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  #1  
Old 12-28-2006, 03:46 PM
Lazlo Lazlo is offline
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Give me a clean death, a soldier's death (historical q about Gladiator)

I just finished watching Gladiator for the umpteenth time and I am still puzzled by the scene where they're going to execute Maximus (Russel Crowe).

The soldier charged with killing him has Maximus kneel and he lifts his sword as to decapitate. Maximus then says, "Give me a clean death. A soldier's death." The guy in charge nods and the executioner positions himself behind Maximus and poises to thrust the sword down into either his neck or back.

Is there any sort of historical basis for this? Was being decapitated an "unclean" death? I did a cursory Google search and got nothing but transcripts and movie reviews.

Thanks in advance.
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  #2  
Old 12-28-2006, 03:57 PM
Kythereia Kythereia is offline
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Complete WAG, for what's it worth:

Decapitation by swinging the sword around could be swift, clean, and painless--if you were a good executioner. If you were a bad executioner, it might take several clumsy blows to lop off the person's head, causing a considerable amount of blood, mess, and extreme pain.

When Maximus asks for a 'clean' death, the soldier nods and points the sword downwards with the tip at the nape of his neck (I'm trying to find a screencap now). This could be to crush the spinal column so Maximus will be stunned and won't feel any pain, but I'm not sure...
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  #3  
Old 12-28-2006, 05:48 PM
Operation Ripper Operation Ripper is offline
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*agree*
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  #4  
Old 12-28-2006, 05:57 PM
Zabali_Clawbane Zabali_Clawbane is offline
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A clean death would be swift and painless, with no needless suffering.
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  #5  
Old 12-28-2006, 05:59 PM
Sapo Sapo is offline
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Also from the realms of WAGness. I can imagine that a complete body arriving at a funeral could more easily pass for a soldier dead in battle than a decapitated body which just screams execution.
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  #6  
Old 12-28-2006, 06:03 PM
Zabali_Clawbane Zabali_Clawbane is offline
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Adding, it would be a tribute to the enemy to give them a swift, painless death. They respected him, even though they executed him.
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  #7  
Old 12-28-2006, 06:28 PM
Operation Ripper Operation Ripper is offline
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Not to hijack, but Kaishakunin comes to mind.
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  #8  
Old 12-28-2006, 07:30 PM
Mangetout Mangetout is online now
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I can't remember where I read it (or indeed whether the source was presenting it as factual or if it was just a bit of fiction), but I have heard of Roman arena executions (of a defeated opponent) being carried out by thrusting a spatha (a slender, pointed sword designed primarily for stabbing, not slashing) down through the left collarbone and into the heart.
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  #9  
Old 12-28-2006, 07:34 PM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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Give me a clean death, a soldier's death

And what would you like for your second wish? Lazlo...? Lazlo...?
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  #10  
Old 12-29-2006, 12:57 AM
Lazlo Lazlo is offline
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Hehe. Nice.

I asked this of a friend as well. She said that she remembered from a history book that "soldier's death" refered to a painless execution, as you all have stated.

Since I was thinking that the decapitation would be quicker and more painless, this hadn't occured to me. Although in retrospect, I don't think decapitation by a gladius would be very quick or painless.
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  #11  
Old 12-29-2006, 08:55 AM
winters winters is offline
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Lazlo, Gladiator is to history what Star Wars is to physics: they might meet but only coincidentally.

Beheading (decollatio or capitis amputatio) was among Romans the most honorable way to go (though I doubt they would have called it the most desirable one).

In earlier time, an axe was used but the sword was traditionally the nobler weapon and therefore used for noble men - Cicero, e.g., was beheaded and it was called a good death. (Though his head was struck off by a common soldier, which might have been a bit vulgar, I guess. )

Anyway, there were other death penalties less honourable (see for example Tac. Ann. ii. 32; Suetonius, Nero 49, Claud. 34.): A soldier who had done something despicable (recreancy or sleeping while on sentry duty) was beaten to death with clubs or had to endure the lapidatio, the stoning - an incredibly shameful way to die that disgraced the family of the executed severly.

When the soldier decided to behead Maximus instead of simply stabbing him, he was actually honouring him in the one way still .. feasible.
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  #12  
Old 12-30-2006, 09:18 AM
Lust4Life Lust4Life is offline
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Didn't upper class Romans who felt compelled to suicide as a point of honour(U.S. honor) plant their sword hilts in the earth with the blades pointing upwards and "fall on their swords"?
I must admit it always sounded a pretty painful way to die to me.
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  #13  
Old 12-31-2006, 05:20 PM
Cat Jones Cat Jones is offline
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I remember reading somewhere that for her execution Mary Queen of Scots requested a French sword be used rather than a blunt axe ... sadly the sword took seven blows to do the job, maybe the extra weight of an axe blade makes it a better tool than a sword ?
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  #14  
Old 12-31-2006, 07:19 PM
groman groman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lust4Life
Didn't upper class Romans who felt compelled to suicide as a point of honour(U.S. honor) plant their sword hilts in the earth with the blades pointing upwards and "fall on their swords"? I must admit it always sounded a pretty painful way to die to me.
I can't comment whether that's an accurate representation of Roman suicide, but honestly, what choices do you think they had? Living in a universe of bathtubs and toasters, fun pill bottles in the medicine cabinet, guns, good sturdy rope, high rise buildings and razor blades, it's easy to think "Gah, who would fall on their sword!?". Perhaps the fact that I am not suicidal is affecting my ability to be creative, but given my understanding of available methods of suicide back then - poisoning, jumping off an aqueduct, self-immolation, drowning or stabbing yourself, I'm going to have to say stabbing myself wouldn't be my last choice by far. Besides, it's easy for anybody willing to pass off your death as murder or dying in battle -- try doing that with poisoning.
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  #15  
Old 12-02-2012, 01:17 AM
AK84 AK84 is online now
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Yes I know another zombie, but honest, I was searching for this myself! Why would a blade down the neck to the heart be more painless, it seems a good way to die of a heart attack or something similar.
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  #16  
Old 12-02-2012, 03:34 AM
usedtobe usedtobe is offline
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Decapitation is NOT simple or easy.

One intoxicated caller to a radio talk show 1990's) San Francisco area) admitted having just killing his girlfriend and cutting off her head - then added something about "well, ALMOST off -it's still hanging on".

This is why the executioners axe was huge, and the guillotine's blade was huge - it takes either a very sharp or very heavy device to go cleanly through the neck - check out a skeleton - the vertebrae of the next has a spur which covers the gap. And the spinal cord isn't exactly slender and soft - even if you could avoid having the blade deflected by bone, you still have a thick cord to deal with.

I believe Henry VIII had an executioner imported to decapitate his favorite victim - e didn't trust the local talent to do the job with a single blow.

Ancients iron wasn't so good as to hold an edge - a slender blade through the shoulder would not encounter bone on its way to the heart.
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  #17  
Old 12-02-2012, 11:41 AM
Little Nemo Little Nemo is offline
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I think a lot of it was the social implications. There were certain means commonly used to execute criminals and other means commonly used to execute captured enemy soldiers. Maximus may have been saying he wanted to be executed like a soldier rather than a criminal.

This type of attitude is still around. When Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel were sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials, they requested that they be executed by a firing squad rather than being hung.
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  #18  
Old 12-02-2012, 12:57 PM
Tom Tildrum Tom Tildrum is online now
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James Clavell's Shogun made a big deal of this same topic. Samurai being put to death were to kill themselves via seppuku, which basically involved making a big cross-shaped cut in one's abdomen. Because of the pain involved, a samurai would be worried about dishonoring himself at the last by crying out or failing to complete the cuts. Thus, they would have a "second" standing behind them as they knelt, ready to lop off the samurai's head before that could happen.

No idea whether there was any historical accuracy there.
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  #19  
Old 12-02-2012, 01:33 PM
smiling bandit smiling bandit is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tom Tildrum View Post
No idea whether there was any historical accuracy there.
For once, yes.

I have a twitch which starts whenever I try to read Clavell, as his books are entertaining but obnoxiously stereotypical, to the point of being borderline racist. Clavell more or less got Seppuku correct, although it wasn't the only method of suicide.

Suicide also wasn't actually that common in Japan, or at least, no more so than elsewhere. Japan's high suicide rate is probably a modern phenomena based on the adulating fiction around suicide, rather than actually being a historical carry-over. Often, people who desperately wanted revenge or were in a really bad situation would commit suicide rather than beg for the mercy they knew their enemies weren't going to give, but that's not really unusual. The only unusual bit was that, where most people would just say, "Screw it", grab a sword, and go out with a bang, the Japanese would often have a really spectacular suicide.

Well, it livens up a a Friday evening when you've lost a war and your entire kingdom, I guess.

Note that historically, defeated soldiers were frequently absorbed wholesale in the victor's ranks - generally only the enemy leader's family was killed, and often not even that. The enemy's high-ranking generals and officers would either offer their services to the victor or to another power almost immediately. Authentically Japanese fiction doesn't even mention suicide, although a callous attitude towards death and the fatalistic view that life was cheap and frequently short were common. I wouldn't say they were much different than the early-mid Romans or Vikings - all were militaristic cultures who often viewed death with little fear, as they were entirely too familiar with it. That didn't mean they were eager to throw their lives away. They were focused, like all people, on gaining wealth or power, living their lives and worrying about relatives and trying to get their children the best start in life.
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  #20  
Old 12-02-2012, 07:00 PM
Elendil's Heir Elendil's Heir is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by winters View Post
...Beheading (decollatio or capitis amputatio) was among Romans the most honorable way to go (though I doubt they would have called it the most desirable one).

In earlier time, an axe was used but the sword was traditionally the nobler weapon and therefore used for noble men - Cicero, e.g., was beheaded and it was called a good death....
St. Paul was also beheaded by sword, tradition holds; he was a Roman citizen, too.
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  #21  
Old 12-02-2012, 10:27 PM
outlierrn outlierrn is offline
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It wouldn't surprise me to find that indiviual units or armies had their own traditions within a larger social framework.
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  #22  
Old 12-03-2012, 04:13 PM
Damfino Damfino is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by usedtobe View Post
Decapitation is NOT simple or easy.

One intoxicated caller to a radio talk show 1990's) San Francisco area) admitted having just killing his girlfriend and cutting off her head - then added something about "well, ALMOST off -it's still hanging on".

This is why the executioners axe was huge, and the guillotine's blade was huge - it takes either a very sharp or very heavy device to go cleanly through the neck - check out a skeleton - the vertebrae of the next has a spur which covers the gap. And the spinal cord isn't exactly slender and soft - even if you could avoid having the blade deflected by bone, you still have a thick cord to deal with.

I believe Henry VIII had an executioner imported to decapitate his favorite victim - e didn't trust the local talent to do the job with a single blow.

Ancients iron wasn't so good as to hold an edge - a slender blade through the shoulder would not encounter bone on its way to the heart.
Not exactly . The spinous process of a vertebra angles down to cover the intervertebral disc space. This is the barrier.. A blow correctly angled in between the spinous processes will reach the vulnerable cartilaginous disc and the cord behind. The spinal cord is NOT tough. It has a jelly like cheesy consistency . A properly angled strike would go right through it. Beyond that oesophagus, trachea , muscles, skin, all susceptible to a sword stroke.
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  #23  
Old 12-03-2012, 04:51 PM
fumster fumster is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Cat Jones View Post
I remember reading somewhere that for her execution Mary Queen of Scots requested a French sword be used rather than a blunt axe ... sadly the sword took seven blows to do the job, maybe the extra weight of an axe blade makes it a better tool than a sword ?
OK, now you have spoiled both Gladiator and English history.

:-)
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  #24  
Old 12-03-2012, 08:01 PM
TokyoBayer TokyoBayer is offline
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Originally Posted by smiling bandit View Post
I have a twitch which starts whenever I try to read Clavell, as his books are entertaining but obnoxiously stereotypical, to the point of being borderline racist. Clavell more or less got Seppuku correct, although it wasn't the only method of suicide.
This.

As seppuku advanced, apparently it was sufficient to do a surface wound to ones belly before the second did the actual killing.

It's always best to get someone who's good with a sword, though.
Quote:
The customary kaishakunin duty at the end of this ritual had been assigned to Tatenokai member Masakatsu Morita, but Morita was unable to properly perform the task. After several failed attempts, he allowed another Tatenokai member, Hiroyasu Koga, to behead Mishima. Morita then knelt and stabbed himself in the abdomen; Koga once again performed the kaishakunin duty.
For the Romans, did they display the heads of certain enemies like other cultures?
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  #25  
Old 12-04-2012, 05:07 PM
Damfino Damfino is offline
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They did, notably Cicero s after he was assassinated.
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  #26  
Old 12-04-2012, 07:43 PM
TokyoBayer TokyoBayer is offline
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Was he asking for the death of a regular solder rather than the death of a political enemy?
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  #27  
Old 12-04-2012, 07:49 PM
gunnergoz gunnergoz is offline
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FWIW, I do know that the Romans had a tradition of executing captured enemy leaders by choking them to death from behind with a chain or rope around their neck. Sometimes this was done in public. I suspect this was in the day intended to be one of the least dignified of executions that one could be subject to.

Last edited by gunnergoz; 12-04-2012 at 07:50 PM..
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  #28  
Old 12-04-2012, 11:48 PM
alphaboi867 alphaboi867 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by usedtobe View Post
...I believe Henry VIII had an executioner imported to decapitate his favorite victim - e didn't trust the local talent to do the job with a single blow...
Yep, Jean Rombaud of Saint-Omer. As a traitor Anne was originally sentenced to be burnt at the stake before the King commuted her sentence.

Quote:
Originally Posted by gunnergoz View Post
FWIW, I do know that the Romans had a tradition of executing captured enemy leaders by choking them to death from behind with a chain or rope around their neck. Sometimes this was done in public. I suspect this was in the day intended to be one of the least dignified of executions that one could be subject to.
IIRC condemed criminals were usually stripped naked prior to their executions; especially prior to crucifixion (a penalty that Roman citizens weren't subject to).
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  #29  
Old 12-05-2012, 04:46 PM
DrCube DrCube is offline
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I always thought this was an anachronism.

I've read about medieval knights, who after winning a fight against an honorable opponent would mercifully stab down through his medulla and spinal cord to ensure a quick and relatively painless death. That's what chivalry was all about, people.

Presumably, if the opponent wasn't honorable (a peasant or a Muslim or something terrible like that), the prevailing knight would just thwack him on the neck from the side a few times until the decapitation was more or less finished.
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