A Glimpse into the Roman Criminal Justice System

Murder Trials - Marcus Tullius Cicero,  Michael Grant (Translator)

Having spent four years of my life studying a law degree (and having an interest in the criminal side of things) when I discovered this book years ago my interest was immediately piqued – it was a collection of ancient speeches that focused around murders. Anyway, who doesn't like a good murder trail (though most murder trials these days usually arise from domestic disputes), particularly if they happen to be politically motivated. It is not surprising that the four trials in this book are all political since Cicero was what you would consider a high-flier, and generally grabbed the complex trials that had the greatest risk. One interesting thing is that there are a couple of trials that are mentioned, but not included, in this book, but the reason for that is that they have been included in [book:Political Speeches], and considering the nature of Cicero's career it's not surprising that some of them would overlap.

In a nutshell, Murder Trials is a collection of four defence speeches by one of Rome's greatest orators and one of the great things about this book is that not only does it give you and insight into how criminal trials operated in the Roman Republic, but also some of the tactics that were used to get people acquitted. One of the major differences between a murder trail in Rome and a murder trial in our modern world is that in Rome such charges, unless there were elements of treason involved, where brought about through the civil court. In those days the state wouldn't prosecute, therefore to be able to have somebody found guilty of an offence you needed to fund the prosecution yourself. Needless to say only the rich could afford to take somebody to court. However, in some cases, the state would provide assistance with the prosecution, though unlike today charges weren't laid by the police, nor were complaints – they would be brought directly to the court by the victim (or victim's family in the case of murder).

The Roman court wasn't structured in the way that our courts are structured – that is with a judge who would preside over the case and make sure that the procedure is followed correctly, while a jury of twelve people would listen to the case and then go away, confer, and then determine whether the accused is guilty or innocent. The Roman judicial system worked more like the Athenian system, where a jury (which could compose of upwards of thirty people) would listen to the case and the each would go away and make their own decision – they were not allowed to confer with each other, nor were they allowed to persuade another away from their decision. However, like the modern trails, at least in the common law countries such as the United States and England, each side would present their case, and guilt or innocence would be determined based upon who presented the best case. However, unlike the Athenian system, where one had to present their case (and defence) themselves, the Roman system allowed one to appoint somebody to present the case on one's behalf.

 

Cicero Indicting Catallus

 

Mind you, this system that I outlined really only applied to Roman citizens (as was the case with the Athenian system). If you were a slave, or a foreigner (or more precisely a non-citizen, as being born in the Republic did not automatically guarantee one a right to be a citizen – it had to be awarded to you, though citizenship would automatically be granted to the child of a citizen), then the law would play out a lot differently. One should note that one of the defence speeches included in this book was for a non-citizen – he was a king of a Gaullic tribe that lived on the fringes of the empire, though this was a trial for treason. Even then it does indicate that a non-citizen could be brought before the Roman courts to face trial, though in his particular case he did happen to be a king.

 

Another major difference between the Roman world and ours was the question of punishment. Sure, the Romans did have dungeons, but one would only land up there if they were going to be executed (or fed to the lions). However this came about much later, and it certainly wasn't a place were Roman citizens would end up. In Rome, if you were brought to trial on a charge of murder you weren't kept in a cell to make sure you turned up to court – you were allowed to go about your daily business. However if you were found guilty then you had two options – flee, or face execution. Needless to say that most people ended up fleeing. This was a perfectly acceptable option, unlike today where if you were to flee abroad there would be a massive hunt for you to bring you back to face trial. The other thing is that despite appearances, Rome was actually a pretty small city (compared with the cities of today that is), which meant that it was a lot harder to hide, and pretty much everybody knew everybody else (especially if you were a member of the upper classes). That also meant that if you did chose to flee, then you couldn't really come back because if you did then bad things would happen to you (though in some instances, say a pardon, you would be allowed to return).

 

There are a couple of other things that I wish to touch upon, and one of them is the reason for Cicero to defend these people. He claims that he does it for justice, but I would hardly consider Cicero to be a champion of human rights. First of all he was an aristocrat, and also on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the likes of Julius Caesar. He was a conservative, not a populist, which meant that his goal was to defend conservatives against the attacks of the populists. This whole question of justice is actually rubbish – if he was really concerned about justice then he would be defending the lower classes – people who couldn't afford to pay him, as well as defending slaves and foreigners. No, Cicero wasn't about justice, he was about defending the patricians against the relentless attacks of the lower classes.

 

Cicero Conferrign

 

I finally want to finish off about the idea of the defence lawyer. The thing with defending somebody in a court of law isn't about taking sides, but about defending somebody against charges using the best argument available. It also means not passing judgement on, or making assumptions about, your client. Sure, the accused might actually be a despicable human being, but that doesn't mean that that particular person does not deserve a defence, or representation. When I was applying for positions in law firms (a career path that I didn't end up taking), one of the questions was 'could you defend a …..?'. Another interesting thing was that a barrister friend of mine suggested that criminal lawyers don't actually make that much, namely because a lot of people who end up in the criminal system don't actually have any money.

 

A lot of criticism is levelled against people who defend criminals, with the belief that they are allowing scum and monsters to wander the streets and thus making society a much worse place to live. However, one should remember that if they were to find themselves in the place of the accused, most people are going to want to have a defence lawyer representing them. Sure, there are some who will represent themselves, and there are a lot of reasons as to why they would do that, however I believe that the role of the defence lawyer is an important one – they protect people from the power of the state. The reason that the idea of everybody having the right to be represented in a court of law by a competent lawyer is to prevent the state from running roughshod over people that it doesn't like, and to be able to give people a voice to explain their actions. The problem is, though, that the legal system has become so complex that one could not possibly understand what is going on without the help of a lawyer.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1557237831