The executions that took place inside the arenas of Ancient Rome were never quick and easy. They were, instead, a public display of cruelty and savage creativity. Brutal executions were meant to keep the public in line and to show those who stepped out of line what would happen to them if they did not immediately change their ways.
Public executions were intentionally meant to be humiliating and degrading to the condemned. There was to be absolutely no honor in his or her death. This is why criminals, male and female, were often brought into the arena in the nude. It was to further shame them in the eyes of the Roman people.
10. Net and Bull
Animals played a large part in many of Rome’s executions. Amphitheaters across the Roman Empire had been built to hold bears, leopards, bulls, alligators, and other deadly animals, and they were all used, at one point or another, to execute criminals.
One popular method of execution involved placing a criminal in a net. The net was either hung in the air or was left on the ground and a bull was brought out. The animal attendants, all slaves, would then antagonize the bull until it viscously attacked the netted criminal.
After the criminal had been flung about and gored by the animal’s horns, he or she (women were not excluded from this form of execution) was then taken out of the netting. The throat was then sliced to further ensure total death.
Besides being placed inside a net, female criminals might also be tied to the bull horns in order to be gored to death.
9. Death by the Sword
The sentence of ad gladium was death by the sword. Now this could mean just about anything, as long as the prisoner was killed with a sword.
In early Rome, beheadings were rather common, but when it came to presenting bloodshed during the games at the arena, the people demanded brutal deaths that included suffering and lots of bloodshed.
Sometimes criminals were made to face off with a gladiator. These events showed desperate men, sometimes armed and sometimes unarmed, who had no choice but to either confront the fully armed gladiator or run around inside the arena until they were captured by the blade.
Criminals and non-citizens of Rome were forced to face humiliating deaths. It was part of their punishment, as a quick death was not enough to show the enemies of Rome that traitors and slaves were at the complete mercy of the ruling class. The emperor controlled both the lives of its people and their deaths, and it was done without mercy.
Crucifixion is perhaps the most well known form of Roman execution. When it came to the arena and the exhibition of death, bringing about the end of a criminal or slave had to excite the crowd, and crucifixion could deliver the wow of mortal suffering to the viewers.
Death by crucifixion in the arenas was, no doubt, extremely painful. Oftentimes, the criminal’s legs were broken before being suspended. When the criminal was in position, he would slowly die by asphyxiation and blood loss.
Despite its popularity, archaeologists have only discovered the remains of two people who died by crucifixion. Both of the remains were male and both showed evidence of having a nail driven through their feet to a wooden cross. There was no evidence that a nail had been driven through their hands or wrists, so it is believed that their arms were tied into position.
7. Trampled to Death
Elephants were often featured in the amphitheaters across the Roman Empire. Sometimes they were simply put on display and a few of the elephants were trained to do tricks for the crowd. Elephants were also featured in the great beast hunts inside the arena where emperors and other members of the ruling elite would kill them with spears.
Because of their size and stature, elephants were also used in executions. For example, in 167 BC, general Aemilius Paullus had elephants trample the captured men who had attempted to desert his army.
This form was execution was also used in the arenas. Slaves and criminals were thrown to the enraged and frightened elephants to be trampled to death. Any who survived the trampling would have their throats cut.
Being trampled by elephants was considered to be an undignified death among the Romans and a well deserved form of execution for the traitors of Rome.
6. The Fire Dance
Death by fire, a sentence called crematio or ad flammas, would have been a horrible vision of pain and suffering within the arena. Slaves and criminals who were given this sentence were made to wear colorful clothing that had been soaked in a flammable substance. Then, while standing in the center of the arena, they would have been ignited.
As their clothes burned, the victims were forced to dance for the Roman public as the pain of fire burned away their flesh. Their shrieks of pain would have been horrifying to us, but to the ancient Romans, the death cries were not only entertainment, but the auditory proof of a well deserved death.
Under Nero, death by fire took on new heights of cruelty. For the unfortunate people condemned by fire, Nero had them wear clothing of papyrus dipped in wax and resin. The victims were essentially turned into human candles and when they were lit, they burned brightly.
5. Self Castration or Death
Sometimes those who were sentenced to death were given an alternative, although that alternative was never very pleasant. For example, one convict was given the choice between being burned alive or sticking his hand into a fire to reenact a scene from Roman’s history. The convict, as would any sensible person, choose to stick his hand in the flame in the hopes of delaying his eventual death.
Self castration was also offered as an alternative to a painful death in the arena. Wanting reenactments of the mythical, self castrating Attis, a slave or criminal might be offered the role. The only way historians believe that the victim would have agreed to such a terrible fate was by offering the victim a choice. Either die by the hands of absolute cruelty or perform this terrible deed which might allow you to live the rest of your life as a slave and eunuch.
4. Mock Battles
The executions of prisoners of war, criminals, and slaves took place between the morning beast hunts and the afternoon gladiator events. There were, under normal circumstances, just a small group of people to be executed. These small groups of convicts would die together, alone, or in pairs.
However, on rare, extravagant occasions, a large group of people, usually prisoners of war, were scheduled to die in the arena. During these great events, the head of the event, usually the emperor, would plan out immense battle reenactments that required anywhere from hundreds to even thousands of victims.
Mock land and naval battles were staged, using the prisoners of war as sacrificial players. The battles were to the death and always drew a huge crowd because the outcomes of the battles were unpredictable.
3. Mythological Executions
In the ancient Roman mind, it was not enough to simply read the myths of Greece or act them out on the stage. Instead, the Romans chose to have the myths reenacted in the flesh and blow for blow.
For female criminals who were sentenced to die in the arena, this often meant reenacting the sex scenes. Unfortunately, those sex scenes included Pasiphae and the bull, as well as a scene from The Golden Ass by Apuleius.
In the words of Martial, a Roman poet who witnessed one of these arena events, “Believe that Pasiphae was mated to the Dictaean bull; we have seen it, the old legend has won credence.”
As for one of the events involving Lucian the ass and a condemned woman, a wild panther was set loose after the deed was done and put a final end to the bound woman.
2. Killed by Wild Cats
When criminals were to be executed by wild beasts, a sentence called ad bestias, and it could be performed in a number of ways.
In one account of death by beasts, the murderer was strapped to a trolley and placed before a leopard. An arena slave cracked his whip and drove the wild cat into a maddened frenzy. It grabbed the criminal’s head between its giant paws and proceeded to bite and claw him until his blood poured out of his body. Being tied in place, there was no way the man could fight back, and it forced him to endure the true horrors of his punishment.
In other accounts of wild cats used in executions, the victim was tied to a post that had been set up in the arena for such events. The cat would be let loose and the victim shredded to the cheers of the crowd.
Sometimes criminals were handed wooden swords and were sent into the arena to fight off a wild animal who had been deliberately angered by the arena slaves. These criminals had no hope of beating back the animals with a wooden sword, but the moment of death would be prolonged as the victims desperately tried to fight back against jaws and claws.
One method of execution that was favored by the audience was to simply allow the criminal to run around the arena. The wild cat or cats were set free to chase after the victim until he was caught and sufficiently mauled and battered.
There were detailed specifications on how long a death by beast should take. Because there were plenty of executions to be completed within a certain amount of time, executions by animals could not take too long. On the other hand, they did not want the deaths to be too quick.
Those who managed to survive a wild cat attack usually had their throats sliced open so that there was no hope in escaping death.
1. Under Rule of the Pope
It would be erroneous to blame all of the brutal executions that took place in the Colosseum on the ancient Romans. While arguments can be made that the Pagan executions were beyond brutal, the same can be said of the executions that occurred after Rome had been Christianized.
By the 700s AD, the once great Colosseum had fallen into a terrible condition. It was no longer a place for the games, but a place for public punishment and execution. For example, under Pope Stephen III, a criminal was taken to the Colosseum and had his eyes and tongue savagely ripped out.
Eventually, executions were performed elsewhere and, for a while, the Colosseum became an open market. Later still, it was used for dwelling spaces and workshops. Other amphitheaters throughout the former Roman Empire were turned into safe havens, homes, and fortresses. Some were even turned into places of worship where the Christian religion would obliterate the region’s Pagan past.