Ancient Rome, Final Exams, and the Death Penalty

I just finished my first final exam—Latin Prose—and now I only have to write two term papers and study for a chemistry exam. Anyway, for my exam we had to translate a good chunk of Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae (The Catilinarian Conspiracy) and write a “linguistic and historical analysis” of another chunk. Not entirely painless, but not pulling teeth, either.

What brings me to write about this is a speech by Julius Caesar that Sallust quotes. After Catiline, a traitor against Rome, has been discovered, there is a debate in the Senate over whether to execute him (which was illegal, since he was a Roman citizen). After a rather obscure senator named Decimus Silanus (I’m still waiting for Biggus Dickus) makes a speech urging for the death penalty, Julius Caesar—the future emperor of Rome and one of the best prosecutors of the day—makes a speech against the death penalty.

So Caesar was more civilized—2000 years ago—than we are today.

I think anti-death penalty advocates could learn a thing or two from Caesar. He doesn’t dispute that Catiline and his co-conspirators are a threat, or that they deserve death. Instead he says, essentially, “yes, we have the power to revoke the Porcian Law (which protected Roman citizens from execution) but we shouldn’t because it is not worthy of us and will set a dangerous precedent.” I think that we need to refocus the debate on these two arguments. We are honestly getting nowhere with the arguments that capital punishment is unconstitutional (and will get nowhere for some time), or that it doesn’t prevent murder, or that we’re executing innocent people. We need to say that we are a compassionate people, and a nation of just laws. We are not a people that indulges in mob violence, and we are not a nation of retribution. We must say that the death penalty is perfectly legal, but that we ought to rise above petty retribution.


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