Roman Proscription Lists

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Podcast Transcript

The movie The Purge depicts a fictitious world where one night a year, there is a war of all against all. 

If you look back in history, you will find a time when something similar happened. 

Except it wasn’t a case of everyone against everyone, it was a case of everyone against a few. 

For those who were the victim of this, it was terrifying.

Learn more about proscription lists and why you never wanted to be on one on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get started, I should note that I’m talking about ‘proscriptions’, not ‘prescriptions” like you get from a doctor.

While they sound similar, they have almost opposite meanings. 

To prescribe is to set down something as a rule or law. To proscribe is to condemn, ban, or forbid. 

As you will see, this episode is all about proscribing. 

This story starts with the first Roman Civil War.

The civil war will be the subject of its own future episode, but to summarize, there were two opposing forces led by the Roman generals and consuls, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. 

The faction led by Marius was called the popularies. They had the support of the common people and advocated reform of the Roman system. 

Sulla’s faction was the optimates who had the support of the elites and opposed reform.

Rome had been experiencing social and economic strife, and Marius sought to institute reforms to change the Roman system. I previously did an episode on the reforms which Marius brought to the Roman military, which had the long-term effect of shifting the loyalties of soldiers from the Republic to individual generals.

Armed conflict broke out between Marius and Sulla in 88 BC, and by 82 BC, Sulla had come out victorious. 

Sulla marched on Rome with his forces, took control of the city, and was declared dictator by the Senate, giving him absolute control of Rome.

During the Roman Republic, dictator was an actual legal position that was given in cases of emergency for a period of six months. In this case, Sulla was appointed dictator with no limit to his term.

One of the first things that Sulla did was to get rid of those who had opposed him, as well as to seek revenge after Marius had enacted massacres against his supporters.

To this end, he published a list of names of people which he considered to be enemies of the state and personal threats to his rule. 

In Latin, a proscription was originally a public notice advertising something or a notification of something for sale. Similar to a flyer you’d post on a lamppost in your neighborhood.

In this case, the proscription was a public notice of people who had their citizenship immediately revoked. Moreover, anyone on the list was declared outlaw, and their lives and property were immediately forfeit. 

If you remember back to my episode on outlaws, an outlaw wasn’t just someone who committed a crime but someone who was declared outside the protection of the law.

Anyone on the proscription list was eligible to be murdered by….anyone. That includes friends, family members, and even their own slaves. 

Not only could anyone be killed on sight, but it was considered to be the duty of any Roman to kill someone on the list if they were able. Furthermore, anyone who killed someone on the list would be rewarded with two talents of silver. 

To put this into perspective, two talents of silver at that time were the equivalent of about 12,000 denarii, and a denarius was the standard wage for a day’s work.

Kill someone on the list, and you’d become rich. 

On top of just getting killed, anyone on this list would have their property confiscated by the state, and their sons and grandsons would be ineligible to sit in the senate for their entire lives. 

As the Roman historian Plutarch noted in his Life of Sulla,

Sulla immediately proscribed 80 persons without communicating with any magistrate. As this caused a general murmur, he let one day pass, and then proscribed 220 more, and again on the third day as many. In an harangue to the people, he said, with reference to these measures, that he had proscribed all he could think of, and as to those who now escaped his memory, he would proscribe them at some future time.

The entire process over overseen by his freedman, Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus, and the process was incredibly corrupt. It is unknown just how many people were put on the list, but the estimates are as high as 9000 people. 

As Plutarch noted, “Sulla now began to make blood flow, and he filled the city with deaths without number or limit…”

People were beheaded, and their heads were displayed to curry favor with the government. 

Many of the people on the list went into hiding. If you were found to be harboring anyone on this list, then you were sentenced to death. 

Most of the people who were proscribed had nothing to do with Sulla or Marius and were just put on this list because they had money, and Sulla needed cash. Likewise, other people bribed Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus to put their rivals on this list, even if they were totally innocent. 

One of the people who was proscribed was a young Julius Caesar, whose father-in-law was a supporter of Marius. He fled and was protected by his family members, many of which were supporters of Sulla.

He was later pardoned by Sulla, who came to regret it, saying, “In this Caesar, there are many Mariuses.”

It should not surprise you when I say that this period in Roman history was not looked upon fondly by anyone.

When the next civil war broke out several decades later between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus, many people thought that there would be a return to proscription lists after Caesar won. 

Caesar, however, having survived the proscription list himself, went far out of his way to be conciliatory towards his former enemies. He pardoned pretty much everyone, and sort of pretended like the whole thing never happened. 

However, it would prove to be his undoing as his enemies ended up assassinating him. 

The assassination of Caesar was not the end of civil strife in Rome. 

After the assassination, the Caesarian forces led by Octavian, Marc Antony, and Marcus Lepidus began another civil war with Caesar’s assassins. 

The Caesarians established a governing body known as the Second Triumvirate, which I covered in a previous episode.

One of the first acts of the triumvirate was to create another proscription list. 

The proscriptions of Sulla had taken place 40 years before, and few people could still remember it. 

However, the assassination of Caesar was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and his failure of being conciliatory towards his enemies was a lesson they had learned. 

Over the course of two days, the triumvirs debated and negotiated over who would be put on the list.

Unlike Sulla’s proscription list, this list became extremely personal. Each of the triumvirs put their own family members on the list. They were willing to sacrifice their own family members just to put their own enemies on the list.

We have much more information about what happened during this second proscription. Many, if not most, of the people on the list had nothing to do with the assassination of Caesar and were put there because they had money, or for petty, personal reasons. 

It’s been said that the first person who was killed was a tribune of the plebs known as Salvius. Salvius was an ally of Cicero, and as tribune of the plebs, his person was considered inviolate while he held the office. He was not allowed to be touched or assaulted in any way.

That, however, didn’t matter. When he saw his name on the list, he went home and held a banquet for his friends and family. In the middle of the banquet, soldiers stormed in and beheaded him. 

There was the wife of a man named Septimius who wanted to marry another man. She got her husband placed on the list. When Septimius found that he was on the list, he fled to his wife for protection, but she turned in her husband, who was killed. The man she wanted to marry was a friend of Marc Antony.

Perhaps the most famous person who was put on the Second Triumvirate proscription list was the statesman and senator Cicero. 

Cicero had been an ally of Octavian when he was fighting with Marc Antony. However, Cicero had been a vocal opponent of Marc Antony, and Marc Antony had a great deal of animosity towards him. 

Marc Antony’s hatred of Cicero made him the most wanted person on the list. 

Cicero fled town and had a lot of support from the people. Most people refused to provide information on the whereabouts of Cicero.

He was eventually caught on December 7, 43 BC, while being carried in a litter going from his estate to a ship waiting for him to take him to Macedonia. 

When soldiers caught up to him, he didn’t put up a fight. He leaned his head out of this litter in a sign of submission and said, I go no further: approach, veteran soldier, and, if you can at least do so much properly, sever this neck.

He was beheaded, his hands were cut off, and both were nailed to the rostra of the forum. 

According to the historian Appian, over 300 senators and 2,000 equites were killed. There may have been many more thousands of people who were killed in the chaos. 

These two proscription lists took place about forty years apart from each other. In the two thousand years since there hasn’t really been another example of it happening. Not in this way.

The word proscription has been used to describe other historical events, but none were like the proscriptions of the late Roman Republic.

It is something I find odd, given how many horrible massacres and civil wars have taken place in the world since. It seems like a uniquely cruel and efficient means of taking care of your enemies that some despot would have taken advantage of at some point, even if it was only as a nod to history.

Not that I am complaining. The practice of proscribing names is something which I’m sure we can all agree is better left in the dustbin of history.