It's pretty neat to look at the concepts of crime and punishment when it comes to ancient civilizations, and to think how far we've come from certain points of view, and how similar we are to them in others. For all the philosophers trying to coin notions such as “universal evil” - I suggest they start from here.
The Romans, with their obsession with laws and formalities, are rather easy to understand for the modern mind. They took crime and punishment pretty seriously, and were particularly creative – as far as the punishment part is concerned. The part that we find odd today is that which stipulates different forms of punishment for the same crime, when committed by people of different social statuses. Then again, do we have the same standards for Hollywood actors, sport stars and rich politicians as we do for the ordinary man?
The best known form of lethal punishment in Ancient Rome was, of course, crucifixion, for obvious reasons. While even some of the more educated Romans considered this to be most cruel and disgusting, it was undeniably effective, both in providing a slow and painful death, and in creating a public display to warn others (crucified bodies where left there to rot and for everybody to see – this being the most likely reason why only one body bearing signs of crucifixion has been found among all the archaeological remains we have from ancient Roman territories).
Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for slaves, pirates and enemies of the state; Roman citizens could be condemned to crucifixion only for high treason (this pretty much implied the loss of the social status as well). The best known case is St.Paul, who was beheaded, being a Roman citizen, while St.Peter, convicted of a similar crime, was crucified.
There are two famous accounts of this method being used on a large scale: once, by Crassus, after crushing Spartacus' revolt. 6,000 captured slaves were crucified, creating a forest of dead bodies from Capua all the way to Rome – a gruesome reminder that Rome was not willing to tolerate such actions or to pardon anybody involved in them or supporting them.
The second case is in 70 AD, during the siege of Jerusalem, when, according to Josephus, the Roman army crucified captives along the walls of the besieged city.
Nero allegedly added a new twist, by setting the crucified bodies on fire and using them to light up the streets (somehow I find it weird that he was still playing with fire after his capital city just got burned down to ground).
The second type of ancient Roman punishment – from the point of view of the fame enjoyed today, is damnatio ad bestias (anybody thinking “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones”?). Once again, it was reserved for slaves, traitors, rebels and deserters (though the punishments used in the Roman Army would have to wait for another time, there's too much to be said about them here. Now we're just having fun.)
I'm not sure whether this form of punishment existed in Republican Rome or was a novelty introduced by the Julio-Claudians, but it caught on. Romans tried using all sorts of animals (they were a bit disappointed by the giraffes, though); sometimes victims were covered in skins from other animals. I told you they were creative, didn't I?
Have you ever thought at death by theater? Another creation of the Julio-Claudians, which gained them a lot of praise from drama fanatics, was to use death convicts as actors, for scenes that depicted a death. And, since plays were often based on mythological subjects, there was no shortage of innovative ways of killing somebody.
Roman citizens, as I've said before, were most commonly punished by beheading, and often were offered the choice of taking the honorable way out and committing suicide. (This was not just honorable, it was also a financial issue, since it allowed the family to inherit the fortune of the condemned citizen without much legal fuss.)
Exile deserves a separate chapter, since, during the Republic, it was not so much a form of punishment, as a way to avoid punishment and live happily ever after in a nice and civilized place like Athens or Rhodes. The emperors used exile in a more effective way, even if they were running out of places fit for exile, since the Roman civilization had taken over the whole known world by then... Augustus notably used various islands for his family members, including his daughter and grand-daughter.
And now, the drums... The award for the most creative punishment goes to Lex Pompeia de parricidiis, which regulates the punishment for parricide. The first interesting part is that it extends the notion of parricide for other relatives (including step father and step mother, uncles and aunts). We have to consider that parricide – while completely unacceptable in any society – was even more important for Romans, where the father held the ultimate authority, including the right to life and death for his entire family.
So, how creative were the Romans with this one? The killer was to be whipped till bleeding, then sewn in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and and an ape, and thrown into the sea. I guess dogs and roosters were readily available, but do you suppose they kept stocks of vipers and apes just in case? (Actually, scholars believe that the ape was added later for the dramatic effect.)
Emperor Hadrian, the ultimate role model for bureaucrats everywhere, decided further clarifications were needed, so passed an amendment saying that the killer could be just thrown to the beasts, if the sea was too far away to properly execute the punishment.