Ancient Rome has contributed to modern society in numerous ways. We see their influence in our architecture, we see it in many of our customs, and the existing government of several nations is based on the Roman Republic. Some may assume that we have embraced several Ancient Roman laws in today’s society and even ask what were the question, “what were the laws of Ancient Rome?”
We mimic the Roman Empire for good reason as they were incredibly advanced for their time. Amazingly, they had things like indoor plumbing and even performed brain surgery during their ancient time. And it would be interesting to find out what Roman laws are still used today.
The Romans did understand the importance of sanitation, which allowed Ancient Rome to reach a population that exceeded one million citizens — which was incredible. The one million population level wasn’t ever reached again until London did it in the mid-1800s.
7 Insane Ancient Roman Laws
Despite their amazing accomplishments, the Ancient Romans had some quirky laws and customs as well. In many ways, their philosophies and their view of society differ considerably from modern views. Let us examine 7 amazing laws that the Ancient Romans passed and enforced.
It Was a Crime to Wear Purple
In Ancient Rome, the color purple was reserved for the elite class only. The act of forbidding common people to wear the color purple was part of the sumptuary laws observed during those times.
Sumptuary laws were passed to prevent ordinary citizens from obtaining clothing or goods made of certain materials to reinforce social hierarchies. In the case of purple garments, they were incredibly expensive to produce because of the dyes required. Therefore, purple clothing was reserved for the most powerful.
Women Weren’t Permitted to Cry at Funerals
Civilizations throughout history have used professional mourners at funerals. Even today, they are used in some societies.
The assumption was that when more people mourn a person’s death, then that person was more popular and had more status. To impress their friends and neighbors, wealthy families would hire lots of mourners to honor their dead family members.
This practice got so bad in Ancient Rome that they passed a law to prevent women from crying at funerals. The law didn’t need to address men because it was considered a public disgrace for men to cry in public.
Prostitutes Were Required to Dye Their Hair Blonde
In Roman society, it was expected for ladies to have permanent black hair. A natural blonde was typically associated with a barbarian culture or someone who came from the Gaul. Either way, it was undesirable, and no Roman lady would ever have blonde hair.
This was why sex workers like prostitutes were vividly marked in Roman society by dying their hair blonde. They weren’t allowed to be associated with the dignity of Roman women in any way.
People Killed By Lightning Weren’t Allowed to Be Buried
Believe it or not, the Romans were very superstitious. Because of this, they viewed lightning strikes as an act of God — more specifically, an act of the god Jupiter.
This meant that if a person got struck by lightning, then Jupiter must have hated that person. If that person was your family member, you were forbidden lift to lift that body above the knees. And you certainly couldn’t bury your dead family member.
They viewed burying a dead person who’d died from a lightning strike by stealing Jupiter’s sacrifice. Anyone doing this would be sacrificed to replace them.
Fathers Could Temporarily Sell Their Kids Into Slavery
Roman fathers were given “paterfamilias” status, which gave them absolute power over their household. This included family members as well.
Because of this power, a Roman father could sell their children into slavery based on a buyer’s agreement. The buyer would take possession of the child for a defined time — at which the child would be returned to the father.
Women Became the Legal Property of Their Husbands
Roman laws specifically stated that if you possessed something at a certain time, then that possession became your legal property. This law applied to people as well — such as wives.
Many Roman wives took advantage of a loophole in this law. If they wished to remain free from becoming their husband’s legal possession, then each year, they would need to leave their house for at least three straight days.
Fathers Could Legally Murder Their Entire Family
As paterfamilias of his household, a father in Ancient Rome could pretty much do as he wished with his family members. And Roman law protected his ultimate right to do so.
This meant that Roman fathers could dish out any punishment or abuse of their family that they desired without justification. He included legally murdering his entire family. And Roman fathers held on to these rights even after their children were grown!
Enforcing Ancient Roman law
As Ancient Rome serves as a future template for civilizations to come, it is not surprising that one of their greatest legacies was creating a revolutionary legal system that was based on a written code of laws.
During 530 AD, Roman Emperor Justinian I had compiled nearly a thousand years’ worth of Roman law within a Book of Civil Law. This would become pretty much the basis for most European law up to the 1700s.
In this system, judges would oversee court issues as charges were brought against the accused and subsequently argued by prosecutors and defense lawyers. Records of these cases were retained as they were used to establish precedent and modify how laws were being applied when needed.
There were even cases where convicted citizens were allowed to appeal to higher legal authorities.
Drafting of the Twelve Tablets
This legal manner began with the drafting of the Twelve Tables in 449 BC. This was because what had been meticulously noted and written down later became a set of well-defined laws to govern behavior in Ancient Rome.
For a millennium, addendums and alterations to this written law were procedurally implemented by resolutions from the Senate, rulings of magistrates, and decrees of emperors. Over time, practicing law became a much-respected profession among ancient Romans. Some of them became renowned, much like Cicero, who acquired his fame as a trial lawyer.
Setting the standard of today’s laws
In the legal workings of Ancient Roman law, we see familiar elements coming to life. Among those are both prosecution and defense practices having the right to legal counsel, the formality of presenting evidence and argument, and the assessment by a jury of peers.
While these essential elements were often seen in Roman courts, they were sometimes abused. Those in power, such as emperors and governors, would ignore the written law at their discretion.
However, for the most part, every Roman citizen knew the consequences of breaking Roman laws.
Two goals of Roman criminal justice
Criminal justice in Ancient Rome had two simple objectives – deterrence and punishment.
This meant that justice came very swiftly for most violators. And following a judgment, the punishment was passed down very quickly. Many of these punishments were so harsh that the accused often committed suicide whenever a conviction was expected.
Convicted members of the upper class were often given opportunities to take their own life. But this was not always the case among lower classed citizens who were found guilty.
Ancient Rome’s unique view of prison and jail
To those who enforced Ancient Roman laws, prison and jail had only two purposes. One was to retain the accused until the trial took place. The other was to hold the convicted until their execution.
The notion of serving out a prison sentence for retribution or rehabilitation never entered the minds of Roman legal thought. They did not view imprisonment as a proper punishment. But there were a few occasions in the outlying provinces where an accused would spend a long time in jail waiting for a judge to travel to them and hear their trial.
In those provinces, a governor had incredible power on punishing non-citizens, and their judicial actions were not always swift or fair. These governors would sometimes keep prisoners in prisons or chains, but it wasn’t an official penalty for Roman citizens.
In the end, the objective of Ancient Roman law was to keep jails and prisons empty. They accorded no funding for long-time imprisonments. Therefore, punishments for the convicted meant a final resolution of the case. This meant the convicted was given a monetary fine, ordered to provide labor on a project, sent on exile to an abandoned island, or sentenced to either a quick or torturous death.
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