Tarpeian Rock, or locally Rupe Tarpea, is a steep cliff located on the southern side of the Capitoline Hill, just above the Roman Forum and, for centuries, the location was used an an execution sites.
People who had been convicted of crimes were thrown from the 25-meter cliff ledge down to the Forum below. This method of execution carried a stigma of shame and was considered a fate worse than death. It was reserved as punishment for crimes that were considered especially heinous like treason, murder, and perjury. Also larcenous slaves, if convicted by the quaestores parricidii (quaestors with judicial powers), were flung from the cliff to their deaths.
According to early Roman histories, when the Sabine ruler Titus Tatius attacked Rome after the Rape of the Sabines (8th century BC), Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, governor of the citadel on the Capitoline Hill, betrayed the Romans by opening the city gates for Titus Tatius in return for “what the Sabines bore on their arms” (golden bracelets and bejeweled rings).
Although she helped the Sabines, they crushed her with their shields and buried her on what became known as the Tarpeian Rock. Not by chance, not long after, the cliff became an execution site for traitors.
The shrines built by the Sabines on Tarpeian Rock were demolished around 500 B.C. by the seventh and last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, who leveled the area to construct the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus that, at the time, was the most important temple in Rome.
The cliff was used for executions until the late first century. There is a Latin phrase, Arx tarpeia Capitoli proxima (“the Tarpeian Rock is close to the Capitol”), a warning that one’s fall from grace can come swiftly….