Ancient Traditions of Euro-American Violence

by Steven Malik Shelton

In Athens in the year 621 BCE, a man named Draco was commissioned to draw up a legal code of penalties to be utilized by the state. Draco, from which is derived the term “draconian” was strict and unsympathetic toward those he deemed transgressors of the law and his proposed punishments reflected this:

“ ...One penalty was assigned to almost all transgressions, namely death, so that even those convicted of idleness were put to death, and those who stole salad or fruit received the same punishment as those who committed sacrilege or murder. Therefore Demades, in later times, made a hit when he said that Draco’s laws were written not with ink, but blood. And Draco himself, they say, being asked why he made death the penalty for most offences, replied that in his opinion the lesser ones deserved it, and for the greater ones no heavier punishment could be found.”[1]

The Draconian laws of Athens also stipulated that those debtors who could not pay were sold into slavery. Most Athenians who succumbed to this debt slavery were from the poor and the middle classes, which effectively set a larger wedge between the wealthy and the poor.

The ancient Greeks habitually enslaved women and young children. They did this because they viewed men as more rebellious and too costly to maintain. Thus they were almost always killed instead of taken prisoner or captured.

Similar to their spiritual and political descendent, the United States of America, as the Greek city states acquired more power, land and territory their ability and thirst for warfare increased which in turn supplied them with more captives, resulting by the fifth century BCE with Athens having more slaves than free citizens.

The best of Greek culture was stolen from the Africans, along with their knowledge of science, mathematics and philosophy. Thus, Aristotle acknowledged his debt to Egypt. And the philosophies of celebrated Greek thinkers, Plato, Pythagoras and Democritus, were borrowed from the gems of knowledge that they were exposed to in Egyptian temples and universities. In fact, Egypt or Kemet (the land of the Blacks) had been a fountain of learning for Greek intellectuals and they journeyed there frequently to enlighten their minds and their spirits.

Yet this was not enough to appease the Greek penchant for war, violence and plunder that Alexander of Macedonia set loose upon the ancient African centers of culture, and knowledge. The harm he did to human intellectual and spiritual development is inestimable. In Egypt, he set fire to what was probably the world’s greatest library, burning hundreds of thousands of books, parchments and documents, many of which had been preserved and handed down for centuries.

Perhaps this was done out of a desire to destroy any evidence of a superior African civilization. Thus after as much as desired or possible was stolen, usurped, copied and passed off as “Greek civilization” and ingenuity; the rest was destroyed, not only to conceal the crime, but out of a primeval rage that Black people (although conquered militarily) were nevertheless of a superior civilization.

Yet if the methodology behind the assaults was the destruction of evidence of African culture and academia, it was not entirely successful because centuries later scholars would uncover the African genesis of Greek, Roman and European development. Historian Basil Davidson writes:

“Previous European scholarship knew that the foundations of European civilization derived from classical Greek civilization. That scholarship further accepted what the Greeks had laid down as patently obvious: that classical Greek civilization derived its philosophy, its mathematics and much else, from the ancient civilizations of Africa, and above all from the Egypt of the Pharaohs. To those founding fathers in classical Greece, any notion that Africans were inferior, morally or intellectually, would have seemed silly.”[2]

These aggressive and violent practices, whether infringing upon the rights of others, composing harsh laws and penalties, or stealing the culture and advancement of the Africans and slyly passing it off as its own, acted as catalysts and precedents for similar activities which would permeate European culture and be handed down in an unbroken chain for millenniums. Indeed up to the establishment and development of the United States of America, thus prompting Ta-Nehishi Coates to comment in the Washington City Paper:

“. . . the (Washington) Smithsonian is far from being a bastion of racial tolerance. As recently as 1989, its minority hiring came under the scrutiny of a congressional investigation, which concluded that minorities were grossly underrepresented in its upper echelons . . .And its worth mentioning that the Museum of Natural History’s African Hall has been shut down, in part because of its racist depictions.”[3]

The Romans

The Roman Empire has exerted tremendous influence on the Western world and its ideals, concepts, laws and practices.

Perhaps no other culture can equal the ancient Romans in concocting fiendish methods of torture or in exporting violence to other lands in the form of its many legions, vassals, and armaments.

Roman courts routinely used torture to extract confessions from those suspected of crimes against the state, or often at the whim of the Emperor if a subject had elicited his displeasure.

The Romans are also known for the ugly practice of presenting exhibits where unfortunate persons (usually Christians but sometimes foreigners and occasionally Roman citizens) were thrown into the arena to be devoured by an assortment of wild, ferocious beasts.

Crucifixion was another Roman practice used against enemies. Or, in a modification of hanging, a victim was suspended by the neck by a fork fashioned for this purpose. Branding with red-hot irons was also a favored method to inflict pain and to identify criminals or others who were considered undesirables.

Torture was usually carried out in court during formal judicial procedures. And the testimony of slaves could only be admitted as evidence if it had been obtained under the duress of torture. This practice was a forerunner to the European Inquisition of the Middle Ages, and later the devilish instruments of torment were used against Africans that had been enslaved in the Americas.

The violent practice of whipping or flogging was also used in Rome to punish those who were considered miscreants and routinely used on slaves. Louis Lyons writes in his book, The History of Punishment:

“The ancient Romans were especially fond of flogging their slaves. Roman poet Horace (65 BCE-8 CE) wrote that when whipping a slave it was not uncommon for the executioners to collapse from exhaustion before the job was finished. Minor offences were punished with a flat leather strap called a ferula; more severe was the scutica which was made of strips of still parchment. There was also an ox-hide cart-whip and, most feared of all, the flagella, which was used as a weapon in the gladiatorial arena. This consisted of long ox-hide throngs, which were knotted or weighted down with slivers of bone, metal balls or hooks. This weapon was the precursor to the famous “cat o’ nine tails’ later favored by the British Navy.”[4]

The Romans also started the tradition of public flogging, when those convicted of capital crimes were whipped on the way to their places of execution, as Jesus reportedly was on the way to Calvary. This was, perhaps, the origin of the English practice of whipping at the cart’s tail, where an offender was tied to the back of a cart and whipped as he was led through town.”[5]

Roman law was often harsh and cruel in other areas, as enacted in the Twelve Tablets, which formed the foundation of Roman jurisprudence. A person found guilty of slander was summarily beaten to death with clubs. Thieves were flogged. Slaves convicted of stealing were killed by being thrown off Tarplian rock on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, and death was also the penalty for perjury, bribery and treason.[6]

Methods of Torture and Execution

After the second century AD, more vicious and excruciating forms of torture and death were devised in Rome. Punishments for Roman soldiers, senators and council members were death by decapitation (a relatively swift and painless procedure, especially if the welder of the sword was proficient at his work).

Slaves, foreigners, criminals, and common folk met with a much harsher and dramatic demise. Some of the methods used were to be torn apart and devoured by wild animals which had intentionally been starved into ravenous aggression; to be crucified (sometimes upside down) and left to rot on display as ghoulish example to others; or to be burned alive with the shrieks and screams of the condemned merging with the hoots and laughter of the spectators.

The Emperor Constantine (306-37 A.D.) devised a few innovative punishments of his own. Those who were hapless enough to be found guilty of abducting virgin women were subjected to the torment of having molten lead forced down their throats. Some of the punishment was devised as a sort of poetic justice. For example, an arsonist was sentenced to suffer the ignoble death of being burned alive, and those found guilty of fraud had both hands sliced by a craftsman welding a sharp knife.

Perhaps the most terrifying and excruciating punishments carried out under the auspices of the Roman Empire was the throwing of enemies of the State to wild animals. These incredibly violent spectacles went on sometimes from morning to dusk and, again, were attended by the Romans in a festive, carnival-like manner. Those who were accused of being Christians were very often the focus of uniquely horrific torment. They were gamely given a choice; they could renounce their religion and sever allegiance to Rome (in such case they might be dispatched quickly) or they could refuse and be used as dinner bait for a wide variety of lions, tigers, elephants, panthers, hyenas, bears, bulls and wild dogs. The more fortunate ones were killed quickly by the lethal swipe of a big cat’s paw or by the bone crushing bite of their powerful jaws. Yet, very often, the condemned had the misfortune of being placed on a stake and ripped apart piecemeal by smaller predators such as leopards, hyenas, or jackals, thus prolonging the unimaginable terror and agony of the victims.

Rebellious slaves were particularly feared and despised by the Romans because of their close proximity to their masters (almost all of the Roman Senate and aristocracy owned slaves) and the requisite vulnerability of the owners to various forms of assault, both open and covert. Those slaves found guilty of crimes against the establishment were, without exception, either flogged to death, hanged, or fed alive to (the ever available) carnivorous beasts.

When the Thracian slave, Spartacus, led a slave uprising in 73 BCE, it accelerated into an army of thousands. The slave army was at first successful and defeated every legion that Rome sent against it. Yet, eventually they were vanquished by the sheer numerical and logistical superiority of the Roman armies. Reportedly, Spartacus was killed in the final battle, and the remaining 6,000 men were crucified along the Appian which spanned from Rome to Capua.[7]

Notes and References:

[1] Plutarch, Lives, XVII: 1-2

[2] Basil Davidson, Africa in History, (1991)

[3] Randall Robinson, The Debt, Penguin Books Ltd. (2001)

[4] Lewis Lyons, The History of Punishment, Ambers Books Ltd, London, England (2003) p. 85

[5] Ibid

[6] The Ascent of Rome, accessible online at:

[7] Slavery Past and Present accessible online at:

Ancient Traditions of Euro-American Violence by Steven Malik Shelton

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