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20-03-2015, 00:35


The Romans had a rigid class structure that was reinforced by pieces of legislation that Augustus introduced when he became emperor, and methods of execution were keyed to this. The fate of a condemned nobleman was usually beheading, which was a swift death and a relatively more dignified one than the crucifixion, hanging, burning or various methods of starvation that befell the common criminal. Capital crimes in Rome at the beginning of the imperial age were, broadly, murder, treason, robbery and arson. This is much less severe than the British penal code in the years before 1832 when it is reckoned that there were 220 different offences carrying the death penalty on the statute book.

During the Republican period Roman slave-owners had absolute right of life and death over their slaves and could dispose of them at will. An owner would often choose to execute a slave in public as an example and a deterrent, and he would hire the services of a municipal undertaker who would carry out the execution and dispose of the body afterwards. An early first century BC inscription from Pozzuoli gives an account of how these executions were to be conducted.

If anyone wishes to have a slave - male or female - punished privately, he who wishes to have the punishment inflicted shall do as follows. If he wants to put the slave on the cross or fork, the contractor must supply the posts, chains, ropes for floggers and the Doggers themselves. The person having the punishment inflicted is to pay four sesterces for each of the operatives who carry the fork and the same for the Doggers and for the executioner.

The magistrate shall give orders for such punishments as he exacts in his public capacity, and when orders are given, (the contractor] is to be ready to exact the punishment. He is to set up crosses and supply without charge nails, pitch, wax, tapers and anything else that is necessary for this in order to deal with the condemned man. Again if he is ordered to drag away the corpse with a hook, the work gang is to be dressed in red and ring a bell while dragging away the body.

Damnatio Ad Bestias

From the second century BC a slave-owner also had the option of a form of punishment known as damnatio ad bestias {‘condemned to the beasts’), which at least gave the offender a slim chance of survival.

The earliest recorded instance of damnatio ad bestias was in 167 BC when Aemiiius Paullus had deserters from Rome’s auxiliary forces trampled to death by elephants after his victory over the Macedonian king, Perseus. Twenty-one years later his son, Scipio Aemiiius, celebrated his triumph over Carthage, which had resulted in the total destruction of the city in 146 BC, and he too ordered wild animals to be let loose on the recaptured deserters under his command. At this time such methods of execution seem to have been the punishment reserved exclusively for the military. Later the practice was extended to include common criminals.

Proof that the public enjoyed public executions can be found in the souvenir items and other artefacts that these events generated, such as a small terracotta statue from Kalaa Srira (modern Tunisia) that shows a man with his hands tied behind his back riding a bull and being mauled by a leopard. The Zliten mosaic from North Africa, which dates from the first or second century AD shows condemned men bound to stakes in small carts being attacked by beasts. Another mosaic from El DJem shows a criminal on foot, with arms bound, being pushed towards a leopard.

Emperors and the organizers of the games proved to be very resourceful in devising methods of execution purely on the basis of how entertaining they would be to the public. Crucifixion, which involves a lingering death sometimes lasting for days, was not credited as having great entertainment value as it was too slow. Burning, however, was usually very dramatic, as Tacitus (AD c. 56-c. 120) observed when he described the fate of the Christians scapegoated by Nero after the fire of AD 64:

Some were covered with skins of wild beasts and left to be devoured by dogs; others were nailed to crosses; numbers were burned alive and many, covered over with inflammable matter, were lighted up to serve as torches during the night.

A variation of the ‘burning torches' invention was the pyrricharii, a method that Plutarch and Martial both describe. The condemned prisoners had to wear costumes that had been pre-soaked in an inflammable liquid. They

This scene from the Zllten mosaic in Tripoli, which is thought to date from around the second century AD. shows an execution by wild animals {damnatio ad bestias). At the left, two condemned men have been tied to posts. One is being attacked by a large cat. The other is being wheeled out on a small cart to face attack by a leopard.

Then had to dance before the crowd and continue dancing until they dropped down dead after their clothing had been set on fire.

The mass execution of criminals in the arena was always greatest in time of war, because anyone involved in a revolt against Rome was considered to be guilty of a capital offence. After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 more than 2500 Jewish prisoners were condemned to death.

If an emperor really wanted to demonstrate his omnipotence he would heighten the dramatic effect of an execution by ordering a re-enactment of stories from Greek or Roman mythology, such as that of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten by an eagle while he was chained to a rock. Nero once ordered a prisoner to fly like Icarus and ended up covered in blood when the condemned man crash-landed in front of him. Tertullian tells of prisoners impersonating the god Attis, who was castrated, and Hercules, who burnt himself to death.

Other criminals were executed in a manner that reflected the crime. The leader of a band of brigands who had terrorized the area around Mount Etna in Sicily was sent to Rome to be executed as part of a gladiatorial show held in the Forum during the reign of Augustus. The Roman geographer Strabo (c. 63 BC-AD c. 21) witnessed his death:

1 saw him tom to pieces by wild beasts... I le was put onto a tall contraption as though on Etna. The contraption suddenly disintegrated and collapsed taking him down with it onto the fragile cages of animals set up beneath the contraption for that purpose.

If damnatio ad bestias did not appeal as a punishment then magistrates or slave-owners could send the wrongdoers into the arena to fight each other. The philosopher Seneca, writing some 35 years before the opening of the Colosseum, condemned this practice:

All previous fighting had been merciful by comparison. Now finesse is set aside and we have pure unadulterated murder. The combatants have no protective covering; their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. No blow falls in vain. This is what most people prefer to the regular contests, and even to those which are put on by popular request. And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armour? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.

In the morning men are thrown to lions and bears. At midday they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner is a man killed than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end every fighter dies... ‘Kill him,* they shout. ‘Beat him, bum him.’

In AD 61, however, the option of damnatio ad bestias was restricted when Nero’s lex Peironia prevented slave-owners from punishing their slaves in this way without a court order.

Disposing of the Bodies

The treatment of the corpses of people executed in the arena is well attested. They were invariably mutilated, the face smashed in. Bodies were collected from the arena by a man dressed as Charun, carrying a sledgehammer and a dagger. He would beat the man’s head in with his hammer, stab him and then summon the attendants, who were traditionally dressed in red and carried bells, to drag the body off with a giant hook.

What happened after the corpses were removed from the arena has provoked a great deal of debate amongst the scholars. Denying a man a proper burial was considered to be pan of the punishment, so there are few clues to be had in the cemeteries or other burial grounds. When the political reformer Tiberius Gracchus and three hundred of his supponers were assassinated in 133 BC the Senate refused to allow them to be buried and had all the corpses dumped into the River Tiber. It was a common fate. This is what happened to the emperor Vitellius in AD 69 according to Tacitus:

The soldiers bound his arms behind his back, put a noose around his neck and dragged him with tom garments and half naked to the Forum. All along the Sacred Way he was greeted with mockery and abuse, his head held back by the hair, as is common with criminals... He was tortured for a long time and then dispatched and dragged off with a hook to the liber.

The Christian Martyrs

The Romans tended not to discriminate in their attitude towards Christians and Jews. Both groups* refusal to honour Roman gods was regarded as treason. People from other religions were often willing to pay lip service to Rome, in which case Rome was generally willing to assimilate them. It was the exclusive character of Judaism and Christianity that gave them problems. The Romans believed that their gods had to be appeased by ritual and sacrifice and if the deities were not pleased they sent disasters such as plagues and earthquakes. And those who refused to perform the right rituals were often blamed for these calamities. As Tertullian put it: Tf the Tiber floods or the Nile fails to, the cry goes up: the Christians to the lion!’ The persecution of Christians started under Domitian, though it was not systematic to begin with, and continued with the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117), who tightened up the law and decided that those who refused to pay homage to the Roman gods should face the death penalty. However, Christians were not usually rounded up to be summarily executed but were carefully questioned and given every opportunity to comply with the edict. While there is some evidence that Christians were tortured during the course of these interrogations, a Roman governor in the provinces did not have the power to sentence them if they were Roman citizens - as St Paul reminded the centurion who arrested him in Jerusalem - but had to send them to Rome to be dealt with. This policy is confirmed in a letter that Pliny the Younger (AD c. 61-c. 112) wrote to Trajan in 112. Pliny was the governor of Bithynia in northwestern Asia Minor at this time and he wanted clarification on the correct procedure for dealing with the dissidents:

For the moment, this is the line 1 have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third rime, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.

In his reply Trajan tells Pliny to be tolerant:

These people must not be hunted down; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is lo be pardoned as a result of his repentance, however suspect his past conduct may be. Pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in ary accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite far from keeping with the spirit of our age.

This attitude seems to have been adopted by most Roman magistrates and is confirmed in many Christian accounts of martyrdom. The examining magistrate normally tried to get the accused to sacrifice to the emperor and exhibit some sign of loyalty. The Acts of the Martyrs record that in the case of St Polycarp (AD c. 69-c. 155), the bishop of Smyrna (Izmir), who was burnt to death, ‘the proconsul tried to persuade him and told him to have some compassion for his own age’, and at the trial of St Justin (AD c. 100-165) and his companions in Rome the prefect warns them, ‘If you do not obey you will be punished.’ The traditional Christian response was that they knew ‘only one Lord, King of Kings and Emperor of all peoples’ and this was totally unacceptable to the Romans. No doubt there were many Christians who were prepared to deny their faith when brought before the courts (as they were to do during the Reformation), but hundreds refused and finished up in the arena with the common criminals.

Such events are recorded in Christian writings. Eusebius of Caesarea (AD c. 264-c. 340) describes the martyrdom of Christians at Tyre where leopards, bears, wild boars and bulls were goaded with hot irons but to no avail:

The man-eating beasts for a considerable time did not dare to touch or even approach the bodies of chose who were dear to God but made their attacks on the others (beast-handlers) who presumably were provoking and urging them on from the outside; while the holy champions were the only ones they did not reach at all, though they stood naked, waving their hands to draw them on to themselves.

Naturally, the early Christian writers claim that this miracle was due to divine intervention. Eusebius continues: ‘Then at last, after the terrible

The martyrdom of St Ignatius in the arena, depicted in an illuminated manuscript of the Eastern Church, the Menohgium of Basil H, from the early eleventh century.

And varied assaults of these beasts, they were butchered with the sword.’ Christian persecution continued. Decius was the first emperor to instigate it as a matter of stated policy, during his reign from AD 249 to 251. Roman citizens were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the emperor and this involved making a sacrifice to the gods. Among those who refused to do so during this period was Pope Fabianus, who was executed. Christians went on suffering for their faith until the reign of Constantine the Great (AD 307-337). He was the first emperor to convert. He enacted the Edict of Toleration in AD 313, giving back to the Church the property that the state had confiscated, and made Christianity the official religion in AD 324. He was baptized a few weeks before he died in AD 337 and was buried in the church he had had built in Constantinople.

St Ignatius of Antioch

The Colosseum produced its first named Christian martyr, St Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, some time during the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117). Ignatius was arrested and interrogated in Antioch and when he refused to recant he was ‘condemned to the beasts’ and shipped off to Rome. He described his long journey in a series of letters (seven of them believed to be authentic), and in one of them he contemplates the fate that awaits him:

From Syria even to Rome I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated.

In many places along the route Christians gathered to support him but he declared his willingness to die and asked his followers not to try and dissuade him. No account of his ordeal in the arena of the Colosseum exists but it is reported that his remains were taken back to Antioch and interred there. The relics were returned to Rome in the fifth century on the orders of the emperor Theodosius II and they were placed in the former Temple of Fortune, which by then had been converted into a Christian church. Their final resting place in Rome, where they remain today, is the church of St Clement’s.