It Was a Crime for Women to Cry at Funerals, and other “Fun” Laws From Ancient Rome

“Court Case Friday”

I took all the “weird” classes in law school, like: “Nature of Legal Thinking,” “Legal Anthropology,” “Legal Philosophy,” and “Roman Law.

Here are some of my favorite laws from Ancient Rome.

Women Crying at Funerals was a Crime

Roman Funeral

Throughout history, people believed that the more popular a person was, the greater the number of mourners who would attend the funeral.  To impress others, wealthy Roman families hired loud “professional” mourners to honor their dead family members. This practice became so annoying that Roman leaders passed a law to preventing women from crying at funerals.  (Of course, the law didn’t apply to men, because it was already a public disgrace for men to cry in public.)

Blonde Roman Sex Workers

All Prostitutes were Blondes

Romans assumed that their citizens had dark hairNatural blonde hair belonged to the Northern Barbarians.  Thus, prostitutes were required to dye their hair blonde to set them apart from the “chaste” dark-haired Roman women.

New Laws Were Posted Where No One Could Read Them

The Romans believed in “due process.”  Before a criminal law could be enforced, the public must be given “notice.” Notice was accomplished by posting the text of the law in a public place.  Emperors, like Nero and Caligula, posted unpopular new laws, with small fonts, near the top of a tall pole, where no one could read it.  This satisfied the “technical requirements” of the “letter of the law.”

Physical Punishment Only – No Jail Time for Crimes

Punishment for crimes included: beatings, lashings, exile, fines, and even death. However, the Romans generally did not send people to prison for punishment. Instead, they used jails primarily to detain people while their guilt or punishment was determined.

Being “Under the Influence” Increased the Punishment  

Today, someone who commits a crime while “under the influence,” receives a reduced sentence. Intoxication is a “mitigating factor.” For example, being “drunk” or “high” might reduce murder to manslaughter.

Roman law was the opposite.  Committing a crime while under the influence increased the penalty.  It was an “aggravating factor.”  Intoxication was deemed, “voluntary insanity.”

Slave Witnesses Were Tortured in Court

Romans Courts of Law

Roman Law presumed that the testimony of slaves was unreliable.  Slaves lied.  Therefore, their testimony was accompanied by torture.  Obviously, as a contemporary historian observed, “Masters were reluctant to allow their slaves to testify in court.” In a civil suit, the losing party had to compensate the prevailing slave owner for any permanent injuries to the slave caused by the judicial use of torture.

Excessive Punishment for Slaves Killing Masters

If a slave killed a master, the punishment was execution of the guilty slave, plus the execution of every slave in the household, men, women, and children. This harsh penalty served as a deterrent to all slaves. One time a city leader was murdered by his slave. Despite public protests and appeals for mercy, the other slaves in the household were executed — all 400 of them.

Wearing Purple was a Crime

“Royal” Purple

In ancient times, purple dye was extremely expensive.  The dye came from marine snails and could only be afforded by the elite. (To produce the dye, thousands of sea snails were boiled in giant vats for days with chemicals added.  A pound of dye cost $19,000 in today’s money.) Thus, purple also became the color of royalty and Roman law made it illegal for commoners to wear purple.

(See: “Fun Facts About Ancient Roman Law and Punishment,” Feb. 9, 2017; “What About These 7 Crazy Laws from Ancient Rome?” Charles Stephen, Jul 16, 2020; Kerry Sullivan, “Only the Roman Elite Could Wear Tyrian Purple to Keep the Peasants in Their Place.” Nov 6 2016; “The Judicial Use of Torture,” Harvard Law Review , Nov. 25, 1897.)


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