Probably Piazza del Campidoglio (Capitoline Square) is one of the most touristy spots in Rome. In this elegant place, designed by Michelangelo at the request of Pope Paul III, who wanted to impress Emperor Charles V during his visit in 1538, you’ll find the Capitoline Museums. These museums, housed in the Conservatori and Nuovo palaces, determine the spaces and showcase some of the most attractive art pieces for visitors, from the Discobolus to the Capitoline Venus, passing through the dying Gaul, and, above all, the Capitoline Wolf and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (though they are replicas because the originals were moved for conservation reasons). But there’s one more reason to climb up to that small hill, one of the seven original hills of Rome: the sinister Tarpeian Rock.

Capitolinus Mons doesn’t exceed fifty meters in height, so only the Aventine has a lower elevation. However, its south face, facing the Forum and known as Rupes Tarpeia or Saxum Tarpeium, was almost sheer and had enough slope for it to be the point where executions of criminals with extremely grave offenses, such as perjury, murder, or treason, took place during the republican period: they were thrown down in a deadly fall of twenty-five meters, in what was called praecipitatio.

Today, the Tarpeian Rock looks different from back then, as the mentioned Renaissance reform involved the incorporation of some architectural structures like the Cordonata (an access ramp for horseback riding). In the Middle Ages, the appearance of the hill had changed significantly as it lost the sacred character it had in pagan times; in fact, even the Senate was located there in the 12th century, and two hundred years later, the site served as a defensive citadel during the republic stage of Cola di Rienzo.

In 1905, the Italian historian and epigrapher Ettore Pais, who was the director of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and led a campaign of excavations in Pompeii, proposed the theory that the Tarpeian Rock was not located on that south slope of the Capitolium but on the other peak of the hill, called the Arx. Today, it is occupied by the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, but archaeological work supported Pais’s theory, so the site no longer has the physical characteristics of antiquity as it has been leveled.

However, squinting your eyes, you can imagine one of the illustrious condemned who had the dishonor of being thrown from the top by the quaestores parricidii, that is, the quaestors or judges who, initially, only dealt with accusations of perduellio (treason) or armed insurrection and later expanded their functions to other charges and crimes, such as economic or criminal ones. Later, they were succeeded by the tribunes of the plebs.

Among the most important figures who died on the Tarpeian Rock, we could mention Spurius Cassius Vecellinus (former consul accused of wanting to proclaim himself king), Marcus Manlius Capitolinus (a patrician hero, also a former consul, who paradoxically led a plebeian revolt), Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus (a Greek freedman who had belonged to Sulla and was accused of corruption by Cicero), Simon bar Giora (Idumean leader of the Jewish rebellion that was ultimately suppressed by Vespasian and Titus), etc.

We mentioned dishonor because this form of capital punishment implied a stigma of shame for the one who suffered it, something that in the context of Ancient Rome could be even worse than death. Normal executions were usually by strangulation in the Tullianum, a prison located very close to the Tarpeian Rock, in the northwest part of the Capitol, which in the Middle Ages came to be called Mamertine Prison. In reality, the Tullianum was a temporary confinement (publica custodia) because the Romans did not sentence to imprisonment.

For this reason, when the accused were of high rank, it was not appropriate for them to be enslaved or sent to forced labor, so they were given the option to commit suicide, a custom inherited from Greece and considered more honorable. Many illustrious Romans took their own lives in this way, some with their pugio (Calpurnius Piso, Nero), others with poison or by opening their veins (Seneca)…

However, if the crime fell into the categories mentioned earlier, they could end up being thrown down; Arx tarpeia Capitoli proxima, said an aphorism that can be translated as “The Tarpeian Rock is near the Capitol”, referring to the idea that the higher one climbs, the higher one can fall.

When and how did this ominous tradition begin? As with many things in Roman history, mythology and reality merge in a confusing way. We must go back to the famous rape of the Sabines, an episode from the 8th century B.C., according to which the early Romans, lacking women, came up with the idea of organizing games in honor of Neptune to solve the problem, and various neighboring peoples were invited. Of all those who attended, the Sabines, inhabitants of Sabinia (a region in northwest Latium), came with their wives and children.

The event turned out to be a trap devised by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. At his signal, each Roman abducted a Sabine woman and then expelled the men from the city. Faced with accomplished facts, the women could only accept marrying their abductors, although they stipulated not to perform more domestic work than weaving. Moreover, they married those who were already considered a chosen people; however, as expected, the Sabines were not very happy, and years later, they organized a devastating attack on Rome, whose inhabitants had to barricade themselves in the Capitol.

Tarpeia, a Vestal Virgin, daughter of the governor of the Capitol citadel, Spurius Tarpeius (Roman women did not have prenomen and used only the nomen, numbering if there was more than one in the family), betrayed her own by opening the door to the enemy in exchange for what they carried in their arms, alluding to the bracelets and rings that the Sabines usually wore. They accepted and had free passage, but they fulfilled their promise in a sui generis way: instead of paying her with jewelry, they crushed her with their shields, which, after all, they also carried in their arms, and then threw her off the cliff so that the citadel seemed to have been taken by assault or so that her example served as a warning that no trust should be placed in traitors, as Livy recounts in his work Ab urbe condita.

Calpurnius Piso left another version, according to which Tarpeia would not be infamous but the opposite, as she would have tried to deceive the Sabines into entering the citadel and there demand what they carried in their arms, that is, their shields, so that they would be defenseless and the Romans could dispatch them.

And there is yet another version, written by Propertius, which puts the cause of everything on the vestal’s love for the Sabine king, Titus Tatius, whom she would demand to take her as his wife. Whatever the reason, if the episode is not pure myth, the outcome for her is always the same.

The Sabine women ended up standing between the warring armies, urging them not to fight because, Livy continues narrating, we are the cause of the war, we are the ones who have wounded and killed our husbands and fathers. It will be better for us to die rather than live without one or the other, as widows or orphans. That’s how Titus Tatius, the king of Sabinia, and Romulus, the Roman ruler, formed a diarchy. And the place where Tarpeia paid with her life for her action was designated as a natural gallows.

Three centuries later, around 500 B.C. approximately, the monarch Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, also known as Tarquin the Proud, ruled. Under his leadership, Rome experienced military expansion (he introduced the custom of celebrating triumphs) that allowed for architectural embellishment. Tarquinius built the Cloaca Maxima and the Circus Maximus, ordered the replacement of the usual huts with brick houses, and ordered the demolition of the altar built by the Sabines in the Intermontium (the hill between the two peaks of the hill) to build in its place a temple dedicated to Jupiter, later joined by another in honor of Saturn to house Rome’s treasury.

How many people were executed on the Tarpeian Rock? It’s impossible to know, but many more than one might imagine, as the concept of the crime of treason in Rome was much broader than it is now. Not only was someone considered a traitor if they dealt with the enemy, like Tarpeia, but also if they deserted the army, were too radical a political opponent, disrupted the inviolability of a magistrate, or even stole or lied (in the case of a plebeian), as indicated by the Twelve Tables Law.

Few convicts, probably thousands, sentenced to praecipitatio managed to survive. However, some did, either by escaping in time, like Gaius Marcius Coriolanus (condemned for disobeying the tribunes), or because the fall was not fatal (the historian Rufus Festus cites in his Breviarium rerum gestarum populi Romani a certain Lucius Terentius, who was ultimately pardoned), thus escaping not only death but also the macabre subsequent ceremony that involved displaying the shattered corpse on stairs under the Arx, called Gemoniae.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 12, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Roca Tarpeya, el lugar desde donde se despeñaba a los traidores a Roma


Tito Livio, Ab urbe condita | Eva Cantarella, Los suplicios capitales en Grecia y Roma. Orígenes y funciones de la pena de muerte en la Antigüedad Clásica | Francisco Javier Lomas Salmonte y Pedro López Barja de Quiroga, Historia de Roma | Jane F. Gardner, Mitos romanos | Wikipedia

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