During the period of the Roman Empire, capital punishment, or execution for certain crimes, was commonly practiced throughout the provinces controlled by Rome. The first official Roman judicial position on the death penalty for crimes in Roman culture goes back to the Twelve Tables of 450 BC, which is the earliest known Roman law code. Roman law and capital punishment from the Empire period can be examined through the 6th century Digest compiled by Justinian, which contains much information from Ulpian and Paulus Prudentissimus who lived in the 2nd century AD, in addition to excerpts of Roman period writers such as Suetonius, Cicero, Livy, Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Plutarch, and Justin Martyr. By the time of the Empire, the law codes had been softened to only enforce execution for what Rome considered to be the most heinous of crimes, including treason, murder, adultery, libel, robbery, and arson. Adultery and rape seem to have been considered heinous crimes, but punishment depended on the persons involved and the situation, and although death was sometimes the result, it was carried out by private citizens rather than state enforced (Moore, “Cruel and Unusual Punishment in the Roman Empire and Dynastic China”). This list of crimes eligible for capital punishment during the Roman Empire was even more extensive for non-citizens, foreigners, and slaves. For example, slaves could be executed for forgery, while citizens could not. Citizens, and in particular the elite, were generally given more lenient punishments than non-citizens and slaves (Justinian, Digest). However, even the elite suffered the death penalty for treason and certain murders. In fact, the most brutally punished capital offences in ancient Rome were treason and parricide (murder of a family member), which reflects the Roman cultural belief in the primacy of the state and the family. While the method of execution typically differed for citizens and was less extreme, in cases of treason a Roman might be crucified, lashed to death, or burned alive, while in the case of parricide a special type of capital punishment called poena cullei (punishment of the sack) was employed in which the offender was placed in a leather sack with a rooster, a dog, a snake, and a monkey, then thrown into the sea, lake, or river (Egmond, “The Cock, the Dog, the Serpent, and the Monkey”).
Methods of execution included beheading, strangling, being cast from a great height, being buried alive, drowning, death by beast, and crucifixion. In the case of the elites, rather than face impending execution and public dishonor, suicide was often chosen as what Romans considered a more honorable option. However, the elite senatorial and equestrian classes, being in control of politics and the courts, typically received less harsh punishments unless enforced by the Emperor or another very powerful Roman. Instead, exile was often used, which ranged from temporary to permanent. As an alternative to execution for slaves or the lower classes, being sent to the mines or to the gladiatorial games likely but not always resulted in death. During the 1st century in the Roman Empire, local magistrates such as legates, prefects, and procurators had the power of life and death in their hands in the various provinces. Pilate, as the Prefect, had the final authority on capital punishment in Judaea Province during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:1-15). At first seeking to have Jesus convicted of the capital crime of treason and rebellion, the Sanhedrin went to the governor with these accusations, but Pilate did not find Jesus guilty of these crimes (Luke 23:1-5). Fearing dire consequences if he resisted, Pilate eventually yielded to the demands of the Judean religious leaders and allowed Jesus to be crucified. The Romans knew the pain and dishonor of crucifixion, and avoided it as punishment for other Romans and themselves even if it meant suicide (Seneca, Ad Luicilium Epistulae Morales). Unlike Paul, Jesus was not a Roman citizen and therefore His execution was eligible for crucifixion rather than a swift and clean death such as beheading (Acts 21:39, 22:28, 25:10-11). Flogging or other forms of inflicting pain and torture usually preceded execution in the Roman Empire (Mark 15:15; John 19:1). After a severe beating that many did not even survive, the criminal would then be forced to carry their wooden crossbeam to the place of execution (Plutarch; Luke 23:26; John 19:16-17; Hebrews 13:12). Just as crucifixions were conducted outside of the city walls of Jerusalem, it was typical Roman practice to hold executions outside the sacred border of a city or military camp (Rupke, “You Shall Not Kill. Hierarchies of Norms in Ancient Rome”). It is obvious that execution for the Romans was used not only as a harsh punishment for the offender, but as a public demonstration and deterrent to all of the observers, exemplified by practices such as conducting crucifixions on the most frequented roads (Pseudo-Quintillian, The Lesser Declamations). Roman leaders recognized that at times people were executed unjustly, but as in the case of Jesus this was usually intentional and politically expedient (Green, “An Ancient Debate on Capital Punishment”). In the Roman Empire, capital punishment was a brutal and feared sentence meant to deter treason, rebellion, and various crimes, but from time to time even the innocent faced death for what was seen as the common good.