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Torture used by ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Damnatio ad bestias shown on the mosaic.

Romans, like the Greeks, used torture during interrogations. Until the second century CE, torture was used only on slaves (with a few exceptions). After this period, torture also concerned the lower social strata. The slave’s testimony was considered true under Roman law only during torture. It was thought that they could not be trusted and that they had to be intentionally “tried”.

It is worth noting that, according to many scholars, torture was an ancient issue for ancient civilizations and was officially included in the legal system of states. Torture was considered necessary to stop bad and unacceptable social behaviour.


Crucifixion was a form of death penalty used in ancient times, including by Persians, Romans, Phoenicians and Carthaginians, as a form of shameful execution on slaves, rebels and other non-full citizens. Only a low-level citizen (humiliores) could be sentenced to such death – in the event of a serious crime, e.g. betrayal of his own country. The convict was then tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left there until his death. It was an unusually long and painful death.

The hypothesis that the custom of crucifixion in Rome developed from the primitive practise of arbori suspendere, i.e. hanging arbor infelix (“ominous tree”), dedicated to the gods of the underworld, is rejected by William A. Oldfather, which indicates that this form of execution involved suspending a suspect from a tree. Moreover, this punishment was not intended to kill the convict or even more to sacrifice him to the deities of the underworld.

Tertullian mentions in “Apologia” from the first century CE when the trees were used for crucifixion. However, Seneca the Younger had already used the phrase infelix lignum (“unfortunate wood”) for the horizontal beam (patibulum) of the cross. Plautus and Plutarch’s works are some Roman sources talking about criminals carrying their own patibulum.

The most famous crucifixion took place after the suppression of the Spartacus revolt in 71 BCE. Beware of Marcus Crassus ordered the crucifixion of 6,000 insurgents along the Appian road leading from Capua to Rome. Mass crucifixions also took place during the civil wars in the second and first centuries BCE and after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Josephus mentions that the Romans crossed the defenders along the walls.

Roman law used this torture not only to kill but also to dishonour and emphasize the low status of the convict. Joseph Flavius ​​mentions that high-class Jews used to be crucified only to take away their status. In addition, the Romans often broke their legs to speed up death and prohibit their burial.

Sometimes, before hanging, the victim was heavily scourged, which resulted in significant blood loss and the victim’s state of shock and dementia. Then the convict had to carry a horizontal beam (patibulum) to the place of execution. According to Roman source literature, sentenced to crucifixion, he never carried the entire cross, contrary to customary faith, and unlike many modern recreations of Jesus’ path to Golgotha. The vertical beam (stipes) was already firmly embedded in the ground at the place of execution. The convict was dressed in clothes. Then the victim was tied or nailed to the beams. For this purpose, iron, tapered nails from 13 to 18 cm long were used. It happened that after the execution, the nails were collected by onlookers and carried with them as healing amulets. The convict who was nailed to the beam was pulled and attached to a vertical pole. Then the whole gave the tool the best-known form, i.e. the cross. The cruelty of the executioners took various forms, and the torment could last from several hours to even several days. The convict was hung upside down or head down.

The painting of Fyodor Bronnikov showing crucified insurgents along the Appian road from Rome to Capua.

Because crucifixion itself – without significant damage to organs – did not cause death, in most cases the direct cause of death of the convict (occurring within a few to several hours or even days) was suffocation, exhaustion, dehydration, or bleeding as a result of injuries. In this case, the convict initially had legs quite straight, bent enough that the feet could be nailed to the cross. After a few to a dozen or so hours, the leg muscles could no longer support the weight and bent under the convict. Then the diaphragm was oppressed so much that the convict began to choke – and it could last several hours. Another way to die on the cross was to bleed out (nails were driven in a way that led to faster death) or death from exhaustion (using a leg rest).

In Roman times, modifications of this method of execution were also used, by placing a support on a vertical pole at the height of the convict’s feet, thanks to which the convict could breathe relatively freely. The death occurred from the exhaustion of the body, even several days after the start of the execution. It also happened that the execution was accelerated by breaking the convict’s legs (this made it impossible to try to breathe).

The crucifixion was used from the 6th century BCE until the 4th century CE when in 337 Emperor Constantine the Great banned this type of execution in honour of Christ, who was the most famous victim of this execution. In addition, Roman legionaries had fun during torture, hanging convicts from different angles. A tortured convict, according to Roman crucifixion rules, could die several days. The body was left to be eaten by sepia and other birds.

Bronze bull

The scene shows the moment of pushing Perilaus to the place of execution, which he created himself.

The bronze bull, also called the bull of Phalaris or Sicilian bull, was a tool of execution invented by the Greeks. His inventor was Perillus of Athens, who persuaded Phalaris (tyrant of the Sicilian city of Akragas from the 4th century BCE) to use it as a murder weapon, to which through the upper closed hole, convicts were put and then baked alive, kindling a fire under a bull. The victims’ cry was distorted as they passed through the cleverly constructed modulator placed in the bull’s head and heard outside as the roar of an animal. Phalaris, amazed by Perilaus’s idea, instructed him to enter the device and demonstrate how it works. The naive artist went inside, and the tyrant ordered them to close the hole and light a fire under the bull. Perilaus, often considered the first victim of the “bronze bull”, was in fact pulled out before he could fry, and then on the order of the tyrant knocked him off the rock.

The bronze bull was allegedly sunk in the sea in 554 BCE, just after the overthrow of the tyrant by the uprising, headed by Teron’s ancestor, a Telemach, and Phalaris himself was to be the last victim roasted in it. According to another version, after the capture of Akragas, the bull was transported by Hamilcon to Carthage and only after its destruction, returned to Akragas.

It is believed that the Romans used this type of torture to kill Jews and Christians. According to Christian tradition, Saint Eustace was baked in a bronze bull with his wife and children at the behest of the emperor Hadrian. However, the Catholic Church considers these stories to be completely untrue. A similar fate happened to Antipas of Pergamon during the persecution of Domitian in 92 CE. The tool was also used in 287 CE during Emperor Diocletian at Pelagia of Tarsus.


First described by Plutarch of Chaeronea as a Persian torture technique. The victim was stripped naked and then tied tightly between the two upturned boats so that the head, hands and feet stood out from the hulls. The convict was forced to drink milk and honey in large quantities until it was diarrhoea, which attracted insects with sweet drinks. To top it all off, it was spread on honey tortured in private places: armpits, groin. Then the attached convict was released into the middle of the water reservoir, where he was exposed to intense sun and the activity of insects that drank his sweet blood and reproduced in his body. The cause of death was probably dehydration, hunger or septic shock.

Leather peeling

Torture was already used by the Assyrians and later by the Romans. The victim was poured hot water. Then the executioner took the knife and ripped the skin from the body, from the legs to the head. Death depended on how much skin was removed and how extensive the wounds were.

Damnatio ad bestias

Mosaic showing Roman shows from the 1st century CE.

Giving up was one of the most “distinctive” methods of torturing and killing victims. Most often, convicts (they were called bestiarii) were thrown to lions in the arena to the delight of viewers.

The beginnings of this killing practice can be traced back to the Bible in the 6th century BCE, which mentions that the Jewish prophet, Daniel, was thrown into the lions’ den. Ultimately, however, God saved his life. Scientists say throwing people to eat has already occurred in Egypt, Central Asia, Libya and Carthage. Hamilcar Barkas, for example, during the Carthaginian war with mercenaries (which broke out after the defeat in the First Punic War) in 240 CE, threw three prisoners to be devoured by beasts. Hannibal, in turn, ordered the captured Romans to fight with each other during the Second Punic War. Those who survived then had to face the elephants.

The phenomenon of damnatio ad bestias in Rome did not function in the form of sacrifices to deities. During the monarchy, the lions were unknown at all, and King Numa Pompilius in the seventh century BCE, according to legend, banned the practice of casting victims for devouring. In Rome, damnatio ad bestias began to be used to entertain the crowd. For this purpose, various animals were brought from the most remote corners of the state and from outside it, including lions, bears, leopards, Caspian tigers, black leopards, and bulls. Damnatio ad bestias was a spectacle that was intertwined with gladiatorial fights and was the primary attraction for the masses. Initially, such practices could be seen at the Roman Forum. However, when officials and later emperors began to invest in their popularity, performances began to take place in specially built amphitheatres.

In ancient Rome, there were professional wild animal trainers who were to properly prepare animals to fight convicts, incite aggression in them, and encourage human meat to eat. Sometimes there were hunts/fights in the arena, where a tunic warrior stood in front of the beast, armed only with a sword or spears. Sometimes he was accompanied by a venator equipped with a bow, whip or spear, which often fought for money or glory. So they were not, in the strict sense of the word, executions, but rather the competition of people with animals. It should be emphasized that we cannot call such warriors gladiators. Gladiators fought among themselves. Here we can talk about venatores. During the hunt, various animals appeared in the arena: hyenas, elephants, wild oxen, buffaloes, lynxes, giraffes, ostriches, deer, antelopes, zebras and hares. The first such hunt (venatio) was organized by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, consul of 189 BCE in Circus Maximus in 186 BCE, on the occasion of Rome’s capture of Etholia in Greece. To this day, we can see with our own eyes the underground passages in the Colosseum and other amphitheatres, which were once used to bring animals to the arena.

People who were devoured to beasts without defence were usually accused of treason (citizens) or other serious crimes (liberators, slaves). If even a naked and defenceless convict killed the animal in some way, more beasts were sent to the arena until all beasts were dead. It was reportedly rare that two animals were needed to kill one man. Sometimes one animal managed to deal with several convicts. Cicero mentions that during one spectacle one lion killed 200 bestiarii. It happened, however, that young men themselves were recruited for the bestiary, which Seneca the Younger mentions. Blaise de Vigenere, a French translator, in turn, claims that the bestiary also fought for money, training in professional schools to fight the beasts (scholae bestiarum or bestiariorum). Sometimes even a few such warriors were released against several wild animals.

Christian martyrs at the Colosseum, Konstantin Flavitsky

The habit of casting criminals to the lions was brought to Rome by Lucius Emilius Paulus Macedonicus, who defeated Macedonians in 168 BCE and his son Scipio Africanus Minor, conqueror of Carthage from 146 BCE. The idea of ​​punishment was “stolen” from Carthage and was applied to deserters and traitors of the state. The degree of cruelty to punishment was supposed to discourage inappropriate legal steps. Over time, Roman authorities have discovered that the method of combating unwanted social behaviour has proved extremely effective, which has led to regulating it legally. According to the accepted standard, convicts were tied to a column or thrown to animals in the arena defenceless and naked (objicere bestiis).

Cases of doing so are in the sources. Strabon, a Greek traveller and geographer, mentions the executions of the rebellious slave leader Selura. Marcjalis, in turn, wrote that the Lavreol bandit was crucified and devoured by an eagle and a bear. Executions are also cited by Seneca the Younger, Apuleius, Lucretius and Gaius Petronius. In turn, Cicero, in one of his works, expresses his outrage at the fact that a certain viewer was thrown to be eaten by wild beasts, simply because he was “indecent”. Suetonius mentions that when meat prices were high, Emperor Caligula ordered that the animals in the amphitheatres be fed the meat of prisoners. Pompey the Great, during his second consulate (55 BCE) arranged a fight between well-armed gladiators and 18 elephants.

The most popular wild beasts in the arenas were lions, imported from Africa. Bears imported from Gaul, Germania and even North Africa were less popular. According to some historians and researchers, the mass capture and export of animals from North Africa had a negative impact on wildlife.

Last prayer of Christian martyrs, Jean-Leon Gerome

Damnatio ad bestias was also used against Christians. The first persecution took place in the first century CE. Tacitus mentions that during the reign of Nero, after a fire of Rome in 64 CE, followers of Christ were dressed in animal skins (called tunica molesta) and thrown to the dogs. This phenomenon was later used by subsequent rulers who transferred them to the amphitheatre arenas. The application of damnatio ad bestias to Christians was intended to show them to Roman society as the worst criminals.

According to Roman law, Christians were accused of the following crimes:

  • insult to the emperor’s majesty (majestatis rei);
  • gathering in secret, nightly, unlawful gatherings (collegium illicitum or coetus nocturni) that were treated as rebellion;
  • refusing to libate or light incense in honor of Caesar;
  • not recognizing state gods (sacrilegi);
  • using forbidden magic (magi, malefici);
  • professing a religion that is not recognized by law (religio nova, peregrina et illicita), in accordance with the law of XII Tables.

Sometimes Christians were blamed for natural disasters, e.g. drought, famine, epidemics, earthquakes, and floods.

According to Tertullian (2nd century CE), Christians gradually began to avoid theatres and circuses that they associated with torture. The persecution of Christians ceased in the 4th century CE, when Constantine the Great issued an edict in Milan in 313, introducing religious freedom.

Bestiarii fighting a wild animal.

Roman law, which we know largely thanks to the Byzantine copies (Theodosius Code, Corpus Iuris Civilis), strictly regulated which convict could be thrown to eat. Such people included:

  • deserters from the army;
  • people employing magicians to do harm to others (introduced after Caracalla; then renewed under Constantius II in 357 CE);
  • poisoners – according to Sulla’s law, patricians were decapitated, plebeians were thrown to beasts, and slaves were crossed;
  • counterfeiters (they could also have been burned);
  • political criminals;
  • father killers who were most often drowned in a tied sack (poena cullei). However, in the absence of a water reservoir, damnatio ad bestias was used;
  • initiators of rebellions and rebellions – were, depending on social status, crucified, thrown to be eaten, or expelled from the country;
  • child kidnappers for ransom (according to the law of 315 CE they were either thrown to eat or decapitated).

The conviction of damnatio ad bestias deprived the citizen of all civil rights; he could not write a will and his property was confiscated by the state. The exception to the rule were military officials and their children. Another regulation was the law of Petronius (Lex Petronia) of 61 CE, which forbade the masters to condemn their slaves to damnatio ad bestias without first obtaining permission from the court. In turn, local managers had to first consult the official imperial authority before putting up a fight between gladiators with wild animals. Ultimately, the practice of casting victims for food was banned after the fall of Rome in 681 CE.

Wheel breaking

Wheel breaking has its origins in Greece. Then the tool of torture was adopted by the Romans. A naked victim with widely spaced limbs was tied to metal rings. Then thick chunks of wood were placed under her hips, knees, ankles, elbows and wrists. Then the executioner crushed her body with a heavy wheel (a kind of angular club whose edges were covered with metal). After crushing the limbs, the victim was placed in an upright position. Then the babble tormented her, e.g. pecking her eyes out.


Impaling appears in human history as early as the 18th century BCE. The punishment tool includes the Hammurabi Code. Naturally, impaling also occurred as execution in ancient Rome. It is worth mentioning that the word “crucifixion” could also refer to nailing. Therefore, if we come across a word in Roman sources, without the context outlined, we can also presume a punch.

The tool of punishment was a pile prepared earlier – a wooden pole sharpened on one side. The executioner tied the legs of the convict lying on the ground with ropes or ropes to a pair of horses or oxen, and the stake was laid between the convict’s legs. As the animals moved forward, they dragged the convict with them. Pile dug into the human anus or perineum and sank further, but it was not allowed to pierce him completely. Then the executioner untied the animals, and the pole with the loaded man was placed vertically. Under the influence of body weight, the pile sank deeper and deeper, piercing through the bowels. The convict died after a long time, depending on the strength of the body and the degree of damage to internal organs; it could take up to 3 days. Pile pounded significantly and prolonged the suffering of the convict. Sometimes, to aggravate the punishment, the convict after being nailed on a stake was lubricated with a flammable substance and set on fire.


This form of execution was not widely used during the Roman Empire, however, gained its “popularity” during the reign of emperor Caligula, who sentenced his opponents and members of his own family for sawing. The bodies of convicts were cut with a chainsaw across the torso, not down the body as was usually done. Caligula watched the executions from the side, eating delicious food. He claimed that torture stimulated his appetite.

In 365 CE, Procopius proclaimed himself emperor and took action against the legitimate ruler Valens. The changeling was defeated, and as a result of the betrayal of Agilonius and Gomoarius, he ended up being imprisoned. In 366 CE, Procopius was tied to two trees and pulled to the ground. When the ropes holding the trees were cut, Procopius was split in two. Agilonius and Gomoarius, on the order of Valens, were cut into pieces.


Visualization of the head being crushed by an elephant.

Romans, due to other nations (eg. Carthage) from the Mediterranean, at some point began to use elephants for military purposes. Sometimes, for the purpose of execution, the convict was placed on the ground and the animal was ordered to stand on the head/body of the victim. The writer Valerius Maximus (1st century CE) mentions that Lucius Emilius Paulus Macedonian, after defeating the Macedonian king in 168 BCE, Perseus, ordered the use of elephants to crush the bodies of three deserters. Another solution was to put a heavy stone on the victim’s cage, which resulted in suffocation and death.

Finally, it is worth mentioning a different form of execution. The convict was dressed in a special tunic. tunica molesta, which was covered with a flammable substance, e.g. kerosene. Then the unfortunate was set on fire in the arena to the delight of the spectators.

  • Kyle Donald G., Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, 1998
  • Matthews Rupert, Rzym mroczny, ponury, krwawy, Warszawa 2007
  • McKeown J. C., A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire, 2010

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