As with the Venationes the imagination was the only limit to the type of show made of capital punishments. The number of convicts to be put to death, the time available and the physical strength and capability of the condemned were determining factors in the type of show to be staged.
Capital punishment was not the only form of retribution foreseen by Roman law. In this sense, Roman Law was intended to give even those with lesser means a fairness of treatment versus the authorities and law, in this sense it was a codified application of morality in ancient Rome. The code of law and the punishments is dished out was extremely rigorous, developed and codified. It also incorporated mechanisms for appeals against judgements and punishments. However, being well codified didn’t mean it was lenient or short of creativity in the variety of punishments available.
The types of capital punishment could range from the more ‘normal’ and less striking to outright sadistic practices. Punishments were not only for the lower classes either – there are plenty of recorded cases where senior figures and members of the upper class were put on trial and sentenced. Some examples include…
- Jailing and monetary fines were frequent, but by no the only punishments available.
- High profile figures such as the poet Ovid and the lawyer/politician Cicero were banished or even sentenced to “Aquae & Ignis Interdictio” – forbidding the individual from use of water or fire within the city confines.
- Even dead Emperors could be punished. This was the case of Domitian condemned to “Damnatio Memoriae” – removing inscriptions and other signs of their living past.
Types of Capital Punishments
As with the Venationes, the imagination was the only limit to the type of show made of capital punishments in ancient Rome. The number of convicts to be put to death, the time available and the physical strength and capability of the condemned were determining factors.
As with many things, the Romans were good at learning from and improving upon the customs of the people they came into contact with; gory executions and capital punishment were amongst these.
The earliest instance of blood-shed being associated with public gladiatorial exhibition was likely borrowed from the ancient Etruscans. They considered the shedding of blood as an essential votive part of important funerary processions. Honouring the deceased and the gods by shedding the blood of enemy captives. A rather horrifying looking divinity with a hammer would wait for them in the other world. Another practice borrowed and turned into part of the public shows: The mess would be cleaned up by a group of men walking around the arena with a hammer to make sure the victims were dead.
Capital punishment was clearly a normality within the military of the Roman army. The source of the English word “decimation” is quite literally to do with the practice of group punishment by killing every tenth man in a legion which had not performed as it should in battle.
In the old days of the Roman Republic, Scipio Aemilianus took on a slightly more exhibitionist approach as part of the celebratory events for his Triumph: In a manner he had learned from the defeated Carthaginians during the Punic wars, all the deserters and cowards of his army were tied to stakes and executed en masse by wild beasts.
Death by Animals
This was not so different to what was to become a relatively frequent form of capital punishment at the public circus – to be thrown to the mercy of wild beasts such as Lions. This was called “damnatio ad bestias“, which sounds horrifying even in English. The convict would be undressed, tied up, possibly to a post. The offense for which they were convicted to death would be made public, at which point a hungry carnivore would see to the execution.
Death at the stake
Once tied to a stake the simple and cheaper alternative was to simply set you on fire of course. Emperor Nero is said to have taken this to new heights with the Christians by using them as human torches light his gardens.
Perhaps the most well known ancient Roman punishment is that of Crucifixion – such as was inflicted on Jesus Christ and Saint Peter. It was a punishment reserved for slaves and persons of lesser social standing. The victim would be fixed to the stake and a cross bar, sometimes by way of nails through the feet and hands. Whilst it is very well known and documented, the actual physical archeological cases found are few, because most if not all of the materials involved are perishable; whilst nails were not always used to fix the victim, and if used could often be recovered and re-employed.
A recent archeological find of a Crucifixion: Possibly less than 5 cases have been found, of which one is in Italy and another in Israel; the latter having shards of Olive wood still in the bone. But possibly the best preserved evidence of a crucifixion was recently found in 2021 in England, at Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire. A 30 year old man’s right heel bone has been unearthed with a nail still through it.
Hanging, beheading, drawing and quartering:
These more normal forms of punishment, well known to us right through to Elizabethan times and beyond were of course well known, likely at the same level of normality as setting someone alight at the stake.
As a man of showbiz Nero went to town with his vendetta against Christians and Jews. The victims were wounded so as to shed blood and sewn into animal skins and left to be savaged by wild dogs. This form of punishment seemed to develop in later centuries, particularly in cases of parricide (killing your own father) called Poena Cullei. The murderer would be closed in a sack with various animals, such as a viper, a monkey, dog and cockerel and then rolled down a hill/into a river.
A gruesome mix of some of the above was the dreadful fate of St. Blandina in 177AD at Lugdunum (Lyons, France). According to the writer Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica), a mob became enraged with the Christians for untold reasons. Many Christians were rounded up, amongst whom was the slave Blandina. Unwilling to confess to the usual accusations held against Christians of incest and cannibalism or denounce her fellow Christians, she was tied to a stake and left for the wild beasts. However, the beasts would have none of it, so she was taken down, scourged, roasted on a grill, rolled up in a net and thrown to wild bulls to be tossed about. After which she was stabbed to death. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius was criticised for not having intervened.
The list of dreadful capital punishment in ancient Rome could go on. It is evident that the public exhibition of execution could be taken to varying degrees of baroque artistry and bizarre Gothic horror. At its extreme, the criminal could be forced act out a mythological event in a weird cocktail of cultural exploit, showbiz, and public justice, by execution of course. For example, reenacting the flight of Icarus complete with false wings, only to be dashed to death from a high point. Indeed a show of the lowest point of human depravity.
Ancient Roman capital punishments wasn’t just at the Colosseum
The Colosseum didn’t yet exist at the time of Nero, as it was built by his successor Vespasian to appease the people of Rome after Nero’s death. So whilst we would habitually associate these macabre executions with the Colosseum, they would probably have been held at the Circus Maximus, or perhaps on the Vatican hill where Nero’s circus used to stand. A variety of other locations would have also been quite normal, including public squares and indeed at temples and cemeteries as already mentioned, as part of funerary processions.
The Colosseum: | Amphitheatres in Ancient Rome| Structure of the Colosseum | The games at the Colosseum | Capital punishment | Organisation of the animal shows | Shows with Wild Beasts | Naval war games Naumachiae | Why the Colosseum? | Gladiators and Christians | Rise and Fall of the Gladiators | Pictures of the Colosseum |