Murder Most Foul

January 15, 2011

I just stumbled upon a book that I absolutely must read: Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic, by Judy E. Gaughan.

It doesn’t surprise me to find that Roman law treated homicide differently than we do. Other pre-modern peoples also, including the Anglo-Saxons who were in so many ways our cultural predecessors, tended to treat it primarily as a matter between the families of the parties involved, to be dealt with by private compensation or vengeance, rather than as an offence against whatever was conceived to be public or state authority.

I have read several times that “murdrum” was first introduced into English law to protect the new Norman ruling class, who weren’t part of the Anglo-Saxon system of mutual compensation; now however upon Googling I find several references to the Danes having originated the idea earlier, for much the same purpose, during their overlordship of much of England.  (The idea of an unidentified corpse being “presumed” to be a member of the protected elite, and thereby triggering a heavy fine, is interesting; of course this may have had the salutary effect of encouraging diligence in identifying the corpses that could be identified.)

Also, in reading the Greek orators – tragedy too, think Eumenides – I have come upon what looks like a similar distinction between types of what we would consider “crimes,” some of  them involving danger of ritual pollution to the whole city and so requiring a more intense and public form of prosecution.

Mind you, I’m not primarily interested in crimes of violence per se; for me what is interesting is the history of the idea of a public power, a “state.” I’ll report back if I turn up anything I can write about coherently…

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One Response to “Murder Most Foul”


  1. […] of Judy Gaughan, Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic, mentioned in my post of January 15. Quite a story. It seems, according to the author’s research, that in the Roman […]


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