Who were the Roman cops?

Modern Roman cops

Modern Roman cops – Carabiniere (Author photo)

Thinking about police, gendarmes and emergency services in the past few days brought me to the law enforcers of Ancient Rome. Faced with terrorist attack (or riot, revolt and rebellion), they would have been robust in their attitude and actions. So who policed Rome?

Vigiles as a public service were founded by Augustus as a new firefighting force to replace the private, often haphazard, groups. In AD 6, he levied a 4% tax on the sale of slaves to finance the service. They were commanded by the praefectus vigilum, who was of equestrian rank, and organised into seven cohorts of 500, later 1,000 men, each commanded by a tribune. A cohort would patrol two of the city’s fourteen administrative districts (regiones) from sub-stations throughout the city, plus detachments were stationed at Rome’s ports of Ostia and Portus.

Vigiles were dual role: they also acted as a night watch, keeping an eye out for burglars, cut-throats and low-life, and hunting down runaway slaves. Sometimes, they were used to maintain order in the streets. As well as the power to break into houses if they suspected an out-of-control fire inside, and demolish property to create firebreaks, vigiles could also check if householders had firefighting equipment and a ready reserve of water. If not, householders could be punished for negligence. So there was an element of preventative work as well as powers of investigation and enforcement…

Portable Roman fire engine nozzle, Madrid Museum (Creative Commons)

Portable Roman fire engine nozzle, Madrid Museum (Creative Commons)


In their firefighting role, the vigiles had a variety of specialist troops such as sifonarii, who worked the pumps, uncinarii, men who used grappling hooks, aquarii who identified and supervised the supply of water. As with true military forces, the vigiles enjoyed the benefit of their own medical support with four doctors (medici) attached to each cohort. The ordinary firefighters were called milites (soldiers).

For firefighting, the vigiles used quilts or mats, (most likely soaked in water and used to smother flames), ladders, axes, fire buckets made of rope treated with pitch, poles and hooks to push and pull  over fire damaged walls. The height of sophistication was a sipho, a fire engine, pulled by horses and consisting of a large double-action pump that was partially submerged in a reservoir of water and fitted with a directional nozzle.

The Silver PigsRecruited from the lower levels of Roman society, often ex-slaves, vigiles were not as highly regarded as their other policing colleagues. But their job wasn’t easy…

I heartily recommend reading Lindsey Davis’ Falco series which features Petro (Lucius Petronius Longus), a vigiles watch captain in charge of a disparate lot and who helps main hero Falco investigate dastardly deeds in Ancient Rome.

Cohortes urbanae, also created by the ever busy Augustus, were formed to counterbalance the enormous power of the Praetorian Guard. The cohorts’primary role was to police Rome and to counteract the roaming mobs and gangs that so often haunted its streets during the Republic. These urban cohorts thus acted as a heavy duty police force, capable of riot control duties, while their contemporaries, the vigiles, had the day-to-day role of policing the streets and protecting against fires.



Originally, the cohortes urbanae were divided into three cohorts of around 500 men, each commanded by a tribune and six centurions. In the time of the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian), this increased to four cohorts. Only free citizens, mainly of Italian origin, were eligible to serve in their ranks.

The man in charge of all the cohortes urbanae was the urban prefect (praefectus urbanus or praefectus urbi), a magistrate tasked with maintaining order in the city and within a hundred mile circumference.

He was also tasked with administering the emperor’s laws, superintending guilds and corporations (collegia), overseeing officials responsible for the drainage of the Tiber and the maintenance of the city’s sewers and water supply system, as well as its monuments.

Most importantly, he was ultimately responsible for the city’s provision with grain from overseas for the city’s large population; if the prefect failed to secure adequate supplies, riots usually broke out.

Urban cohorts were later created in both the Roman North African city of Carthage and the city of Lugdunum in Roman Gaul (modern Lyon).



In Late Antiquity, when the imperial court moved from Rome itself, the office of urban prefect became more powerful, as it was no longer under the emperor’s direct supervision or even his eye. Interestingly, from the Roma Nova angle, the office was usually held by leading members of Italy’s still largely pagan senatorial aristocracy. In such a capacity, Symmachus played a prominent role in the controversy over the Altar of Victory in the late 4th century.

So there are some parallels and overlaps with modern day services. In the UK, police (regionally based), military, fire brigades and ambulance/paramedic services are separate. Here in France, there are two police services – municipal (local) and gendarmerie (paramilitary). Ambulances are organised privately and publicly, but it’s a firefighter who is likely to arrive first at an accident and carry out paramedic services.


And in Roma Nova?
When Aurelia was younger in the late sixties in AURELIA, and later in INSURRECTIO and RETALIO (early eighties), the police were still called vigiles and wore a maroon uniform, but after Roma Nova was liberated from Caius Tellus’s regime, a new force was formed called custodes; they wear a standard blue uniform we associate with most police forces today. Those of you who have read Carina’s adventures in INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO will know the most fascinating custos is Inspector, later Commander, Aulus Cornelius Lurio with whom Carina has history…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Roma Nova on Jo Frances Penn's Books and Travel podcast

Alison with Jo Frances Penn

Travel is a wide concept. It doesn’t just mean trotting up the steps to a plane or sitting back looking out of a train window, or even visiting entrancing and exotic places.

Travel can be in the mind, across hundreds or possibly thousands of years, into other realities and mentalities, even into an alternative time. So I was thrilled to be invited by Jo Frances Penn (also known as Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn) to be be interviewed for her Books and Travel podcast. You can read the transcript here and listen to our hugely enjoyable discussion:

  • The early genesis of an idea for books about an alternative history based on Ancient Rome
  • How the past and the present are connected by landscape
  • Places that have inspired aspects of the Roma Nova books
  • Bringing my personal military experience into fiction
  • Language and how it can impact appreciation of a place and culture
  • Recommended books about ancient Rome and some alt-history novels

Thank you so much, Joanna – it was 100% fun.
Podcast link: https://content.blubrry.com/booksandtravel/Podcast_BAT_AlisonMorton0320B.mp3


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Planes, trains and automobiles in Roma Nova

Roman planes? Well no, but definitely Roma Novan ones.

Air Roma Nova is the national carrier and mostly flies to other European capitals – Vienna, London, Paris, Rome – but also has a transatlantic service three times a week at the time of INCEPTIO.

Like many smaller airports, PORTUS – Latin for port(!) – has a fenced-off military section and a private, or general, aviation area. It’s here that Carina first sees her new homeland in INCEPTIO.

We landed early afternoon local time and thirsty for a view of my new home, I glued my face to the window. Mountains stretched up into the sky in the background, conifers clinging to them under the snow line, fields and isolated houses below them. As the tyres touched the runway, I was disappointed to see it looked like any other airport, until I saw the terminal building with the sign PORTUS – ROMA NOVA. It was true, then.

We taxied past the main glass-fronted building to a smaller single-storey one with three wide shallow steps and glass doors. A gold eagle crested the arch above the doorway. Two men in suits and a woman in a blue uniform stood waiting on the tarmac for our plane to stop. Fresh air flooded in as the door opened.

‘Ready?’ Conrad smiled at me and held out his hand. He stood awkwardly, leaning on a cane. His leg must have been so sore.

Nervous didn’t describe it; I was extremely reluctant to leave the comfort of my leather seat.

‘Yes, of course.’ I was wearing a new cream designer pants suit. I checked my hair and face for the hundredth time. I thanked the French crew as I stood hesitating in the doorway. I swallowed and placed my foot on the first step.

Outside, it was warm, but not as oppressively hot as Washington had been. Above the sour smells of fuel and tyre rubber, I caught a fresh, sharp tang of pine resin.”

At the beginning of INSURRECTIO, Aurelia watches as her enemy, Caius Tellus, deported from Berlin after serving his sentence for murder, lands at PORTUS.
“I waited airside behind the smoked glass of the service vehicle as the Prussian aircraft landed at PORTUS Airport. Two green-uniformed Royal Prussian Police officers escorted Caius Tellus down the steps. He ambled across the tarmac with his escorts as if he were on a Sunday afternoon stroll. Two of our vigiles were waiting for him. He held out his handcuffed hands and raised one eyebrow, obviously expecting them to remove the restraints, but they ignored him. One vigilis grabbed him by the upper arm and pulled him to the waiting truck. They shoved him in the back and slammed the doors.”

Trains? Very important for getting from Aquae Caesaris in the west to Brancadorum in the east and from Castra Lucilla in the south to the city of Roma Nova. And then there’s the line north to Graz in New Austria, and then to Vienna which is a vital international connection.

In NEXUS, Aurelia and her team are staking out the station hoping to trap one of the bad guys:

“A yellow engineering maintenance engine chuntered through, emitting diesel fumes and noise. I checked my watch. Five minutes to go. Stopping only at Graz on its way from Vienna and then the border with Roma Nova, this train terminated here. It would disgorge its passengers on this platform. Hartl’s people had recorded no sightings at the border, but we wouldn’t let it rest there.

A buzz on my radio. The red and white engine of the Neuösterreichische Staatsbahn was crawling towards us. It ground to a stop amidst screeching brakes. Doors swung open from its four passenger carriages. We could be looking at two hundred people, but only about half of that number stepped out. Some were women with children, the usual business types, some students, tourists heaving cases down, three fashionable young women accompanied by a camera crew with large black boxes on a hand wagon, and obvious hikers with backpacks and mountain gear.”

In PERFIDITAS, Carina uses the train to remain anonymous:
“The train south left in ten minutes, and I hung around behind the luggage carts until the door warning sounded. I jumped on, catching a frown from the guard. She checked my ticket there and then. I shrugged and plunked myself down on a spare seat next to a suit. I stepped off at each of the next two stops, walking a few cars further up or down the platform each time, turning my coat inside out and putting my hair up or loosening it. I couldn’t see anybody following. Nobody paid any attention: they just wanted to get home after work.

I finally quit the train at Castra Lucilla. Although we came here every summer and in between, I’d never been to the train station: we always travelled in Aurelia’s Mercedes.”

Ah, Aurelia’s Mercedes! Generally, I try to keep car makes generic but there’s something about a Mercedes that oozes luxurious comfort – exactly what the older Aurelia would travel in. Generally, cars are cars. Sorry, pertrolheads! Only if the person’s character is to be aware of such differences do I make any kind of nod towards a make or model. Renschman, a ruthless government black ops fixer in INCEPTIO would naturally notice Helena and Carina’s car was an Audi A5; to Carina it was just a car.

In INSURRECTIO, Aurelia and Calavia hide from the rebels near the autovia – the Roman Novan name for motorway.
“As we neared the autovia, it was unnerving. The dual carriageways usually buzzed with freight lorries, cars and small vans weaving in and out. Now, I heard nothing. We crouched in the trees on top of the embankment looking down at four empty lanes, curving in a wide arc, the white road markings glimmering in the faint moonlight. Not a truck, nor tanker, nor private car. Zero.

Breaking the silence, the noise of an engine accelerating. It grew louder, deepening into the rhythmic thudding of a powerful diesel engine.
‘Back!’ Calavia hissed. But I was already lying flush to the ground and pulled Quirinia with me. An armoured personnel carrier, one of the new Agrippa wheeled models scarcely out of the factory, appeared, travelling at around 50 kph. Aside from the gunner, there was another figure, the commander, scanning both sides of the road with a pair of heavy night vision binoculars. She, or now more likely he, was looking purposefully. My stomach churned.
‘Calavia,’ I whispered as soon as it had disappeared into the distance. ‘They know we’re out here, but not where.’
‘With their numbers it’s only a matter of time before they find us. We have to move now and fast.’ “

Sometimes, Carina and Conrad take to two wheels as in SUCCESSIO:
” ‘And what exactly did you mean by that crack about Fausta?’ I shouted in Conrad’s ear as I clung to his leather-clad back as we tore back along the Aquae Caesaris road to the city.

He didn’t answer, but I felt rumbling in his back; he must have been laughing.

We glided to a stop by the tall gates, passed through the security system and coasted into the courtyard where the night team were coming on shift. I swung off the back of the Moto Guzzi and went to talk to the security chief.”

And yes, they have traffic problems as in AURELIA:
“The car crawled along the Dec Max, stopping and starting intermittently. The engine coughed and revved under the strain. Why in Hades this high street hadn’t been made one-way defeated me. They could easily loop it with the parallel street taking the eastbound traffic. I rubbed the window to wipe away the condensation. People were huddled up against the still frosty late morning, youngsters with hands in their pockets, older citizens swathed in hats, deep scarves and thick gloves.

Then I saw him. The little runt who’d followed me in Berlin. Last time I’d seen him was at the Anhalter station when I packed him off on the train to Bavaria. Now he was ambling along the Dec Max as if he were a summer tourist. Far too casually.”

Transport is essential in any country but when you’re building an alternative world it brings readers in. We can relate to travelling on planes, trains and automobiles. Not so sure about the motor bike…

Transport not only gets the character from A to B (or not), but can often be crucial to the plot.

And lastly, words like PORTUS, autovia and Dec Max (Decumanus Maximus – High Street) reinforce the Roman link, something that’s ever-present  in in the modern mini-state of Roma Nova.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.