Fraud: As Old as the Way to Rome

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Roman society was governed by favoritism and nepotism. A society steeped in fraud, bribery and bargaining.

There are two well-known fables from Antiquity that each represent a different form of cheating. First, there is the fable of the raven that has found a piece of cheese and is proudly sitting with it in a tree. The fox comes along and sees the raven with the cheese in his beak. Asking for a piece doesn’t work, so he takes a smarter approach: he praises the raven for his art of singing and asks for a song. The raven is flattered, starts to ‘sing’ and the cheese falls from his beak. The fox catches it and runs off.

The other fable is about the lion that goes hunting with several other, tamer animals. Together they catch a fine prey, but then the lion suddenly claims his ‘lion’s share’, leaving little for the others.

Fraud in our language

According to Cicero, injustice is done in these two ways: by violence and by deceit. The latter is called ‘fraus’ or ‘fraudis’ in Latin and is most applicable to the story of the fox. Via Latin and French the word ‘fraud’ became part of our language in the Middle Ages. Incidentally, the word ‘frustrated’ is also directly derived from this word: in this case it is about the betrayal of trust.

The Corpus Juris by Justinian, the body of Roman law which forms the basis of much of our current legislation, mentions fraud more than two hundred times, while only speaking of ‘bona fide’ – in good faith – about 120 times. It may be clear what occurred more frequently in daily practice, making fraud as old as time. How should we picture what went on in those days?


A lot of trade took place by ship and already in Roman times there were insurances. As it involved large amounts of money, it is hardly surprising that ships frequently sank under very suspicious circumstances.

Expensive goods and hidden defects

Take the tomb of Caprilius who, as we can tell from the decorations, was a rich man. On the left and on the right we see house slaves, depicted as children to ‘belittle’ them, and adult slaves that are chained. Caprilius acquired his riches through the slave trade. A remarkable fact, as he was once a slave himself. The slave trade used several ways to protect its valuable goods. For example, one of the slave’s feet was dipped in chalk, so in the event of an attempt to escape, they would leave a trail. Sometimes they had to wear a medallion bearing the name of the owner.

Once they were at the market, each slave was given a sign summing up his or her qualities so potential buyers could make a good assessment of their value. It was a legal requirement to also mention negative aspects that were relevant, e.g. that someone had attempted suicide. Withholding such ‘hidden defects’ was considered fraud and was a reason to cancel a sale.

Past and future

As the above examples demonstrate, fraud was already widespread in Ancient Rome and it will probably never be eradicated. There will always be an ‘arms race’ between fraudsters and fraud investigators. This means that everyone who decides to make a career in fraud prevention has a golden future ahead of them.

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