Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

Summoned to the Roman Courts Famous Trials from Antiquity

Read Chapter 1


Killing a Sister for Mourning a Fallen Enemy

The Horatius Trial

Allegedly circa 670 B.C.E. (fifth century?)


The Story

According to Livy, Rome and another Latin city, Alba Longa, came into conflict in what would amount to a battle for hegemony over the Latin-speaking part of Italy. So as not to exhaust either army, which would have left the cities vulnerable to attack by power-hungry third parties, they agreed that a duel should determine which city would dominate Latium. Now it happened that each army had triplets, the Horatius brothers from Rome and the Curiatius brothers from Alba Longa. These six young men were instructed to fight until one side was obviously victorious. Initially, things went badly for the Roman triplets: two of them fell early in the duel, although the third was uninjured. All the Alba Longa triplets sustained injuries of greater and lesser severity. At this point, the surviving Roman, Horatius, fooled the trio from Alba Longa by pretending cowardice and fleeing, and immediately the three Curiatius warriors set off in pursuit. Because of their various wounds, the warriors from Alba Longa ran at different speeds, so that when the surviving Roman turned suddenly to face them, he could fight each individually, slaying them one after the other. Rome was victorious, and Alba Longa had to submit to Roman hegemony.

The triumphant Publius Horatius strode home at the head of the returning Roman army, carrying the weapons and equipment he had captured from the Curiatius brothers. He was met by his sister, Horatia, who had been engaged to marry one of the triplets from Alba Longa. When she saw the war cloak that she had made for her fiancé hanging from her brother's shoulders, she tore her hair and tearfully called the fallen enemy by name. Her impassioned brother was deeply offended by his sister's lament: he had, after all, only just survived by the skin of his teeth, and his victory was the reason for the Romans' great jubilation. He drew his sword and approached his sister saying: "Get lost! Join your betrothed, with your misplaced love, since you have forgotten your brothers, both the dead and the living, and forgotten your country! So shall perish every Roman woman who mourns a foe!" And with that, he drove his sword through her.

The senate and the people of Rome were appalled by his action. His killing of his sister, however, was counterbalanced by his accomplishments on behalf of the city immediately before the killing. He was brought before the king to be tried. Yet the king wanted nothing to do with pronouncing the sentence, which had to be harsh, and which the crowd that had gathered would not understand. Therefore, he summoned the people's assembly and declared: "By the power of the law, I appoint two men (duumviri), who shall sit in judgment over Publius Horatius in this case of treason." The law at that time read: "Two men shall pass judgment in cases of treason. If he (the accused) is convicted, and appeals the conviction in the people's assembly (right of provocatio), then he may contest for his rights in the appeal proceedings. If the duumviri win the case, then the head of the accused shall be veiled and he shall be hanged, before which he shall be flagellated, either inside or outside the city walls."

Two men were thus appointed in accordance with the law. They concluded that there was no point under which they could acquit Horatius: his deed was inexcusable. They proclaimed the sentence, "Publius Horatius, the court adjudicates against you in the case of treason," telling the executioner to bind his hands. The executioner approached and was about to bind him when Horatius made an appeal on the advice of the king. Thus the trial proceeded publicly before the people's court. The citizens, who were now responsible for passing judgment, were impressed most of all by this statement from Horatius's father: In his opinion, his daughter had been justifiably killed; had that not been the case, he would have initiated legal proceedings against his own son as befits the paterfamilias. He then begged the citizens not to take his last remaining child from him, a father who until recently had had four children. At this point, the father hugged his son, pointed at the captured weapons still known as the "Horatian Spears," and declared: "Citizens, can you stand by and watch while this man, who only recently returned as the triumphant victor bearing the spoils of war, is bound to the stake, flagellated, and ultimately hanged? Even the people of Alba Longa could not endure such an appalling spectacle. Go, executioner; bind the hands of the man who just now, with sword and shield, prevented the Roman people from losing their freedom! Go, veil the face of the liberator of this city! Hang him from the gallows tree! Whip him! But if you flagellate him inside the city walls, then you must do so next to these spears and the other captured weapons; if outside the walls, then you must beat him while standing among the graves of the Curiatii! For where could you take him where the brilliance of his deeds would not denounce such a gruesome punishment?"

The people could not withstand the father's tears, and they were likewise impressed by his son's demeanor, as neither had he shown fear in the face of danger, nor had he begged for mercy. He was thus acquitted, more due to admiration for his courage than according to law and justice. In order that the public homicide be atoned for in some fashion, the father was ordered to make the necessary offerings: he brought many expiatory sacrifices and vowed that they would continue eternally, a promise the entire Horatius clan assumed. He laid a beam across the street, veiled the head of the young man, putting him in a manner of speaking under the yoke. This beam is known as the "Sister's Beam," and it still exists, being restored at state expense when necessary. An ashlar block monument was erected to Horatia at the site where she finally collapsed.1


Historical Background

That is how Livy (59 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) recorded this incident. As with everything written by this historian, when he refers to events so long ago, the factuality of this narrative remains highly dubious. According to him, all of this occurred early in the reign of King Tullus Hostilius, the third king after the fabled founding of the city in 753 B.C.E. Tullus Hostilius was said to have reigned from 672 to 640 B.C.E.; however, there were no urban centers in Latium over which a king might rule at that time, only rural settlements, even if the latter were indeed organized along military lines. Also, and this is the primary cause for doubt, Rome did not conquer Alba Longa until the fifth century B.C.E., when it was no longer a significant rival for power. The duel, which plays out in a manner worthy of a Hollywood epic, could have been a Roman myth used to justify Rome's own supremacy within Latium.2 On the other hand, transmission of the tale, in which the hero murders his sister and is then sensationally acquitted (we are interested only in this part of the story),3 appears, by the second century B.C.E., remarkably uniform in numerous sources.4 Therefore, it is entirely possible that the deed and trial did take place, but in connection with a different military endeavor, namely one from the fifth and not from the seventh century B.C.E.


The Trial

According to Livy, the king was responsible for rendering judgment in cases like this. But he could also hand the case over, provided he had the agreement of the people's assembly, although this does not appear to be strictly necessary from Livy's report. Yet the law just cited strictly dictates that it was not the king who would sit in judgment, but rather a judicial collegium consisting of two men (duumviri) who would adjudicate. If convicted, the accused could then appeal to the people's assembly. The two men in question, however, were not appointed by the assembly, but by the king. These peculiarities, in addition to the king's further behavior, which is highly inconsistent with royal prerogative, make sense if one assumes that there was, in fact, no longer a king serving as head of state at the actual time of this trial. According to the records, kingship ended by 510 B.C.E. While it is probable that Livy, or his original source, did not create the trial out of thin air, he may have set it in an earlier period, which would tend to involve some kind of fabrication.

In order to form an opinion about the character of the accused, the people's assembly listened intently to his father, assessing the defendant's behavior during the trial. In so doing the assembly endeavored to determine more completely than before all facts that might be significant for a comprehensive evaluation. The father, however, did not limit himself to the presentation of actual events; instead, he appended his own legal opinion, which the court took very seriously. The people's assembly was obviously not limited in its legal judgment, as the assembly diverged widely in this matter from the pertinent law, the ius causae, as Livy expressed it.

Nevertheless, as in the trial of Socrates, the only options available to the assembly were to condemn, which meant a death sentence, or to acquit the accused. In this case, the people's assembly chose acquittal. It is true that the father was obliged to atone for his son's deed in another manner; however, the records do not state that the assembly imposed this upon him. It is more probable that the order came from the priests, who stood next to the magistrate governing the assembly in order to ensure that religious procedures were followed, so as not to offend the gods.


Substantive Law

According to modern understanding, Publius Horatius committed homicide; moreover, he killed a close relative, his sister. The killing of any close relative, not just the father or grandfather, was called parricidium. According to Roman law, this was an especially heinous crime, deserving an exceptionally severe punishment. The perpetrator was "sacked," that is, sewn into a leather sack with unclean animals-monkeys and snakes are most commonly cited-and thrown into a river or the sea. In this case, however, Horatius was accused of perduellio,5 which included treason. It was Horatia who could have been accused of treason, hadher mourning been specifically meant as a desire for her fiancé's survival. Had her wish been fulfilled, her third brother would have had to perish; he was, after all, involved in a battle to the death. Rome would have fallen under the rule of Alba Longa.

The question remains whether her brother committed treason. He first accused his sister of betraying her dead brothers, himself, and her country, and then usurped judicial powers, disregarding the rule of law. He high-handedly issued a death sentence and immediately carried it out. In addition, his behavior could be considered a presumption of paternal rights over his sister and their autocratic execution. As the authority of the paterfamilias may well have held the same legal status as the constitution at that time, this could be considered treasonous.

The father presented three points to exonerate his son, whom he understandably did not want to lose in addition to his other children. First he argued that the son had justifiably killed his daughter; otherwise he, the father, would have taken action against him as paterfamilias. Modern scholars tend to consider this argument to be rather weak, as it assumes that the speaker would always behave in a law-abiding manner and never allow himself to be influenced by personal feelings. The lack of logic of this claim is, in fact, demonstrated by the father's next argument: he had just lost three of his four children in quick succession; therefore the people should not also take his last child from him. This extremely personal point implies that he would never have initiated a lawsuit against his son in which this son would have to forfeit his life to the father. In the end, the father's actions also undercut his first argument: if the son had indeed acted justifiably, then he would have been spared the acts of atonement that his father imposed on him. Of course, another possible explanation for this atonement is that even justifiable killing, for example in self-defense, had to be expiated at that time.

The final, third point upon which the father dwelled at great lenh, and which must have made quite an impression on all of the assembled Romans, was the deed that the accused had performed for the city. He had very recently placed himself in mortal danger, thus saving all Romans from subjugation by a neighboring city. Legally, this argument is not without its own dangers, because even serious crimes could theoretically be counterbalanced by service to the city: whoever provided Rome with extremely meritorious service would, if we carry this thought further, be permitted to commit one serious felony. And yet it was this argument that tipped the balance for Horatius's contemporaries, who had just been in fear of subjugation, even if Livy does phrase it in a more positive light: everyone admired the courage of the accused. Livy's positive formulation hides the fact that, in a strict sense, all who heard this argument, including the magistrates, were biased. They were impressed by the accused's calm in the face of this additional mortal peril, tantamount to the bravery he had demonstrated in the face of great danger on the battlefield. He did not beg for mercy. His behavior at the trial confirmed that his "flight" during the duel must have been a ruse.



Whether this trial actually took place or not, it remained firmly imbedded in the collective memory of Rome's citizens. Its precedence was repeatedly extended by people's laws to any citizen sentenced to death or flogging by a magistrate in the court of the first instance, and allowed that citizen to demand that the people's assembly reassess the sentence. This "right to legal challenge" (provocatio) was upheld by many laws, allegedly already in 509 B.C.E.,6 at the beginning of the Republic; then in 449 B.C.E.;7 with greater historical probability in 300;8 and, after a futile attempt in 133, again in 123 B.C.E.9

In 63 B.C.E., when Cicero was consul, the story acquired a rather lurid postscript involving Gaius Rabirius, then a senator. Thirty-seven years previously, after the senate had proclaimed emergency rule, Rabirius had participated in the violent downfall of the plebeian tribune, Appuleius Saturninus. Saturninus, who had surrendered upon formal assurance that his life would be spared, was subsequently murdered in prison by young supporters of the conservative senatorial party. In 63 B.C.E., Rabirius was suspected of having taken part in the murder. The plebicola party, representing the common people, believed the time had come to mount a counterstrike against the senatorial ranks and, with the judiciary's help, challenge the entire law of exception, which by its nature favored the upper classes. The initiative was taken by Titus Labienus, a relative of another man who had been murdered at that time. Labienus served as plebeian tribune in 63 B.C.E. However, before this case could come before the courts, a people's decree was enacted (with Gaius Julius Caesar's assistance), according to which a collegium of two magistrates was appointed to decide upon cases of treason, as in the Horatius story. Gaius Caesar and his uncle were appointed to the collegium. They put Rabirius on trial and condemned him to death because the murder of a sacrosanct tribune, particularly an inviolate plebeian tribune, represented a case of treason. But they allowed Rabirius, according to the people's law, to appeal to the people's assembly, which he of course did.

During this public procedure, when it appeared that an outcome unfavorable for Rabirius would prevail, Cicero, who then supported the senatorial party, had a loyal augur (an interpreter of divine omens) lower the flag on top of the Janiculum, which was a hill on the right bank of the Tiber. By lowering the flag there, he gave a sign of imminent danger, although, in this case, there was no danger. At this sign, all legal proceedings should have been terminated, including the vote in the case of Rabirius. As soon as possible, Labienus renewed his accusation before the people's assembly. Yet this time, the accused was defended by two famous legal advocates, Hortensius and Cicero. The latter's speech in support of the defendant is still largely extant: Hortensius proved that someone else had received the bounty paid for Saturninus's death, while Cicero impressively explained that the emergency law was absolutely necessary. In the end, Rabirius was acquitted largely because Caesar's political bias became gradually obvious.10

The right of any Roman citizen to appeal for judgment before the people against far-reaching encroachments by those in authority, even when those authorities were judges, remained a palladium, a refuge forever ensuring the freedom of each Roman citizen, a kind of fundamental human right. Cicero referred to it as the "patron" of the citizenry and the guarantor of freedom (patrona civitatis ac vindex libertatis).11 During the imperial period, of course, the people's assembly no longer passed judgment over such cases: the emperor assumed this responsibility. When the provincial governor Festus had the apostle Paul imprisoned and threatened to have him tried in a Jewish court, Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen, delaying the provocatio, the right to legal challenge. For this reason alone, he had to be transferred to Rome.12

The trial of Horatius long remained a vivid example that continued to influence customs in the Roman private sphere. It simply became unacceptable for Roman women to greet their men with emotional outbursts whenever the latter had to make war.