Tuesday, June 9, 2020


One morning the Emperor Vespasian was enjoying his breakfast in his palace in Rome when a dog wandered into the dining room. It had something in its mouth, which it carried to the Emperor's table and deposited at the Emperor's feet. The dog's "gift" to the Emperor was a severed human hand. Instead of being horrified, Vespasian was happy. He took the macabre incident as a good omen. The biographer Suetonius wrote of the incident without expressing the least little bit of disgust that a dog could traipse into the Emperor's dining room with a severed human hand. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, 8.5.4. 

Why is it that neither Vespasian nor Suetonius was upset by the fact that a dog was running around the streets of Rome with a dead man's hand in its mouth? Because in the the largest, richest, most powerful city in Western Europe it was normal to see rotting human bodies, victims of disease or homicide, littering the streets. Some murderers had the decency to drop the bodies of their victims in the Cloaca Maxima, the gigantic sewer running under the streets of Rome, but others couldn't be troubled to expend the energy necessary to move one of the heavy stone slabs which served as manhole covers for the Cloaca Maxima.

If you wanted the murderer punished, you had to go to court and apply for permission to prosecute the killer. If you got permission, the killer would be notified that a case was pending against him, and it was up to him to decide whether to come to court and answer the charges or simply skip town.

How is it that the bodies of homicide victims could just rot in the streets with nobody to care and no satisfactory way to achieve justice for their deaths? Rome had no police force and no public prosecutor.[*]

Of course, the city fathers of Ancient Rome had enough money to insure their own security, and to Hades with the common people of the city. 

Now it seems that the city parents of many of our large urban areas want to emulate the model of ancient Rome by defunding or disbanding their police departments. I'm sure the city parents won't suffer any ill effects of such a decision, but I expect to see the violent crime rates skyrocket in those localities. 


[*] Rome did have an officer charged with keeping the streets clean, but he had trouble keeping up with the ever-growing litter of dead people and dead animals, not to mention the ever-growing piles of human refuse dumped in the streets. Most Romans living on the upper floors of apartment buildings found it too much trouble to carry their chamber pots to manholes, so they just emptied them out the window. Piping to the Cloaca Maxima was out of the question because P-traps had not yet been invented. If you piped directly into the Cloaca Maxima, vile smells, noxious insects, and rodents could invade your home. And if the Tiber flooded, which it frequently did, you'd have quite a backup problem.

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