Classical Cops

There were no police in Classical Athens, nor in Rome.

Lexi asked the other day who investigated crime in Athens. The answer is it was totally up to private citizens to investigate any crime and prosecute the criminal. A wronged person had to investigate his own crime, or if it was a murder then the relatives of the dead man. Rome had the same system.

This works for me beautifully. Nicolaos is as free to pursue crime as the next man, and there are no cops for him to tread on the toes of.

The system was open to abuse, and it was a particular problem in Rome. Rules were introduced such that successful prosecutors won part of the penalty fine, but losers could be sued for wrongful prosecution. This discouraged vexatious cases.

Athens did have a city guard for crowd control.

The Scythian Guard of Athens was created after the Persian Wars, when 300 slaves, supposedly Scythians (a barbarian people far to the north), were bought for the purposes of crowd control within the city. We know this from the works of two orators called Andocides and Aeschines.

One of the jobs of the Scythian Guard was to ensure enough people turned up to vote at the Ecclesia. With a quorum of 6,000 men(!), they sometimes had trouble getting enough citizens to hold a parliament. The Scythians solved that problem by dipping a long rope in paint, holding both ends so it was taut, and then sweeping through the agora to herd reluctant citizens towards the Pnyx, where parliament met. Anyone later caught with paint on his chiton was fined. I'm not making this up! It's described in the comic play The Acharnians by Aristophanes.

The dress code of the Scythians is surprisingly well known, for the simple reason that Scythians appear frequently on Athenian pottery.

The bow was the favored weapon of the Scythians, and they carried it unstrung when on patrol, as a baton with which to beat, which they would happily do if faced with a disorderly drunk. There are actual accounts of Scythians -- who were slaves, mind you -- beating badly behaved citizens in the street. It may seem odd the Athenians allowed slaves to push them around, but the reason is that it was illegal for one citizen to lay hands on another, but it was legal for a slave under approved circumstances.

The Scythians had no power of arrest, and they certainly had no ability to investigate a crime, but they would have made wonderful enforcers.

By the time of Nicolaos it’s unlikely the Scythian Guard were in fact all Scythian. Their numbers would have been replenished with whatever suitable slaves came to hand.

In the books, Nico has an uneasy relationship with Pythax, the brutally tough Chief of the Scythian Guard. Pythax has noticed that wherever Nico goes, a body tends to turn up. Not that he cares about the deaths, but littering is a serious misdemeanor.

"You want to watch yourself, little boy. You don’t want to go getting a reputation for violence.” Pythax cracked his knuckles.

This beautiful image comes from the Smithsonian Magazine, which some time ago did an excellent display on what the true colors of the ancient world were like:


RWMG said...

Yesterday @tronchin tweeted an excellent youtube video by Amarildo Topalis showing before (white marble) and after (painted) pictures of Greek sculpture.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

This is another example of how dangerous societies were. I know the world is a dangerous place today but at least many of us don't have someone to enforce the laws and provide some type of security.

Loretta Ross said...

Another fascinating post, Gary! :) I have to ask, what exactly is our friend there wearing? Were there actual pants in the ancient world?

I was under the impression that men's lower limbs were typically clothed in leggings with a codpiece to protect the, ahem, essentials, until sometime in the middle ages when they began connecting the three separate articles into one piece of clothing.

Also, how cold does it get in Athens? That outfit looks hot to me. Except for the bare feet, of course.

Forgive me if any of these are stupid questions!

Gary Corby said...

Robert, that video is simply brilliant. Thanks for letting me know. If I can I'll embed it in its own post.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susan. That's an interesting point. I'm not sure modern police aren't more powerful and potentially more threatening. Pretty much every modern society has had cases of the police fitting up someone they dislike with false evidence. And modern police legal powers to look into citizens in the course of an investigation are far, far more advanced than in ancient times.

It's true ancient city guards were able to beat up troublemakers on the spot, but there are unfortunately plenty of known instances of modern police (illegally) doing the same thing.

Gary Corby said...

Actually, it's a great question Loretta.

The Persians and the northern barbarian tribes wore trousers. There are a zillion surviving images of men from colder climes in recognizably "modern" clothing.

But you won't see Greeks and Romans wearing trousers. Trousers were so closely associated with Persia that for a Greek to wear them was like declaring sympathy for the enemy (and it was Alexander the Great's adoption of Persian dress which first got him into hot water with his friends).

The weather in Greece and Rome was, if anything, warmer than it is today. Greek clothing was barely more than a sheet hung from the shoulders.