Book Review – A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum: Murder In Ancient Rome

Hello hello and welcome or welcome back to my little bookish corner of the internet. Today I’m bringing you my review of one of my favourite reads of February, and possibly one of my favourite non-fiction reads ever, A Fatal Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum: Murder In Ancient Rome. There will be swearing / rudeness in this review where I’m quoting the book, just so you’re aware.

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.

Feauturing talk of the crucifixion of dogs and a poisoner who Southon refers to as “Agatha Christie’s wet dream” (which made me snort tea out of my nose and choke), A Fatal Thing manages to capture some of my favourite things in life: history, hilarity, and profanity. The skill of addressing a very serious subject while making the reader laugh is one that takes a fine art, and it is perfectly honed here.

A Fatal Thing looks at all different forms of murder, and appeals at the reader to look at them through a Roman perspective rather than our modern lens. While we still have so far to go in striving for all persons to be considered equal regardless of sex, race or sexual orientation, the Romans simply didn’t consider slave lives to be worth anything at all. One of the most shocking facts that I retained from this book was that if a slave / slaves attempted to kill their master, all the slaves in the household would be put to death. In one case after a failed assaination attempt, over 400 men, women and children were executed.

It’s utterly shocking, and abhorent. However, the author asks us to consider if the Roman fascination with murder, especially public murder by execution or murder for sport in the arena, is their generation true crime podcast, or Netflix show. As a society, we still retain our fascination with violent deaths, historical and modern. If we didn’t, books like this wouldn’t exist… and neither would half of the content on streaming sites.

These are obviously deeply ethical and theological moments from these pages, and yet I refer to the book as hilarious. Well, it was. It felt like a deeply human book, moving from emotion to emotion throughout the pages, and although I came away from parts of it laughing, I also came away from others feeling deeply reflective about what it means to be human, whatever centuary we are born in.

I picked this book up after enjoying 24 Hours In Ancient Rome, and it’s a great place to continue from that foundation. It may well focus on death – and violent death at that – but the fact is death is a part of life, and violent deaths here were part of violent lives. Perfect for the amatuer or professional historian, those with a true crime fascination, anthropology enthusiasts, or simply those with a curious streak, I’ll be recommending this one for a long time to come (but probably won’t let my young teen read it!).

Thanks for stopping by for this review today. If witty history is of interest, keep an eye out for my upcoming review of Ask A Historian, which is a delightful romp through history via 50 questions from the public. Just as much fun – a bit less murder.


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