Crime and the Law in Rome

Crime was bad on roman streets after dark. Most people would stay indoors and not risk venturing outside and if they were wealthy and had too go out, they would employ bodyguards.  Thieves, muggers and even murderers waited for the unprotected.  There were patrols of vigiles who were night watchmen, a mix between policemen and firemen (there was lots of fires to contend with) But these were not policemen in the modern sense and could not be everywhere at once.

It should be remembered that the carrying of weapons within the city limits was illegal. A roman soldier found carrying a weapon was classed as a rebel and an enemy of the state. So people carried sticks or even used rocks for personal protection.


The home of Roman democracy. The Senate.
The home of Roman democracy. The Senate.

The senators in office (aediles, praetors, consuls and so on...) received a personal guard from the state, known as lictors, who carried fasces (wooden rods) within the city limits and axes outside of it. Depending on the office this number changed. A consul had 12 and a dictator like Caesar 24.

Mamertine Pit. Notice the tiny entrance hole in front of the Alter.
Mamertine Pit. Notice the tiny entrance hole in front of the Alter.

Roman Prison

Romans did not have actual jails where prisoners served sentences. They had holding cells where the condemned were held until sentence was passed. Depending on the crime this could be anything from fines, floggings to crucifixion.  They may even be sent to the Coliseum for public execution (torn apart by beasts) which was always a favorite with the crowd.

The most infamous Roman prison in ancient Rome was the Marmatine pit. It was little more than a wet damp hole in the ground when the offender was flung to await his faith. It had only one way in
and there was no escape. It can still to be seen today at the foot of capitoline hill under the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami. Famous people kept here were Vercingetorix leader of the Gauls, St Peter and St Paul.  They were all eventually executed, Peter and Paul by Nero (after the great fire in 64 AD) and Vercingetorix after Caesar's triumph in 46 BC.

The 12 tables

The law of 12 tables was the legislation that stood as the foundation of Roman Law, They were engraved on metal plates in the forum so everyone rich or poor would know the law and their rights. These laws were called the Twelve Tables because there were twelve different sections.

These laws were about crime and property and family matters like marriage and inheritance.  Some of the laws seems a bit bizarre today i.e If fruit falls from a tree then it is yours or a dreadfully deformed child shall be quickly killed, but the 12 tables of Roman Law were the foundation stones for all Western democratic law today.


Explore the 12 tables further