Top 10 Horrible Roman Execution Methods

Roman emperors and rulers had a variety of ways to punish people who were found guilty of crimes.

Some of these punishments were incredibly harsh and are known as some of the most horrible Roman execution methods. A few of the worst methods included death by parasites, being burned alive, crucifixion, and being boiled in oil.

These extreme punishments were meant to cause a lot of pain and suffering, and they were carried out without any mercy. Often, it was slaves who had been captured in battles or Christians who faced these terrible methods of execution.

In this paper, we will explore the top 10 most horrible Roman execution methods and provide details about each one. Our information is mostly based on the work of Tacitus, a famous Roman historian, and politician who documented these events.

10.  Punishment of the sack – Poena cullei

A scene depicting the execution method - Poena cullei
A scene depicting the execution method – Poena cullei
Source: Wikimedia Common

Poena cullei, also known as the punishment of the sack, was one of the most horrible Roman Execution methods, as the person guilty was packed in the sack and thrown in the water to die.

This punishment was for the person guilty of parricide, meaning the killing of their father. The person would be kept alive in a leather sack and a few animals, including a dog, monkey, snake, chicken, and rooster.

The sack would then be tied and thrown into deep water to make sure the person inside the sack dies underwater. 

This act of punishment in Ancient Rome first dated around c.100 BC, though its early existence is expected to be before a century. The early stage of this punishment included only snakes in the sack,

But, the inclusion of other animals began only after imperial times. This act was famous during the reign of Emperor Hadrian when he would order for a cock, monkey, viper, and a dog to be kept in the sack.

Emperor Hadrian had other ways too as an alternative to this punishment; for instance, the culprit would be thrown to beasts in the arena.

Even though this execution technique stopped around the 3rd Century AD during the reign of Emperor Constantine, it was resumed again, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, after around 200 years of ending it. However, it was later replaced by burning alive.

9. Thrown from the Tarpeian Rock

A recent photo of the Tarpeian Rock taken in 2008
A recent photo of the Tarpeian Rock taken in 2008
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Tarpeian Rock was a famous cliff of ancient Rome where the most horrific execution would occur. The culprits, including traitors, murderers, larcenous slaves, and pre jurors, were thrown from this cliff to die.

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The height of this cliff was about 80 ft high, and this process was one of the easiest ways to punish the guilty. The Roman Forum could be seen clearly from the top of the Tarpeian cliff.

According to the legend, the cliff was named after one of the Vestal Virgin, Tarpeia – daughter of a Roman commander Spurius Tarpeiushad. When Rome was under the siege of the Sabines, Tarpeia opened the city gates and let the Roman enemy, Titus Tatius, enter during the 8th Century B.C.

She had done so in return for the golden bracelets and rings worn by Sabines. Tarpeia had betrayed while Rome was under the siege of the Sabines.

8. Burned Alive

A portrait depicting the method of Burning Alive in Ancient Rome
A portrait depicting the method of Burning Alive in Ancient Rome
Source: Wikimedia Common

Another method of horrible execution in Ancient Rome includes Burning Alive, also known as Immolation. This was the method applied to a person guilty of heresy, witchcraft, rape, and treason.

Under this method, the culprit or guilty person would be tied to a high pole and a papyrus-based tenue with wax put on the body. Unfortunately, the wax would sometimes be mixed with the fat from pigs, and the person would die due to exposure to extreme heat.

This was the method used for mass execution instead of executing a single person.

During the reign of Emperor Nero in July 64, the Great Fire of Rome lit up almost two-thirds of Rome, killing hundreds of Romans. The fire began from the Circus Maximus chariot stadium. 

Emperor Nero blamed Christians for this disastrous event and eventually persecuted thousands of Christians and burned them alive, leaving them to die.

7. Death by parasites

Image of one of the Execution Method of Ancient Rome - Death by parasites
Image of one of the Execution Method of Ancient Rome – Death by parasites

Death by parasites was another horrible Roman Execution method destined by Emperor Domitian, especially for the Christians.

Under this method, the guilty would be put inside a barrel after muddling with milk and honey. The whole body would be kept inside the barrel, whereas the head would be sticking out from the barrel. The barrel would then be kept out in the bright sunlight for the body to rot.

The body would begin to rot in few days to few weeks, and the parasites born from within would kill the person. Also, the honey and milk would attract insects making the body rot quicker and easier.

6. Molten gold poured down the throat

An image depicting Roman Execution method - Pouring molten gold down the throat
An image depicting Roman Execution method – Pouring molten gold down the throat

This horrible Roman execution method of pouring molten gold down the throat began centuries ago. Under this method, a person guilty would be poured a bar of molten gold down his/her throat, which would eventually lead to death.

One of the most famous people to have executed under this method was Roman General Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was executed as he had an unquenchable thirst for wealth.

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Sometimes some guilty would be poured molten lead instead of gold. The heat and the steam produced by the molten gold or lead would result in a burst of numerous body organs at once, leading to death.

Anyone made to swallow the molten gold or lead would not control the flowing of it within the body and eventually die in a torturous manner. 

Though this was a cruel method of execution, other empires too adopted this method to execute the person guilty.

5. Boiling in oil

An image portraying a Sikh Martyr being boiled alive - one of the Roman execution methods
An image portraying a Sikh Martyr being boiled alive – one of the Roman execution methods
Source: Wikimedia Common

Boiling in oil was another method of execution used in Ancient Rome. This method was mainly for coin forgers, rapists, and murderers.

This was first used in Ancient Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero to execute thousands of Christians, blaming them for the Great Fire. The fire burnt more than half of Rome and killed hundreds and injured thousands of Roman citizens.

Emperor Nero then began punishing the Christians for this, for which he executed them under many methods, including Burning them Alive and Boiling them in Oil itself.

A person of Nuremberg was executed under this method in 1392 for raping and murdering his mother. Henry VIII also used it in 1531 as he executed many for poisoning.

4. Damnatio ad Bestias – ripped apart by wild animals

A portrait of a leopard attacking a person under Roman Execution method
A portrait of a leopard attacking a person under the Roman Execution method
Source: Wikimedia Common

Another horrible Roman execution method has to be Damnatio ad Bestias, meaning ripped apart by wild animals. Under this method, a culprit or a person guilty would be thrown into the arena along with wild beasts.

It was capital punishment where mostly the culprit would be killed by lions or big cats. This method came into existence during the 2nd Century BC in Ancient Rome.

This method was first brought into Ancient Roman Culture by two commanders – Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus and his son, Scipio Aemilianus after conquering the African city of Carthage in around 146 BC.

It was first introduced as a part of Bestiarii, where the upper class would throw the lower class people into the arena for their entertainment purposes. It has to be the most crucial and horrible game invented to date.

However, this sport turned into a horrible execution method between the 1st to 3rd Centuries BC. Mostly, runaways, slaves, Christians, and capital culprits were executed with this method.

Later, around the 7th Century, lions were added with wild bears, leopards, and Caspian tigers. However, the execution of Christians under this method began only during the 1st Century AD.

The Christians were wrapped in animal skins and thrown into the arena with dogs, later added with other dangerous animals.

3. Decimation – removal of the tenth

Roman Military Punishment - Decimation
Roman Military Punishment – Decimation
Source: Wikimedia Common

Decimation, a Latin word meaning removing the tenth, was another horrible Roman execution method used mainly in Roman Army. This execution method was used on the army or cohort for capital offenses, including mutiny, insubordination, desertion, and mainly cowardice.

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Under this method, the cohort consisting of about 480 men would be divided into 10 men. Then, each man would be asked to draw the straw, and the tenth man who selects the shortest straw would be executed.

This execution process was not straightforward as he would be first beaten and then stoned to death.  The most horrific part of this method was, the remaining nine men had to throw stones and beat the tenth man to death.

The earliest use of this method dates back to 471 BC during the Roman Republic’s wars against the Volsci. Some of the armies had then deserted, and they were executed under consul Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis.

It is believed that Julius Caesar had threatened his 9th Legion to execute by the Decimation method, which he never did.

2. Strangulation

 Strangulation was also a very commonly used method in Ancient Rome. Under this method, the culprit would be executed by strangulation. It was familiar as shedding blood in and outside of the Arena in Ancient Rome was a taboo.  

The culprit would be paraded all around Rome and brought back to Roman Forum, where he was strangulated. In some cases, the person after the parade would be kept inside his cell and executed.

However, the object used to strangulate is actually under confusion. The two basic objects used to perform this method could be a rope and a garrote. A garrote was made up of different materials, including cloth, fishing line, guitar strings, piano wire, and telephone cord, and a stick was used to tighten the Garrote.

1. Crucifixion

A picture depicting Crucifixion in Ancient Rome
A picture depicting Crucifixion in Ancient Rome
Source: Wikimedia Common

The most common and horrible Roman execution method was the Crucifixion

Under this method, the culprit or guilty person would be nailed to the cross and left there hanging until death.

The person nailed would be tortured in multiple different ways before death. For instance, the person’s shoulder would be dislocated before hanging, sometimes the cross would be made upside-down, and the sledgehammer would be used to break bones or legs.

The legs would be broken to make sure the guilty would not be able to move his leg and make himself comfortable while hanging. It was not just painful but the most humiliating method of execution.

It was primarily used to punish pirates, enemies of the state, and slaves. If any slave murdered his master, all the slaves belonging to the master’s army would be crucified.


Any era’s execution method would be horrible as the intention was to kill the guilty or the culprit. 

For me, Ancient Rome’s most gruesome and horrible execution methods have to be Death by Parasites and Boiling in Oil. The person being executed would have to stay tortured for a couple of weeks when the minor body parts would be eaten by the insects and rot slowly. 

Though all the execution methods are horrible, if anyone had to be executed, that person would be in peace if executed in the shortest time.

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