10 Strange laws of Ancient Rome

Roman law reached its ultimate sophistication during the first 250 years of the initial era. The jurists gave their legal opinions and formulated legal punishments at the request of private parties.  

The republican political constitution of Rome transformed into an absolute monarchy and established domination. The new order discarded the existence of jurists who refused to address law as an instrument to achieve political goals. Hence, the classical law was replaced by the so-called “vulgar law.”

The Roman laws were an unwritten set of guidelines passed down upon the future generation. It was in no way formal and kept on evolving with time. The power and legitimacy of the Roman constitution kept on eroding progressively, and the willingness to stay faithful towards the republic was lost even in the Roman constitutionalists themselves.

The only goal of this civilization was the advancement of philosophy. This ushered a series of baffling laws passed and enforced throughout their period that is considered quirky even by the most conservative rulers worldwide.

10. Wearing purple was forbidden

A statue with Ancient Roman purple coloured Toga
A statue with Ancient Roman purple-colored Toga

The color purple, in Ancient Rome, was considered a glorious and powerful color that was viewed as a sign of royalty. Only the most influential people, elites, and people belonging to the high-class society had the right to wear purple.

The emperors would dress in the finest purple togas, one of the most significant Roman inventions, and took pride in it. It was forbidden for people of the lower class to wear the color as the purple dye was imported from Phoenicia. 

The dye to make one toga required them to crush around ten thousand mollusks. So the price for the purple dye was placed as high as the price of gold during this era.

A whole sumptuary law was formed against wearing purple, formulated specifically to prevent the lower classes from displaying their extra income. 

This made it easier for them to spot people from different courses with one single glance and determine their social status. 

The strictness of the laws prevented the people of lower classes from putting on a purple toga, and the royalty made sure that they were seen as superior to the common people. They were made to feel special and priceless.

9. Blond hair was mandatory for the prostitutes

A statue of a Roman woman with a blond hairstyle
A statue of a Roman woman with a blond hairstyle
Source: Wikimedia Common

The ladies in the Roman empire mostly had black hair, and those who had naturally blond hair were usually Barbarians, the Gauls. 

The prostitutes in Ancient Rome were not given full rights as the Roman woman. The dignity of a proper Roman woman had to be clearly distinguished from that of a Roman prostitute. 

The prostitutes were forced to dye their hair blond to look like the Barbarians to diminish their regality apart from the Roman women.

This law backfired when Roman women started envying extravagant hair color. They slowly started dying, their hair colors blond. Some even forced the prostitutes to chop their blond hairs and make them into wigs. 

This made it very difficult to distinguish the high-class ladies from the prostitutes all over again.

8. Women crying during funerals was forbidden

Ancient Roman cremation practices
Ancient Roman cremation practices
Source: Wikimedia Common

Roman funerals had peculiar rituals. A group of people would walk the dead down the street. They wept as they went by the city, and this wasn’t just a ritual. It signified that the family was of significance. 

To impress the neighbors and the elite, they would go to the lengths of hiring professionals to show up to cry at the ceremony. The more the people during the ceremony, the higher the value their families seemed to carry. 

Women unfamiliar with the deceased would ball their eyes out and create a huge scene, scratching their faces and ripping their hair out as if in great dismay.

All these activities started to go out of hand, and it began to seem like mere attention-seeking behavior rather than a tribute to the dead. Hence, they had to outlaw women crying at these Roman funerals.

7. People dying due to thunderbolts were not allowed a proper burial

Roman God Jupiter holding a thunderbolt in his hand
Roman God Jupiter holding a thunderbolt in his hand
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Romans believed that lightning strikes were the act of the Roman god Jupiter. They thought if a person were to be struck by a thunderbolt, it was because of the wrath of Jupiter and wasn’t considered bad luck but signified the fury of Jupiter.

If someone was struck, it was against the law to even lift their body above the knees. Giving them a proper burial was not even an option. It was considered as stealing the sacrifice from Jupiter if they acted against the law. 

However, there was an alternative to this law. If anyone were to bury the thunderstruck person, there would be another sacrifice to Jupiter, and the one being sacrificed would be the person burying the earlier death. 

6. A father had the right to murder his daughter’s lover

A scene from Ancient Rome depicting a murder
A scene from Ancient Rome depicting a murder
Source: Wikimedia Common

If a Roman man caught his wife in an extramarital affair, he had to lock his wife and her involved lover in a room. He then had twenty hours to gather as many neighbors as possible as witnesses to this act of adultery. 

He then had three days to gather all the information about where the affair had taken place, who the person was, and any other relevant details regarding the affair. It was done to make a public statement.

Then, he was legally bound to divorce his wife, or else the consequence would be him being charged with pimping his wife out instead.

The husband also could kill his wife’s lover if they were a slave or a prostitute. But if he were a citizen, he would have to present the matter before his father-in-law. 

The daughter’s father had the full right to kill the lover despite how high his status was. However, if it was the other way around and the wife had caught her husband having an affair, there were no rules against it.

5. Fathers were allowed to sell their sons into slavery three times

A scene from Ancient Rome depicting slavery of a young child
A scene from Ancient Rome depicting slavery of a young child
Source: Wikimedia Common

As a father in ancient Rome, he had the legal rights to sell his kids into slavery temporarily. There would be an agreement between the buyer and the father, saying that the son was now in the buyer’s possession.

However, the buyer should bring the child back home as a part of the deal. The father was allowed to sell the child three times, but the father would be considered an unfit father on the third time.

After the child had served his slavery and was brought back to his home, the child would be emancipated from the parents. Although there was a limit to a single child being sold, there were no limits to how many children could be sold. 

4. A woman would become personal property if she would not leave her house

A statue depicting Ancient Roman couple holding hands
A statue depicting an Ancient Roman couple holding hands
Source: Wikimedia Common

“Usuacpio” was the law that stated the duration of time you had to hold on to possession before it automatically became your property. This law was not only for objects but also for people.

In the case of wives, it was three days a year that she had to go out if she wanted to keep her freedom. If she failed to do so, she would be declared as the husband’s property forever. 

Leaving the house could simply be going out in the market, exploring the city, or, worst case, running away and hiding somewhere other than their home for three days straight.

3. Suicidal people could apply for permission to the Senate

A painting from Ancient Rome depicting suicidal attempt
A painting from Ancient Rome depicting a suicidal attempt
Source: Wikimedia Common

Another forward-thinking act in ancient Rome was thought to be preparing for suicide. The emperors always kept poison in stock in case people wanted to consume it.

Sick people were encouraged to poison themselves if they wanted to put an end to their suffering. While many citizens had the luxury to decide their fate, this option was quite limited to the soldiers, fugitives, and slaves to keep their economy stable. 

Soldiers and slaves were valuable property to the empire. The criminals, however, weren’t allowed to die before conviction as, before that, the kingdom could not legally seize the convict’s property. 

A full refund would be given to the owners if their slaves had ended their lives. In some areas, people could even apply to commit suicide formally. A depressed person could file a petition asking the SSenate for permission to die. 

If the Senate agreed that they were better off, they were granted a complimentary bottle of poison to end their lives.

2. Drowning with animals – The ultimate death

An image from ancient Rome
An image from ancient Rome

A simple beheading will suffice if the crime isn’t that bad. If people committed crimes considered extremely bad, the consequence would be them being taken to the top of the tower and thrown off to death. 

However, the ultimate crime would be murdering their father, for which they would be blindfolded for the rest of their living days- considered unworthy of light

Not only that, they would be taken outside town, stripped off all their clothes, and beaten with rods. When they couldn’t take it anymore, they would be kept in a leather sack, along with one serpent, one dog, one ape, and a rooster together, tied shut and thrown down into the ocean for them to die.

1. A father had the right to legally murder their entire family

A death scene from Ancient Rome
A death scene from Ancient Rome

Fathers were given the absolute right to their families during the early days of Rome. He had complete control over his family and could use any form of imaginable punishment and abuse.

If the father is deemed fit, he could murder his entire family for punishment without any legal consequences. It wasn’t allowed only until the kids grew up in his house and left their houses.  

Daughters naturally had to fear her father’s rage even if they were married off and had their own family. But it was only by the end of the century BC that the rules became even stricter. By then, the law allowed the father to control the final destiny of all his children- with some exceptions, of course. 

The sons were allowed to be murdered only if he was found guilty of a crime.

Conclusion

So was anyone ever really punished with all of the laws mentioned above? Many historians believed that sewing up a human with all the creatures and being thrown into the ocean as a penalty was never enforced. And that is because they thought it would be equal to a punishment for the executioners as much as it would’ve been for the guilty.

Historians have also debated on the power of the father to kill their entire family. It is thought to be more symbolic than practical. They believed that power indeed did exist. However, it wasn’t given so liberally to the head of the household.

It is believed that most of these punishments, to point out a few- power of the father and the penalty involving the sack and animals mainly wanted to deliver the idea that the higher authorities did have full legal rights to conduct such acts to deter any possible future offenses.

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