Ten crazy laws that ancient Romans lived by

In the ancient world, Rome was a proud spotlight for civilization. The empire was considered by many as the sign of dignity and virtue, and the civilization had one goal in mind.

They were to progress the world of philosophy by surpassing the Greek legends that transformed modern society.

This led to a series of laws that would baffle even the most conservative rulers in the world. Here are 10 ways you could break the law as a Roman.

10.Wearing Purple Wasn’t Frowned Upon – It was Illegal

The Empress Theodora, the wife of the Emperor Justinian, dressed in Tyrian purple.
The Empress Theodora, the wife of the Emperor Justinian, dressed in Tyrian purple.

In ancient Rome, purple was the sign of royalty, and only the most powerful could wear the color. Purple was the most majestic color inside of the culture and wearing it was viewed as a right only given to a proud few. Emperors would dress in the finest purple togas; they were so stylish that they made the purple color exclusive among the elite.

The law was set inside of the sumptuary class, which prevented the lower class from extravagantly showing off the extra income they could acquire. The goal was to make it possible to immediately determine a person’s social status in a simple glance. Royalty wanted to make sure they didn’t mingle with the peasants; the value of the attention of the empire’s elite was precious.

In turn, peasants were banned from wearing togas and purple was reserved for none other than the emperor. This was due to the fact that purple dye was priced through the roof during this era. It came all the way from Phoenicia, where the dye was created from mollusks. A single purple toga required thousands of mollusks to be crushed, making them an expensive item.

9.Crying During Funerals Was Illegal for Women

Fragment of a relief from a sarcophagus depicting stages of the deceased's life: religious initiation, military service, and wedding (mid-2nd century AD)
Fragment of a relief from a sarcophagus depicting stages of the deceased’s life: religious initiation, military service, and wedding (mid-2nd century AD) Photo Credit

Roman funerals were very precise rituals. They started with a group of people walking the dead down the street, crying as they carried the deceased.

It was believed that the amount of people crying directly reflected a person’s popularity at death. Sometimes, this was considered incredibly important to the family of the dead, who would pay criers to show up at the ceremony. The goal was to impress the elite with the importance the family had within the city. This served as an important part of the family legacy. Women who never even knew the dead would be paid to make quite a scene while walking through the streets. They would quite literally rip out their hair and scratch their own faces in dismay.

Due to these actors, funerals became far too hectic and often transformed into a publicity stunt rather than a moment of passage. To stop the actors from inserting themselves into the ceremonies, crying became outlawed.

8.Fathers Were Allowed to Murder their Daughter’s Love in Cold Blood

If a husband caught his wife red-handed while she was having affair with another man, he was legally obligated to follow a procedure.

First, he had to hold his wife captive with her newly discovered lover.

Roman couple joining hands; the bride's belt may show the knot symbolizing that the husband was "belted and bound" to her, which he was to untie in their bed (4th century sarcophagus) Photo Credit
Roman couple joining hands; the bride’s belt may show the knot symbolizing that the husband was “belted and bound” to her, which he was to untie in their bed (4th century sarcophagus) Photo Credit

Next the husband was supposed to gather up all of their neighbors so they could bear witness to the shameful crime that was committed. The man had a full twenty hours to get the neighbors together so everyone could see the man responsible for the betrayal.

The husband then had three days to make a public statement. He was to describe where his wife was having an affair, who was having an affair with her, and any other details that would develop the case. After the statement, the husband was legally required to file for divorce or instead be charged with the crime of pimping out his wife.

If the man chose, he could ultimately murder his wife’s lover if he turned out to be either a prostitute or slave. However, it got a little more complicated if the lover was a citizen. The husband would have to talk to the father of the wife. This was because in Rome, the only men who could murder lovers was the father of the daughter. No matter how important the citizen was, a father had full discretion.

7.The Ultimate Death Sentence was Drowning with Animals

"Ertränken im Fass oder Sack", a 1560 sketch showing capital punishment
“Ertränken im Fass oder Sack”, a 1560 sketch showing capital punishment

If you committed an average crime, you’d be treated to a simplistic beheading. But if your crimes were thought to be unspeakable, things could get pretty rough. You could be taken to the top of a prison and thrown off it to your death. However, no crime was deemed as terrible as murdering your father in cold blood. If you were found guilty, you would be robbed of light for the rest of your life. The murderer would be blindfolded and then taken out to a field on the outskirts of the city. He was then stripped of his clothes and beaten with rods until he could truly suffer no more.

After this, the man was thrown into a sack with a serpent, a dog, an ape, and even a rooster. The collection of animals would then be thrown together into the ocean to ensure death by drowning.

6.Prostitutes Were Forced to Make their Hair Blonde

Wall painting from the Lupanar (brothel) of Pompeii, with the woman presumed to be a prostitute wearing a bra
Wall painting from the Lupanar (brothel) of Pompeii, with the woman presumed to be a prostitute wearing a bra

The Roman empire was filled with natural brunettes. Blondes in the area were considered barbarians, and were usually Gauls. Since no prostitute was given the full rights of other Roman women, they had to ensure that they looked like barbarian scum.

Oddly, this rule didn’t end up working out for the lawmakers. Roman women became jealous of the blondes and started dying their own hair. Some ladies even went as far as to cut off their slaves’ hair and transform them into wigs. The result left the city in dismay, as it was then impossible to tell the difference between the woman of class from prostitutes.

5.Suicide Must Have Been Approved by the Senate

Sometimes the Roman empire thought that preparation for suicide was a sign of forward thinking.

Emperors and kings were known to always keep poison within reach if things turned south. Even sick people would be encouraged to poison themselves to end their suffering.

Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate.
Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate.

While many Romans were gifted with the ability to control their own fate, soldiers, fugitives and even slaves were banned from the prospect of suicide in order to keep the economy intact. Once you were a soldier inside of the Roman army, you were forced to serve out your term until given permission to leave. Criminals were also stripped of the right to end their lives because without conviction the empire couldn’t legally own the criminal’s property. If a slave ended his own life, the owner was usually given a refund of the slave to protect the income of the influential people of Rome.

It even got to the point that suicide became formal. A depressed person could file a document to the senate asking for the granting of death. If the senate determined that the person was better off dead, they’d be granted a free bottle of poison to end their lives.

4.Someone Killed By Lightning Wasn’t Allowed to Receive a Proper Burial

Marcus Aurelius sacrificing Photo Credit
Marcus Aurelius sacrificing Photo Credit

 

If lightning hit a citizen of Rome, it was believed to be a result of the wrath of Jupiter. The Romans believed that if lightning struck an establishment or person, Jupiter was furious with whatever was hit.

If your loved one was struck down by the gods, it was forbidden to bury him or her. You couldn’t even lift the body up past the knees in order to keep peace with the gods. Any breach of these rules would be seen as robbing Jupiter of his sacrifices. And if you chose to break the law, you’d become Jupiter’s next sacrifice from the Roman empire.

3. A Father Only Had Only a Few Opportunities To Sell Their Sons Into Slavery

If you had children in Rome, you had the right to temporarily sell them into slavery.

This was done through an agreement with a buyer – while the buyer would gain possession of the child, he was always expected to bring the children back home.

Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (2nd century CE): the two slaves carrying wine jars wear typical slave clothing and an amulet against the evil eye on a necklace; the slave boy to the left carries water and towels, and the one on the right a bough and a basket of flowers Photo Credit
Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (2nd century CE): the two slaves carrying wine jars wear typical slave clothing and an amulet against the evil eye on a necklace; the slave boy to the left carries water and towels, and the one on the right a bough and a basket of flowers Photo Credit

Luckily for the children, a father who sold off their child three times was declared as a person unfit to parent. After the third term of slavery, the child would be declared emancipated from his home. He would have to finish his third session as a slave because a deal is a deal, but afterward, he would be legally emancipated from his parents. While there was a limit to how much a single child could be sold off, there was no limit to the number of children that could be sold off to buyers.

2.If a Woman Didn’t Leave Home During Three Days Every Year, She Would Become Property

Dido embracing Aeneas, from a Roman fresco in the House of Citharist in Pompeii, Italy; Pompeian Third Style (10 BC - 45 AD)
Dido embracing Aeneas, from a Roman fresco in the House of Citharist in Pompeii, Italy; Pompeian Third Style (10 BC – 45 AD)

Another odd set of laws the Romans had were ones named usuacpio. These were the laws that declared how long a person could hold on to a possession before it automatically became their property.

The objects inside this law also included people. As a result, a wife had to leave her home on three days each year, exploring the city or simply going on a walk. It was believed that Roman women had a right to freedom as long as they left the house for three straight days once a year.

1.Fathers Had the Right to Murder the Entire Family

Ara Pacis showing the Imperial Family of Augustus Photo Credit
Ara Pacis showing the Imperial Family of Augustus Photo Credit

During the early era of Rome, fathers were given complete control over their family. Fathers could freely use any form of punishment and abuse.

The power of the father extended so far that if the father deemed fit, he could murder his children in cold blood without any repercussions. Even after the kids left home, fathers still held the right to murder their kids. This created a suitable situation for family lineage. For example, it was pretty standard for daughters to be afraid of punishment from their dads even after they got married and started a family. Boys in the family were free of their fathers’ rule upon death. After the empire developed awhile, these rules began to become more strict. By the last century BC, the laws that allowed fathers to have complete control over the destiny of children were diminished. For example, fathers only reserved the right to murder if their son was convicted of a crime.

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