Most things in Roman society would be horrifying for us. The real question would be what Roman tradition would be acceptable for us. Here are some examples Romans that would be unacceptable for us.
Roman Society, Brutual Executions
Death penalty still exists in Modern world. It is not widespread, but it exists. It is likely that you will find people that support death penalty even in countries where death penalty is illegal. However no one would allow these type of executions anywhere that were very common in Roman society.
In Roman society Crucifixion was used for rebels, pirates and enemies of the state. In modern world, it would be either firing squad or hanging, but those are quick deaths. Interesting thing is most people are calm before hanging, while people often cry in despair before firing squad. However, no one could stand getting nailed to the cross and then spend entire day on the burning sun before finally getting suffocated.
The best example of crucifixion is Jesus Christ, but other then significance of the act, it was not very gruesome. The worst crucifixion was in the year 70 BC when Crassus captured 6000 slaves. Senate declared that all of them should be crucified along the road from Sicily to Rome. Just imagine the horrible sight and keep in mind that Medieval men would be horrified to even think of doing that (e.g. Ottoman army reaction to Vlad the Impaler).
That wasn’t the only unnecessarily brutal punishment. When the Republic was established, the last King of Rome was thrown from the nearby hill called Tarpean Rock. This would however become a tradition and synonym for the capital punishment. This was reserved for the enemies of the state, but this is a vague term.
During Sulla’s rule, citizens who found their names on the list, would get one way trip to the Tarpean Rock in Roman society. It was essentially a Guillotine that killed people en masse. Those times were so bad, that generation that survived that would have trauma of Sulla’s reign and people that were associated with him would be seen as brutes and murderers like Pompey.
And finally, in roman society there was a decimation which was a military punishment reserved for mutinous legions. Every 10 soldier would pull a stick and the one with the shortest stick would be decimated, meaning he would be beaten to death by other 9 soldiers. Since most soldiers were friends and beating someone to death isn’t easy unless you are psychopath. They were forced to do that. Anyone who show any restrain would be decimated too. I believe no modern army would ever dare to do something similar.
Roman Society, Ethnic Cleansing
All Empires are forged trough war. There were some who were more brutal then others, but overall violence is the norm. However, most armies conquered and settled next to their new subjects so they can control them better. That wasn’t always the case for Romans.
While Pontic conquest of Anatolia is considered the first ethnic cleansing in history, it is hardly correct, as Romans were doing it more extensively around 150 years ago. Northern Italy around Po river was called Cisalpine Gaul. It was a home of Celts who lived there for centuries. With the growth of Rome, the conquest of Italy and victory of First Punic War, Rome focused on the north.
Romans started aggressively settling in the Ciselpine Gaul, even if it directly harms Celts. As it was predicted Celtic tribes rebelled and united in order to fight Rome, but they were defeated in Telamon. When Hannibal arrived, many Celts joined him and were his great supporters against Romr, fighting Romans even at Zama simply because they felt Rome was an existential treat.
After defeat of Hannibal, all Celts were either killed or forced to migrate over the Alps into the modern Bavaria and Czechia. When confederation under Helveti tried to migrate into Gaul running away from Germanic tribes, Caesar killed them.
As for Julius Caesar, his Gallic Wars can be only summarized as genocide. Many tribes were wiped out from existence. There was an event where Belgii tribes under Ambiorix started to rebel since Roman protection from German tribes started to look and feel more like a permanent occupation. The revolt failed and Ambiorix was cornered repeating his final words over and over again: I am a free man, living in a free world.
It is estimated that that around 3 million died in war mostly trough famine, but sizable number was enslaved (1 million according to Caesar). To my knowledge, no one made genocide and boosted about it as much as Romans. Alexander the Great is the closest thing that comes to that level of barbarity, but that’s reign of only one man and many people who wanted to criticize him always mentioned what he did in cities like Thebes, Tyre and Persopolis. Romans were different as in that was their state policy. Thracians and Dacians experienced similar fate and to some extend Phonicians (Carthage) and Greeks (Corinth) too.
Political Violence in Rome
It is no surprise that most politicians are overall bad people. Most of them are corrupt, manipulative, greedy and but with all that said they are still more honest and respectful then politicians in roman society. At very least in most countries politicians who have personal armed gangs quickly lose public favor and with it power unless their gang is a very loyal and heavily armed army. For Romans this was acceptable and in a way part of the system.
While Rome had Plebeian Council, the real power was in the hand of the Senate. Most Senators had to prove themselves on the field of battle and in a way, Senate was directly in charge of the army. This seemingly minor detail is in fact of crucial importance. As Rome expanded further, more people lay in poverty as their property was deteriorating and since most of them were veterans, they were violent and knew how to fight. Many Senators used that to their advantage to intimidate their opponents.
By the time of the late Republic when Rome adopted reforms of Gaius Marius, Senator without army is like a lion without teeth. Street violence was common, starting from Gracchi brothers all the way to Octavian. Many Senators even joined the violent clashes themselves, like they did in 133 BC. when Senators took up clubs and beaten to death Tribune of the Plebs Tiberius Gracchus. This was only the beginning.
Sulla after marching on Rome with an army, established himself as Dictator for life and put on proscription where anyone who found himself on the list would be a wanted target and his property confiscated. This made entire generation of thieves, murderers and thugs a billionaires like Pompey, Lepidus, Crassus just to name a few. During the time of Catiline conspiracy, there were swords and daggers in the building of Senate itself. The fact that Senators thought that killing Caesar themselves publicly would be a good idea speaks volume on how violent the politics were. Needless to say that in those fights Plebeians were a collateral damage.
While it may seem that during Principate era politics became calmer, the reality was the very opposite. It is true that in most cases ordinary people stayed out of the conflict, but fight for power was as violent as ever. Remember that in those times there were Praetorian Guards, who were suppose to protect Princeps while in reality they were a kingmakers and it was Germanic Guard that protected Princeps from them. Still, Plebeians could and did suffer. Caracalla killed some citizens of Alexandria who made a satirical play about murder of his brother. Once Military Anarchy in 3th century started, it was the Roman army lead by Roman Barrack-Emperors that butchered their own people.
It is nearly impossible to find any modern regime with so much political violence that is widely accepted and almost institutionalized. Even totalitarian regime deny it or at very least neglect how violent they are.
Roman Society, Slavery
When people talk about Roman society, they often forget Rome was above all else a slave-based empire. Slavery was heavily integrated into the Roman state that Constantine’s land reforms where slavery was almost banned, can serve as the beginning of Byzantine era. Slavery in Antiquity was also very common. Nearly all civilizations had it from Persians and Greeks to Celts and Scythians. However, Roman slavery was very widespread and very brutal.
It is important to note that while slavery was consistent throughout Roman history, the status of a slave varied greatly. For example, we have found archeological evidence of slaves having proper burial in Kingdom age and slave status had improved greatly in Dominate age. However the status of slaves in between those times was horrible and probably the worst one up until Atlantic Slave trade.
The official definition of Roman slave was a talking tool. Legally, there was no difference between a slave and a shovel. Already slaves had worse status then other neighboring nations, for example both Celts and Greeks acknowledged that slaves were in fact humans. With that definition comes everything else. One can become slave usually trough war, but also as a way of repaying debt. Loan shark was very common in Roman society and many thugs became rich by exploiting the Plebs, especially the Proletarii even tough many laws were made to counter that specific act. It would always be disguised as “willingly” giving your own labor, but it is obvious that was a farce and no one seemed to care.
Another way to become slave was to be prisoner of war or being sold by pirates. In that case, you are almost certainly doomed to die as a slave, assuming you survive to be sold because conditions in which slaves were kept were often horrible. Slavery trough warfare made Roman society incredible rich and while it may seem horrible for us, it was a perfectly normal for a veteran to be a slaver. It is uncertain what wars brought the most slaves to Rome, but it can be easily seen that fall of Carthage and conquest of Gaul gave Romans incredible boost.
Your life as a slave can weary. It is true that Romans weren’t racist (to be fair slavery based on racism exists only in Americas), but they did look into your nationality. It is hard to give a proper statistic, but from what I gathered certain slaves had more value then others. For example, In Roman Society Greek slaves were often very valued as they were considered smart and educated so they were used as tutors. In that case you will probably have nice and comfortable life for a slave. This is why there were many hellenophiles among Roman elites and why some of them had certain biases characterized for Greeks (e.g. Jews are traitorous religious fanatics).
On the other hand, it seems many Thracian and Celtic slaves were used for brute force such as gladiator fights or if you are incredibly unlucky, as a farmer of some landlord or ship rower. If you happen to be locked in some mine, rest assured that you are never going to see the light of day. Keep in mind that your life is worth less then nothing. If you need assuring, remember what Crassus and Pompey did after defeating Spartacus.
In Roman Society slave could be freed, but even when he is freed there was an entire system of patronage and he immediately became Proletarii, meaning the only thing he had now is his freedom. That means that social mobility is possible, but the all odds are stuck against you. There is reason why Christianity was popular among slaves and the poor, because it gave them something no other religion did and that is compassion and hope for the better future be it in this life, or the afterlife.
But slavery wasn’t only affecting slaves, but also Plebeians. This was one of the key problems in late Republic where Roman slaves took all the jobs from Plebeians leaving Rome overcrowded with impoverished peasants who had nothing, except their freedom and work (Proletarii). All those slaves worked for Patricians who took all the profit and nearly ran the entire Republic to the ground. So in essence, slaves were pure profit for the rich, but burden to everyone else, including the system itself. It should be also noted that In Roman society, usage of slaves nearly stupefied them and stopped them from innovating as every problem they had was fixed by trowing slaves, until that problem hopefully disappeared. We can start talking about real Roman innovations only in Dominate times and Byzantine era when Rome became more feudal.
So while in Roman society slavery wasn’t as bad as Spartan slavery, it was still as bad as it could get. Many Byzantine historians would condemn slavery of their ancestors as the result of evil and selfishness. Anyone who condemns slavery of Sugar islands or Nazi regimes should condemn Roman slavery as well because they were on the same level of brutality.
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