Roman politicians' insults shocking by modern standards - historian

Warning: This article contains vivid language that may offend some readers.

The next time someone on Xbox Live says something rude about your mother, be thankful you weren't both living in Roman times.

A historian has uncovered some of the brutal insults Roman politicians used to hurl at each other, saying they actually strengthened - rather than weakened - the republic.

"The attacks, also known as invectives, were an integral part of public life for senators of the Roman republic," said Dr Martin Jehne of Technische Universität Dresden.

"Severe devaluations of the political opponent welded the support group together and provided attention, entertainment and indignation - similar to insults, threats and hate speech on the internet today."

It was common at the height of the republic for Senators to make lewd jokes and even threats.

"The famous speaker and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, for instance, when he defended his supporter Sestius, did not shrink from publicly accusing the enemy Clodius of incest with brothers and sisters," said Dr Jehne.

"Clodius, in turn, accused Cicero of acting like a king when holding the position of consul - a serious accusation, since royalty in the Roman republic was frowned upon."

Incest and royalty aside, common insults included:

  • calling political opponents "rent boys" (young male prostitute)
  • saying they were the "passive" partner in a gay relationship
  • saying they liked giving woman oral sex
  • threatening them with oral rape
  • being a gigolo who can't turn a profit
  • describing their genitals in great detail.

But such vitriol rarely left the Senate.

"The Romans didn't seem to care much. There was the crime of iniuria, of injustice - but hardly any such charges," said Dr Jehne.

"When you were abused, you stood it, and if possible, you took revenge."

Dr Jehne said politicians who were threatening to rape each other one minute were happy to work together the next.

Marcus Cicero talks to the Roman people.
Marcus Cicero talks to the Roman people. Photo credit: Getty

But while quick to denigrate one another, they never turned their sharp tongues on the public, who'd gather en masse to vote on legislation.

"In the popular assembly, they had to let the people insult them without being allowed to abuse the people in turn - an outlet that, in a profound division of rich and poor, limited the omnipotence fantasies of the elite."

In other words they had to take it, but couldn't dish it back out, Donald Trump-style, without risking life and limb.

"Those who questioned the people as a decision-making body risked the crowd roaring up and storming the rostra."

The remains of the Curia Julia, where the Roman senate met.
The remains of the Curia Julia, where the Roman senate met. Photo credit: Getty

The Roman republic ended in 27BC, replaced by the empire. Dr Jehne said Roman rap battles weren't to blame.

Dr Jehne will present his research at the 52nd Meeting of German Historians at the University of Münster later this month.


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