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ASK JUDGE SMITH: From Peter and Paul to due process

By J. Layne Smith Special to the Times

Q. Judge Smith, how did the Roman Empire raise its inhabitants’ standard of living and would you contrast Roman and American justice? Drew 

A. Your question reminds me of the Monty Python movie, “The Life of Brian.” Do you recall the scene where Reg scornfully asks members of The People’s Front of Judea “what have the Romans ever done for us?!” It ends up being a long list. 

Judge J. Layne Smith

Rome raised people’s standard of living by funding projects that improved their quality of life, eliminated certain health risks, and lengthened their lifespans. This stimulated productivity, incomes, and tax revenues. 

Imagine yourself in ancient Rome. The streets are covered with garbage, excrement, and rotting carcasses. Filthy puddles of stagnant water abound. Stormwater run-off transports the germs from this filth into the groundwater, and the freshwater supply becomes polluted. The city stinks to high heaven! 

In response, the Romans built an underground drainage system that doubled as a sewer. It collected polluted water and human wastes and routed them out of the city. The government also built public latrines for commoners. In a time before toilet paper, the people who used these facilities wiped themselves with community sponges. Ugh! Only wealthy people could afford private latrines and individual sponges.

Throughout history, people have died from drinking unclean water. It’s dangerous to drink stagnant water or water tainted by excrement and urine.

In response, the Romans built aqueducts that transported moving water from distant pristine rivers and springs to locations throughout the city. Having a constant flow of reliable drinking water improved people’s health.

Roman emperors were all-powerful and they governed from the top down. In contrast, here, the government serves the people and we elect our leaders.

Rome’s business model was to conquer other nations, take their assets, and live off the spoils of war. In contrast, America’s business model is commerce and we live off the fruits of our labor. 

Consider the difference in how Rome and America treated defeated foes. At the end of the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C., Rome blockaded the city of Carthage and killed 200,000 of its residents. When Carthage capitulated, the Roman Army sold its 50,000 survivors into slavery and razed the city from the face of the Earth. Then they salted the fields to sabotage farming, rendering it a wasteland. 

In contrast, after World War II, the United States gifted humanitarian aid to nations whose economies and infrastructures had been ruined. We fed, clothed, and rebuilt Germany, Western Europe, and Japan.

Roman law favored Roman citizens and soldiers over others. They had more rights and were spared from crueler punishments.

Consider the different fates of the apostles Peter and Paul. Both men were executed by the Roman government as religious troublemakers. Peter, the first pope, was a Jewish fisherman from Galilee. He was crucified and suffered a long and excruciating death. Paul, a Jewish itinerant preacher and tent maker, was a Roman citizen. He was beheaded and died quickly.

In contrast, in the United States, no one is above the law. Here, everyone is entitled to due process of law and the protections provided by the Bill of Rights.

Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith is author of the book “Civics, Law, and Justice - How We Became U.S.” Email your questions to