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Proscription in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Print showing the announcement of the proscription lists
Print showing the announcement of the proscription lists | Photo:

Proscription (proscriptio, pl. proscriptiones) was originally in ancient Rome announcing the auction of the debtor’s property, and later enlisting of outlaws – political opponents and in consequence depriving them of their citizenship, property and sentencing to exile. Prudential children and grandchildren were marked with infamy.

For the release or even the killing of hiding Romans, anyone could get high prizes (2 talents); slaves were promised freedom (period of the second triumvirate). The names of citizens subjected to proscriptions were placed on stone tablets in public places. The most severe punishments were sought for all help.

It was not possible to inherit property from a proscribed person, while the outlaw’s wife did not have the opportunity to get married again. Most of the victims of the proscrption were decapitated, and their heads were spotted and displayed on the Forum Romanum. Children and descendants of the proscribed were forever deprived of the right to seek public office and sit in the senate.

The proscription was used for the first time on a large scale in the times of the Sulla dictatorship (82-81 BCE). Persecution was revenge of Sulla for the massacre during the reign of Gaius Marius and his son. The persecution affected nearly three thousand opponents of the political dictator, and then many personal and political enemies were sacked. Sulla, apart from getting rid of rivals, primarily aimed to supplement the Roman Treasury ( Aerarium), which was severely stripped during the First Civil War and military expeditions outside the Republic. Sulla’s proscripts were supervised by his freedman Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus.

Julius Caesar, after winning the civil war, gave up proscribing, showing grace and goodness. What’s more, he withdrew the “fate” from the descendants of the proscribed people for Sulla.

In 43 BCE members of the Second Triumvirate: Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus have re-announced the proscription lists (tabulae proscriptionis). During these proscriptions, several hundred senators and several thousand rich equites died (including Marcus Tullius Cicero or his brother Quintus Tullius Cicero). Death was avoided by the uncle of Mark Antony (Lucius Julius Caesar) and the brother of Lepidus (Paulus), but they were deprived of their property; interestingly, Antony and Lepidus demanded themselves to put mentioned family members on the proscription lists. Many old Roman families ended their existence in a similar way. The triumvirs, thanks to the proscriptions, obtained additional funds for further war with Brutus and Cassius.

Ancient stories related to proscription

Many stories have survived to our times (especially from the period of the second triumvirate) telling about the fate of people who were on the proscription lists.
Interestingly, hatred towards the family of proscribed people was also present among the youngest. Appian of Alexandria mentions a boy with an educator who were murdered in the street while traveling to school, only because his father was proscribed1.

Death at the feast

The first victim of the proscriptions started at the behest of Antony, Lepidus and Octavian in 43 BCE was a people’s tribune named Salvius who cooperated with Cicero. Despite having personal inviolability, he was on the list of outlaws and had to die. In order to say goodbye to life with dignity, he decided to organize a feast for his family and friends. As Appian reports, the soldiers were to enter the house of Salvius during the feast and cut off the head during the feast2.

Treacherous wife of Septimius

Some wives deliberately put their husbands to the sword. The wife of a certain Septimius was to be seduced by a friend of Antony. A woman in love asked the triumvir to include her husband on the proscription lists and thus, so that she could legally marry her beloved. Upon hearing that his name appeared, Septimius hid in his wife’s house, hoping to be saved; the spouse, however, deliberately detained him and handed him over to the executioners3.

Loving wife of Gaius Antistius Reginus

Appian also gives us the happy finale of the proscribed. A certain Gaius Antistius Reginus was an experienced commander of the XI legion of Caesar, but unfortunately, he was on the proscription list. A loving wife hid him in a cesspool under the house, knowing that none of the soldiers would find him there. She later disguised him as a charcoal burner and tried to flee the city. At the gate, however, the soldier recognized his former commander and let him go with the words: “Save your self without fearing any thing, my General, for it is yet reasonable that I call you so”4.

Vengeful Pomponia

Very often, the desire to get rich encouraged the inhabitants of the Empire to publish proscribed. However, contributing to the proscribed release was not always a guarantee of receiving only benefits. We know a story about Pomponia (Cicero’s sister-in-law), who killed the liberator Philologus in a sophisticated way, whom she accused of complicity in the murder of her husband, who was on the proscribed list. She forced the unfortunate man to gradually cut off his members, cook them and eat them5.

The tragic end of Cicero

Perhaps the most famous execution, however, was the one carried out on Cicero, which was demanded by Mark Antony. Triumvir hated the Roman politician and speaker not only because he was in another political camp and delivered the famous “Philipics” against him. Cicero was responsible for the murder of Antony’s stepfather, Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura. Cicero’s attitude caused enormous indignation in the young man. From then on, Marcus harbored a hatred of Cicero.

Cicero was one of the most fiercely and stubbornly prosecuted proscribed politicians. Most of the outsiders, however, did not inform the authorities about Cicero’s whereabouts when he left Rome. The great orator was sympathetic. Cicero did not manage to avoid destiny forever, and the wet boys caught up with him. On the orders of Antony, the hands and head were cut off from Cicero’s body and taken to Rome. There they were nailed to the rostrum at Forum Romanum, from which he spoke so often. Fulvia, Antony’s wife, also hating Cicero, had to pierce his tongue with a hair needle6.

  1. Appian, Roman history, XVI.30
  2. Appian, Roman history, IV.17
  3. Appian, Roman history, XVI.23
  4. Appian, Roman history, XVI.40
  5. Plutarch, Cicero, 49
  6. Plutarch, Cicero
  • Alberto Angela, Kleopatra. Królowa, która rzuciła wyzwanie Rzymowi i zdobyła wieczną sławę, Warszawa 2021
  • Sławomir Koper, Życie prywatne i erotyczne w starożytnej Grecji i Rzymie, Warszawa 1998

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