by Matt Appleby
A vision for a radically alternative Roman Empire.
|Author's Note: the prompts for this month concern rules, laws and other customs, some "official" and some not.
Rules/laws: Much like its system of government, the Roman legal code is one of the most complex in the ancient world, and will go on to inform the laws and practices of nearly every nation that comes after. It is so comprehensive and influential that, even in the 21st century, most courts still hinge on the original latin terminology. That being said, Roman law differs from our own in some pretty noticable ways. For one thing, magitstrates are as concerned with morality as they are crime: whilst this tendency is less extreme by 200AD that it was under the Republic, a man can still find himself on trial for partying too hard as much as he could for theft or murder. For another, trials are mostly held in public, and depend far more on lawyers' debating skills than they do on things like phyiscal evidence. Particularly skilled advocates, or at least ones with crowd-pleasing wit, can aquire celebrity status very quickly: one of the best, Marcus Tullius Cicero, parlayed his legal and political career into become the most famous writer of his era, his speeches studied by Classical and Medieval scholars in the same way that modern scholars study Shakespeare.
Law enforcement: 'Policing' as we understand it is a very modern concept, and one that simply does not exist in 200AD, in the Roman Empire or anywhere else. The closest to it is found in the larger cities – chiefly Rome and Alexandria, but increasingly others as urban populations continue to grow – with the Vigiles, a corps of firefighters/night-watchmen, and the cohorts urbane, paramilitary units designed to fight street gangs, but even these don't 'investigate' crimes in the modern sense (given the nature of the courts, as noted above, there's almost no point). Out in the provinces, though, people are left with whatever ad-hoc militas they can scrape together, but these will often cause as many problems as the bandits they're hired to stop. As an aside, there is also the frumentarii, officially tasked with keeping legions supplied in the field, but unoffically acting as the emperor's spies; however, even these are mostly just concerned with rooting out conspiracies and enemy agents.
Punishments: Despite their comprehensive legal code, Roman courts can be remarkably inconsistent in the punishments they inflict. More predictably, the divide usually comes down to class and money: high-status citizens can expect to be treated lightly even for capital crimes, with exile to the colonies being about the worst they can suffer (though of course, by their wildly unrealistic standards, this is still pretty terrible). Slaves and the poor, though, can expect execution by some notoriously barbaric means, from crucifixtion to being thrown to the lions (and for the new factory-worker underclass, being fed to the machines they once operated).
Magic: This is an alternate history, not a fantasy world, so naturally there is no such thing as magic. That being said, Romans believe in its existence without question, and their numerous rites form a critical part of their culture. Magic as an actual practise is regarded as superstitio (a term with no real English equivalent, but best described as “seeking what should not be known”) and is officially banned, though this means next to nothing in practical terms. Prophecies, spells and curses are huge business, especially in the form of defixiones: small lead sheets on which the user would call for divine aid, whether for beneficial or nefarious purposes. These “curse tablets” can be found pretty much anywhere you care to look, though their effectiveness is debateable.
Social limitations: In an earlier section, it was noted that Roman class divides are essentially “academic”. This is perhaps misleading: whilst the Patricians and Plebians are indeed near-interchangeable, that is only because both are equally wealthy, and in an era in which all power is held by a lone emperor, the Patricians' aristocratic titles are worth next to nothing. However, the divide between these two classes and the common “Proles” remains absolute. Dismissed as “primitives” by the elite and denied any meaningful role in their culture, anyone born a Prole stands little-to-no chance of moving beyond the glorified servitude into which they are consigned. The famous term “bread & circuses”, to distract the rabble with hand-outs and mindless entertainment, comes from how the Patricians and Plebians treat those kept under their thumb.