Thought-crimes mainly refer to what we all think about those stupid laws and bossy official directives only designed for your benefit, sir. Romans did not face these but rather what George Orwell in 1984 understood by thought-crime: wholly innocent activities interpreted as threats to state security. The historian Tacitus is full of them.
When one of Rome’s best-loved sons, Germanicus, mysteriously died, many suspected the jealous emperor Tiberius was involved. So in AD 28, when a distinguished Roman, Titius Sabinus, started helping out the widow and family, some ambitious public figures saw a chance to prove their loyalty to the emperor by stitching up Sabinus good and proper. One of them, Lucanius Latiaris, started privately sympathising with Sabinus, while attacking the emperor. Sabinus responded in kind, and ‘these exchanges of forbidden confidences seemed to cement a close friendship. So Sabinus now sought out Latiaris’ company and unburdened his sorrows to this apparently trustworthy friend.’
The schemers now had to find a way to publicise this obvious threat. So they hid three senators in the roof of Sabinus’ bedroom. There Latiaris engaged him in their usual conversation, Sabinus unfolded the usual grievances—and they had their man. The reaction in Rome was one of pure terror. ‘People avoided all meetings and conversations, shunned friends and strangers...when Sabinus was led away, there was a stampede, and all roads and public places were immediately evacuated. But then people returned to them, alarmed that they had displayed alarm’. Sabinus was never heard of again.
This, for Tacitus, was symptomatic of the world of the emperors, where, in the satirist Juvenal’s words, ‘men’s throats were slit by a whisper’. As Tacitus brilliantly comments, ‘Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, but we the depths of slavery, robbed even of the exchange of ideas by informers. We would have lost memory itself as well as our tongues, had it been as easy to forget as it was to remain silent.’ Orwell would have understood.
Nowadays it seems to be everybody’s democratic duty to subvert the state. But question an airport security official? Down you go, mate.