I’ve been doing some research on the Roman empire for my project for NaNoWriMo (no, it’s nothing solidified, it’s just an idea at the moment, we’ll see where it takes me).  One of the things I’ve learned is that the Romans were highly creative when it came to punishment.  This was definitely one way in which they kept control over their people – public executions would certainly curb any inclinations I had toward disobedience.  But, just how creative were these Romans?

Well, we know about the crucifixions – this is a horrifically slow and painful way to die.  Apparently the Romans may have gotten this idea from the Phoenicians.  Who knew?

When the jails got too full, they would clear them out by having the prisoners face each other in combat in the arenas.  The prisoners would not be armed or armored.  Seneca described it this way:

All niceties were put aside, and it was pure and simple murder. The combatants have absolutely no protection.  Their whole bodies are exposed to one another’s blows and thus each never fails to insure his opponent.  Most people in the audience prefer this type of match to the regular gladiators.  The spectators demand that combatants who have killed their opponents be thrown to combatants who will in turn kill them, and they make a victor stay for another slaughter.  For every combatant, therefore, the outcome is certain death. (as quoted in Egypt, Greece and Rome, Charles Freeman, p. 496).

What’s interesting to note about this is that the spectators are as bloodthirsty as the Roman government was.  Note that they “demand[ed] that combatants who have killed … be thrown to combatants who will in turn kill them…”.  The people of Rome seemed to thrive on the blood sport as much as fear it.  (Is this any different than us today?  What about those shows on Spike tv, like Ultimate Fighter?  Are we more or less “civilized” than the Romans?)

The Romans were inventive, as I mentioned earlier.  Apparently Tiberius “would induce his victims to drink long and heavily and then suddenly have their privates tied up so that they suffered agonies both from the constriction of the strings and the distension of their bladders.” (as quoted in The History of Torture by Daniel Mannix, p. 29)  It makes one squirm just to read about it.  Is this the capriciousness of an all powerful leader who has too much time on his hands?  Or is it something more indicative of human nature?  One shudders to think.

What other methods did the Romans use?  Well:

  • Claudius would have criminals tied to tables and tortured so he could watch while eating (Ugh! doesn’t that put off the appetite?)
  • Christian martyrs would be cooked.  (what is it with the Romans and food-like settings?)
  • They might coat the victim with something sweet, be tied up and then tortured to death by insects. (again with the food)

Some others are too gruesome to list here.  If you’re interested, I’d definitely recommend getting Mannix’s History of Torture – I found the above items just within the first 40 pages, and the book goes on another 200 or so.  Happy reading!


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