How and Why the Romans Executed People
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?
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.
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.
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.
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