Roman Execution by Hurling From the Tarpeian Rock

Illustration of the Tarpeian Rock in Francis Town.

Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The Tarpeian Rock was a place of execution of ancient origin reserved for murderers and traitors who were hurled from its sharp cliffs. Scholars place its location on the Capitoline Hill. Some place the Tarpeian Rock close to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, while others believe it to be above the Roman Forum, on the southeast corner of the hill.

M. Manlius Capitolinus was a victim of the Tarpeian Rock method of punishment. Livy and Plutarch say that Manlius, a hero during the 390 B.C. Gallic attack on Rome, was punished by being hurled from the Tarpeian Rock.

Also Known As: Tarpeius Mons

The Roman Heroine Tarpeia

According to Roman founding legends, the Tarpeian Rock derives its name from the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia, a Roman heroine, and daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, who was commander of the Capitoline fortress under Rome's first king, Romulus. Tarpeia's death resulted from a war between the Romans and Sabines. Romulus abducted Sabine women for the purposes of providing Romans with wives and heirs.

Tarpeia Lets the Sabines into Rome

There are several strains of Tarpeia's story, but the most common tell of Tarpeia letting the enemy Sabines enter Rome by unlocking the gate only after making the Sabines swear to hand over their shields (bracelets, as told in some strains of the story). Though Tarpeia let the Sabines into the gate, her purpose was to trick them into surrender or defeat. The Sabines, upon the realization, threw their shields at Tarpeia, thereby killing her. In another version, the Sabines killed Tarpeia for her treachery, as they could not trust a Roman who betrayed her own people. Either way, the Romans, unsure as to Tarpeia's motive, used the Tarpeian Rock as a place of execution for traitors.

Sources:

  • Cotterell, Arthur and Rachel Storm. The Encyclopedia of World Mythology.
  • Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth. The Oxford Classical Dictionary.

See "Between Geese and the Auguraculum: The Origin of the Cult of Juno on the Arx," by Adam Ziolkowski. Classical Philology, Vol. 88, No. 3. (Jul. 1993), pp. 206-219.