Missing persons


Gillian, a sixth former of literary talent, raised the question of travel and safety in the Roman empire. Were there highwaymen? Did people go missing?

If someone disappears now, the obvious fears include killing by a robber or psychopath or rapist, or by some vengeful person with a grievance; but if you report a disappearance to the police, their first assumption will be that the person—the misper in police slang—has gone missing voluntarily.

In the ancient world, such an incident typically had a different complexion. A kidnap would be high on the list of possibilities, in days when a person was a saleable commodity; and if the kidnappers realised they had caught a person from a rich family, then the subsequent ransom note might well be a relief to the grieving family.

Pliny’s letter VI.25 is about such an incident, although we do not learn the outcome. His friend Hispanus has a cliens called Robustus, who has now gone missing. He has written to Pliny for help, because Robustus was previously travelling with one of Pliny’s clientes called Atilius Scaurus.

Pliny replies that he will send for Scaurus and make investigations, but he fears it will be in vain: he cites one of his own clientes who also disappeared, in the course of a journey to Rome from Comum when he was carrying 40,000 sesterces, and has not been heard of since. ‘It is unclear,’ Pliny says, ‘whether he was abducted by his slaves or with them.’ It is interesting which one he puts first.

Both of these disappearances happened in Italy; and it is worth noting that the families reported them to their patroni, who were responsible for the welfare of their clientes (and vice versa, by the way.)

Another difference between the ancient world and today, by courtesy of bankers, is that now a private person has no need to carry large sums of money, and so the occupation of the highwayman is no longer profitable.

Next post: Adverbs: an adhesive error.




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