February 11, 2011

Timewatch: Murder in Rome

Tags: History

Available on Google Video

Murder in Rome is not a podcast like I normally review. It is a TV program produced by the BBC as part of its Timewatch history documentary series (IMDB entry). Copies of the video are easily found through an online search; I watched the version (obviously a TV capture) that has been on Google Video for three years, so is presumably legit. The show is 46 minutes long and the story is told mainly through an acted reconstruction of historical events. There is occasional documentary style narration to provide context - viewers with little background information will not get lost. The acting is good, if you watch much British TV you will no doubt recognise a few of the actors.

The show is about Cicero’s defence of Sextus Roscius - accused of murdering his father in 81BC. Cicero went on to become a consul and prominent figure in the fall of the Republic. Many of Cicero’s writings from this time still exist, including his account of this trial (available here). The script is primarily drawn from this source. Some other references are found in a list of known Roman trials available here as trial number 129.

Rome in 81BC was under the dictatorship of Sulla after a civil war. Sulla proscribed perceived enemies of the state. According to Wikipedia, up to 9000 people (mainly nobles) were executed without trial as part of the proscriptions and had their property seized. It was in this environment of fear and extra-judicial killings that the trial takes place. So when Cicero starts claiming that Chrysogonus, the man in charge of the proscriptions, is the more likely murderer, I can imagine the concern shown is real.

The process of the trial is somewhat similar to modern trials, but definitely foreign (details on Roman litigation can be found here). Familiar components are present such as a judge, jury, witnesses and lawyers representing both sides. There seems to be an emphasis on justice as a desirable outcome in Cicero’s defence. However, there are glaring differences to modern trials (at least in the western world). Prosecutions are brought by individuals rather than the state, even for murder. To prevent false accusations and spurious trials, if a prosecutor loses then they are branded on the forehead with a K (for kalumnia, meaning “false accuser”). The trials are held in the open in the Forum, and in the program attracts a vocal crowd of onlookers. The process seems to rely more on rhetoric than evidence. This is no CSI: Ancient Rome. Witnesses are insulted if the lawyers disagree. Cicero even takes issue with Chrysogonus’ “curled and perfumed” hair. There are no objections or protests.

I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the program, but couldn’t find any errors after a few online searches. I was particularly glad to see that the buildings shown had some colour on them rather than the common and incorrect pure white (ancient Roman buildings are white now because the paint has disappeared over time). As for the accuracy of the trial itself, it depends how much you trust Cicero’s account.

Excellent, well worth a watch.