What does the police do?

First of all, it should be pointed out that the ‘police’, as we understand it today, did not exist in Roman times. To question its ancient equivalent, we need to better understand the context of crime and insecurity in Roman times.

Dedication in honor of Quintus Severus Marcianus © Rémy Gindroz
Dedication in honor of Quintus Severus Marcianus © Rémy Gindroz

Insecurity, i.e. general exposure to threat, was of course widespread in Roman times, and in many forms. Contrary to current trends, it was more dangerous to live in rural areas than in cities. Insecurity was more widespread there than in the big cities, symbols of civilisation where society was better organized. Outside the city, travel and the roads represented a dangerous undertaking in an environment with few controls.

Traders and travelers were the first to fall victim to robberies and assaults by brigands known as latrones. Many tombstones, bearing the mention of death, refer to this type of murder. Victims could also be kidnapped for ransom or sold into slavery.

Military troops had to be stationed in certain areas to protect travellers. The army was in charge of part of internal security and had to impose the authority of the state. Cohorts were sometimes detached from military camps to carry out missions within the province. These units then had a similar function to that of to the police nowadays. They could also collect taxes, control road posts or customs stations.

Urban life also had its downsides. It was up to the Praetorian Guard (elite units which generally provided protection for the emperor) and the troops present to maintain order in the city. During the imperial era, guaranteeing the safety of Roman citizens became a major issue which also served to demonstrate the emperor’s power. Even if the attacks were of a different kind in the cities, the population was not spared from crimes of all kinds. Among others: arson (often to create confusion and encourage other misdeeds), theft (ranging from simple street thefts those committed by effractores who attacked public warehouses, the horrea (warehouses), as well as robberies of wealthy individuals’ homes, which were therefore judged much more severely), brawls and fights (the “usual” fights used to clear up an affront being treated separately), or even murder.

For the most part, thefts and murders were linked to domesticity. Those around us also played a role: bad actions were generally linked to acts of malice and jealousy. It should be noted that even if insecurity was largely the work of criminals or marginalized people, the wealthy classes were not left out in terms of crime…

It is difficult to assess the true extent of these misdeeds since we have no statistics for this period. There are, however, certain material testimonies such as the numerous protective measures put in place by the population: complex locks, bars on windows, safes and boxes, perimeter walls, lodges for possible guards or watchdogs with the famous cave canem, “Beware of dog!”, sometimes visible on certain mosaics, etc. These measures constitute indications of the need for protection sought by the citizens of the time.

It was therefore imperative for the imperial power to maintain security. Security guards and military troops ensured an urban presence both day and night. Even if we do not know the exact number of soldiers deployed, historians mostly seem to think that this number exceeded that of the police in our modern cities.

Although units were set up to protect citizens, sometimes those who had been wronged preferred to call on divine help and justice. Archaeologists have found numerous curse tablets known as defixiones. Although death was sometimes demanded as punishment, most often than not the choice of punishment was left to the deities. These tablets are one of the few archaeological testimonies describing the type of objects that were generally stolen during the Roman era. It is thus possible to see that clothes were most often stolen item (usually from thermal baths) followed by money and jewelry, particularly the fibulae used to fasten clothes. Among the utilitarian items, it turns out that kitchen ceramics were not spared. More than for its value, the victim’s anger was here linked to the frustration due to the loss of a useful object… The names of the thieves are often mentioned, which leads to the assumption that, apart from cases of unfounded suspicion, the victims knew the criminals and that the crimes were frequently committed in the vicinity…

About Nyon: two stelae from this period, bearing an inscription mentioning a “prefect for the repression of brigandage”, can now be seen in the Museum. The first stele, known since 1660, had been reused in a cemetery wall and once adorned a tomb. The inscription recounts the career of C. Lucconius Tetricus, which led him to the prefecture to punish acts of banditry. The second stele, discovered in 1978 during work undertaken at rue du Prieuré 2, features a dedication in honour of Quintus Severius Marcianus, also was also appointed prefect for the repression of banditry during his career.

There remain many unknowns surrounding this mysterious function: one theory is that this post was used to guarantee the safety of the roads crossing the Jura, including those of the Saint-Cergue and Faucille passes. Researchers are not entirely convinced by this hypothesis, as Rome assigned this function to military troops. Furthermore, there is no archaeological evidence (construction of forts, presence of garrisons, etc.) to support the idea of a particularly troubled region. Some may have seen this office as a municipal magistracy of the Colonia that its founder, Julius Caesar, would have included in the constitution to monitor the actions of the local Helvetian tribes. But this hypothesis remains unconvincing: the Helvetians and Romans were bound by treaty at that time. The last lead is suggested by the fact that three similar inscriptions, one of which was found in Germany, near the Rhine, were found close to waterways (lake, river) and therefore perhaps also near ports: it could be a function linked to the repression of acts of piracy, common in particular at the time of Marcus Aurelius (162-180) etc…

Unfortunately, crime remains a timeless issue, and one that mankind have not always had the tools they wanted. However, although the police did not yet exist in the form in which we know them in the 21st century, Roman society, even more so during the imperial period, tried to lay the foundations, ensuring a form of security and crime control throughout its territory.

Flore Higelin Musée romain de Nyon, 2020