Roman Executions in the Colosseum: The Stories of Laureolus and Androcles
Public order in ancient Rome was a priority for the elite, who contrived a range of gruesome punishments for purportedly serious crimes deserving the death penalty. As a result, a day of fun and games at the Colosseum involved performances of all kinds, including, wait for it, the spectacle of public Roman executions, each more ghastly than the last.
Shows, Games and Roman Executions at the Colosseum
During the four and a half centuries the Colosseum was in use, the program of games and shows never changed. The Flavian Amphitheater, as it was called by the ancient Romans, hosted a lineup that lasted for many hours as spectators were entertained by a variety of performances. Not only did the program include morning fights between different pairs of animals, as well as hunting games known as venationes.
Lunch time was around noon, and this was when people could watch the executions of those who had committed serious crimes. In the afternoon the beloved gladiator fights took place. Roman executions of those sentenced to death were staged publicly as a deterrent, so that everyone (including youngsters – whose presence in the Colosseum was encouraged) could see the consequences of committing serious crimes.
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The experience of a Roman execution was unspeakable, as depicted in this painting by Valdemar Irminger. (Public domain)
Initially, the majority of people convicted to death were deserters, rebels, and fugitives, but later this punishment was extended to war prisoners as well as other types of crimes. The list of crimes punishable by death was quite long. Treason, rebellion against the authority, destruction of crops, night theft, setting fire to a house, rape, deception of a customer, profanation of a temple, violation of a promise, theft of cattle or crops, perjury, changing the borders of a field arbitrarily, and many more were reasons for a capital sentence.
There was also a difference if the convicted person was a Roman citizen or not. If the sentenced person had Roman citizenship, the Roman method of execution was through decapitation. Surprisingly enough, this was an honorable way to die, as it avoided a slow or particularly brutal death or public humiliation. Alternatively, those who did not possess Roman citizenship were killed in various other ways, depending on the the crime they had committed and their social status.
Christian martyrs in the Colosseum as depicted by Konstantin Flavitsky. One of the primary sources of information about Roman executions comes from Christian writers, a religious group persecuted by the Romans. (Public domain)
Public Roman Executions in the Colosseum
There was a wide range of Roman methods of execution. Some people were burned alive ( crematio or ad flammas) or killed with a sword ( ad gladium). Others were crucified ( crucifixio), thrown to wild animals ( ad bestias), obliged to impersonate characters of myth doomed to die, or even tortured and then killed in an attempt to re-enact bloody historical events related to the origins of Rome.
It was not rare for those sentenced to death to kill themselves before the show to avoid the grisly death that awaited them in the arena. To prevent this, prisoners who awaited their fate in the underground rooms of the Colosseum were always closely watched by the staff working there. Legally speaking, Roman law did not determine which execution had to be inflicted and the judge was free to choose the death penalty at his own discretion.
Sentences ad gladium could result in beheadings, but also in one-sided fights with a foregone conclusion. Often, two sentenced people were pushed onto the arena together. One carried a sword and the other one was unarmed. The latter had to run all around the arena, while the one holding the sword had to catch and kill him. When this occurred, the “winner” remained in the arena, handed the sword to a new prisoner, and the hideous game would start all over again. The last one standing was normally finished off by a hunter.
Sentences ad bestias involved criminals being eaten alive by wild and ferocious beasts. This vile punishment was most frequently inflicted on those whose social background was low, such as slaves or prisoners. When it came to the shows programming, executions with animals had to meet specific requirements. Convicts were not supposed to take too long to die to avoid slowing down the planned schedule, although they were not to die too quickly either as this would mean an unsatisfactory experience for the audience.
The two most common ways to stage the damnatio ad bestias were to tie the naked criminal to a pole and leave him for the animals or to let him or her run around the arena being chased by the wild beast. The final result did not change, but the audience preferred the latter because it was considered to be more spectacular.
Damnatio ad bestias was a form of execution whereby criminals were tied to a pole for savage animals to kill, or to let the convict run around the arena pursued by wild beasts. (Public domain)
Dreadful Deaths and Roman Executions in the Arena
Was it possible to save someone’s life? Yes, it happened a few times, but the life of the “lucky” but hapless victim was not extended by much, since he was used in the next fight or had his throat cut. Grace was very rare for those convicted either ad gladium or ad bestias and it was almost impossible to escape a Roman execution once judgment had been passed.
Crucifixion was also common and was a punishment much more ancient than the Romans. This could result in an agonizing and terrible death - by suffocation, because the thorax was compressed by asphyxiation, by bleeding, or by cardiovascular collapse through pain. Because the agony might last for several hours and the program could not be delayed, to accelerate the process of death of the crucified criminal, the legs of the convicts were broken. Alternately, leopards, tigers or lions, were released to maul the wretched victim. Undoubtedly, this was the cruelest sentence staged in the arena of the Colosseum.
However, those sentenced by crematio or ad flammas did certainly not have a much more pleasant time. The convicts sentenced to be burned alive were made to wear beautifully decorated clothes soaked with flammable substances and then they were made to dance as their clothes were ignited. The resulting dances weren’t pleasant at all for the convicts.
At the end of the execution segment of the lively program, and before the gladiatorial combats began, an attendant dressed as Charon, the ferryman of souls across the Styx, the river of hell, entered the arena to remove the corpses. This character was based on that of Charun, Etruscan god of death, who always entered the stage together with a representation of the god Mercury, who accompanied the souls.
What Mercury actually did at the Colosseum was to pierce the tip of a large red-hot spear into the flesh of the victims to make sure they were really dead. If they were, Charon would hit the victims with a hammer; thus symbolically taking possession of them. After this further macabre ritual, regular attendants cleaned up the arena of all the corpses. Everything had to be ready so that the next show could begin.
The Retreating Lions by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public domain)
Laureolus and His Loathsome Death Sentence
Early Christian writers, whose fellow believers were often convicted due to their faith, are the main sources we have today in relation to death sentences and Roman executions in the amphitheaters of the Roman Empire. It is mainly thanks to these accounts that we have more information about the death sentences than the gladiatorial fights, although there is no clear evidence that suggests that Christians were killed in the Colosseum for their faith. Another important source of information about the death sentences is represented by the Liber de spectaculis, a book of epigrams written by Martial who witnessed the 100-day inauguration games offered by Emperor Titus in 80 AD.
Despite the fact that we are relatively well informed about death sentences inflicted upon criminals in various amphitheaters during the era, we don’t know many of their names or the personal stories of these people. There is however one exception. In one of his epigrams, Martial describes the atrocious death of a certain Laureolus, sentenced to be mauled by a wild bear.
In reality his real name was not Laureolus, as this was the name of a famed thief who was convicted many years before. The real Laureolus was arrested, crucified and eaten alive by ferocious beasts, while his name and his crimes were still popular many years after his death. What Martial witnessed was the re-enactment of that conviction, staring a man who either killed his father or his master, stole gold from some temples or started a fire with the intention of burning Rome. The poet was uncertain of his crime.
What is interesting to note here is that Martial not only describes a re-enactment of a past conviction, but he also agrees with this particular sentence imposed on the unnamed prisoner asserting that he deserved this fate for the horrible things he did. He wrote that while he was still alive, the convicts body no longer resembled a human body due to the number of bites inflicted by the bear. The pain and the suffering of this man must have been atrocious, to say the least.
Androcles and the Lion. (Victor Adam / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Exceptional Story of Androcles and the Lion
In his Attic Nights, the Latin historian and author Aulus Gellius (125? to 180 AD) reported the story of a man called Androcles. While it may just be a folk tale, this particular event allegedly took place in the Circus Maximus, but many people associate it with the Roman executions and death sentences staged in the Colosseum.
According to the story, a Dacian slave called Androcles was convicted to death and was brought into the center of the stage. Immediately afterwards, a lion was let in to maul him. The lion approached the man and, instead of attacking him as one would have expected, started to wag its tail and lick the man’s feet. In the meantime, Androcles, who had closed his eyes in fear, reopened them and, after recognizing the beast, began to hug the lion.
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The Emperor, furious at the unexpected outcome of this death sentence, ordered that a leopard be let in, but amazingly the lion killed the leopard to protect the man. The organizer of the games was puzzled and could not explain this. He asked Androcles for an explanation and heard the following story:
Some time earlier in Africa, Androcles managed to escape from his grievous and cruel master and wandered around the countryside and on deserted beaches. One day, he ended up in a dark cavern and, after a while, a lion entered with a paw covered in blood. Despite his fear of being attacked by the lion, Androcles lifted the paw, removed a thorn stuck in it, and treated the wound. After this, the lion put the paw into his hands and fell asleep. The following days, to show his gratitude to Androcles, the lion started to bring him his prey.
After three years, tired of the life he had created, Androcles decided to leave but was unfortunately captured and brought back to his old master. He was sentenced to death and, by coincidence, the lion destined to kill him was the same one he had healed three years earlier. This story had a happy ending because eventually freedom was granted to both Androcles and the lion. After their reunion they could be seen wandering in the streets of Rome; the lion attached to a slender leash following Androcles.
Was this a true story, or an urban myth forged out of the desires of convicts wanting their lives to be spared? We likely will never know. But one thing is certain: Roman executions in the Colosseum must have been hard to watch. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Roman ruling elite, the repugnant practice of monstrous methods of Roman execution served an “educational” purpose as a deterrent against breaking the law, in the hope of transforming all Romans into law-abiding citizens and to maintain public order.
Top image: Roman executions at the Colosseum were a gruesome affair, as depicted in The Christian Marturs' Last Prayer by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Source: Public domain
By Mauro Poma