Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.44

Monique Halm-Tisserant, Réalités et imaginaires des supplices en Grèce ancienne. (1st ed. 1998). Études anciennes. Série grecque, 125.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2013.  Pp. 213; 28 p. of plates.  ISBN 9782251326863.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Granger Cook, LaGrange College (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Monique Halm-Tisserant chooses a statement of Louis Gernet as the epigraph of her fascinating book: “Il n’y a rien de plus instructif qu’une promenade au jardin des supplices.”1 The book indeed takes the reader on a walk through the garden of ancient Greek tortures and varieties of capital punishment using literary, historical and lexicographical texts and all the iconographic (and archaeological) evidence she can locate – particularly the paintings on Attic red- and black-figure vases. To my knowledge her investigation is a novum in research on punishment in ancient Greece, although she cites scattered articles from sources such as the DAGR that use images from material culture to illuminate various terms such as crux.2 Three important general works on capital punishments in Greece and Rome, for example, which she cites in her bibliography, lack any images.3

In the introduction she comments on the diversity of Greek terms for the same object (four terms for vertical beams, six for diverse neck constraints, and ten words for shackles) and the importance of archaeological finds such as the skeletons of exposed individuals in Phalerum (ca VII B.C.E.) and Delos (last quarter of II to first quarter of I B.C.E).4 The arts (epic, drama, and vases) and historical, oratorical, and philosophical literature provide most of the evidence. The first chapter comprises a summary of tortures and implements of torture known only through literary sources including impaling (attributed to barbarians), suspension, hanging (episodic and not to be included among the capital penalties of Greece), amputation, and decapitation. Instruments of torture include objects that twist and dislocate bodies: the κλίμαξ, ἀρθρέμβολον, and the “horse” (στρεβλωτήριον, early attestations are verbal only). Objects that lacerate include the ὄνυξ, and instruments that project bodies include the καταπέλτης.

In the second chapter Halm-Tisserant considers tortures that are primarily attested to iconographically and in fiction. The καρκίνος, for example, appears in a historical text (Diod. Sic. 20.71.4) where Agathocles, son of Karkinos, crushes the ankles of some wealthy women. The same object, presumably, appears on a lekuthos of the painter of Megara where it is used to amputate a Lamia’s tongue (E37 Pl. 22). The στρέβλη (which she translates as “capstan?”) perhaps appears on a skyphos (S1 Pl. 2) in which a man is being severely tortured (suspended by hands, neck, and an ankle where the cord is threaded around a circular pulley; his phallus is tied to a cord anchored by a ring on the ground). She reviews diasphendonesis (Sinis; D8 Pl. 4), rending by animals (Dirke; T1 Pl. 5), and flaying (Marsyas; Pl. 6).

The third chapter briefly covers the question of the sadism of tyrants (Agathocles, expelling the fetuses of wealthy women by placing bricks on their backs, Phalaris and the bronze bull, Nabis and a sort of iron maiden named after his wife, Apega (her proposed etymology: ἀ-πήγνuμι)) as a historical phenomenon or one of Greek phantasy. Her conclusion is that the narratives of the tyrants constitute a fictional anthology of sadism.

The fourth chapter, concerning means of detention and humiliating punishments, is divided into four sections: chains and shackles (with rings); constraints for the neck; the humiliating walk (a category in which she includes the punishment of the adulterer in Aristophanes, Nubes 1083-4); and the expulsion of the pharmakos to remove impurity/defilement from a community (e.g., Aristophanes, Ranae 730-3, Vespae 895-7). Halm-Tisserant found many images for the first category. The second, however, is more difficult and includes terms such as the πεντεσύριγγον ξύλον of Aristophanes, Equites 1049 which she conceives to be a rectangular or circular board with five apertures aligned on an axis (p. 90). The Dümmler krater depicts a type of wooden collar or ladder (C78 Pl. 12) in which the necks of two slaves are constrained. To understand the last two categories, for which the evidence is literary and not iconographic (with one possible exception: PH1 = ARV 1156, 11), Halm-Tisserant used the work of Mary Douglas.5

The fifth chapter on the punishments of slaves consists of sections on torture, corporeal punishments, and the wheel. In legal contexts the examination of slaves could range from simple interrogation (Antiphon, De choreuta 23) to such extremes of torture that the slave subsequently died (ibid., 25). Corporeal punishments include branding (C68 Pl. 8) and flogging (Pl. 15). Punishment by the wheel (ἐπὶ τοῦ τροχοῦ στρεβλοῦσθαι) is represented by a rich iconography (R7, R10 Pl. 17, etc.).

The sixth and longest chapter reviews capital punishments in two sections: stoning (λεύσιμος, λιθοβολήσιμος) – a type of penalty that borders on vendetta – and punishments of the city. Stoning was “on the limits of legality” in Halm-Tisserant’s understanding of a Greek practice that was used during periods of crisis, and she finds no imagery for “true stoning,” although there are various depictions of the murder of Orpheus (Pl. 20) in which Maenads drop large stones on him. The punishments of the city include precipitation and exposition while upright, sitting, or lying down. In Athens the βάραθρον and the ὄρυγμα were both used for precipitation. She argues cogently for the position that the living were cast down into both locations (e.g., Plato, Gorg. 516D) – vs. the view that only corpses were precipitated. Like stoning it was used during wartime and was itself “on the limits of legality,” and there are no iconographic representations of the penalty. The length of the section on exposition (158-188, Pl. 21-28 etc.) indicates its fundamental importance in the book. Her general term for exposition on a vertical beam is ἀποτυμπανισμός, which she dates from the fifth century and understands to mean “execution on the plank” in texts such as Lysias, In Agoratum 67. Although she refers to the position of Antonios Keramopoullos who chooses the word as the term for exposition, she curiously does not cite his book – which is admittedly difficult to procure.6 Recently Constantinos Balamoshev has demonstrated that the word and related terms can have other meanings than “expose on a plank,” however (including decapitation, beating to death with clubs, etc.), which he understands to be a later development.7 ἀνασταυρίζω (expose on a plank in texts such as Herodotus 3.125.3) and ἀνασκολοπίζω (should not be translated as “impale” unless ῥάχις is associated with the verb) belong to the vocabulary of exposition. There were a variety of postures associated with the penalty and one of the most painful was the quasi sitting posture of Heracles. Euripides (Hercules 1092-3, 1395-8) notes his painful breathing and petrified limbs. Consequently, she attributes the cause of death by exposition to asphyxiation. Exposition could be accompanied by flagellation and amputation. Transfixion is attested to in history and literature (Herodotus 7.33, Lucian, Prom. 2), and archaeologically (e.g., the House of Fourni on Delos, although the one nearly complete skeleton was also decapitated – nails pierced the bodies). Roman crucifixion was transfixion on a cross.8 She includes images of individuals exposed on single stakes (E9 Pl. 26 and Pl. 23), two stakes (E67 Pl. 28 and Pl. 24), three stakes (E76 Pl. 21), and columns.

In the conclusion she briefly summarizes her findings and notes that stoning and exposition became the most usual modes of execution. The notion of “impurity,” which was experienced as a magical phenomenon in its propagation throughout a community, generated the distancing of executioners, the shame of the condemned, and the spectacle of executions.

In my view this is an extraordinary book and well deserved the Prix Zographos de l’Association pour l’encouragement des études grecques en France in 2000. It would be easier to read if the Greek were not transliterated, and there are a few typographical errors here and there (C70 Pl. 12 should be C78 Pl. 12 on p. 91; Lindell-Scott, p. 201; Thruth, p. 204). Although she includes a subject index, an index to the images would be extremely useful. One can question some of her conclusions from a semantic point of view. An example is hanging in Macedonia. She views (p. 21), for example, κρεμασθέντα in Arrian 4.14.3 (Callisthenes) as an example of hanging. However, several parallel texts to the usage of the same verb in Arrian indicate that he meant exposition or crucifixion and not hanging.9 The TLG is not in her bibliography, and use of it would have enriched her research. These are minor points that do not detract from the high value of Halm-Tisserant’s work.

Table of Contents

Introduction 7-11
Tourments et appareils connus par les sources littéraires 13-40
Tourments et fiction 41-60
Sadisme du tyran ou phantasme grecs sur la tyrannie 61-67
Les moyens de détention et les châtiments infamants 69-109
La questions des châtiments serviles 111-138
Les peines capitales 139-188
Conclusion 189-190
Catalogue iconographique 191-200
Bibliographie 201-206
Index nominum et rerum 207-209


1.   L. Gernet, Droit et institutions en Grèce antique, Paris 1982, 157.
2.   Cf., for example, G. Lafaye, crux, DAGR I/2, 1573–1575, esp. 1574 from whom she takes a drawing of Antigone exposed on a patibulum (Pl. 21 E 77). It is from a larger scene found on a bronze cista from Praeneste (III B.C.E.). On the Roman side there is no dearth of such studies on particular penalties. For damnatio ad bestias, A. van den Hoek and J. J. Herrmann, Jr., “Thecla Beast Fighter: A Female Emblem of Deliverance in Early Christian Popular Art,” in iidem, Pottery, Pavements, and Paradise. Iconographic and Textual Studies on Late Antiquity, SVigChr 122, Leiden 2013, 65-106 have collected many images from African red slip ware and other sources.
3.   J. Barkan, Capital Punishment in Ancient Athens, Chicago 1936 (I have not been able to inspect Barkan’s complete 1935 dissertation, of which the 1936 edition is only an excerpt), T. Mommsen, Le Droit pénal romain, vol. XIX, Manuel des Antiquités Romaines, Paris 1907, and E. Cantarella, I supplizi capitali in Grecia e a Roma, Milano 1996.
4.   P. and N. Ducrey, “Les suppliciés de Fourni,” BCH Suppl. I (1973) 173-81.
5.   M. Douglas, De la souillure. Essai sur les notion de pollution et de tabou, Paris 1971.
6.   Ἀ. Δ. Κεραμόπουλλος, ἀποτυμπανισμός. Συμβολὴ ἀρχαιολογικὴ εἰς τὴν ἱστορίαν τοῦ ποινικοῦ δικαίου καὶ τὴν λαογραφίαν, Βιβλιοθήκη τῆς ἐν Ἀθήναις Ἀρχαιολογικῆς Ἑταιρείας 22, Athens 1923. She refers to Cantarella’s summary of the find (I supplizi, 41) on p. 168. Keramopoullos (ibid., figs. 4-13) has photographs of the skeletons (with attached fetters) and a sketch of the fetters used to hold the individuals in place against what presumably were boards. Gernet, Droit et institutions , 175ff. also uses the term generically for exposition. She (unlike Cantarella) does not address (p. 161) the counterarguments of K. Latte, “Todesstrafe,” PRE Supp. VII (1940) 1599-1619, 1606-8 (who rejects the identification and believes that pirates carried out the execution).
7.   C. Balamoshev, ΑΠΟΤΥΜΠΑΝΙΣΜΟΣ: Just Death by Exposing on the Plank?, JJP 41 (2011) 15-33 (using papyrological evidence and later authors such as Plutarch). It also refers to crucifixion in several usages of Celsus (Origen, C. Cels. 2.31 and 8.54).
8.   Although she believes that the Palatine graffito is the only ancient image of crucifixion, an earlier one from the Trajanic-Hadrianic era was found in Puteoli in a group of tabernae in 1959 and originally published by M. Guarducci, “Iscrizioni greche e latine in una taberna a Pozzuoli,” in Acta of the Fifth International Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy, Cambridge 1967, Oxford 1971, 219-23. Cf. my “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania,” NovT 54 (2012) 68-100, 92-8.
9.   Arrian, Anab. 6.17.2 κρεμάσαι = Curtius 9.8.16 in crucem sublato; Anab. 7.14.4 ἐκρέμασε = Plutarch, Alex. 72.3 (ἀνεσταύρωσεν). Cp. A. B. Bosworth (A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Commentary on Books IV-V, Oxford 1995, 100) who translates the various forms κρεμάσαι in Arrian as “crucify.”

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