Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

7

RITUALS, SPECTACLES, AND THE TIBER RIVER

To the Tiber with Tiberius! ('Tiberium in Tiberim!')

(Suetonius Tiberius 75.1)

We have seen that professional gladiators were definitely allowed the burial they had earned, that some arena refuse was possibly dumped on the Esquiline during the Republic, that fire, crucifixion, and beasts were means more of killing than of disposal, and that arena meat was probably distributed to the people of Rome. We have not yet, however, accounted for large quantities of human arena victims. This chapter will investigate the disposal of human victims via the Tiber River as a traditional and pragmatic custom. Although moderns have overlooked the idea, flowing water offered a logistically sensible and emotionally satisfying answer to the problem of disposal of corpses from arenas at Rome.

When Rome transposed theatrical abuse and ritualized executions of noxii to the arena on a spectacular scale, religious and practical problems about efficiency, haste, security, and disposal needed attention. Rome's wish to extend punishment and revenge by not providing-or even by preventing-proper burial rites left anxiety about hostile spirits. Rome easily assured itself that the killings were justified, but even the premature, violent deaths of worthless humans required some ritual removal and cleansing so that the spirits of the dead, which stayed near the body, would not trouble the living. Rome needed some means or rite of expelling those spirits and thus purifying Rome, and the ideal means were close at hand. Roman history and religion point to the Tiber River, more than to pits, beasts, and fire, as a traditional means of ultimate disposal (and of denial of burial) for victims. Examination of early executions and later spectacles, often taking place close to the river, indicates that the Tiber was repeatedly used to dispose of corpses. The Tiber River and its bridges were intimately related to old cults and rituals at Rome, and, as a traditional way to dispose of waste, the river offered expediency and purification. 1

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