Tarpeian Rock – Infamous Execution Place for Traitors, Criminals and the Disabled
“Don’t Toss Me, Bro!”
The Tarpeian Rock is a steep 75 foot cliff of the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, overlooking Rome. Murderers, traitors, perjurors, and larcenous slaves, if convicted, were flung from the cliff to their deaths. Those who had a mental or significant physical disability also suffered the same fate as they were thought to have been cursed by the gods.
To be hurled off the Tarpeian Rock was, in some sense, a fate worse than death, because it carried with it a stigma of shame. The standard method of execution in ancient Rome was by strangulation in the Tullianum. Rather, the rock was reserved for the most notorious traitors, and as a place of unofficial, extra-legal executions.
Bonus Post: The Gemonian Stairs! (sorry I couldn’t find any images)
The condemned were usually strangled before their bodies were bound and thrown down the stairs. Occasionally the corpses of the executed were transferred here for display from other places of execution in Rome. Corpses were usually left to rot on the staircase for extended periods of time in full view of the Forum, scavenged by dogs or other carrion animals, until eventually being thrown into the Tiber.
Death on the stairs was considered extremely dishonourable and dreadful, yet several senators and even an emperor met their demise here. Among the most famous who were executed on this spot were the prefect of the Praetorian Guard Lucius Aelius Sejanus and the emperor Vitellius. Sejanus was a former confidant of emperor Tiberius (Caligula’s uncle) who was implicated in a conspiracy in 31AD. According to Cassius Dio, Sejanus was strangled and cast down the Gemonian stairs, where the mob abused his corpse for three days. Soon after, his three children were similarly executed in this place.
Vitellius was a Roman general who became the third emperor in the so called Year of the Four Emperors in 69AD. He succeeded Otho upon his suicide on April 16, but lived to be emperor for only eight months. When his armies were defeated by those of Vespasian, he agreed to surrender but the Praetorian Guard refused to let him leave the city. On the entrance of Vespasian’s troops into Rome he was dragged out of his hiding-place, driven to the Gemonian stairs and struck down.