, , , , , , , , ,

It’s funny sometimes how Latin terms are glossed. Consider Sallust, Catilinae Coniuratio 55.5;

in eum locum postquam demissus est Lentulus, vindices rerum capitalium, quibus praeceptum erat, laqueo gulam fregere

This is typically translated as something like the following:

When Lentulus had been let down into this place, executioners, to whom orders had been given, strangled him with a cord.

The translation above is almost exactly the one on Perseus, which is the 1899 English translation by J.S. Watson. But he has glossed “executioners” above as “certain men”.

But even then, the word “executioners” is a certain type of gloss. The Latin in question is vindices rerum capitalium, which is far more literally something like “the revengers of the capital matters”, or perhaps more favorably but still rather cryptic (although no more cryptic than “certain men”): “capital revengers”. Anyway this is where we get the idea of “capital punishment” or “capital crimes” from.

A strange turn of phrase, perhaps, but how exactly did Lentulus (and Cethegus, Statilius, and others too) die at the illegal order of Cicero? Is that “strangled with a cord”? Well, yes, but … no. In fact it’s far more brutal than that!

The Latin words for the method of execution are laqueo gulam fregere. Laqueo is ablative laqueus, meaning noose, snare, etc, lets say “by a noose”. Gulam is straightforward: it’s accusative gula – the throat or neck. Now that’s leaves the verb, fregere. Oh yes, perhaps “strangled”, but not exactly: there’s some typical archaising going on here by Sallust that’s altered the form of the verb somewhat, it’s really frango frangere fregi fractum … and look at that supine, fractum, which is were we ultimately derives the word “fracture”. And indeed frango means more like “break”, “crush”, “grind”, “bruise” and also by transference, “violate”, “subdue”, “soften”, and “weaken”. Lentulus is having his throat violated. This being ancient Rome, it’s not a noose breaking the neck as in a 19th century long-drop hanging: it’s a rather brutal garrotting, pure and simple.

So sure, while it might be fine to think that “certain men … strangled him with a cord”, but that makes it sound rather more pleasant a death than the way it surely was (and Sallust had just finished describing just how disgusting in darkness, filth, and smell, the dungeon where the execution took place, actually was). Therefore I think it’s far more fitting to think that in the dark and fetid pit of the Tullianum, that “the capital revengers … crushed his throat with a noose”.