Insults In Ancient Rome Were More Ruthless Than You Might Expect

Cicero, a lawmaker and renowned orator, was also unafraid to fling mud at his political opponents. Cris Foto/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 29 Aug 2018, 17:59

Back during the time of the Roman Republic, insults were part-and-parcel of politics – something that still rings true today, unfortunately. According to Martin Jehne, a professor of history at the Technical University of Dresden, such discourse was “similar to insults, threats and hate speech on the Internet today.”

Although he’s due to give a talk at the 52nd meeting of German historians in Munster, his thoughts have been summarized in a recent press release.

“The attacks, also known as invectives, were an integral part of public life for senators of the Roman Republic,” he explains. Politicians “ruthlessly” insulted each other, but they also allowed people to insult them without being able to respond – “an outlet that, in a profound division of rich and poor, limited the omnipotence fantasies of the elite.”

At this point, it’s easy to think of the President of the United States, who has insulted a profound number of people from disabled reporters to entire nations and cultures.

Contrary to what some outlets have reported, Jehne doesn’t say insults were “worse” before social media.

What he does in fact say is that the rhetoric spouted by today’s extremist groups, such as Germany’s Pegida, seem and are undeniably awful, but his research on Roman Republic-era insults has led him to “considerably reduce [his] level of excitement at new abuses in the present.” Essentially, we'd be surprised at the outrageous but of-their-time nature of the insults back then.

It’s worth stressing that it’s hard to definitively say whether or not insults were worse back then compared to now. Insults aren’t just about using language deemed to be offensive; context is all-important, as is the manner in which the insults are being directed to the target.

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