conveyed specific meanings to his audience. She also does a fine job illustrating how even the threat of financial penalties could be used as an effective political tool.

Piacentin’s book is certain to become a standard reference on financial penalties because of her careful attention to detail, her gathering and analysis of evidence, and the breadth of the period it studies. Many chapters are accompanied by chronological tables that pull together events and references that will prove invaluable to future scholars working on the subject. Because there is not a great quantity of this evidence, however, it is often difficult to develop a continuous narrative that explores the evolution of financial penalties over time. Piacentin deals with this by separating her chapters into focused discussions on specific themes or aspects of the subject. While some topics appear in several chapters (such as consecration vs. confiscation), many of the chapters form individual, even stand-alone discussions that delve deeply into specific aspects of financial penalties over the course of the Republic. This makes the book highly readable and profitable in small bites as well as when studied altogether, which will make it very useful to teachers and researchers alike. The number of typos or other infelicities is very small and does not detract from what is a beautifully written and prepared book with many useful images, charts, and indices. Anyone interested in political or legal proceedings in the Roman Republic should find this book both useful and engaging.



[1] F. Hinard, Les Proscriptions de la Rome républicaine. Rome, and M. García Morcillo (2005) Las ventas por subasta en elm undo romano la esfera privada (Barcelona 1985).

[2] F. Salerno, Dalla consecratio alla publicatio bonorum: forme giuridiche e uso politico dale origini a Cesare (Naples 1990).