The words actus reus and mens rea are often heard in courtrooms when discussing murder. In order to be convicted, the defendant has to be guilty of both these conditions. But what do they mean?
The words come from a Latin maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea which means, ‘an act does not make a person guilty unless his mind is guilty.’
In other words, if you are holding a knife and someone falls on to it and dies, you cannot be convicted of murder. Although you have committed the act that caused the death, you did not have the intention, or guilty mind, to kill the person.
In the 4th century BCE, the ancient Athenians also differentiated between different types of killings. Aristotle writes that:
“Trials for deliberate murder and wounding are held in the Areopagus, and for causing death by poison, and for arson”
So this was considered a serious crime. However, if you murdered a slave or foreigner, or you claimed it to be an accident, you were tried at the Palladium.
The Delphinium was reserved for those killings that were considered might be legal, for example, accidental death at an athletic competition, self-defence or adultery.
In a famous case, Euphiletos was accused of killing Eratosthenes, who was caught in the act of adultery with Euphiletos's wife. Euphiletos's defence was that his killing of Eratosthenes was justified and therefore not punishable.
His defender, Lysias, said that:
“the Court of the Areopagus itself, to which has been assigned, in our own as in our fathers’ time, the trial of suits for murder, has expressly stated that whoever takes this vengeance on an adulterer caught in the act with his spouse shall not be convicted of murder”
The Roman attitude towards murder is a little more difficult to determine. In the Twelve Tables, Rome’s earliest laws, there is no surviving reference to murder. It seems that there were laws concerning parricide, or the murder of a parent, but in the main, the victim’s family were left to sort out the matter - cue 'The Godfather' music!