With so many of the Falco novels focussing on aspects of Law and Order in ancient Rome, it is worthwhile to examine some aspects of this presented in Time to Depart. Falco’s friend Petro is a leader of a cohort of Vigiles.
You may wish to read Time to Depart, a Falco Novel by Lindsey Davis.
History of the Vigiles
Vigiles were originally firefighters. After a particularly disastrous fire in Rome, in AD 6, the Emperor Augustus established a Corp of Vigiles to fight fires. There are many jibes at the vigiles with their grass mats, which they used to smother flames. In other Falco novels, it has been suggested that houses were set of fire deliberately so they could be plundered by vigilies.
Originally formed by bands of slaves and called ‘famlia publica’, the slaves were poorly trained and not motivated. Establishment of the Corp of Vigiles and inducement of full citizenship after six years service enhanced recruitment significantly. All vigilies carried knives, axes and spades to help them in their duties. Their duties also extended to policing. At night they would ‘police’ the cities and towns and quite often be required to track down and recapture runaway slaves. During the day they would be stationed at public baths to watch over the clothes of the bathers to prevent pilfering by the public and bath attendants.
Falco’s Rome – Law and Order
At the same time as Petro is seeing off Balbinus Pius, a heist occurs at the Emporium. Petro closes the Emporium in order to conduct a proper investigation. This leads to an interview with Vespasian and an account of the structure of the (civil) forces in Rome. Petro is the enquiry captain of the Aventine sector in the Fourth Cohort of the vigiles. Petro gives an overview of law and order to the clerk Claudia Laeta:
‘Do set me straight about the vigiles; I confuse them with the Urban Cohorts…’
“Easily done.’ Petronius filled him in politely. Replete, he leant back on a stool and gave Laeta the lecture for the new recruits. ‘This is how law and order works in Rome. Top of the heap you have the Praetorian Guard; Cohorts One to Nine, commanded by the Praetorian Prefect, barracked at the Praetorian Camp. Fully armed. Duties: one, guarding the Emperor; two, ceremonial swank. They are a hand-picked élite, and full of themselves. Next in line and tacked onto them are Cohorts Ten to Twelve, known as the Urbans. Commanded by the Urban Prefect – a senator – who is basically the city manager. Routinely armed with sword and knife. Their unofficial job description is to repress the mob. Duties officially: to keep the peace, keep their ears open, and keep the Urban Prefect informed of absolutely everything.
‘Spying?’ Laeta queried dryly. ‘I thought Anacrites did that?’ “He spies on them while they’re spying on us!” replied Falco.
‘And at the bottom’, Petro continued, ‘doing all the real work, you have the vigiles, commanded by the Prefect of the vigiles. Unarmed, but run on military lines. Seven cohorts, each led by a tribune who is an ex-chief centurion; each with seven centuries who do the foot patrols. Rome has fourteen administrative regions. Each cohort looks after two. Duties: anything those flash bastards at the Praetorian Camp won’t lower themselves to touch.’
Thus Petro lays out the structures for the governance and protection of Rome. Who will watch the watchers?
Power and Corruption
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Juvenal, variously translated as “Who watches the watchmen?”, “Who watches the watchers?”, “Who will guard the guards?”, “Who shall watch the watchers themselves?”, or similar.
The essential problem was posed by Plato in the Republic, his work on government and morality. The perfect society as described by Socrates, the main character of the work, relies on labourers, slaves and tradesmen. The guardian class is to protect the city. The question is put to Socrates, “Who will guard the guardians?” or, “Who will protect us against the protectors?”.
Falco, at the end of Poseidon’s Gold, arranges a loan of 400,000 sesterces from his father Favonius, and heads off to the Palace to obtain the favour of having his status raised to Equestrian, thus enabling him to make a decent woman of Helena Justina and enjoy the favour of their rightful status in society. Vespasian is away, Titus and Domitian are available. Falco chooses to see Domitian, who thinks he has come for an interview about the trip to Germania Inferior (see The Iron Hand of Mars). Domitian turns Falco’s request down.
Shortly after, during the narrative of this novel, Titus calls Falco and commissions him to investigate graft in the vigiles. Titus raises the recent request to Domitian and tells Falco he cannot reverse it. Falco turned down Vespasian’s earlier offer of Equestrian status in order to preserve his independence and integrity.
Corruption and graft are misuse of power in office. It occurs at all levels and doubtless occurred in Rome. In this day and age, those most visible in the public sphere with leadership responsibility are often open to corruption. Many display ruthlessness where their own businesses are concerned. The welfare of others is unimportant, and they work in ways to extend their wealth and that of cronies, friends and relatives.
Those who are corrupt protect their turf. They will use any force and intimidation such as using strong men and other not so subtle reminders to keep noses out where they are not wanted. Falco receives visitors in the form of Little Icarus and The Miller, who dislocates his shoulder. His niece Tertulla is kidnapped and ransom is demanded. The headquarters of Petro’s cohort is demolished during the night. Intimidation is extreme when Nonnius Albius is found dead with a pot jammed over his head and bearing the marks of torture. Ditto Nonnius’s physician, Alexander, brother of the cohort physician, Scythax.
Resolutions to Corruption
Exposing corruption works if access to power is denied or removed. Another unfortunate aspect of corruption is whistle-blowing. Weak minded persons keep quiet and a conspiracy of silence prevails.When a person does blow the whistle in an effort to dismantle the wall of silence, they are discredited in the media, promptly. Often they have to resign their employment.
Those who are corrupt are selfish. They are victims of their ego, and the ego grabs whatever it sees, and then wants more. Due the nature of the mind held under sway of the ego and its desires, greed often begets more greed and ambition. Desire knows no limit, if it is not regulated from within. Being in the limelight (any position in the public sphere where influence is found and sought) can feed the ego in unhealthy ways. People in the limelight, such as politicians, leaders of business and those in the legal, military and law enforcement professions, need to be aware of the task they are charged with, their functions, and lead from the concept of providing service, not feathering their nests.
Leadership without self awareness and humility can foster problems with the ego. Power should go hand in hand with serving others and it is they who should be exemplars of modesty and selflessness. Those in the limelight should keep in mind common social welfare and the welfare of individuals. Their social position is the perfect occasion to work for, to serve others and to tread the path of nobility.
Truth is what we speak,
Right Conduct is what we practise,
Love is what we live,
Peace is what we give,
Non-violence is the fruit.