How the Roman Empire can explain the dramatic rise in state violence

How the Roman Empire can explain the dramatic rise in state violence

  • Ugo Bardi
7 min read
Ugo Bardi

The Spanish police injured hundreds of people, including women and the elderly, during the referendum for the independence of Catalunya, in 2017 (image source). It was not the worst that states can do — and have been doing — to their citizens, but it is an indication that state violence is on the rise. Perhaps we can find reasons for this trend if we look back at history, all the way to ancient Rome. The Romans were extremely cruel and violent, perhaps an effect of their reliance on slaves. In our case, we have replaced human slaves with fossil slaves (fossil fuels) but, as they are abandoning us, we risk to return to the violence of ancient times.

The more you study ancient Roman history, the more you realize how similar to us the Romans were. The economy, money, commerce, travel, bureaucracy, laws — so many things in our world find a parallel in the Roman world, even though often in a much less sophisticated form. So, if you were to use a time machine to be transported to ancient Rome, you would find yourself in a familiar world in almost all respects. Except for one thing: you would be startled by the violence you would encounter. Real, harsh, brutal violence; blood and death right in front of you, in the streets, in the arenas, in theaters. It was not the random kind of violence we call “crime,” it was violence codified, sanctioned, and enacted by the state.

Gladiators and other ways of killing people

When we think of violence in Roman times, we normally think of gladiator games. Those were surely bloody and violent, but just part of the story of how the Roman state managed violence. The Roman courts meted capital punishment with an ease which, for us, is bewildering. Poor people, slaves, and non-Roman citizens were especially likely to be declared “noxii” (plural of noxius) and condemned to death.

In those times, there was no such thing as a “humane” way of killing the noxii. On the contrary, their suffering was supposed to be an example — the more they suffered, the better. They were tortured, beaten, flogged, crucified, chocked, dismembered, burned, and more. It seems that they could even be killed also for theater plays: when the plot involved the death of a character, the actor playing the role could be replaced with a noxius who would be killed for real for the pleasure of the audience. (Tertullian reports this, although it is not clear how common it was).

As another example, the Roman law said that when a slave killed a master, all the slaves of that household were to be executed, even those not involved in the murder. Tacitus, (Ann. 14.42.2) reports that the law was put into practice when the slaves of a rich patrician — hundreds, at least — were executed after that their master had been killed by one of them over, apparently, a love rivalry. That was justified because it was to be seen as an example.

Slavery and societal control

How is it that a supposedly advanced civilization as the Roman empire could behave in this way? One word: slavery. That needs to be explained. First of all, all societies are based on some kind of social control. If humans were ants, cooperation would be coded in their genes. But, in humans, personal interest may go against the common good. To avoid that, there is a need for negative or positive enforcement: what we commonly call the carrot or the stick. Positive enforcement may be food, sex, shelter, and other forms of gratification. Negative reinforcements can be the denial of all that, but also physical punishment: flogging, beating, torturing, etc.

In our society, we tend to believe that positive reinforcements are better than negative ones. For instance, we agree that our accountants, lawyers, teachers, doctors, and the like don’t do their job because they are flogged or beaten if they don’t. They do their best because they look for money, the primary form of positive enticement in our world.

Our society is possibly the most monetarized in history in the sense that we tend to believe that money can push people to do more or less everything. You probably know the joke about how economists hunt elephants: they don’t, but they believe that elephants will hunt themselves if they are paid enough.

But how about the ancient Romans? In many cases, they used money just like we do. For instance, the Roman soldiers fought because they were paid: the very word “soldier” comes from a late Roman coin. Probably, the Romans knew perfectly well that negative reinforcements — beating, flogging, etc. — were not the best way to entice people to do their best.

But they had a big problem with their slaves. Slaves were the backbone of the Roman society, but how could they be motivated to work? By paying them money? Hardly. The majority of slaves were engaged in menial tasks; sometimes they were expendable manpower for mines and other dangerous tasks. Giving money to them would have made no sense: how could they spend it?

The Roman economy couldn’t produce the variety of toys and trinkets that we use to mark people’s social status — a game we know as “keeping up with the Joneses.” It is true that some slaves formed an upper crust of professionals — they occupied the social space that’s today occupied by the middle class.

These relatively well to do slaves could own money, but that didn’t change the fact that they were slaves and, in most cases, they were expected to remain so for life. Freeing slaves was maybe a positive stimulus, but it was rare and often just a way for a master to get rid of an old and useless slave.

So, negative enforcements — the stick — were used to control the slaves. Harsh punishments were lavishly applied not only to slaves, but the underclass of the libertii(freed slaves), the poor, and the foreigners. The Romans were so cruel because they had to constantly remind the underclass of their place, and that they were always just one step away from being sent ad bestias, condemned to be eaten by wild beasts in the circus.

Our fossil slaves

Everything has a logic and it seems that also being cruel has a logic — although not a pleasant one. And now we can apply this logic to our society.

We don’t have human slaves, but we have fossil slaves in the form of fossil fuels.

We deal with fossil fuels in ways similar to those the Romans used toward their slaves (as noted also by Mouhot). Just like the Romans used their human slaves to build their civilization, we used the power of fossil fuels to build ours. One of the consequences is that we didn’t need (so far) the kind of wanton cruelty that the Romans used toward their slaves. Our fossil slaves never complained about being burned inside boilers and engines.

But it is also true that fossil fuels are becoming gradually more expensive as we use them, because of the depletion of the best resources. Then, we badly need to reduce their use in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Our fossil slaves are leaving us; it is unavoidable.

The consequences are already visible: increasing inequality, extreme poverty, societal stress, and more. We haven’t returned to the kind of formal separation among classes that defines some people as “slaves” in the Roman sense of the term, but we are seeing the rise of “debt slaves.”

In principle, debt is something that is supposed to be repaid by hard work. But, in many cases, it is becoming apparent that no matter how hard and for how long a person will work, they’ll never be able to repay their debt. So, how can debt slaves be motivated?

The answer is the same that the ancient Romans had found: using negative enforcement methods — that is, punishments, even harsh ones, meted by the state in its various branches: the police, the judiciary, the army, etc. And it seems to be exactly what we are seeing.

The Growth of State Violence

It is difficult to find reliable statistics on the increasing trend of state violence. Possibly, the most evident set of data we have is for the incarcerations in the US, showing an increase of a factor of five of the number of inmates from 1980 to 2014.

Other forms of state-sanctioned violence can be judged only in qualitative terms, but it seems clear that we are in a historical phase in which states are increasingly torturing, beating, shooting, and harassing unarmed citizens.

The beating of Spanish citizens by the state police in Catalunya in 2017 is just an example.

So, here we are: seeing a spiral of violence that threatens to engulf all of us. To avoid that, I think we can learn a lot from the experience of the ancient Romans. Their source of energy was human slaves and that was what led them to be so horribly cruel and violent.

We have been lucky enough that we didn’t need human slaves (so far) and so we could create a reasonably peaceful society — at least a society that was far less cruel than that of the ancient Romans. But if we have to revert to human slaves, we’ll return to a cruel and bloody world, as it has been the rule for most of human history.

If we want to avoid this sad destiny, the only hope we have is to replace the fossil slaves with renewable, solid-state slaves who won’t complain about staying in the sun to provide energy for us.

A solar-powered society doesn’t need human slaves and it can be reasonably peaceful. We can build a society based on solar energy, but we have to do it fast — before the fossil slaves leave us forever.

A good book on violence in Roman times is “Spectacles of Death” by Donald G. Kyle (1998). A paper on economic inequality during the Roman Empire is the one by Scheidel, W., & Friesen, S. (2010), “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire”, Journal of Roman Studies, 99 DOI: 10.3815/007543509789745223

Originally published at on January 22, 2018.

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