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by Archaeology Newsroom

The death penalty

In ancient Greece people condemned to death by the court were executed either by taking hemlock or by being thrown over a precipice or, finally, by death “on the board’. Poisoning of the condemned with hemlock was first practiced towards the end of the 5th century BC. Rather than a mode of execution, poisoning must be considered as an exhortation to suicide, after all, a merciful treatment of the condemned, since his corpse was delivered after death to his relatives for burial. In throwing a criminal over a precipice, an executional practice common not only in Athens but also in Sparta, Delphi, Corinth, and probably in Thessaly, the convict was pushed over a high and steep cliff into a deep trench called Varathron in Athens, Kaeadas in Sparta and Korakes at Thessaly. This mode of execution was rather reserved for religious or political criminals, as was also the case with poisoning, but it involved in addition a prohibition of burial. Throwing over a precipice is not mentioned after 406 BC and the new trench dug by the Athenians in the 4th century was most probably purposed to accept the otherwise executed convicts. The third type of execution is mentioned in classic literature but in a laconic way. Nowhere has a detailed description survived. According to later lexicographers the execution was performed with the help of the “tympanon” (= drum), a wooden death instrument. This interpretation had not been disputed before the second decade of our century, when the archaeologists Kourouniotis and Pelecidis discovered an ancient cemetery in the area of Phaliron, impressive for its dense burials. Among the 86 graves excavated, one of the early Archaic period was quite significant, since 17 men had been buried in it without any burial offerings. Each skeleton wore an iron ring around the neck, the hands and the ankles with sharp projections still preserving wooden remnants. Judging from this evidence one can conclude that each dead body had been stretched on a board, 50-55 m. wide and had been kept still with the help of any rings that were nailed on the board. In 1923, the archaeologist Keramopoulos proved in his internationally recognized study that the aforetold grave of Phaliron reveals the most common, legal mode of executing criminals that had been used from the pre-Solonian period until the 4th century B.C. Based not only on the archaeological finds but also on literary sources like Thesmophoriazouses, Aristophanes’ comedy (verse 930 and following), Keramopoulos’ theory proved beyond doubt that death on the board was the means of execution of the 17 men buried in Phaliron.