Around the reign of Augustus (r. 31 BCE – 14 CE), a stairway was constructed that led from the edge of the Roman Forum and ascended up the Capitoline Hill. This piece of infrastructure was known as the Gemonian Stairs or Steps (Scalae Gemoniae in Latin), and quickly gained a reputation as an infamous landmark in ancient Rome.
After the stairway was constructed, it did not take long for the location to become a frequent host to grotesque displays. Unfortunately, around the beginning of the 1st century, the Roman authorities began an unsightly tradition of using the stairway as a location to leave the exposed bodies of executed criminals. Although the steps were a depository for the disgraced dead, it was also a frequent venue for executions, in general.
The first mention of the Gemonian Stairs being used as a monument to capital punishment comes from commentary on the reign of Rome’s second emperor, Tiberius (r. 14-37). During his period of rule, it was a familiar sight to see corpses strewn along the steps. Tacitus (c. 56-117) wrote that, by the year 20, the Gemonian Stairs had become thoroughly associated with execution. During that year, when Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso was tried for the murder of Tiberius’ adopted son, Germanicus, the Roman people chose the steps as their location for a peaceful riot where they called for Piso’s execution. The Roman masses were also said to have flocked to cheer at the Gemonian Stairs more than a decade later when, in the year 31, Tiberius chose the infamous stairway as the venue for the execution of his treasonous chief administrator, Lucius Aelius Sejanus.
With the Gemonian Stairs serving such grim purposes, it is unsurprising that the path was sometimes referred to as the Stairs of Mourning. The exact location of the stairway is unknown, but many scholars believe it may have roughly lined up with the modern Via di San Pietro in Carcere, Rome.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of a painting of The Pomekin Stairs in Odessa, published by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1905. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.