Tarpeian Rock, the Abyss Traitors Fall From

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Tarpeian Rock, the Abyss Traitors Fall From

17 / octubre / 2023

The Tarpeian Rock was a place in Ancient Rome where traitors were thrown off into the abyss. The cliff was located on the side of Capitoline Hill and was very close to the Capitolio.

Being so close, there was a saying – that later became a proverb – that went: “the Tarpeian Rock is near the Capitolio.” However, it didn’t refer to its geographic location, but rather to the very common fact that in politics, eminent people are also in danger of falling from the top – precisely because of their “high” ranking.

A more refined version of this saying is: “There is only one step from the Capitolio to the Tarpeian Rock.” This saying proves that the Romans shared the same ups and downs in power and the fleeting nature of some human leaders.

This should be a basic subject in Cuban political education. Teaching about these steep falls (which aren’t always falling up, as we’ve also seen regularly in the past) and lessons about how to sidestep the thunder which, like Jupiter’s thunderbolt breaks “any “cadre”, no matter how big they are, especially those who think – “believe” – they are untouchable and forever in their positions.

Rome is always talking to us, just like Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Ancient Egypt or Hammurabi’s Babylon are; but we insist on not listening.

According to Plutarch, when he writes about Romolus in his Parallel Lives, Tarpeia was the name of a vestal virgin who betrayed Rome and let the Sabines in, who attacked the city after the famous Rape of the Sabines. Legend has it that Tarpeia was mesmerized by the golden bracelets that the enemy soldiers wore and she gave them the Romans’ hiding place in exchange for what they wore on their left arms. However, the vestal virgin also received the heavy shields which the Sabines carried on these arms and was buried under their weight.

According to the story, the hill where this event unfolded was then named Tarpeia, until King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus built the temple of Jupiter and began to call it Capitoline. Even so, they still kept the name of the vestal virgin traitor and martyr to identify the rock where traitors were thrown from.

Another version of the legend depicts Tarpeia as a heroine because it says that the young woman had deceived the Sabines so they would enter the cliff fortress without their shields, so it would be easier for the Romans to catch them prisoner; which explains why some sources talk about the monument being dedicated to Tarpeia, where they made libations in her name.

What is a historical fact, though, is that prisoners charged with perduellio (offence of high treason) were thrown off the Tarpeian Rock, which turned offenders into unlawful people, outside the legal scope of the Law and into the damned, and not the consecrated in holy terms. This meant that traitors were given summary hearings and the sentence meant that you couldn’t mourn their death, or bury them.

The Twelve Tables is an ancient legal document from the beginning of the Republic, but it contained ancient Roman law. Tables II and VII mention that slaves caught committing theft should be thrown off the Tarpeian Rock, and the same fate should befall anyone who gives a false testimony.

The above seems to indicate that it wasn’t only traitors who were being thrown off the Tarpeian Rock, but that in the times of the Decemviri, prisoners were executed for many more crimes.

Rome is speaking to us. The Tarpeian Rock is still there, the place where prisoners were thrown can be found in any good guide of the Eternal City, but it is still in our cities too, close to home. 

Cuban bureaucrats still don’t understand that betraying the Cuban people is a Lèse-majesté. They’ve confused gratitude, and believe that they owe their power to the ones that keep them there, while pig-headedly forgetting Cuban citizens. They also forget that the Tarpeian Rock is too close to Capitolio, that the stairs that seem to take you to the Olympus of arrogance can also be steps to the abyss that traitors were thrown into.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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