The Economics of Headhunting

After the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, his adopted son Octavian (later called Augustus) and his supposed friend and general Mark Antony had to go deal with his killers, led by Brutus and Cassius, and their army in the eastern Mediterranean.

But Octavian and Antony didn’t have enough money to pay the legions, so they had to impose a lot of taxes — very unpopular with the Romans, who hadn’t had to pay taxes for a hundred years thanks to all the loot from their conquests.

And then they still didn’t have enough money, so they decided to have a proscription, a technique invented by the dictator Sulla 40 years before.

It was kind of like a scavenger hunt where the members of the triumverate (Octavian, Antony and a guy named Lepidus) posted the names of people on white boards in the forum and then people would go and kill them and bring in their heads to collect their reward.

The triumvirs confiscated the victims’ property and the killers got a percentage.

“From a modern viewpoint, a proscription is a strange device,” writes Anthony Everitt in his biography of Augustus, “but the Roman state was remarkably nonbureaucratic; with no police force and no professional judiciary, it was simply not equipped to execute large numbers of its citizens. The task had to be privatized.”

He quotes Appian: “Many people were murdered in all kinds of ways, and decapitated to furnish proof for the reward. They fled in undignified fashion, and abandoned their former conspicuous dress for strange disguises. Some went down wells, some descended into the filth of the sewers, and others climbed into smoky rafters or sat in total silence under close-packed roofs.

“To some, just as terrifying as the executioners were wives or children with whom they were not on good terms, or ex-slaves and slaves, or creditors, or neighboring landowners who coveted their estates.”

The triumvirs even swapped relatives: Lepidus gave up his brother, Antony gave up an uncle and Octavian gave up his old teacher and guardian.

After about 2,300 heads had been collected, they still didn’t have enough money.

“The proscription was not as effective as its designers had intended,” Everitt explains. “Much less money was made than had been expected, for too much land and built property came on the market at the same time and prices collapsed.”

Don’t you hate it when that happens?