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Ancient Rome and the right to own weapons

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman pugiones
Roman military daggers (pugiones) from the times of Octavian Augustus. | Photo: Sarah Bond

Ancient Romans, unlike modern Americans, did not think that citizenship automatically entitled them to possess sharp weapons. It was recognized that such freedom could lead to many dangers.

From the very beginning of Rome, one could say that there were no restrictions regarding weapons. Roman owners even allowed their slaves to possess weapons so that they would stand up for them. However, this factor was not out of control. Bad treatment caused slave revolts such as that in Sicily or the revolt of Spartacus. After the suppression of the second slave revolt (104-100 BCE), a law was introduced in Sicily prohibiting slaves from possessing weapons on the island.

The 1st century BCE is the time of the fall of the Roman Republic. In 81 BCE in Rome, according to the will of dictator Sulla, a law came into force setting a special sacred border – pomerium, which defined the “civil” area of ​​the city. Inside the pomerium carrying weapons was forbidden; even the army camped and practised in the Field of Mars outside the city. In this way, they wanted to limit killings and thefts, but above all prevent coups.

In the middle of the 1st century BCE, there was a general crisis in the Roman Republic, in which political rivalry took on a very brutal form. Hostile camps hired mass murderers and people who were at odds with the law, whose task was to intimidate opponents. There were bloody fights in the streets of Rome. In 52 BCE the degree of political degeneration was so great that Pompey the Great broke the law and introduced his soldiers to the capital, under the pretext of having to restore public order. At that time, an absolute ban on the possession of weapons by citizens in the city was introduced, which only cemented the dominance of Pompey and his army.

The situation was different after the introduction of the principate and the rule of Octavian Augustus. The first emperor allowed the possession of weapons only to certain units, among others Vigiles (police and fire brigade in one), city cohorts, and pretorians. In addition, a law was introduced prohibiting the carrying of weapons during assemblies or lawsuits.

6th century mosaic showing hunting.
Autor: Sarah Bond

In order to limit banditry in Italy and Rome, Augustus adopted a law Lex Julia de Vi, which prohibited the possession of weapons for purposes other than hunting or self-defence while travelling. This hit especially the slaves who were involved in criminal groups outside the cities.

  • Sarah E. Bond, Even The Ancient Romans Had Fierce Debates Over Banning Assault Weapons, "Forbes", 16 June 2016

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