I was recently reading about conflicts between Clodius and Pompey. Clodius first but subsequently Pompey as well, used - what I would characterize as - armed gangs. The power of these gangs was such that Clodius was able to intimidate the Senate.

This and other instances of mobs careening through Rome led me to wonder why the Senate never established a police force? It seems hard for the modern mind to imagine a city half the size of Rome, today, without a police force.

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    Because Robert Peel hadn't been born yet: "Peel entered the Cabinet for the first time as Home Secretary (1822–1827), where he reformed and liberalised the criminal law and created the modern police force, leading to a new type of officer known in tribute to him as 'bobbies' and 'peelers'" - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Peel and historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Sir-Robert-Peel Commented May 20, 2016 at 21:56
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    This is kind of a counterfactual; they didn't set up a police department because (a) police departments hadn't been invented yet, and (b) they didn't think they needed one; their system of tribe and clientilism worked fine. They were fantastically proud of the fact that they had laws and the laws were (theoretically) available to the people. It is hard to imagine for the modern mind because they aren't modern; they were modern for their time. As a historian I once knew said, "The past is an alien land."
    – MCW
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 22:00
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    Police is a very recent invention. There was no police in England as late as the beginning of 19 century.
    – Alex
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 4:00
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    @PieterGeerkens Yes, and IIRC, British police ranks - constable, inspector, superintendent etc - were chosen deliberately to avoid any quasi- military connotations.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 10:51
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    @PieterGeerkens - The Romans had the Vigiles and the Cohortes Urbanus, whose duties correspond more or less with modern policemen, with added fire-fighting responsibilities. They were set up by Augustus, so they're out of the scope of the question, tho. Commented May 24, 2016 at 19:37

1 Answer 1


Outside of Rome, the military usually enforced the edicts of magistrates and the rule of law. However, no weapons could be carried within Rome’s boundaries, the pomerium. In the absence of this ordinary method of policing, the Senate came up with the senatus consultum ultimum (SCU) in 121 BC, when Gaius Gracchus was causing unrest (Plutarch, Life of C. Gracchus 14.4). This decree ordered all magistrates to take up arms in defence of the State, as Plutarch describes, and seems to have superseded the ordinary limit on weapons being carried within the pomerium, enabling the magistrates to act as a civilian police force.

For example, Sallust tells us that praetors arrested Catiline’s allies in 63 BC, when Catiline allegedly conspired to overthrow the Republic (Sallust, The War With Catiline 45) - through the SCU, the magistrates became a de facto police force. Interestingly, the magistrate’s guards are also described, which perhaps suggests that the magistrate’s authority was passed on to them as a result of the SCU.

To draw this back to your question, the answer is that the Republic had the capacity to form a police force when necessary. With regard to your example of the riots, the nature of the SCU meant that it had to be passed in the Senate. It seems likely, therefore, that a certain proportion of the Senate were not opposed to the riots, and so did not pass a SCU. Of course, were the Senate to create a police force independent of political interest, that would only weaken their position and be of no benefit to them.

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    Hi GCarver and welcome to History SE. This looks like a good start, but adding sources would improve your answer. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 23:53
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    Lars, thank you for your help - I hope my source references are satisfactory? Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 13:03

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