The Ancient Romans are notorious for their creative methods of killing people: crucifixion, decimation, and the dreadful damnatio ad bestia ….
However, the execution reserved for the worst crimes, was being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, a cliff on the Capitoline Hill that was named after the myth of Tarpeia. Used throughout much of the empire, ancient sources mention an interesting array of people that met their end on the Rock.
Place of Killing
The Tarpeian Rock (or Saxum Tarpeium, as it was known in Latin), was part of the Capitoline Hill on the west side of the city of Rome (Coarelli 2014: 29). For some time its location was disputed because Dionysius of Halicarnassus (7.35.4) described it as overlooking the Forum (Cadoux 2008: 215). This resulted in different interpretations, but today we believe it was on the south-east side of the Arx peak (see Figure 1).
This placed the Rock above the Roman prison near the Senate House, where it could be reached by the Gemonian Stairs (or the Scalae Gemoniae). These stairs went up to the Capitol from the Forum and were used to expose the bodies of executed criminals (which provided a convenient opportunity for their enemies to abuse them) before they were dragged to the Tiber and thrown in (Wiseman 1979: 45; Cadoux 2008: 215, 218; Suet. Tib. 61; Cass. Dio 58.11.5).
No wonder they were known as the Stairs of Wailing.
But not only was the Rock readily accessible from the prisons, its visibility meant it also doubled as a source of ‘amusement’ for the Romans, much like the Colosseum in later times. At the very least the ancient writers were familiar enough with it that they only needed to say someone ‘was flung from the rock’ to describe an execution on the Tarpeian Rock (Livy 5.47).
A name most woeful…
The Tarpeian Rock was named after the myth of Tarpeia, in the ancient sources at least as some scholars have theorised Tarpeia was named after the Rock (Henry & James 2012: 90).
This myth is set in the time of Romulus and Remus and has many versions, however, at its core, it’s a tale about the traitor Tarpeia who, while Rome was at war with the Sabines (a tribe neighbouring Rome), let the Sabines onto the Capitol ((Henry & James 2012: 90).
Different versions of the myth have different reasons for Tarpeia’s betrayal of Rome. Varro makes her a Vestal Virgin, other have her betraying the city because she fell in love with the enemy leader, and Piso (quoted in Dionysius of Halicarnassus) makes her a patriot when she tries to make the enemy give her their shields (Henry & James 2012: 90).
The earliest surviving sources say that Tarpeia betrayed the Romans for gold – in Livy’s telling of the myth she asked for what they had ‘on their left arms’, meaning the gold ornaments they wore. But there was some confusion as the Sabines actually wore their shields on their left arms and they ‘crushed her to death with their shields’ (Livy 1.11; see Figures 2 & 3).
Whatever the version of the story, it seems she was forever condemned in the minds of later generations, who decided to make her the namesake of the rock they threw their traitors from.
It’s all in the execution
The Tarpeian Rock itself was used for executing a variety of criminals; the sources mostly mention traitors meeting their end there, which, given its namesake, makes sense (Sumi 2011: 214; Cic. Att. 14.15; Sen. Ira 1.16.5).
But it wasn’t all theirs. The Twelves Tables, Rome’s first code of law, says that slaves caught committing ‘manifest theft’ would be thrown down as well (Bradley 2011: 243), and they were sometimes accompanied by those who lied in court (Cadoux 2008: 216).
The earliest that we hear of it being used as a place of execution is in the mythical time of Romulus (about 750BC), when he ordered some unfortunate bandits be flung from the Rock (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 2.56.3). However, as the existence of Romulus is highly uncertain, a more historical first recorded use (and one of the earliest recorded uses of a criminal condemned of treason being killed here) was a bit later in 485 BCE.
Interestingly, in 485 BCE, when Spurius Cassius Viscellinus was found guilty of treason and thrown from the Tarpeian Rock (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 8.78.5), a group of people who had either touched or refused the orders of the tribunes of the plebs (who, as you may know, were untouchable and unchallengeable, or sacrosanct) joined Viscellinus (Cadoux 2008: 216-7).
Almost a century later in 390 BCE, a sentry was thrown for laziness after the Gauls had been defeated and driven from the Capitol (Livy 5.47), and a M. Manlius was thrown in 384 BCE after he was condemned for trying to establish monarchy in Rome – one of the highest forms of treason a Roman could commit (Cadoux 2008: 216; Eder 2005: 26; Gell. NA 17.21.24; Livy 6.20).
Following these events the next time we hear about the Tarpeian Rock is during the Hannibalic War, and then it is used (or used as a threat) fifteen times until the reign of the Emperor Claudius (CE 41- 54). Its victims were accused of various crimes – deserting the army, escaping from jail, as well as four different counts of treason (one of which was being a follow of Sejanus). The last recorded execution was for treason against Claudius in CE 43 (Cadoux 2008: 216-7; Cass. Dio 60.18.4).
So if we count from Viscellinus’ death, this results in a time of known use of 527 years. Compared to the Gemonian Stairs, one of the geographically nearest punishments used in the Roman justice system, which was used from CE 28 to 268 or 240 years.
It was a frighteningly long run.
Strangely enough, one of the most famous Romans to ever be executed around the Capitoline Hill was not recorded as being thrown from the Rock. This infamous person is Lucius Aelius Sejanus. He was the commander of the Emperor’s bodyguard, the Praetorians, in the time of Tiberius (Tac. Ann. 1.24), and the Emperor trusted Sejanus to such a degree he described him as ‘the partner of [his] labours’ (Tac. Ann. 4.2).
But, it seems Tiberius’ trust was misplaced.
When Tiberius’ son, Drusus, was poisoned the ancient sources painted Sejanus as the primary suspect. Although it is important to look at them critically as they could also be trying to slander his memory, there are other instances of deception. After Tiberius left Rome to live on Capri, Sejanus purged the city of his rivals to enrich and empower himself (the sources also portray Sejanus as a particularly greedy fellow). It reached the point where many important men of the city treated Sejanus as Emperor and Cassius Dio reports that Tiberius never returned Rome (58.1).
During Sejanus’ period in power, Tacitus recorded that the only way to win his favour was with criminal acts (Ann. 4.68). This might be part of the reason why Tiberius suddenly ordered for Sejanus to be executed, however, no one knows exactly why he was executed although treason is frequently mentioned in the sources. Cassius Dio also offers an interesting alternative, stating Tiberius fabricated charges to get rid of Sejanus (Boddington 1963: 5).
Whatever the reason, Sejanus, along with his children, were thrown into prison, probably the one below the Rock mentioned above (Cadoux 2008: 217-8). They were then killed. Cassius Dio is our most extensive surviving account of this event and does not describe how they died, which means we have no evidence they were thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.
Nevertheless, he does record what happened next and that does involve something even more dreadful – the ‘Stairs of Wailing’, the Gemonian Stairs.
The bodies of Sejanus and his children (his wife committed suicide after she learned of her children’s deaths) were thrown down the Stairs and left there (see figure 4). Sejanus was such a disgrace to the Romans that they reportedly left their mutilated bodies there for three days (Cass. Dio 58.11). The bodies were then dragged with hooks and thrown into the Tiber.
Other sources also report a supposed omen of Sejanus’ fall when he was still in power. They write that after performing a sacrifice at the Capitoline Hill, his bodyguards lost him in the crowd, they went down the path leading to the prison from the Hill and his bodyguards ending up falling down the Gemonian Stairs! (Cass. Dio 58.5).
Ultimately the Tarpeian Rock was involved in this affair. After Sejanus’ death a large number of his supporters were killed in various ways, some died in prison, but a number were also thrown from the Rock – and all the bodies were then thrown into the Tiber (Cass. Dio 58.15).
So much for Sejanus.
The Tarpeian Rock was evidently a solemn place for the Romans. A place of death, a symbol of the danger of betrayal and unmistakably connected with the woman who sold out their great city.
Visible from the central meeting place in Rome, it could also serve as a reminder of the complex history of the Roman people. Its symbolism went further still. Being on the same hill as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, a symbol of their power, the Rock shows how the Roman Empire and violence were inexorably connected.
Cicero, Epistulae ad Atticum 1908 trans. E. Shuckburgh.
Cassius Dio, Roman History 1914 trans. E. Cary.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 1937 trans. E. Cary.
Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 1927 trans. J. C. Rolfe.
Livy, History of Rome 1905 trans. C. Roberts.
Seneca the Younger, De Ira 1900 trans. A. Stewart.
Suetonius, Vita Tiberii in De vita Caesarum 1913 trans. J. C. Rolfe.
Tacitus, Annales 1925 trans. J. Jackson.
Boddington, A. 1963. ‘Sejanus. Whose Conspiracy?’ The American Journal of Philology 84.1: 1-16.
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Sumi, G. S. 2011. ‘Topography and Ideology: Caesar’s Monument and the Aedes Divi Iulii in Augustan Rome’ The Classical Quarterly 61.1: 205-229.
Eder, W. 2005. ‘Augustus and the Power of Tradition’ in Karl Galinsky (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus, Cambridge University Press:13-32.
Wiseman, T. P. 1979. ‘Topography and Rhetoric: The Trial of Manlius’ Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 28.1: 32-50.