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Death Penalty Methods from Ancient Times Until Today

Historical examples of Capital punishment from ancient times until today

Capital punishment, or the death penalty, gets its name from the Latin word ‘capital’ which meant ‘concerned with the head’. Originally a capital crime was punished by the severing of the head--as in ‘decapitating’.

One of the strangest methods of executing a condemned lawbreaker was the one used by the Ancient Romans on those who were pronounced guilty of murdering their fathers. The perpetrators of patricide were tied into a sack with a cockerel, a poisonous snake and a dog, and then thrown into the river, or sea.

According to the law of the Ancient Greeks a man who was condemned to death could choose to kill himself by drinking poison, but only citizens of Greece were eligible for this privilege. Socrates, the well known Greek philosopher, died in this way. At the other end of the scale, a slave who was condemned to death would simply be beaten until he gave up his fight for life.

In Europe during the medieval period, some of the methods of execution handed out to criminals were devised to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering. Some offenders were fastened to huge, heavy cartwheels and rolled around the streets until they were completely crushed to death. Others were strangled as slowly as possible.

The ancients seem to have had a whole list of horrible deaths that they could inflict on those who broke the law of the land and slicing, crucifixion, burning, sawing and crushing are just a few of these which were usually doled out according to status.

One of the harshest of punishments was hanging, drawing and quartering where the criminal was hanged, cut down and disemboweled while still alive and then beheaded and the rest of the body cut into four quarters. This was actually a legal method of execution in Britain until 1814.

Austria was the first country to abandon capital punishment in 1787 and Russia did the same for all offences except treason on the orders of Tsar Nicholas I in 1826, but when the communists took over control after the 1917 revolution, it was re-introduced. In Britain the death penalty was abolished for murder in 1965 and at that time treason was the only crime punishable by death. It was not until 1998 that the penalty for treason was changed to life imprisonment.

Most of the world’s nations have now abolished capital punishment but sixty percent of the world’s population actually lives in countries where the death penalty still exists. Most of these live in United States, India, Indonesia and China; and according to Amnesty International there is little likelihood of this situation changing any time soon.

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