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How and Why the Romans Executed People

Updated on June 8, 2016
Nero's Torches by Henryk Siemiradzk
Nero's Torches by Henryk Siemiradzk | Source

Rome in the History of Capital Punishment

Unfortunately for the human race, the history of capital punishment has been a long, bloody and inglorious one. Most of us today are lucky enough to live in countries where the death penalty has been abolished, but generally this has only happened in the last half century and there are still many parts of the world where some crimes are punishable by death. Capital punishment has been recorded as having been practiced since antiquity and regrettably we have been all too creative in thinking up different methods of inflicting pain, humiliation and death on our fellow human beings. In one ancient society, that of Ancient Rome, capital punishment was seen to be a way of maintaining the status quo and also deterring any would be criminals from any future disobedience. Ancient Rome was both a very hierarchical and patriarchal society. Roman Citizens were at the top of the heap, and then there were the legions of slaves who did all the hard work and kept the households, businesses and farms running. If you were lucky enough to have been born a Roman Citizen, then you were also more fortunate if you were born male.The man of the house was the pater familias, and he was entitled to rule his family with an iron rod if he chose, as his authority was absolute.

The Family in Ancient Rome

These days it is perhaps hard to understand how important the concept of family was to an ancient society such as Rome.Their whole social world was held together by having stable family units, and preserving the honour of the family name meant everything to an Ancient Roman father. So it is not perhaps surprising that in Ancient Rome, the crime of parricide was regarded as the most heinous crime that you could ever commit and was enshrined in law in 52 BC as the the Lex Pompeia de pariciidis. Murdering one of your blood relations was looked on as being totally unnatural and if you killed your father, mother, or one of your grandparents then you had a special punishment reserved for you – the Poena cullei. If you were unfortunate enough to be sentenced to the Poena cullei, you would have been bound and placed in an ox skin sack along with a snake, a dog, a monkey and a cockerel and then the sack would be flung into deep water. Can you imagine what it would have been like to have been confined in that small space, together with those panicking animals biting and scratching at you, knowing that you were drowning?

Sabbas Stratelates - Early Roman Christian Martyr
Sabbas Stratelates - Early Roman Christian Martyr | Source

The Poena Cullei

So what was the meaning of the strange cocktail of creatures that they threw into the leather sack with you? Each of these animals had a symbolic meaning in Ancient Rome that they connected to what they regarded as the monstrous crime of killing your father or close blood relation. The snake put in the sack was generally a viper, a reptile that was both feared and reviled in Ancient Rome, as they give birth to live young during which the young snakes could kill their own mother. Dogs did not enjoy the same levels of affection as we give them today, and were pretty much regarded as a despised animal, the lowest of the low. If you were an Ancient Roman, one of the worst insults that you could hurl at somebody would have been ‘less than a dog’. A monkey was seen as a lesser, inferior version of a human being and cockerels were thought to have no family feelings at all. You would not be subjected to this unusual form of capital punishment if you were a grandfather who killed his grandsons, or a mother who killed her children, as there were different sentences for those crimes. And if you were a father who murdered his children, then you probably would not get punished at all.

Public Executions in Ancient Rome

Generally speaking, Roman Citizens were not sentenced to capital punishment if they murdered another Roman Citizen of equal status,but were more often fined or exiled, and if they were executed they were beheaded, which was regarded as a more honourable way to die. If a Roman Citizen killed a slave or any person of lesser status then there was no punishment at all. Protecting the status and position of the Roman Citizens was considered to be a paramount concern and to be stripped of that status was one of the worst punishments imaginable, especially as then you could be subjected to one of the more inventive methods of Roman execution. So public executions were generally events put on to execute slaves who had run away, prisoners of war, common criminals and army deserters, and were regarded as great spectacles and a form or entertainment. The early Christians were also often publicly executed because of their refusal to worship or make sacrifices to the Roman gods or the Emperor. There were special areas set aside in Roman towns for public executions, usually outside the town gates, and also in the same arena where the gladiatorial games took place.

Roman Arena

The Roman games that took place in arena such as the Colosseum in Rome were lavish affairs that could sometimes go on for several days.The executions were an accepted part of the proceedings, and were quite often held at midday when some of the audience would retire home for lunch or a siesta. There were lots of different ways to execute these lowly criminals, but they were all designed to emphasis their inferior status and demonstrate the folly of those who dared to sin against the mighty Roman state. One of the punishments was the ‘damnatio ad bestia’, where the prisoner or prisoners would literally be thrown into the arena with dangerous wild animals. These could be big cats, bears, rampaging bulls or sometimes they were tied to the tails of stampeding horses and dragged to their deaths. The important thing to the Roman authorities was that they would be seen as no better than the animals, and thus fully deserved their harsh fate and could expect no sympathy. There is even artwork depicting the condemned being killed by animals in the arena found on the walls of Roman villas.

Roman Ampitheatre - Palmyra, Syria
Roman Ampitheatre - Palmyra, Syria | Source

Crucifixion in Roman Times

Burning alive was another favoured form of execution, but perhaps the most shameful way to be executed for a Roman was to be crucified. Again, you would not suffer this punishment if you were a Roman citizen, which is why St Paul was beheaded and St Peter was crucified. Crucifixion was carried out in several different ways on different shapes of cross, but generally the prisoners were stripped naked, and either bound or nailed by their wrists to the crossbeam of a wooden cross. This meant that the whole bodyweight of the prisoner was supported only by their arms, which would soon lead to excruciating pain, and often lead to their shoulders and elbow joints dislocating. They would also be unable to breathe properly. It could take several days for a condemned man to die on the cross, and the whole point of the spectacle was that it was to serve as a warning by being so public, prolonged, painful and humiliating. Also the corpse would also be left on the cross to be picked clean by carrion birds, thus ensuring that the unfortunate victim also did not receive an honourable burial.

Mass Crucifixions in Roman Times

Prisoners would often be crucified in great numbers after a period of civil unrest, and after the slave rebellion led by Spartacus from 73-71 BC around 6,000 of his followers were crucified along the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. Also after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, mass crucifixions were carried out to ensure that message was taken on board that rebellion was not going to be tolerated by the Roman authorities. As the Roman guards could not leave the site of the execution until after the condemned had died, they sometimes hastened the prisoner’s end by breaking their legs with an iron club.

So for the Ancient Romans capital punishment was a method of maintaining, albeit brutally, their social order and their empire. If you had the good fortune to have been born a Roman Citizen, you could probably assume that you would be treated with some respect and dignity if you committed a crime. But if you were a slave or prisoner of war you could expect to have the full force of Roman law and authority thrown at you, so that both you and any others who were thinking of disobedience would come to understand that rebellion or crime was not to be tolerated. However it may seem to modern eyes, these executions were not carried out to be cruel, but were undertaken to support the Roman state and ensure the continuation of the Roman Empire.


Copyright 2011 CMHypno on HubPages

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      david 4 weeks ago

      this helped me allot on my homework.THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!!!

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      mary fehr 4 weeks ago

      regarding the Roman Colosseum, when I went to rome last year, the tour guide insisted that the Circus was the place people were executed, not the Colosseum. He said that no Christians were thrown to the lions there, it was used for naval battles.

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      savenaca 2 months ago

      thx very helpful

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      Obadiah Kariuki - Kenya 3 months ago

      What about the alleged claim that the murderer was tied to the corpse of his victim and made to walk around with it or stick in one position with it?

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      HAZZA_ 3 months ago

      Very Helpful, doing school project. :)

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      Cristian 6 months ago

      crucifixion was so shameful that even today historians don't dare to say what it was: impalement.

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      Kenyetta 6 months ago

      Do you have an article on the origins of the peoples from Pakistan, Iraq and Iran? I heard they we're descended from the Persians and or Spartans.

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      Ellinor 6 months ago

      Do you have any sources? Where did you collect the information from?

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      anonymous_B 7 months ago

      This was really helpful, though some information was incorrect. Thank you.

      -Anonymous B

    • RJ Schwartz profile image

      Ralph Schwartz 18 months ago from Idaho Falls, Idaho

      Well written and informative - I really enjoy everything Roman and this is quite a valuable compilation of one part of their culture.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      It gave me horror to think of being in a sack with a snake. This is very informative and I just love reading a well written article.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad you found the hub useful anon and thanks for the read

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      anon 2 years ago

      This is very helpful thank you for writing this/putting this together, it is extremely gruesome but has helped me in my research a lot

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Interested Reader, glad you found the hub interesting. Unfortunately it was all too true and this kind of cruelty still goes on in this world

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Glad that you found it so fascinating NathaNater. Many of us fall into the trap of giving our power away, mainly because we want an easy life. Those in power know this - the Romans used bread and circuses, modern socialist states use welfare benefits etc. It's important that we don't see ourselves as victims, set our boundaries and stand up for ourselves and others (in a peaceful, non violent way), even if it means that we have to forego some material goodies or so-called privileges being dangled by the powers that be. At the end of the day we get the governments that we have called into being by our attitudes and beliefs, and the only way to change things is to change ourselves.

    • NathaNater profile image

      NathaNater 4 years ago

      This shows that power gives people the right to commit brutality and murder. Of course, it is the people who give authority to those with power. What the ancient Romans did is still done today, in a varied form, but rebels will be imprisoned and killed by those fearful of losing their power. Very fascinating material here, rather engrossing.

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      sue thomas 5 years ago

      brilliant to see so many interested in historical facts but sadly it doesn't take much for barbarity to return to a so called civilised society. think of the french revolution,the holocaust,rwandha and war crimes in bosnia. also as an animal lover im horrified in the increase in badger baiting, dog fighting etc. it's a shame that we can't respect all living creatures as the world would be a far better place.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Sue, glad that you enjoyed the hub and thanks for commenting. Unfortunately there are still parts of the world where people are executed, and history should be a lesson for us all, so that we can hopefully avoid making the same mistakes again

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      sue thomas 5 years ago

      watching spartacus blood and sand at the moment. there are parts which are so violent i can't watch, how human life could mean so little the people watching executions and cheering seemed to have no humanity.i live near a site of roman remains which contains baths and an amphitheatre and find it fascinating but very glad i wasn't alive then.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Kate, glad that you found the hub interesting. Thanks for reading it and for making a great comment

    • Kate Frost profile image

      Kate Frost 5 years ago from UK

      Gruesome and interesting! I'm fascinated by Roman history and this was a really good read.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      I'm not surprised that you were grossed out by the video carol3san, but it was not so long ago that public executions were regarded as a good day out in both the UK and the US. Lets hope that every country in the world bans this barbaric practice and soon

    • carol3san profile image

      Carolyn Sands 5 years ago from Hollywood Florida

      Thanks for the hub, A few years ago I witnesses a video on the news where a woman was being exucited in one of those middle eastern countries...don't remember which one. There was a stadium full of people who came to witness the event A woman was executed by being shot in the back on the head. It grossed me out.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hopefully Angie, one day soon every person on the planet will be able to live free from the fear of torture and capital punishment

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      Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Oh yes I know ... there is still a lot of ignorance and superstition and that can be very demoralising.

      It just shows we have no option ... we can only go on, trying to combat such practises.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Angie, thanks for reading about Roman Executions. While I think that many parts of the world have moved on, there are still areas of the world where brutality is still practised.

      For example this Sudanese man beheaded in Saudi Arabia for being a 'sorcerer' http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2055636/Su...

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi CMHypno - extremely good hub. I have read quite a lot about the Romans and their culture and am always amazed by their casual use of agonising death as a control measure.

      Unlike some other comments I actually do feel modern society has come a long way in its civilisation since those times. Of course we still have a long way to go ... but we do try to be humane, we do recognise the times we get it wrong. I find this very heartening ...

      Voted up!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Wesman, big thanks for dropping in. Having a 100 score feels great and I will enjoy it while it lasts!

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      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Hey CMHypno - I just wanted to drop in here and say "congrats on the 100 score!"

      Very impressive!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Hello, hello good to see you! It's funny how some buildings and locations can have a funny vibration and it doesn't surprise me at all that the Colosseum is one of them

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      Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

      Again Hollywood paraded them as glorious but they were nothing cruel. I seen the Coloseum and had to get out ot it. You still could feel the agony of the people killed there. It was en extra ordinary feeling. Others in the group spoke of it later as well.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Randy, can you imagine how sensational it would be if they ever did discover records of that trial? Now there's a novel to be written - the trial of Jesus according to a Roman court scribe?

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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Wesman, the actions of stupid people tend to discredit themselves or the religion they follow rather than the scriptures or the holy book they follow.

      I have never understood why people can't just live and let live. There is an amazing variety of different religious beliefs and customs on this planet of ours and people are entitled to believe what they want to with no fear of persecution

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      Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      I'm sure bribing guards was as acceptable as bribing congressmen these days. LOL! Too bad there are no actual records of the trial, or the defendant Jesus ever existing in the well maintained court records of the times.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Well - the actions of stupid people motivated by their own imperfections hardly discredit scripture - which is said to be divine.

      Of course if you do not believe in a God or Gods - then it makes perfect sense to discredit scripture based on the non scriptural actions of the "religious."

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Randy, bribing the appropriate people is probably about as old a custom as executing people! So I'm sure if you were rich enough, you could get a body back from the Roman authorities if you really wanted it. For most poor souls who were crucified, nobody cared enough or their relatives were not wealthy or influential enough to get them a decent burial

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Interesting read, CM. Some use this very information to claim Jesus never died on the cross. His legs were not broken, he wasn't left to be picked clean by the vultures, and his body was supposedly retrieved by bribing the Roman guard.

      Mean dudes back then!

      Enjoyed!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hey Wesman, I think people the world over have used religious beliefs or some archaic text to justify their cruelty to their fellow humans. One of the main bones of contention between the newly created Church of England and Catholicism in the 17th century was transubstantiation - people were hung drawn and quartered because they didn't agree on whether a little wafer of bread actually turned into the body of Jesus during communion or whether the bread was just a symbol. You couldn't make it up really!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Ethel, thanks for reading the hub. I agree with you, as lots of things in history can seem cruel or barbaric to us, but they were taken as a matter of course and just the way things were. And if we were living then, we would probably have the same views and the same behaviours

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Or better yet "Do good to those who hate you" or even "love thy neighbor as thy self."

      Yeah - lots of Bible illiteracy in the Bible Belt - that's for sure.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 5 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      I guess some of it is relative. I can't imagine sitting knitting watching a person be guillotined but women did

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Totally agree with you Wesman, and I bet your Governor and most of the bomb droppers regard themselves as religious - obviously didn't read the bit about 'thou shall not kill' in their trusty old book of rules. Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a thought provoking comment.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Well, I'm not so fortunate to live in a civilized society. I live in Texas - which is definitely NOT a civilized place by my own standards, as we have the dreaded capital punishment/death penalty and a wretched idiot as a Governor who can't even admit what the entire world knows - he's had innocent persons executed.

      Gosh, I couldn't read about all of the horrible ways to die - but it's plain that the world was and is a brutal place still.

      Imagine playing in the hills of Pakistan and some remote controlled aircraft drops bombs on you and your family.

      NUTS!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Nell, thanks for reading the hub and leaving a great comment. And I agree with you, the Romans could certainly be very creative when it came to torture and capital punishment

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, Wow! I have never heard of the The Poena Cullei

      a dog, snake monkey and cockerel, that's a bit mind boggling, however came up with that one? you can never accuse the romans of being lacking in imagination! fascinating stuff, thanks! rated up!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for reading about Roman executions festersporling, and glad to be able to feed your fascination!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Well Alastar, there is the old saying that if you point a finger at someone then there are still three fingers pointing back at you, but I guess that the Roman elite didn't see it that way!

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      Daniel Christian 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great information. I have always been fascinated by the Roman area and have read books and watched shows about it. Interesting about the Roman executions.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Exactly CM, great point. As far as barbarism went, it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. 410 CE anyone?

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Alastar, the irony is that Roman Citizens did regard themselves as the pinnacle of civilisation and that the rest of the world were barbarians. Thanks for visiting the hub and leaving a great comment.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Awesome article CM. Definitely not an era to be fooling around in. As horrible as the Roman executions could be, you have to hand it to them when it comes to ingenuity. Particularly with the things like the Poena Cullia. Roman history is a fave here mostly of course cause they left so much behind of themselves. Its something to ponder on how a civilization could be so enlightened in many ways yet be so barbaric at the same time. At any rate you've written an excellent article here, really enjoyed it- well, maybe enjoyed is the wrong word..lol- and have the vid marked to watch before long. The paintings a perfect choice too. Thanks CM!

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi prasetio, thanks for reading about Roman executions. Yes, it is a bit of a grim subject, but these things did happen and, unfortunately, still go on in some parts of the world today

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      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      My friend. You have informative hub about how the Romans executed people. It looks so scary. But this was a fact from the ancient history. Thanks for share with us. You have done a great job. Rated up!

      Prasetio

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for leaving such a detailed comment SanXuary. I think that one of the challenges of our modern societies, is that for the first time we have fit, healthy adults who do not work or contribute either through choice or because they cannot find employment, and are supported by the rest of the community. How this pans out in the future who knows?

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      SanXuary 5 years ago

      I find ancient Roman history very interesting in why it succeeded and why it eventually failed. It was completely based on the concept of citizenship and a cast system that was fully dependant on all levels of society. Unlike today the rich Roman had to maintain structure and live within all classes of society and this was a huge part of the success of Roman Society. Unlike today he was dependant on the poor and maintaining their lives within some bounds of life. A rich home was usually surrounded by all the other classes of society and they all owed their life to this structure. There were slums but these were usually made up of people hoping to enter the cast system. People would sell themselves into servitude in order to enter a higher level of society. The value of life had to be maintained but you had to have value in order to be in the system. It was a precarious balance with lots of cruelty but generally everyone understood it required a balance and maintaining such a balance required the ability to understand all classes of society. I bring this up because current society is almost the exact opposite. Very few neighbourhoods in ancient Rome lived in Beverly Hills communities. Instead it was a mansion surrounded by other classes who all depended on one another in order to survive.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Alicia, I agree with you that Roman executions were brutal, but I think that people back then were brought up in that culture and accepted the way things were. And there are still plenty of people today who agree with the death penalty and want criminals to be dealt with brutally

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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi drbj, thanks for the visit and I'm glad that you enjoyed reading about the bloodthirsty habits of the Ancient Romans. Maybe, you had a past life in Rome. Hail Caesar drbj?

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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Just History, thanks for reading the hub and leaving a comment. Yes, the subject is a bit gruesome, but also very interesting. Somehow, we all seem to be just that little bit fascinated by the darker sides of human history

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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi Gypsy Willow, I'm glad that I wasn't born then too. But some things don't change and the world still works in a way where some people try to arrange things so that they will have an easy and comfortable life, at the expense of of others who have to do the work for them. Executing those who don't comply is an extreme manifestation of this control. I think the key to a better society is that we all need to co-operate, contribute and also get some support, so society is balanced.

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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a fascinating hub, CMHypno. I appreciate that Roman executions were a way of maintaining social order and the Roman empire, but the executions still sound very gruesome, and horrific for the sufferers! Thank you for a very informative article.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Fascinating details, CM, about some of the bloodthirsty habits of ancient Romans. Happy I did not live in that time period. That is, I don't think I lived in that time period. Now where did I park my chariot?

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      An excellent hub, even if the subject matter is slightly repellant! As you say man has spent centuries finding ways to kill people under the auspices of a punishment.

      Voted up and Interesting

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      Gypsy Willow 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Glad I wasn't born in those days.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      You might have been born a male Roman Citizen homesteadbound, and then you would have thought that you were the best thing since a slice of bread and lord of all you beheld. Also slaves were an integral part of Roman society and a valuable commodity, so a lot of them were treated very well

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      Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

      I would certainly say that they did whatever it took to maintain that lifestyle. If you opposed them, it sounds like you also opposed living. I am so glad not to have lived back then when I would have been considered a piece of property that had to be obedient.

    • CMHypno profile image
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      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi homesteadbound. Thanks for reading about executions in Roman times. I think that it is difficult for us today to understand the moral codes of an ancient civilisation, but most Roman citizens viewed themselves as cultured, civilised people. The Romans created a whole complex system of laws and were very serious about maintaining the Roman way of life

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      Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

      This was very interesting and very enlightening. Very few people lived well during the time. Very well researched and presented.