A Look at Urban Violence & Police Brutality in Ancient …
Urban violence has been around for as long as people have agglomerated into population centers, from a few thousand to many millions. The ancient city of Rome reached a million people two thousand years ago. Crime and public disorder had reached such a level in the first century BC/BCE that the first Roman emperor, Augustus, decided to do something—and what he initiated provided a template for the 20th century surveillance state. Emperor Augustus created a police force, militarized the city of Rome, and instituted a pervasive spying system that could be envied even by Stalin. How ancient Rome became a police state is important to talk about now because cities in the U.S. and worldwide are following in the emperor’s footsteps. In the past decade, we have seen a rise in conflict between the police and the civilian population and, since 9/11, our police forces have become militarized and our cities have come under increasing surveillance.
In Roman society, violence was endemic and had been accentuated by the political chaos of the Late Republic (2nd to 1st centuries BC/BCE). Though the government could usually cope with major disorders, personal violence plagued the city. Under the Republic, the police powers of the government were rudimentary, with few officials and limited staff trying to maintain some semblance of order. In the imperial period (1st century BC/BCE to 5th century AD/CE), crime was commonplace, and some of it was organized. Emperor Domitian broke up a ring of professional murderers who killed their victims with poisoned needles, and who operated both in the city and throughout the empire. Under Emperor Commodus, there was a revival of the same gang, but it was soon suppressed. Most criminals at Rome followed more traditional pursuits, and the city was plagued with housebreakers, pickpockets, petty thieves, and muggers. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, compares life in the city of Rome generally to conditions in the public baths: “Some things will be thrown at you; some will hit you.”
When the average citizen of Rome became a victim of crime, he had to rely on his neighbors and relatives for help. Roman nobility could also call up a mob of “clients” (people who attached themselves to wealthy men for mutual benefits and favors) to do battle for them. In rural areas of Italy, the situation was worse, and landowners hired armed bands to protect them and intimidate their enemies. There were even a few private armies of thugs at Rome. Self-help was always the main way to deal with criminals in ancient Rome, and there was no concept of public prosecution, so victims of crime or their families had to organize and manage the prosecution themselves.
One of the major achievements of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, was the establishment in the year 6 AD/CE of an effective force of night watchmen and firemen. When Augustus came to power, he undertook a reorganization of the city by creating 14 wards. The wards were protected by seven squads of 1,000 men each, for a total of 7,000 men, called vigiles, who acted as both night watchmen and firemen. Vigiles comes from the Latin words vigilans (vigilantis), which means wide awake, watchful, alert, and gives us our modern words vigil and vigilant, as well as vigilante. But the Roman vigiles were given legal authority from the emperor and were not vigilantes in today’s meaning (who act without legal authority). The vigiles were organized along military lines (like today’s fire brigades), complete with personal weapons and military dress, officers, standard-bearers, and musicians (a precursor of the police band?).
At first, the vigiles functioned primarily as a fire-fighting force, since the main threat to cities (then and now) was destruction by uncontrolled fire. They were equipped with water-pumps, buckets, and axes (for breaking down the doors of houses on fire or suspected of being a fire-risk). Artillery was used to shoot dampening materials onto fires and to create fire breaks by levelling buildings. The vigiles patrolled the city all night (night watchmen) and had the right of entry into private homes, which put them in the position of witnessing crime and taking on the role of policemen—from capturing thieves, returning runaway slaves, to maintaining public order.
Urban Police: The Praetorian Guard
The night watchmen were supported by the Urban Cohorts (cohortes urbanae), also created by Emperor Augustus, who acted as a heavy-duty, anti-riot force, as well as by the Praetorian Guard if necessary. The Urban Cohorts were all trained and organized as professional soldiers, and were principally concerned with policing the city and maintaining public order under the command of the city prefect (praefectus urbi). They also provided crowd-control during parades, games, and races, especially to prevent criminal activity in deserted areas of the city. They also occasionally took part in military campaigns. There were three Urban Cohorts, of 1,000 men each, together with a detachment 1,200 cavalry, as a mounted police and army unit. A fourth Urban Cohort was added by Emperor Caligula, and a total of seven were installed under Emperor Claudius.
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Published at Tue, 24 Sep 2019 13:21:00 +0000