The most famous imposition of capital punishment in the history of the world is surely the Roman provincial execution carried out during the reign of Tiberius, around the year AD 27, by order of Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, on an allegedly subversive religious reformer. Because of that event, a Roman instrument of capital punishment became the worldwide, agelong symbol of the Christian faith. Especially in the Catholic tradition of the crucifix, the cross is no mandelalike abstract symbol; the agony of the condemned is explicitly and vividly portrayed.
The crucifixion of Christ made the fact of capital punishment one of the most familiar features of the Roman world order. Millions of people know nothing of the Romans save that they put to death the central figure of their religion. The tradition of the Christian martyrs added many more victims to traditional memory, and other horrifying forms of execution. In modern times, popular literature has added to the theme, with lurid tales of the condemned sent to fight men or beasts in the Arena. Historical movies made the bloodthirstiness of Roman authorities a standard image, as in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, with its widescreen Technicolor vision of the six thousand rebel slaves put to death when their revolt failed.
The Roman imposition of capital punishment, commonly portrayed as cruel and arbitrary, has thus become a major part of our standard popular image of Rome. In ironic counterpoint, however, the greatest positive achievement of the Romans is often held to be the development of Roman law. The Romans made a science of law, as the Greeks, generally far more analytical and intellectual, never did.1 Roman law was
... the most equitable, reasonable, and enlightened
law that man had yet formulated, far transcending
the hodgepodge of "Godgiven" laws in the Old
Roman law was also the primary basis on which the ...