The sun glistens off the marble seats of Constantinople’s Hippodrome. Packed around the claustrophobic semi-circular Sphendone section, the crowd grows impatient. For a moment, all falls silent. Then there is an outburst of howls, jeers, and roars, as a feeble man hobbles into the arena, a cavern where his nose once was. He leads a donkey, atop of which sits an older gentleman, dressed in silk; all the hair has been plucked from his face and head, his eyes have been cut out and he sits backwards, holding the ass’ tail. The audience spits and screams; others laugh. Such is the price of insolence in the Byzantine Empire. It had not always been this way. Although the Byzantines considered themselves Romans, they spoke Greek, and they infused Roman law with an eclectic mix of eastern traditions and Christian fervour. The result was a brutal justice system, with liberal use of corporal mutilation: limbs hacked off, eyes destroyed with hot pokers, noses slit, tongues torn out, and genitals mutilated. While such methods may have seemed strange in the former Roman Empire, it was business as usual here in the east.
A HISTORY OF PUNITIVE MUTILATION Punitive amputations can be traced all the way back to the world’s first known collection of laws, issued in around 1750 BC by the Babylonian king Hammurabi. In Sumerian society, a son who struck his father, or a barber who illegally branded a free person a slave, would have a hand cut off. Meanwhile, if the son of a prostitute denounced his adoptive parents, his tongue would be cut out. The Babylonians also pioneered castration, even earlier in 3000 BC – believing that eunuchs made diligent priests, musicians, cooks, and even harem guards. Seeing an opportunity, the Middle Assyrians used violent castration to punish homosexuals, and the Egyptians castrated rapists, sometimes even cutting off their penis, nose, and ears. Both civilisations also castrated adulterers, while the Egyptians cut the noses off unfaithful women. Castration was also used as an act of dominance by eastern conquerors. In his violent campaign to destroy Babylon, Sennacherib bragged of how he not only cut off his enemies’ lips, but “tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers”. The thirteenth-century BC Assyrian king Shalmaneser boasted that he once blinded 14,400 prisoners of war in one eye, while the Egyptian king Merneptah collected the genitals of 13,000 defeated Libyan and Mediterranean soldiers.
In the west, early Roman law was fairly subjective when it came to punishment. While some crimes, such as treason, murder, and incest, could be punished with death, minor offenders were often exiled or fined. Capital punishment was usually reserved for slaves, traitors, deserters, and other common criminals, who might find themselves strangled, beheaded, thrown from the Tarpeian rock, or hurled into a river in a sack – accompanied by a wild ape, dog, cockerel, and snake. As the republic became an empire, the Romans grew more creative, turning punishment into grand spectacles of pain and humiliation. At the inaugural games of the Coliseum, criminals were executed in elaborate productions of Greek myths – inspired by Prometheus, one man was crucified and eaten alive by a bear, while another was burned, evoking Hercules. Persecutors, such as Nero and Diocletian, reserved particularly cruel methods for early Christians. Despite this passion for elaborate executions, the Romans never embraced punitive mutilation. The poet Martial, who died in AD 103, once admonished a man who cut off his adulterous wife’s nose – indicating that while Rome might tolerate this mutilative act of retribution, it did not condone it. The passage is telling; noses were deeply symbolic to the Romans. Many prominent families were even named after the distinctive shapes of their noses. One member of the Tullius family, for example, was named after Cicero’s unique cleft, which resembled a chickpea. The loss of one’s nose, therefore, was a deeply symbolic gesture. After Nero died, many expressed their hatred by breaking the noses off his and his wife’s statues.
THE FIRST CUT When Constantine the Great ascended to power, ruling from his eastern capital of Constantinople, he not only became the first emperor to embrace Christianity, but the first to enforce punitive amputation. Instead of being executed, slaves who tried to escape would have a leg amputated. Although mutilations remained sparse, in the fourth and fifth centuries, three usurpers were punished with amputation. Fur-
Ancient History 18 23