GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Martin Berman-Gorvine: A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome

By: Emma Southon
Publisher: Abrams Press
Publication Date: 3.9.2021
Genre: History, Ancient Rome
Pages: 352

An entertaining and informative look at the unique culture of crime, punishment, and killing in Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, all the best stories have one thing in common—murder. Romulus killed Remus to found the city, Caesar was assassinated to save the Republic. Caligula was butchered in the theater, Claudius was poisoned at dinner, and Galba was beheaded in the Forum. In one 50-year period, 26 emperors were murdered.

But what did killing mean in a city where gladiators fought to the death to sate a crowd? In A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon examines a trove of real-life homicides from Roman history to explore Roman culture, including how perpetrator, victim, and the act itself were regarded by ordinary people. Inside Ancient Rome’s darkly fascinating history, we see how the Romans viewed life, death, and what it means to be human.

For Halloween, Read Up on the Gorefest That Was Rome

Looking for horror? Look no further than the pages of ancient history.

However bad you thought the Romans were, after reading Emma Southon’s A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome, you will realize they were much, much worse.

Let’s start with Sulla, a dictator who ruled Rome during its so-called Republic, after winning a decisive bloody victory in one of his country’s endless civil wars on November 1, 82 B.C.E. The Sulla Victory Games were held in commemoration of this glorious event from then on, around Halloween week, which is our seasonal tie-in for this tiptoe around the Gorefest That Was Rome. Noble Sulla decreed the first Roman law to criminalize murder, but only of very specific types, such as “presiding over a criminal trial with the intent of executing someone.” So the intent of his Cornelian Law was primarily to bring his fellow elites, such as Roman Senators, who were running around murdering each other in the aftermath of the civil war, under some sort of control. (Dictator was an official, legal title in the Roman Republic, by the way.)

If you were an ordinary Roman citizen, much less an enslaved person, you could not resort to the law for protection against or punishment of a homicide at all. The Roman state did not recognize that any of its citizens or subjects had an intrinsic right to life, nor that their murders, however foul and horrible, posed any threat to it. Therefore, most murders were not prosecuted, nor were they even investigated, because there was no such thing as police. (Assassinating a Senator or an emperor was a different matter, of course, not that this stopped half the Roman emperors from being assassinated.)

If you were an ordinary Roman citizen and someone stabbed a member of your family to death, it was up to you and your family to avenge it, if you could. If you were a slave, you had no rights whatsoever, and your master could legally beat you to death if you were too slow fetching him the salt, or for no reason at all. He could feed you to his pet man-eating lamprey, a nightmarish sharp-toothed giant eel. A Roman nobleman named Vedius Pollio was about to do just that to a slave who broke a crystal goblet by mistake. The slave begged his master’s dinner guest, who was none other than the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar himself, to kill him quickly, but the emperor was bored with his host and instead had his slaves break every single one of Vedius Pollio’s goblets instead. Of course, Augustus hadn’t gotten where he was in the first place without shedding oceans of blood.

Then there were Roman methods of execution. Trust me, you don’t want to know. Oh, you do? Well, they didn’t dream up the slow, torturous method of killing known as crucifixion just for poor Jesus. They nailed up men, women and children without distinction or remorse all the time (the Jewish Mishnah claims that the Romans crucified women facing the cross for modesty’s sake). Archeologists can’t find any of the nails, though, because everybody collected the damn things as good luck charms. Oh, and the Romans also crucified dogs once a year in an appalling ceremony meant to commemorate a dumb legend they had that when the Gauls attacked the city of Rome hundreds of years before, the town’s dogs failed to bark out a warning.

Ms. Southon also has a great deal to say about those gladiators you’ve heard so much about (the fights weren’t always to the death, but there was still plenty of gore, don’t you worry), and the Romans’ many, many other highly creative ways of publicly torturing and killing supposed criminals who had done unspeakable things such as trying to escape slavery, or practicing Christianity before that became the state religion. And yet, while reading about this thousand-year spree of human cruelty and bloodlust, you’ll also be laughing yourself silly because on every page, Ms. Southon launches very English barbed quips and comparisons to present-day pop cultural horrors such as reality TV.

Us horror novelists have nothing on sober history, friends. Believe me—or better still, believe Emma Southon’s A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome.

Martin Berman-Gorvine is the author of the four-book the Days of Ascension horror novel series: All Souls Day (2016), Day of Vengeance (2017), Day of Atonement (2018), and Judgment Day (2020), all published by Silver Leaf Books, as well as the standalone horror novels Vengeance Is Golden (2019) and The Hunter’s Sister (2021), the paranormal romance Haunted Island: A Love Story (2019), and a satirical screwball caper about American expatriates in Israel in the 1990s, Wanted in the Promised Land (2020).

He is also the author of seven science fiction novels, many with an alternate history theme, including the Sidewise Award-winning The Severed Wing (as Martin Gidron) (Livingston Press, 2002); 36 (Livingston Press, 2012); Seven Against Mars (Wildside Press, 2013); Save the Dragons! (Wildside Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the Prometheus Award; Ziona: A Novel of Alternate History (as Marty Armon), an expansion of the short story “Palestina,” published in Interzone magazine, May/June 2006 (Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014); Heroes of Earth (Wildside Press, 2015); and Monsters of Venus (Wildside Press, 2017). 

He’s currently enamored of his latest pen name, Sam Haines (geddit?), so find him at one of the following websites: Sam Haines, Martin Berman-Gorvine, Varmints Cartoon, Days of Ascension, Emanuel Goldstein (that’s where he writes about political horror) or via his author page on Amazon.