Classically Inclined

January 19, 2012

The principle of joint enterprise, Tacitus and Roman slavery

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:09 pm
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Yesterday morning, as I was brushing my teeth, I vaguely heard Today on Radio Four discussing the new proposals that the principle of joint enterprise in murder cases needs reexamining. This, for those unfamiliar with the statue, is the law that says it is possible to prosecute a group of people for a criminal action; it was the legal principle which allowed the conviction in the Steven Lawrence case earlier this month. The general idea is that even though only one person may have struck the killing blow, those in the group around him can still be held legally responsible for creating the environment in which the criminal act was possible.

Now, because I’m a classicist and a a bit strange, my mind immediately made a connection with Roman slave law. Bear with me here, this will shortly make sense. You see, there is in Tacitus’ Annals an account of what happened in precisely this sort of group situation:

Soon afterwards one of his own slaves murdered the city-prefect, Pedanius Secundus, either because he had been refused his freedom, for which he had made a bargain, or in the jealousy of a love in which he could not brook his master’s rivalry. Ancient custom required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution, when a sudden gathering of the populace, which was for saving so many innocent lives, brought matters to actual insurrection. Even in the Senate there was a strong feeling on the part of those who shrank from extreme rigour, though the majority were opposed to any innovation.

The principle here is much the same. If one slave murders their master, then it was customary for all the slaves of the household to die. However, much like the recent review, the Roman people felt this was unreasonably harsh. Not all the slaves had been responsible, they had not all been allies of the murderer,and thus they did not think the slaves deserved their fate. They even had some of the senate on their side, although I find it interesting to note that some crusty hardliners thought this sort of thing was the thin end of the wedge. (more…)

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