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Scalae Gemoniae: The Stairs of Death

Not too far from Tarpeian Rock, a cliff on Capitoline Hill in the center of Rome, where convicted criminals were once flung to their deaths, there stood another gruesome execution site. It was a flight of stairs leading from the Arx of Capitoline Hill down to the Roman Forum below. Near the stairs stood Mamertine Prison, where many of the criminals who met horrific deaths at the stairs were imprisoned.

Gemonian stairs

A section of the Gemonian stairs in Rome. Photo: RussieseO/Shutterstock.com

The Gemonian stairs, or Scalae Gemoniae, were constructed at the turn of the first century, possibly by Emperor Augustus, but it was during the time of his successor Tiberius, that the stairs started playing the infamous role. Tiberius had many of his political opponents, including Lucius Sejanus, who tried to conspire against him, executed at the stairs.

Falling down a flight of stairs by itself was seldom fatal, so the condemned was usually strangled, then their lifeless bodies bound and thrown down the stairs. The bodies remained at the bottom of the stairs for a few days until they started to rot or were partially scavenged by dogs and vultures. When Lucius Sejanus’s body came tumbling down the stairs, the frenzied crowd themselves tore it to pieces. The corpses were then dragged off with a hook and thrown into the Tiber.

After Tiberius’s death in 37 AD, the practice of execution on the stairs became less frequent, although the stairs continued to be used in this fashion throughout the imperial period. One famous victim of the stairs was emperor Vitellius. During the brutal battle for Rome between Vitellius' forces and the armies of Vespasian, in 69 AD, Vitellius was dragged out of his hiding place and driven to the Gemonian stairs, where he was tortured to death. His body was then flung down the stairs where it was attacked by Rome’s residents. Indeed, getting executed and abused on the stairs was a matter of great shame and dishonor for the dead.

execution of Vitellius

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome, painting by Georges Rochegrosse (1883).

Ironically, when Tiberius himself was murdered—smothered with a pillow in his sleep by Caligula and his associates—people gathered around the stairs and chanted “Tiberius to the Tiber” and called for exposure of his corpse upon the stairs. The stairs frequently became the site for public demonstrations and protests against the state. When Roman statesman Gnaeus Piso was suspected of murdering Tiberius’s adopted son Germanicus, an accomplished commander, the enraged populace, unable to get their hands upon Piso, dragged his statues instead to the stairs and performed a symbolic execution.

After the execution of emperor Vitellius and the subsequent violation of his body at the stairs, we hear little about the ‘Stairs of Mourning’. Emperor Domitian, who ascended the throne in 81 AD, gave criminals the opportunity to choose the manner of their own deaths, and perhaps even prohibited mistreatment of the bodies at the stairs. But when Decebalus, who successfully prevented a Roman invasion in the reign of Domitian, was eventually captured in 106 AD, the then Emperor Trajan had Decebalus decapitated and his head was thrown down the stairs. By then, such spectacles had become a curiosity rather than occasions for collective violence that accompanied the death of Sejanus and Vitellius.

The Gemonian stairs no longer exists, but their location roughly coincides with the current Via di San Pietro in Carcere, past the ruins of the Mamertine prison.

Gemonian stairs

Map of the Roman Forum with Scalae Gemoniae highlighted in red.

Gemonian stairs

The Gemonian stairs went up this street. Photo: Google Street View

References:
# William D. Barry, Exposure, Mutilation, and Riot: Violence at the "Scalae Gemoniae" in Early Imperial Rome, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20204211

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