Review: A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, by Dr. Emma Southon

So, I saw an ad for this book on social media promising an exploration of murder in Roman society from poisonings to a vat of eels. Obviously, I immediately bought it, because HELLO, death by vat of eels? I’m in. I have to say, Dr. Emma Southon does not disappoint.

With the enthusiasm and point of view of a Criminal Minds or Agatha Christie fan, Dr. Southon has researched all the most fascinating (documented) ways Romans committed murder (from the modern perspective). I’m an Ancient history nerd anyway, so this was right up my alley, but I was thrilled to discover all sorts of facts and attituded I either hadn’t run into before or hadn’t truly understood before. Plus, eels.

Dr. Southon does a fantastic job comparing the modern definition of murder (which she spends some time defining) against the Roman concepts regarding a universal right to life (spoiler alert: no such thing existed in Ancient Rome) or humane executions (anyone who’s heard of Spartacus, Jesus, or Gladiator would know this was also not a thing in the Roman state). Then she takes us through some of the most famous, infamous, and obscure kinds of murder documented in Rome.

A random smattering of things I learned from this book: the Roman State generally didn’t concern itself with deaths unless the victim was of interest to the Emperor; even Roman citizens didn’t have any expectation of a modern concept of “right to life”; Romans may have been incredibly practical but they were also horribly inventive when it came to offing each other, especially when compassion and humanity weren’t considered important.

Of course, the topic of this book IS murder, and Romans were imaginative when it came to ways to kill folks, in and out of the arena. Death by lamprey apparently even horrified Augustus, so that’s a thing since his uncle was stabbed to death by the Senate. No, I’m not recounting it here, because Dr. Southon’s version is better than I could recreate, and worth the read. She also covers the standards (Caesar, various poisonings and killings of Emperors, crucifixions) and gives some insight into some of the more horrifying anecdotes. One or two might stick with you for a while, so I will say the subject matter is about as light as some of the ickiest Criminal Minds episodes. Seriously, she goes into detail about how someone dies via crucifixion, and discusses in graphic detail what it must have looked like to get the “humane” death by sword in the arena. If you have a good imagination combined with a penchant for nightmares or queasiness, probably not a good story for you.

However, for all the dour subject matter involved here, the tone of this book is full of hilarious sarcastic judgment, and I loved every bit of it. As an example, when discussing the emperor Elagabalus: He became emperor at fourteen years old and was about as good at ruling a military dictatorship and continent-sized bureaucratic structure as any fourteen-year-old edgelord would be. Massively lacking in charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, he primarily got himself some sparkly things, got himself immediately laid and, rudely, continued his Syrian religion in Rome. (Southon, 207)

If you’re into weird history and don’t mind a little horror/gore, this book worth the read.

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