Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Historical Perspectives

It’s time for another history minute, brought to you by Suetonius. Here he’s describing some of the bad deeds performed by the Emperor Tiberius:
A detailed list of Tiberius’s barbarities would take a long time to compile; I shall content myself with a few samples. …

Some of the accused, on being warned to appear in court, felt sure that the verdict would be ‘guilty’ and, to avoid the humiliation of a trial, stayed at home and severed an artery; yet Tiberius’s men bandaged their wounds and hurried them, half-dead, to prison. Others obeyed their summons and then drank poison in full view of the Senate. The bodies of all executed persons were flung on the Stairs of Mourning, and dragged to the Tiber with hooks — as many as twenty a day, including women and children. Tradition forbade the strangling of virgins; so, when little girls had been condemned to die in this way, the executioner began by violating them. Tiberius used to punish with life those who wished to die. He regarded death as a comparatively light affliction, and on hearing that a man named Carnalus had forestalled his execution by suicide, exclaimed: “Carnalus has got away!” Once, during a gaol inspection, a prisoner begged to be put out of his misery; Tiberius replied: “No; we are not yet friends again.”

In Capri they still show the place at the cliff top where Tiberius used to watch his victims being thrown into the sea after prolonged and exquisite tortures. A party of marines were stationed below, and when the bodies came hurtling down they whacked at them with oars and boot-hooks, to make sure that they were completely dead. An ingenious torture of Tiberius's devising was to trick men into drinking huge draughts of wine, and then suddenly to knot a cord tightly around their genitals, which not only cut into the flesh but prevented them from urinating.

And they still had Caligula to look forward to.

It’s helpful to keep things in historical perspective. We have clowns, they had monsters. So I guess we should consider ourselves lucky. Of course, we invade foreign countries to rip off their resources, launch drone strikes, set mercenaries loose on helpless populations, and round people up and throw them into torture chambers, but, you know, that’s different.

Now that I think about it, I can imagine Dick Cheney knotting a chord around someone’s genitals. I can even imagine him enjoying it.

This is the cliff that Tiberius threw his victims from:

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