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

This Guest Review is from Jen Barr. Jen is an over-educated wonk who likes reading and writing both cool real-life stories and cool made-up stories. To her surprise, she currently lives in Denver, but will always be a Californian at heart.

Ed. Note: this book is literally about historical murder, so please be careful with yourself and this review.


CW: Sexual violence, murder and death, including of children and animals

Emma Southon’s book is a highly readable, incredibly smart, sometimes funny and sometimes heart-wrenching history of Rome. Murder is used as a focus point to delve into topics like the role of the state, class, slavery, magic, and family. If you want a history book that is compelling, accessible, and clever, or if you have any interest in ancient Rome or true (ancient) crime, grab this one.

This book reminds me of being in the student lounge at graduate school and listening to a really brilliant friend tell you about the most bonkers things they’ve been reading about lately. There is a lot packed into this book, and I kept jotting down notes of some of the most fascinating bits to share with the Bitchery, my spouse, my friends, and pretty much anyone else who has been within a 5 meter radius of me the past few weeks. There are too many anecdotes to list in their entirety here, so I’ll share some of my jottings:

TW/CW Like Seriously Not Kidding

  • p. 24: Sacred chickens get chucked off a boat; everyone dies
  • p. 73: Patricide punishment: to be beaten and put into a sack with a dog, a rooster, a monkey, and a snake, then drowned
  • p. 178: Cabbage piss steam=vagina medicine
  • p. 179: Magic wang amulets
  • p. 189: Ancient sports fan curses opposing team
  • p. 219: Of course the woman gets blamed

If any of those notes intrigued you or made you curious or even laugh, you’ll probably enjoy this book. While I wrote a dozen other notes, random factoids are not just shoved down your throat. Southon does a particularly good job at lingering in key moments, forcing the reader to really sit with the fact that she is writing about living, breathing, bleeding, dying humans.

Southon defines murder broadly, with chapters focused on categories like murder by magic, murder of and by slaves, murder in the family, and murder of emperors. The chapters then hone in on individuals, both victims and perpetrators. Like Regulus, who would accuse men he didn’t like of crimes against the emperor and get the state to execute them. Or the murder of Apronia by her husband that so fascinated the Emperor Tiberius that he came to investigate the scene of the crime himself. (I want that TV show.) From these stories, Southon builds an image of Rome as a brutal and complicated place that is simultaneously fascinating and infuriating to study.

One of the strongest elements is the way in which Southon dives into how incredibly flawed and biased surviving accounts of Roman history are, skewing how we see and think of these historical events:

So, our two most vocal and evocative sources on the gladiatorial games in general had a fairly extreme perspective not shared by most of the Roman world. Imagine if…somehow only purse-lipped conservative columns about the moral degradation of RuPaul’s Drag Race were the only piece of social commentary that survived about the Emmy Award-winning phenomenon of a TV show and you’ll see what we’re dealing with.

The above quote is also a fantastic example of one of my other favorite elements: Southon makes really evocative analogies to modern references. Those kinds of analogies could have come across as pandering, trite, or cringey, but here they are extremely effective and make the ancient world she writes about feel more real.
In terms of gore/violence triggers: I think your mileage may vary. With a few exceptions, Southon doesn’t dwell on the violence. When she does, it is with a clear intent to illustrate the sheer sickening brutality of the actions or the horror of institutions like slavery. It doesn’t feel voyeuristic like true crime sometimes can. However, the final chapter on judicial murders—executions of convicted prisoners—was exceptionally rough:

TW/CW: Violence, body horror, animal abuse, sexual assault

Southon graphically describes how crucifixion would work. This chapter also describes a punishment in which a woman would be raped by a donkey as a spectacle. Southon joins us in the horror, writing, “I will never forget reading this section as an undergraduate in room 4D of University of Birmingham library and transforming into pure silent ‘what the fuck’ energy for a while.”

While this is a book about murder, Southon’s work is also about the complex, dynamic society of Rome. And perhaps more compellingly, this research is deeply human—the people in the past, the people writing about the past, and Emma Southon herself—are all portrayed with human imperfections and strengths, with pettiness, prejudices, pride, scheming, vanity, cruelty, and love. I found it engaging and addicting to read, but fair warning: this examination of ancient history is as horrifying as it is fascinating–like much of human history.

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A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by Emma Southon

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