Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern – 13 August 2011

Rome’s death penalty

Rome’s death penalty

The government has set up a system of e-petitions which, if they garner a million signatures, may — or may not — trigger a debate in parliament. The capital punishment lobbies, pro- and anti-, immediately sprang into action.

Ancients would have been amazed. Greeks and Romans happily slaughtered each other without giving it a second thought. In 71 bc, Crassus ordered his lieutenant Mummius to shadow Spartacus, leader of a slave revolt, but not engage with him. Mummius disobeyed and was so badly beaten that many of his men ran for it. Plutarch continues: ‘Crassus split up the 500 men who had been first to flee into 50 groups of ten. One from each of the 50 groups was selected by lot and put to death, reviving an ancient form of punishment last dealt out long ago. It is a disgrace to die in this way, a punishment with many horrible and disgusting features attached. The whole army watches.’ It was called ‘decimation’.

After the Ides of March 44 bc, the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar were officially congratulated, discussed the matter with the Senate and had dinner with Marc Antony. In the aftermath, Antony, his sidekick Lepidus and Caesar’s heir, the 19-year-old Octavian (the future Augustus), formed a coalition and agreed to the murder of mutual enemies. Antony demanded the head and hands of his bitter rival Cicero, and when he got them, laughed out loud and had them nailed up in the Forum.

And these were Romans. Foreign enemies were give very short shrift, and the compliment was repaid. In Asia in 88 bc, Mithradates did a ‘Sicilian Vespers’ one night on 80,000 Romans there.

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