Roman Torture?

David Bromwich in the Huffington Post writing about US torture etc. mentions, inter alia:

Romans of the imperial age practiced torture against enemy combatants on an imposing scale of unrestraint. The gloves were really off. Any viewer of the final montage of Kubrick’s film of Spartacus will remember the captives of the slave rebellion nailed on their crosses like trees of that peculiar climate. The Christian religion was founded against the empire that did such things. It incorporated into its central symbol the purest revulsion from torture.

Okay … let’s distinguish between ‘torture for information’ and ‘torture as part of the execution process … do we have evidence of the Romans ‘torturing for information’ in a military context?

3 thoughts on “Roman Torture?

  1. The Romans certainly practised “torture for information” in a forensic context (and were aware of the possible problems therewith, as legal texts such as Justinian’s Digest show), so the idea of it in a military one does not seem inherently implausible.

  2. The Romans certainly did some odd things. Do you recall the passage from Martial where a condemned criminal is forced to re-enact the story of Scaevola, holding his right hand in the flame until it was burned off, for the entertainment of the crowd. The victim was induced to do this by the promise that he would be burned alive if he didn’t.

    Likewise in Tertullian’s “Ad Nationes”, a similar event is recorded where someone is forced to castrate themselves in the arena, reenacting the myth of Attis, again for the benefit of the crowd.

    Torture was for fun, evidently.

  3. By the way, the habit of contrasting Roman attitudes and behaviour on this score with those of Christianity is by no means new – it is to be found in various forms regularly, for example, in the author’s own views and his reactions to others in Otto Kiefer’s Kulturgeschichte Roms unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Römischen Sitten (Berlin : Paul Aretz 1933), translated by Gilbert and Helen Highet as Sexual Life in Ancient Rome (London : Routledge & Kegan Paul 1934); however, if it is true that “the Christian religion was founded against” a society that exhibited such practices, that “revulsion” does not, as a matter of history, seem to have made officially Christian societies or individuals any less open to, or inventive in, methods and uses of torture than were the ancients, so that this comment amounts to little more than cliched Roman-bashing.

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