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.
The night watchmen and the Urban Cohorts were responsible for the actual, daily policing of the city. While available in an emergency, the Praetorian Guards were an elite corps (a combination of secret service and military unit). Nine cohorts of Praetorian Guards, each numbering 1,000 for a total of 9,000 men, served as the personal troops for the emperor. In addition, the emperor used the Praetorian Guards to control the Roman crowds when necessary. Each unit had their particular duties, which frequently overlapped, and each had their own form of administration. After Augustus, the night watchmen, Urban Cohorts, and Praetorian Guard took on a judicial role, in addition to their policing functions. The prefect (administrator) of the night watchmen tried cases of arsonists, housebreakers, robbers, and thieves. More serious crimes were tried by the prefect of the Urban Cohorts. And both urban and praetorian prefects became the judiciary during the empire. There were no rules or guidelines for these judicial proceedings; these were courts of inquisition rather than mediation.
The Roman police and military forces often abused their power and status, such as property seizure without compensation and physical violence to civilians. The axes used by the vigiles and other troops were used to break down doors and abuse people both in the street and in their own houses. The Roman author Juvenal provided a dark picture of police/soldier-civilian relations in Rome: If a civilian was beaten up by the soldier/police, he was better off forgetting about it because if he complained there would be a trial under a centurion and in front of a jury of soldiers. No witnesses would dare come forward, otherwise they would have had other soldiers exact retribution. Epictetus, a Greek philosopher at the time, advised that if a soldier wanted a mule it was best to give it to him, because if not given, the person would have lost it anyway and would have been beaten up in the process!
In the 3rd century AD/CE, relations between soldiers and civilians in Rome worsened after Emperor Severus replaced the old Praetorian Guard with a larger force of foreign soldiers from other European provinces, who spoke lousy Latin and behaved crudely and were ill-mannered. In AD 238, fighting between civilians and praetorians escalated, with the former assaulting the praetorian barracks, and the latter setting fire to parts of the city.
A certain level of brutality is to be expected of all soldiers in all historical periods. Both law enforcement and the military are characteristically inward-looking and tend to separate themselves psychologically from the civilian population through language and unit loyalties, as well as by wearing distinctive insignia, clothing, and hairstyle. A Roman identified himself as a soldier by carrying arms and wearing military belts, rather than wearing a “uniform” as in modern history. The belts included metallic plates, buckles, pendants, and other attachments, which were mostly for ornamentation and to make noise. This rattling of metals and the pounding of Roman hobnailed boots clearly sounded the presence of a soldier. The legal right to bear a sword in public was a military privilege and defined military culture.
Below are a few statistics to illustrate the immensity of the policing and militarization of ancient Rome.
- Modern Chicago is the 3rd most populous city in the US, with an estimated population of 2.7 million (2018), and currently has about 13,500 police officers.
- Rome (2,000 years ago!) had a million people (just over one-third of Chicago’s population), but had a policing force comprising 7,000 night watchmen, 3,000 Urban Cohorts (army soldiers assigned to Rome), 1,200 cavalry (attached to the Urban Cohorts), plus the emperor’s 9,000 Praetorian Guards (elite soldiers), making a total of more than 20,000 men—12,000 of whom were active-duty military. Also, these statistics do not include the ancient Roman secret police who were soldiers in civilian clothes and were ubiquitous.
Fuhrmann, C. (2012) Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order. Oxford.
Millar, F. (1998) The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic. Ann Arbor.
Nippel, W. (1995) Public Order in Ancient Rome. Cambridge.
Reynolds, P. (1926) The Vigiles of Imperial Rome. Oxford.
Robinson, O. F. (1992) Ancient Rome. City Planning and Administration. London.
Turnhout, L. A. (1999) Violence in Republican Rome, 2nd edition. Oxford.