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The Gemonian Stairs: Rome's spot of mourning and execution

The Gemonian Stairs became synonymous to death and humiliation for the Roman Empire's enemies and criminals.

The Gemonian Stairs: Rome's spot of mourning and execution
The Gemonian Stairs, nicknamed the Stairs of Mourning. Image generated by Canva

Throughout the Roman Empire history, there is a place spoken of with dread. It is the Scalae Gemoniae, or the Gemonian Stairs. These seemingly innocuous steps, located in the heart of ancient Rome, became synonymous with death and disgrace, often serving as the final destination for the empire's enemies and criminals.

Origin and Purpose

The Scalae Gemoniae, which translates to "Stairs of Mourning," were originally built as a simple staircase connecting the Capitoline Hill, Rome's symbolic center of power and religion, to the Forum Romanum, the bustling nucleus of Roman public life. However, their proximity to the political and religious heart of the city soon bestowed upon them a much grimmer purpose.

Constructed around the beginning of the first century, potentially under the reign of Emperor Augustus, the Scalae Gemoniae, or Gemonian stairs, gained their notorious reputation during the rule of Augustus' successor, Tiberius. It was Tiberius who initiated the practice of executing political adversaries, such as Lucius Sejanus who plotted against him, on these stairs.

Similar to the notorious Tarpeian Rock, the Gemonian Stairs served as a site for the public shaming of criminals whom the Romans sought to dishonor. While the Tarpeian Rock was reserved for executing the most heinous offenders by hurling them to their demise, the Gemonian Stairs were employed in a distinct manner, aiming to tarnish the reputations of its victims through their display.

Tiberius, the second Emperor of Rome
The portrait of Tiberius, the second Emperor of Rome. Illustration: DALL-E

Transformation into a Site of Execution

Under the rule of Emperor Tiberius, in the early 1st century AD, the stairs gained notoriety as a place where the bodies of executed prisoners were displayed.

The condemned were often strangled in prison, because just falling down the stairs would not be fatal most of the times and  then their lifeless bodies were thrown down the steps for the public to see, serving as a gruesome warning against defying the state's authority.

Sometimes though, the procedure was different.

Those sentenced to a dishonorable demise would first be executed atop the stairs, their bodies subsequently cast down the steps. Left exposed for several days, the remains would be subject to scavenging by dogs and birds of prey, culminating in their eventual disposal into the Tiber River dragged off with a hook.

This practice cemented the stairs' reputation as a symbol of imperial judgment and the retribution that awaited Rome's traitors. When the body of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, know as Sejanus (the Prefect of the Praetorian guard and confidant of Tiberius, who plotted against him) the crowd was in such a state of a frenzy that tore his body into pieces by their bare hands.

Cassius Dio notes in his Roman History about Sejanus:

…”For the moment, it is true; he was merely cast into prison, but a little later, in fact, that very day, the senate associated in the temple of Concord not far from the jail, when they saw the attitude of the populace and that none of the Pretorians was about, and condemned him to death. By their order he was executed and his body cast down the Stairway, where the rabble abused it for three whole days and afterwards threw it into the river.”

In a twist of fate, upon Tiberius's assassination—suffocated in his sleep by Caligula and his collaborators—crowds congregated at the stairs, chanting "Tiberius to the Tiber" and demanded that his body be displayed on the steps.

Suetonious writes about Tiberius in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars:

“The people were so glad of his death that at the first news of it, some ran about shouting, “Tiberius to the Tiber,” while others prayed to Mother Earth and the Manes to allow the dead man no abode except among the damned. Still, others threatened his body with the hook, and the Stairs of Mourning, especially embittered by a recent outrage, added to the memory of his former cruelty.”
Sejanus is arrested and condemned to death
Sejanus is arrested and condemned to death - Public domain

Architectural Details and Location

The exact appearance of the Scalae Gemoniae remains a subject of speculation among historians and archaeologists. The stairs were likely made of stone, well-worn by the passage of countless feet over the years.  It is not absolutely sure where the stairs were exactly, but they probably stretched down from the summit of the Capitoline Hill, cutting through the Roman topography to connect with the central forums below.

Samuel Ball Platner's "A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome" describes the Scalae Gemoniae as a series of steps ascending to the Capitoline, situated near the carcer, or prison.

This prominent placement meant that the spectacle of death they hosted was not easily ignored and served as a daily reminder of the consequences of crossing the Roman Empire.

A brief stroll from the widely recognized Gemonian Stairs, down Via di San Pietro in Carcere, beyond the Tabularium, and adjacent to the ancient Mamertine Prison, lies a slender staircase. This pathway is believed to be the site (or potentially the terminus) of the historical stairs, with the assumption being that these two staircases were interconnected in the past.

Moreover, the precise timing of the stairs' construction remains unclear to historians, as there are no direct references to their inception in historical texts.

A Place of Public Spectacle

In addition to their function as a terminal point for the executed, the stairs also served as a public spectacle where the populace could indulge their baser instincts, hurling insults and abuse at the bodies of the disgraced. This participation in the spectacle of death was part of the macabre theater of Roman punishment, which combined elements of humiliation, fear, and communal involvement. 

Infamy and Legacy

The notoriety of the Scalae Gemoniae persisted throughout the reigns of subsequent emperors, with the stairs witnessing the aftermath of political purges and the fall of those who lost the deadly game of Roman politics. Over time, the name "Gemonian Stairs" became a byword for the empire's cruelty and the capricious nature of its rulers.

The Echoes of Ancient Steps

Today, the Scalae Gemoniae are long gone, their precise location and form lost to time. Yet, their legacy endures in the historical record as an emblem of the Roman approach to power, punishment, and public order. They stand as a stark reminder of a time when the line between justice and vengeance was blurred, and where the steps of a staircase could lead not just to the heart of a city, but to the end of a life.

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