In Rome, on the Campidoglio hill, it is extremely famous the Tarpeian Rock, linked to one of the most ancient tales of the city, where myth, legend and reality mix all up: the vestal Tarpeian betrayed her people, maybe for greed or maybe for love, letting the Sabine warriors in the city, who wanted to avenge the abduction of their women. The vestal was killed either by the Romans or the Sabine themselves. From that day on, all traitors were thrown from the cliff, symbolically expulsed from the city.

The Tarpeian Rock

Above: picture by Lalupa shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Not too far away from the Rock but way less popular than that, in the middle of the city as a connection between the Forum and the Campidoglio, most likely between the  Concordia Temple and the Mamertine Prison, there were the Gemonian Stairs. The area, also known as the Mourning Stairs, was a place of execution for those who had committed “Lex Iulia maiestatis”, a crime against the imperator.

Above: picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The stairs were almost certainly built during the throne of Augustus as no document prior him would mention such a place; however it was Tiberius the very first emperor who used it with such a nefarious purpose. The victims were first strangled, then thrown from the stairs and eventually their bodies were kept on display at the bottom of the stairs, first subject to profanation by the people and later by the animals. Only after a few days the remains were thrown into the Tiber.

Map of the Campidoglio and red arrow showing the possible position of the Gemonian Stairs

Above: picture in the public domain

It was evidently a dishonourable death which was not spared to high ranks citizens either: this was the case of Sejanus, powerful and ambitious Praetorian Guard of Tiberius, who did not hesitate when he figured out about his alleged plots against himself. The emperor was not in Rome, therefore it was the Senatum which commanded the damnatio memoriae and sentenced him to death.

The traitor was strangled, thrown from the Gemonian Stairs and his body left to the mercy of the people. That was not enough though so they condemned to death all his children and threw them down the Mourning Stairs. They killed his daughter Junilla, little girl who, by law, could not be executed because still virgin. A centurion handled the situation:

in order for her to be killed, the young girl was raped on the gallows platform

The people rage against the corpse of Sejanus

Above: picture in the public domain

To the news of Tiberius death in 37 AD, it seems like the Roman people expected “Tiberius in the Tiber”, which did not happen. However the emperor received a modest funeral celebration, amongst insults coming from the folk.

With the end of Tiberius, the use of the Gemonian Stairs as a place for executions was heavily reduced.

Despite this fact though, in 69 AD the general Vitellius, who became emperor during the troublesome “years of the 4 emperors”, ended up in a miserable way. After only 8 months, Vitellius accepted to surrender to Vespasian.

Vitellius was not a great sovereign and in fact he had accepted the title of emperor despite being not very interested. After hiding while planning his escape to Terracina, he committed the mistake of coming back to his Palace, believing his surrender had been accepted. There he was found drunk and stuffed by a tribune, who dragged him out. He was then taken through the Sacred Road, tied to the neck with a sword at his face, subject to the injustice of the population and ending up in the Gemonian Stairs, as the historian Suetonius said:

“There was who would throw excrement and mud and who was screaming pyromaniac and glutton. People would blame him for his physical flaws too: he had an excessive stature, the face of a drunken man, the obese stomach, a faulty leg due to a blow against a quadriga led by Caligula, while he was helping him out. He was taken to the Gemonian Stairs after being defleshed by thousands of cuts and from there it was dragged to the Tiber through a hook.”

The only noteworthy words pronounced by Vitellius at last were: “Yet I was once your emperor”.

Vitellius dragged around the streets of Rome

Above: picture in the public domain

After this execution, even thanks to the emperor Domitian who introduced the right for the condemned people to choose how to be executed (and that probably forbid the practice of the insult of the corpses) the Gemonian Stairs fell into disuse. However Decebalus was killed in 106 AD, during the kingdom of Trajan; the last King of Dacia, after the defeat at the hands of the Romans, committed suicide by cutting his throat. The head was taken to Rome, exhibited during the Trajan Triumph and finally thrown from the Gemonian Stairs.

San Pietro in Carcere

Above: picture in the public domain

Today the Gemonian Stairs do not exist any longer but it is believed that they used to be approximately where today raises San Pietro in carcere.

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