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Tarpeian Rock: The Cliff Romans Threw Their Traitors From

The ancient Romans used a variety of horrific methods to execute those condemned to death for crimes ranging from rape and murder, to adultery, libel, and treason. One method called poena cullei, or “penalty of the sack”, involved sewing up the thoroughly beaten but still alive accused in a leather sack along with an assortment of live animal, most commonly a cock, a dog, a monkey and a serpent, and then throwing the sack into water. Another method of execution, reserved for the worst criminals, runaway slaves, and Christians, involved throwing the accused in a pit to be devoured by wild animals. The Colosseum was often used for this type of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias, or “condemnation to beasts”.

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Some form of capital punishments were reserved for specific crimes, like burying alive, which was sentenced to Vestal Virgins who were found violating the oath of celibacy, and crucifixion, which was regarded such a painful and humiliating way to die that Roman citizens were generally spared of this brutal form of punishment.

One method of execution, reserved for murderers and traitors, was to hurl them off a tall cliff. The cliff of the southern summit of Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Roman Forum in Ancient Rome, was ideal for such barbarous acts. This cliff, called the Tarpeian Rock, is named after a famous traitor who tried to sell Rome to her enemies in return for gold, and instead got killed by the very enemies she tied to betray to. Her name is Tarpeia, and she was the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, the commander in charge of the Capitoline Hill’s defenses.

According to one version of the legend, Tarpeia approached the Sabine king Titus Tatius when he attacked Rome in the 8th century BC, and offered to open the gates of the citadel in exchange for the gold bracelets they wore in their arms. In some versions, it was the Sabine king who, sensing greed in her eyes, bribed her to open the citadel gates. After Tarpeia allowed the Sabine warriors to gain passage into the city, instead of showering her with gold, the Sabines struck her with their shield and crushed her to death. Apparently, even the Sabines loathed her treachery and punished her for betraying her own people.

Legend tells us that Tarpeia’s body was buried beneath the cliff that bears her name, and for centuries afterwards, all notorious traitors were thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, a fate that was considered worse than death because it carried the stigma of shame.

Execution by hurling off the Tarpeian Rock continued till the 1st century CE, until it was prohibited by law.

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Image credit: Quora

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Google Street View image of Tarpeian Rock.

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