I have old memory from when I was in little school: During the Roman empire, criminal law was very "flexible". You could kill nearly anyone in the Empire, as long as you were able to pay a fee to the community afterwards. As I remember, the higher the social position of the target, the higher the fee was.

Well, my memory might be wrong and indeed is very vague. It might be right with regard to the law but actually concerns another society and/or other times. Would someone knowledgeable give me some hint or contradict my point please?

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    That sounds of the early medieval concept of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weregild. Are you sure about the era?
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 13:43
  • @o.m. I am not sure at all. I've tried to express that in my question. But I was not clear enough obviously. :-) Thank you for your comment. I think you could make a full answer out of it! :-) Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 21:12
  • I don't know much about Roman law specifically but as far as I know, criminal law wasn't actually recognised as a separate concern and the "fees" you mentioned weren't paid to the community but to the family of the victim (possibly the owner for slaves?). Implicitly, it's not a “punishment” that society imposes on criminals but a compensation for the damage you created, very much like damages are awarded today in civil law cases.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 21:13
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    The German law codes imposed after the fall of Rome had a lot of this kind of thing in them (Romans counted less then). It was not a part of Roman law itself.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 19:27
  • @yvesBaumes - See also: amazon.com/Murder-Was-Not-Crime-Homicide/dp/0292725671
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 7:26

2 Answers 2


Roman Law worked just like law today (minus the fact that their punishment would be unusual today). For criminal proceedings, a jury of citizens, made up of senators and "high standing" people in the community would be selected as the jury. the accused had the right to bring in witnesses, and other defenses, Etc. A Roman citizen could only get a death sentence for one crime though, Treason. The other punishments were slavery, beatings, fines, and retaliation. What you mentioned is not legal under Roman law, though there is corruption in any system, so for senators they probably could get away with that for minor citizens. But under the Roman system, a slave owner could kill his slaves. Even slaves had protection though; You could be fined and beaten for killing another man's slave.

Edit: Roman citizens themselves could not be tried by a magistrate because only a full court could try a Roman citizen for any crime that could warrant capital punishment or the heavier fines; Roman citizens also had the right to be shipped back to Rome to get a trial and even those guilty of treason could not be crucified to death- they were beheaded instead. For the charge of Patricide, the person killing their father could not be a Roman citizen, at least not in relationship to their father. Because under Roman law, essentially all members of the family were legally almost slaves of the father (they could not own or buy property with the father's consent, or get married, or leave the household, and the father had the right to kill them for any punishment, imprison them, and sell them as slaves to anyone else, as well as banishing them from the country.). So it is hard for most people to conceptualize but the Father or Husband was the only one in the Family that could hold citizenship, usually, (once Roman citizenhood was expanded past Rome, the local provinces and tradition affected who officially had Roman citizenship or rights) and so he was responsible to make sure his family did not break the law, but he was the only one who had full protection legally. This made it easier for the people they viewed as the most trouble to be tried before a magistrate and be executed, such as women and foreigners.


California State University

Roman punishment

Rights of Roman Citizenship

  • You could also get a sentence of exile, forbidden to come within X miles of Rome (where X varied from case to case)
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jul 21, 2015 at 23:49
  • yea. I found that out too. i just didn't really feel like writing that one out. I am sorry for all of you who do.
    – Alexandre
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 2:06
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    I disagree that only treason was punished by death. Parricide was punished by death and a ceremony dedicated to debase the criminal, so at least there was other crime that was so punished and (if parricide needed a specific ritual to signal its status as a specially vile crime) I would be really surprised if death sentences were that rare. Do not forget that it is the people which the decimatio term comes from. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poena_cullei
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 21:07
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    Can you cite any sources for this answer? It appears to be a good one, but I'd like to know if it's just your opinion.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Aug 20, 2015 at 21:30
  • "a slave owner could kill his slaves, or any non-Roman citizen" - source for Roman citizen being able to kill any non-citizen?
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 2:23

The earlier laws on murder are unclear. Although it is known that some certain types of murder were defined in the original twelve tables, it is not certain what they were. The Lex Cornelia de Sicariis Veneficis of Sulla in 82 BC is the first certain Roman law of murder which provides that anyone who kills dolus malus (i.e., as part of an evil design) shall be executed.

In practice, Roman magistrates had wide latitude to decide punishments, including execution.

  • But only for non-citizens... since citizens had a whole different system to be tried with. (though that is still most of the population in the republic)
    – Alexandre
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 22:14
  • I'm ashamed to admit my "source" for this, ;) but read a novel where the penalty for patricide was to be flogged, then tied in a sack with various unpleasant animals/things including a snake, and I think rolled into the Tiber! Is this nonsense - I'm prepared for the answer "yes"? Oh and it was a citizen being accused.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 3:52

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