Executions as Mythical Re-enactments

Warning: This chapter contains graphic descriptions of violence.

A particularly gruesome form of execution involved making the condemned criminal play a role in a mythic re-enactment. A form of this was inflicted on the bandit Selurus, who was brought to Rome and executed on a wooden platform made to look like Mount Aetna:

And recently, in my own time,[1] a certain Selurus, called the “son of Aetna,” was sent up to Rome because he had put himself at the head of an army and for a long time had overrun the regions round about Aetna with frequent raids; I saw him torn to pieces by wild beasts at an appointed combat of gladiators in the Forum; for he was placed on a lofty scaffold, as though on Aetna, and the scaffold was made suddenly to break up and collapse, and he himself was carried down with it into cages of wild-beasts — fragile cages that had been prepared beneath the scaffold for that purpose.

Strabo, Geography 7.2

The poet Martial records several far more elaborate executions in his Book of Spectacles (originally written for Titus’ games for the opening of the Colosseum, he revised it and it was presented to Domitian in 81 CE).

V Believe that Pasiphae was mated to the Cretan bull: we have seen it, the old-time myth is now believed![2] And let not long ago time, Caesar, marvel at itself: the arena makes real for you whatever Fame sings of.

VII Just as Prometheus[3] chained on a Scythian crag fed the untiring vulture with his too prolific heart, so Laureolus,[4] hanging on a real cross, defenceless gave up his guts to a Caledonian bear. His mangled limbs lived on, though the parts dripped gore, and in all his body there was nowhere a body’s shape. He finally won a deserved punishment: the guilty man had cut a parent’s or a master’s throat with his sword, or, in his insanity, had robbed a temple of its piled up gold, or had secretly set a savage torch to you, Rome.[5] Accursed, he had outdone the crimes ancient legends tell told; in him that which had been a show before was punishment.

VIII Daedalus, now you are being mangled by a Lucanian boar,[6] how you wish you now had your wings!

XVlB A bull carried Europa along fraternal seas; but now a bull has carried Alcides[7] to the stars. Compare now, Fame, the bulls of Caesar and of Jupiter: the burden was the same, yet Caesar’s bull threw his higher.

XXI The arena has shown to you, Caesar, whatever Rhodope saw, it is said, on the Orphic stage.[8] Cliffs crept close and a marvellous wood moved swiftly on, one such as men think the grove of the Hesperides was. Every kind of wild beast was there, mixed in the herd and above the Orpheus many birds hovered – but he fell, mauled by an ungrateful bear. This was the only thing which did not correspond to the legend.

XXlB When the earth yawned suddenly and sent out a she-bear to attack Orpheus, the bear came from Eurydice.[9]

XXV Stop wondering that the night-time wave spared you, Leander[10] – it was Caesar’s wave.

XXV B While bold Leander was swimming to his sweet love and his weary head was now being engulfed by the swelling waters, in misery (or it is said) he spoke to the surging waves: ” Spare me while I  go to her, overwhelm me when I return.”

XXVI A trained bevy of Nereids played along the sea and danced on the yielding waters with their varied arrangements. A trident threatened with straight spikes, an anchor with a curved one: we  thought we saw an oar, and we thought we saw a boat, and that the Spartan[11] star glittered in welcome to  the seamen, and sails filled wide for all to see.  Who imagined such marvellous art in liquid waves?  These pastimes either Thetis taught or learned herself.

Martial, On Spectacles

Not all re-enactments involved Greek myth: some also involved people playing the role of figures from Roman legend as in the following poem about a criminal being forced to play the role of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, a legendary Roman who thrust his hand into a sacrificial fire after being captured by Rome’s enemies when on a mission to assassinate the enemy leader: he did this as a way to show them how little Romans valued their lives or cared about pain:

Mucius Scaevola

The spectacle which is now presented to us in Caesar’s arena, was the great glory of the days of Brutus. See how bravely the hand bears the flames. It even enjoys the punishment, and reigns in the astonished fire! Scaevola himself appears as a spectator of his own act, and applauds the noble destruction of his right hand, which seems to luxuriate in the sacrificial fire; and unless the means of suffering had been taken away from it against its will, the left hand was still more boldly preparing to meet the vanquished flames. I am unwilling, after so glorious an action, to inquire what he had done before; it is sufficient for me to have witnessed the fate of his hand.

Martial Epigrams 8.30

If that Mucius, whom we recently saw in the arena in the morning, and who shoved his hand into the blaring fire, appears to you to be a man of patience, fortitude, and endurance, you have no more sense than the people of Abdera; for when a man is commanded, with the alternative of the pitched shirt before his eyes, to burn his hand, it would be more courageous to say, “I will not burn it!”

Martial, Epigrams 10.25

 Tertullian raged[12] against these mythic re-enactments (along with other things, such as farces)

Others of your writers in their depravity even amuse you by vilifying the gods. Look at those elegant writings of your Lentuli and Hostilii, whether in the jokes and tricks it is the mimes or your gods which make you laugh, [writing likes] Anubis the Adulterer, and Mr. Luna,[13] Diana Whipped, and Reading of the Will of Jupiter Deceased, and Three Mocked and Hungry Herculeses. Your dramatic literature, too, depicts all the sins of your gods. The Sun mourns his offspring cast down from heaven to your pleasure; Cybele sighs after the scornful shepherd without a blush from you;[14] you tolerate Jupiter’s misdeeds appearing on stage, and the shepherd judging Juno, Venus, and Minerva.[15] Then, again, when the face of one your gods sits on a disreputable and infamous head, when an impure body of someone and up for the art in all effeminacy represents a Minerva or a Hercules, is not the majesty of your gods insulted and their deity dishonoured? Yet you not merely look on, but applaud. You are, I suppose, more devout in the arena, where after the same fashion your deities dance on human blood, on the pollutions caused by inflicted punishments, as they act their themes and stories, doing their turn for the wretched criminals, except that these, too, often put on divinity and actually play the very gods. We have seen in our day a representation of the mutilation of Attis, that famous god of Pessinus, and a man burnt alive as Hercules. We have made merry amid the ludicrous cruelties of the noonday exhibition, at Mercury examining the bodies of the dead with his hot iron; we have witnessed Jupiter’s brother, mallet in hand, dragging out the corpses of the gladiators.[16] But who can go into everything of this sort?

Tertullian, Apology 15.4-6


Media Attributions

  1. c. 35 BCE.
  2. Pasiphae was the wife of Minos, king of Crete. As a punishment to Minos she was forced to fall in love with a bull by the god Neptune. She mated with him after the craftsman Daedalus built a hollow wooden cow for her to hide in. The child of this union was the Minotaur. 
  3. As a punishment for stealing fire and giving it to mankind, Jupiter chained the god Prometheus to a rock; every day a vulture ate his liver, which grew back in the night.
  4. He was a legendary Roman bandit; there was a mime named after him
  5. Arson was considered a particularly heinous crime in Rome because of the great amount of damage it could cause.
  6. Lucania is a region in the South of Italy; densely wooded, it was known for its wild boars.
  7. Alcides = Hercules. Europa was a princess who was abducted by Jupiter in the form of a white bull; he carried her from Asia to Crete.
  8. The mountain of Rhodope in Thrace was associated with the mythical poet Orpheus, who was said to be able to charm wild animals with his song. In this re-enactment it seems as if a condemned prisoner was made to play the role of Orpheus, eventually being mauled by a bear.
  9. It is likely that XXI and XXIB were originally parts of the same poem. Eurydice was Orpheus’ wife, whom he tried unsuccessfully to rescue from the underworld. 
  10. This and the following were part of a naumachia, rather than an event in the Colosseum. Part of the show was presumably someone representing Leander re-enacting his mythic swim across the Hellespont to his beloved Hero.
  11.   The stars of Castor and Pollux, gods worshipped by sailors.
  12.   I suspect that at least 50% of Tertullian’s waking hours were spent raging about something.
  13. The moon goddess, Luna, was not usually a man. As might be guessed by the fact that she was a a goddess
  14. Attis; he was a shepherd who was driven mad as a punishment by the goddess Cybele. In his madness he castrated himself, the mutilation that Tertullian is referring to.
  15. A reference to the Judgment of Paris, where the shepherd Paris gave the Golden Apple as prize to Venus after she’d promised him Helen of Troy.
  16. In the arena there was a person dressed up as Pluto, god of the underworld and Jupiter’s brother, who hit the corpses with his mallet to make sure they were dead and dragged the corpses out with a took.


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