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CSI: Rome - a dive into ancient forensics

By Wm. Garrett Cothran

Quintilian's statue in Calahorra, La Rioja, Spain

You find yourself in Ancient Rome. Close to c. 75. You are in a forum and awaiting the trial. As a Roman this is perfectly normal. The accused will go forward and make his argument followed by the accuser. Whomever has the superior rhetoric or argument wins. It is the law of the land. You as a Roman know that soon you will be hearing the most exciting case of recent memory. It is a mere eight years from the end of Nero’s reign and the collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. You are a Roman living under Emperor Vespasian and reform seems to be in the air. So, imagine how exciting something is to beat all of that. Somewhat shows that no matter what the time period, a juicy murder makes everyone excited. But what is this murder?

A man, of considerable means, has been stabbed to death in his sleep. The accused is his son who is said to have killed for the inheritance. The way the story goes, at least around the vomitorium these days, is that the son went into his bedroom and took his sword. After steeling his resolve, he walked across the house in the dead of night. Some records of the account event say a moonless night as if to set the scene better. Entering his father and stepmother’s bedroom the son brutally stabbed his father while he slept. His stepmother never awoke to the murder but did see the lifeless corpse upon the bed the next morning. From the scene of the murder there was a trail of bloody hand prints all over the wall which led directly to the son’s bedroom!

This young man, the son of the deceased, had someone representing him in the forum that day. His name was Quintilian and he would go down in history as one of the greatest legal minds of the Roman Empire. How great? He was the teacher of Tacticus (considered by many to be one of the greatest historians on the subject of the Roman Empire even today) and Pliny the Younger (a man of historical significance thanks to the hundreds of surviving letters that he wrote, which provide an intimate window into the inner workings of the Roman Empire). If the students are anything to go off of imagine what kind of teacher Quintilian was. Well he was there in the forum and ready to present his defense. Looking about he makes his case clear to all in attendance. The stepmother did it! She wanted the inheritance money all to herself. So, she killed her husband then using his own blood left a trail leading to her stepsons’ room. At this point one is tempted to cue the lightening strike but that seems a tad silly at this juncture.

Oh, and before we forget… the son is blind. Let that sink in for a moment. No doubt a modern mind will laugh at the silly Romans for thinking such a thing. Yet it goes to show you how sensationalism and criminal cases are as old as… well at least the Roman Empire. So, we have here “The Wall of Handprints” or the “Paries Palmatus” case.

To perfectly understand the argument of Quintilian we need only look to 1.11 to 1.12 of Quintilian, in Declamationes Maiores. It is an extant collection of Roman declamations. The collection is by multiple authors from the end of the first through the beginning of the third centuries CE. The following quote is a translation:

“It was the stepmother, yes, the stepmother who set this up with her sure sight; it was she, with her right hand, who brought that poor blood there and made the imprint of [her] hand [on the wall] intermittently! The wall bears the imprints of one palm, has them at intervals, with a certain empty space in the middle, and everywhere the palm-print is intact; a blind man, on the other hand, would have dragged his hands [along the wall].”

Quintilian continues to showcase his argument by examining the handprints themselves. The handprint was, as stated above, there with “a certain empty space in the middle”. This was explaining how when the stepmother was holding the hilt of the sword it was ensuring that blood did not come into contact with her palm. So, when she in turn made handprints along the wall there was an empty space in the middle. Why is this important? Because it suggests that killer was also the one who made the handprints.

If one has any experience with forensics (which as a delightful side note comes the Latin word forēnsis, meaning "of or before the forum" which is exactly what Quintilian was doing when he introduced this ancestor to the modern science of forensics) will note the similarities with the argument made and the notion of a “transfer stain.” Simply a person’s body or an object comes into contact with a fresh source of blood and transfers said blood to secondary surfaces leaving a “print.”

Back in Ancient Rome Quintilian finished up his arguments and… who knows what occurred next? The historical documents do not really say exactly what occurred beyond the blind son was acquitted of his father’s murder. Did the stepmother get away with it? Most likely not given Roman law at the time.

It is important to note that this is not the first real example of forensic science in the ancient world, but it is one of the better document’s examples of it. It is important not so much in that it shows ancient cultures were concerned with the how, why, and where of a crime but in the logic behind using such methods to solve crime. As time went on Ancient Rome did not really have much of a field of study in forensics. This is due to how long the method of criminal cases were settled by the arguments and rhetoric of the accuser and accused. That is to say that in Roman times while every so often someone would be cleverer than anyone else in the room and touch upon concepts like blood stains, finger prints, and more modern investigatory techniques for the most part it really depended on who argued their case the best.

An Autopsy as depicted in Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp'

Yet if one went all the way to the 1880s there would still be nations which were making use of so-called Roman Autopsy techniques. Now there is an issue in that some view the term Roman as a misnomer as it either applies directly to Ancient Rome, or it applies to the Holy Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, and still others (namely more modern academic circles) believe that the Roman Autopsy was more likely written inside of Rome following the Third Crusade in 1192 making it a more literal name.

This is where “science” reads more like superstition. Say you come across a dead body in river. Is the body facing up? Good news! Then it was a drowning and not a murder. A woman has died in her sleep with her eyes open? Well hold a candle up and you may see the last image she saw before she died. All of it sounds so silly to modern ears which, even if not formally trained in the forensic sciences, have at least been conditioned to know the terms thanks to literature and an overabundance of crime fiction. However, in some cases the Roman Autopsy demonstrates either sheer dumb luck in being right or, more interestingly, proof of some understanding of the science.

A prime example of this is where one comes across a “fresh” body. Such ancient autopsy techniques differentiate between fresh and decaying corpses. A fresh drowning victim was to taken to a morgue or a crypt and a barber surgeon was to be called upon to remove the lungs. Dump the lungs inside of bucket of water. If they float to the top… the victim has not drowned. Now in modern terms this is merely the part of the mystery story in which the coroner looks to the detective and explains “they wanted to make it look like a drowning but” if it was a real drowning the lungs would be full with water. In ancient times and up to the 1950s the process of dropping lungs into water was to see if they floated. The science behind this is simple buoyancy but the concept was around for quite sometime.

Next there is the idea that one in ten people are left handed. Why is this important? Because it means that one in ten victims should have bruising on the right-side of their body. Picture yourself punching another person. Your right-hand naturally strikes the left-side of the other persons face. Likewise your left-hand would strike the right-side of the persons face. While no specific cases in Rome show this being used, it is a major plot point of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. So the idea is not new by any stretch of the imagination. There are many more such concepts which can be found in Roman era texts and one will discover a great deal of "it was obvious when you think about it."

Taken alongside the “The Wall of Handprints” it paints a picture that while ancient cultures like Rome may not have fully understood the world around them, they were asking many of the same questions as we do today in regards to a murder. The science was not there yet but the clear need for understanding evidence in a crime scene was always present.


Wm. Garrett Cothran is the author of How Tall Is The Grass In Germany? and CSA All The Way, published by Sea Lion Press


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