Today I’m going to speak about an interesting topic. It’s quiet strange to think that there were policemen in Rome, but that’s true. Romans were well – advanced, especially for what the public administration is concerned.
There was a kind of police during the Roman republic. It was made by slaves but its only task was to put fires out. They were like our firefighters and their name was “tresviri capitales“. We don’t know anything about their number and organisation.
In 6 AC the first Roman emperor Augustus established a new unit of policemen called “Vigiles” or “Militia vigilum“; they were the first well – organised police body of our history. Roman vigiles were like policemen and firefighters, due to the fact that they had to imprison robbers, killers and to fight blazes.
Their structure was strongly linked to Rome’s organisation. Augustus divided the city in 14 regions, while the vigiles in 7 cohorts. Each cohort was made by 1000 men and it had to guard 2 regions, each of them protected by a barrack (statio) and a guardhouse (excubitorium). As a consequence, there were 7 barracks and 7 guardhouses in Rome, 14 police spots for 14 regions.
The Roman Vigiles had a paramilitary organisation: they were divided in 7 cohorts, each of them divided in 7 groups (centuria). Their structure allowed the Vigiles to guard all the city. This is an important detail, because Rome at that time was the largest city in the world. There were in fact 1 million people, 423 neighborhoods and 147.000 buildings.
Every group of vigiles was focused on a certain task. There were: vigiles acquarii, similar to our firefighters; vigiles balneari, who had to guard public baths; vigiles horreari, who guarded storehouses; vigiles carcerarii, similar to our prison wardens; vigiles siphonarii, who had to run the pumps to fight fires; vigiles sebaciarii, responsible for street lighting. Due to this careful organisation, the Roman vigiles could face every kind of problem in the city.
But what kind of tools did they use? Thanks to the archeological findings and Roman writings it’s possible to give an answer to this question. Roman vigiles used axes and pickaxes to cut and tear things down; staircases and ropes to reach the higher floors of the buildings; blankets with vinegar and water to cover people suffering for flames and smokes; pumps to pile water in pipes; buckets to fight fires.
The Roman Vigiles were led by a prefect (praefectus vigilum), who had also civil and criminal jurisdiction on Rome’s inhabitants.
As a conclusion, I believe that this topic shows us how the Romans were skilled and focused on public administration. All of us, from private citizens to rulers, must learn from them how a city should be run and understand how a strong organisation can face every kind of problems.