Interesting ways to execute people in classical Athens

The death of Socrates might give you the impression that classical executions consisted of downing a cup of hemlock, and then drifting off painlessly during an erudite discussion on the finer points of philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hemlock was the execution method for the upper class. Common criminals could expect somewhat harsher treatment.

The laws of Draco specified death for virtually every crime from murder, to shortchanging a customer in the agora. By classical times the Draconian laws had been repealed, but from the number of times they get referenced in court cases it's a fair guess people still had regard to them.

If you were an average convicted crim, you could forget about hemlock. More likely you faced a complex stock which trapped your wrists and ankles. A metal collar was then placed around your neck, and this was progressively tightened until you strangled, or your vertebrae snapped. This is very similar to an execution method popular in Spain up to Napoleonic times. The Spanish too used a metal collar that used a screw to tighten it to either strangle or break the neck, depending on how quickly the executioner worked.

I've read a mild suggestion that there was an execution ground outside the city, on the right hand side of the northern road to Piraeus. I think it certain that such executions must have been carried out outside city bounds, but I know of no archaeological evidence for a location.

It's possible there were stonings for some particularly heinous crimes. If so, then killing your father would have been one of them. There are known rituals in which stonings were acted out. Certainly other cities had stoned their citizens.

The Greeks were much more spear people than sword people. But spears make rotten weapons for executions. There are documented military executions done using swords. Since Greek swords were rather short, this would have been up close and personal. Probably the victim kneeled and was either struck in the back of the neck, as per a mediaeval execution, or else the sword was thrust from above into the heart. Think something like the early scene in Gladiator where Maximus is taken into the woods to be executed (and promptly kills his captors).

The Athenians had one very interesting attitude totally different from other civilizations: they were just as happy if a condemned prisoner simply went away. If someone wanted to run, thus exiling himself forever rather than face death, then that was just fine. In fact they seem to have almost gone out of their way to leave the prison doors ajar. Clearly the Athenians were not a particularly vindictive people, and equally clearly they considered that to no longer be a citizen of Athens was a fate every bit as bad as death, which tells us a lot about how much they valued their citizenship. The number of men who chose to remain and die rather than lose their city is quite amazing.

9 comments:

Sarah W said...

Could those who were ostracized and exiled have chosen death, instead? Or were most of these exiles (officially or tacitly) temporary?

Themistocles seems to have been too practical (and intelligent) a man to consider it, but was it possible?

Gary Corby said...

Ostracism was different again. If you were ostracized, it didn't mean you were a criminal. It meant you were irritating. You had to stand in the naughty corner for 10 years and then you could come back. Many ostracized men went on to great standing in the community.

If you were convicted of a crime and condemned to death, you could choose self-exile instead, which meant there was no coming back. Not ever.

There were some men who surely could have run for it, and yet chose instead to be executed. Exile was not necessarily considered an easier option. Themistocles came up trumps on the exile option, but his case was remarkable.

chiliarch said...

What about the generals condemned to death after Arginusae (the younger Pericles among them)? There seems to be some confusion as to how they died. Were they killed and then thrown into the pit (probably the execution ground you mention), or were they thrown into the pit alive? If executed first would this have been by taking hemlock or by the use of weapons or stones? What is your opinion on this?

Gary Corby said...

I've wondered about that myself. The original sources don't say.

They were convicted in a civil court, so they should in theory have been given the hemlock option. But they were all military men, and the hysteria surrounding the case and the speed of execution suggests otherwise.

My guess is they were all executed by sword.

Gary Corby said...

Forgot to mention the interesting issue of the pit. There were marble quarries and silver mines within walking distance of Athens. My guess is "the pit" is an old, disused quarry or mine. The relevance is that if you weren't buried according to the rites, with coin under the tongue etc, then your psyche was trapped on earth. Depending on your degree of religious belief, this was either a cherry on top to add to being killed, or else the worst part of the punishment.

Meghan said...

Are we talking about the Barathron of Ancient Athens (which some claim is where the Persian heralds were throne before Marathon)?

Botanist said...

Oh, this is so spooky, I just hopped over here fresh from reading critiquers' reactions to an execution scene in my own WIP!

Fascinating post, Gary, especially the last bit about leaving the prison doors open for voluntary exile. And for some reason I thought that hemlock poisoning was supposed to be quite a painful death.

Gary Corby said...

We are indeed talking about Barathron. The really cool thing about writing for this audience is all the people who know it better than me.

What happened to the Generals is worth a blog post all on its own, but as Meghan clearly knows, the relevant quote about the pit is from Hellenica, by Xenophon, in which someone is talking about the punishment for treason:

“You know, men of Athens, the exceeding stringency of the decree of Cannonus, which orders that man, whosoever he be, who is guilty of treason against the people of Athens, to be put in irons, and so to meet the charge against him before the people. If he be convicted, he is to be thrown into the Barathron and perish, and the property of such an one is to be confiscated, with the exception of the tithe which falls to the goddess."

The Barathron is often associated with the Acropolis, but I'm not so sure. Its location is often given as the deme of Keiriadai, which is known for sure to have been west of the Pnyx and outside the city walls. Hence I guess it was an old quarry or mine.

There's also the minor detail that there are multiple ways of reading this passage and the brief allusion in Aristophanes. It's possible to read Barathron as either a prison or, as chiliarch says, as the execution ground alongside the road to Piraeus, which interestingly would be in about the right place. So chiliarch's quite likely got it right. But if so, it wasn't a true pit because there's no evidence of a big hole there.

I just don't know! And I'm not sure there's any conclusive evidence. If anyone can shed light on all this, it'd be very appreciated.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Botanist, if you're interested, I did a post on death by hemlock some time ago. It's here:

Death by Hemlock.