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Policing in Ancient Times


The ancient world had its version of the Manhattan Project, too. Dionysius the Elder headed a team whose research aided the Greeks in creating more powerful ships and the first catapults. What about security within the boundaries of Greece and Rome? How is law and order enforced at home? WEEKEND EDITION's classics commentator Elaine Fantham joins us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

Elaine, thanks for being with us again.


Hello, Scott.

SIMON: And how was the ancient world policed?

FANTHAM: Well, of course there isn't one answer. In fact, I love to start with the Athenians because it seems that what we would call police work--that is to say, arresting someone who was committing some sort of public offense--was done by Scythian archers, barbarian foreigners with a weapon which was totally inappropriate to arresting people in Athenian streets. Maybe they were called archers because Scythians were good at being archers, but they weren't necessarily walking up and down the Agora in Athens with bows and arrows.

At any rate, it's a most extraordinary thing that the Athenians should have entrusted the street policing to foreigners whom they didn't particularly respect, and that Athenians, who were so proud of their liberty, would allow themselves to be arrested by these foreigners.

And if we switch to Rome, where we do know a little bit more, we don't actually have a police system or anything like it until the Emperor Augustus.

SIMON: What would be a jailable offense in those days?

FANTHAM: Jailable is actually begging the question. In the ancient world, they had a shortage of long-term prisons. And so people were actually very seldom jailed. They tended to be jailed only temporarily if they were caught in some violence and were being held until they came up for a trial. Well, I'm thinking of the usual assault and battery, I suppose. But there are other kinds of offense, of course. If you were a fish monger in the Athenian fish market, you might be using false weights or selling stale fish as fresh.

SIMON: Were jails in short supply because not many people were being sent there, or did they come up with alternative sentencing that wasn't jail?

FANTHAM: I don't think they thought of sending people to jail as a way to deal with their offenses. There were two variables here. One was the kind of offense, and the other was the social significance of the person. People who counted were punished by loss of their citizen status and exiled, never executed. They wouldn't have been jailed--the law codes don't have six months for this offense and two years for that offense. If you needed to keep somebody in custody because you thought they might escape trial, there were lockups, short-term jails.

SIMON: Did--forgive me this, Elaine. But did anyone have the opportunity to say, `If the toga don't fit, you must acquit'?

FANTHAM: Cicero was as near to Johnnie Cochran as we came.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FANTHAM: I was thinking of this because during the republic at any rate, we don't have anything as lurid as the ongoing trial of Michael Jackson, for instance. We do in the empire begin to get figures like that, but they don't get put on trial for their activities.

SIMON: If this isn't indelicate, perhaps what Mr. Jackson's been accused of doing was considered legal then.

FANTHAM: I don't think they cared. The basic Roman rule was that so long as the person whom you took advantage of sexually was not a respectable Roman boy or young woman or wife...

SIMON: Yeah.

FANTHAM: ...you could do what you liked. So, you know, there were always lots of people who either technically weren't respectable, because they were actors and they were not protected, or they were not citizens because they were foreigners and they were not protected. There were plenty of people who could satisfy any unusual sexual interests.

SIMON: Thank you, Elaine.

FANTHAM: Right-o, Scott.

SIMON: Elaine Fantham, our classics commentator here on WEEKEND EDITION and professor emerita of classics at Princeton University, joining us from Toronto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.