Monday, September 6, 2021

Not Even a Gravestone to Point a Finger

by Eric

Not to give too much away, but in our Byzantine mysteries the murderer is rarely turned over to the authorities. Rather, our detective, John the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, usually finds some way to bring justice to the miscreants himself. This isn't merely an artistic decision on the part of the authors. In fact, for much of its history the Roman Empire lacked the criminal justice apparatus we take for granted. There were no official police forces, or prison system, and as for murder...well, there was no general law against it.

That surprising fact is one of many aspects of murder, broadly defined, dealt with in A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Emma Southon discusses assassinations, murder within the family, murder by magic, and murder in the gladiatorial arena among other subjects. Although the book covers only the Republic and early Roman Empire the laws involved are not much different from those of Justinian's time.

And very strange they appear to us. Who in the twenty-first century would inscribe the following on a child's gravestone?

"To the spirits of the dead and to the most unfortunate Julia Restuta, murdered at the age of ten on account of her jewelry. Her parents, Julius Restutus and Statia Pudentilla, [set this up]."

This and other such epitaphs were likely the only "justice" average murder victims were likely to receive. Since murder was for centuries not a crime in the Roman Empire the responsibility for investigating, prosecuting and punishing a murder was entirely on the family and friends of the deceased. Unless a family was wealthy it had no way to pursue a murderer. The poor couldn't even afford a gravestone pointing a finger.

Roman law, at its inception in the Twelve Tables, was largely concerned with property rights. Perhaps because of the Ten Commandments we expect laws to have a moral basis but the Romans didn't think that way. Nor were they interested in interfering in family affairs. As Southon puts it: "The Roman state, at least until the dawn of the Imperial period, did not consider itself to be harmed, threatened or challenged when a man strangled his wife or stabbed a rival. That was their personal business."

Although we tend to think of the fellow on the library floor with the knife stuck in his back as the victim, technically the victim in a murder prosecution is the state. The state is the plaintiff. The state has suffered a challenge to its power to control the behavior of its citizens via the laws it has passed and thus it is the state that brings the case.

The Roman state was more interested in protecting private property than in protecting human life. Thus, while the family of a child killed in a mugging had no recourse, a man whose slave was murdered -- the slave being property and no more a human being than a table -- was at least reimbursed for his loss at market value just as he would have been for the destruction of cattle.

To the extent that Roman law dealt with murder it was through a hodge podge of provisions designed to deal with specific situations without apparent reference to any general concept of morality. For example, the father had absolute control of his family. Therefore infanticide was legal, however there was a law against parricide. This killing of any ancestor must have struck the Romans as particularly heinous -- as opposed to leaving an unwanted baby on a rock -- because the miscreant was put into a sack with a dog, a cockerel, a monkey and a snake. And then the sack was thrown into the sea. Did the phrase cruel and unusual spring to mind? (And where was the ASPCA?)

Many authors like to draw parallels between past events and today based on the supposition that human nature hasn't changed through the ages. And yet, looking at history from a modern perspective it is easy -- too easy -- to interpret the past in light of the present, to assume that people long dead had exactly the same motivations and goals and thought processes we do. Given our prejudices it is sometimes more difficult to see the differences between us and our ancestors than it is to see the similarities. A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is not only a fascinating look at murder in all its forms during the Roman Empire, it is also an excellent antidote to the tendency to describe the past as the present but without cell phones.

Where There's a Will There's Usually Trouble

by Mary

We've never written a legal thriller. However, it could well be said Five For Silver took us as close to contributing to that particular sub-genre as we've ever been, since the focus of the plot revolves around our Lord Chamberlain's labours to locate witnesses to a wealthy man's will.

Given our protagonist's position and power, this would seem an easy task for him to accomplish but it was one of the most difficult he has had to tackle, given this entry in the series is set during the Justinianic plague, which has been estimated as causing between five and ten thousand deaths a day. Nobody was safe and as a result Constantinople became a ghost city, largely deserted between the mounting number of deaths and the flight of residents deserting it for what was regarded as the safer countryside. The pandemic played no favourites -- Justinian himself was infected but managed to survive its deadly touch.

Since a will is the key to the plot, our preliminary research necessarily involved taking a plunge into Justinian's Institutes, a fascinating collection of laws. Glancing through it, certain situations give the modern reader pause. For example, it was illegal to engage in abusive language in an attempt to cause a crowd to form. Another provision concerned what would nowadays be considered stalking, in this instance defined as "following a matron, or a young boy or girl below the age of puberty", Meanwhile, writers faced punishment for "writing, composing, or publishing defamatory prose or verse." Compensation due to an injured party depended upon their social position, so as a result an aristocrat was entitled to greater pecuniary compensation than "a mere stranger, or to a person of low condition".

We'd never think of Peter, John's elderly servant and like his master a former slave, as one of low condition although doubtless he would have been considered such -- if he was thought of at all -- during his period of enslavement.

It is in fact Peter whose vision of an angel visiting him to announce "Gregory. Murder. Justice" starts the engine of the plot after John undertakes to find out if Gregory, Peter's oldest friend, has indeed been murdered. This in turn leads to John's need to search for witnesses to a deathbed will made by Nereus, a superstitious and wealthy shipper, in order to disinherit his wastrel son Triton.

But as we all know, where there's a will, there's often trouble.

Another dip into the Institutes provided most useful information. Oral wills were valid, provided the intent to make one and its provisions were declared before an assembly of seven witnesses. Slaves, lunatics, and those with certain disabilities or who were under the age of puberty were among those not permitted to serve in this capacity. Women were also barred from witnessing a will.

The task presented to John seems impossible given Peter, despite his long friendship with Gregory, does not know where the latter lived or his occupation. However, when John's friend Anatolius turns out to be one of the last to see Gregory alive, this sliver of information, scanty though it is, serves to enable John to begin tracing Gregory's movements.

As John pursues his time-consuming and increasingly urgent daisy chain of finding and interviewing witnesses, he is ever aware the plague could carry off any or all of them at any moment, not to mention the distinct possibility of one or more having fled the increasingly deserted city. As he discovers, there were indeed seven men present when Nereus made his will, a motley band who by a combination of circumstances happened to be in the right place at the right time to serve as witnesses.

The septet in question included Peter's friend Gregory as well as a seller of dodgy antiquities, a morbidly lugubrious court poet, the assistant to Nereus' house steward, a holy fool notorious for dancing in the street with the dead, a rustic carter, and an archdeacon.

The Institutes declares "The precepts of the law are these: to live honestly, to injure no one, and to give every man his due" and when John's winding path finally leads him to the culprit, he administers justice both terrible and appropriate -- without shedding blood.