In Roman history executions are separated into classes, some were for the sake of humiliation often extending the agony of death over days or weeks. Crucifixion for example was not meant to kill the victim right away, but induce humiliation that would extend over days.
Others were meant to reenact famous Greek myths. Roman emperors put on elaborate spectacles to display the strength and glory of myth on themselves. Commodus slew hundreds of giraffes and exotic animals (the common Roman spectator found this to be uncomfortable, why he was slaying innocent and strange creatures) while appearing to be like the Greek mythological figure Hercules (Commodus sported a lion pelt over his head to symbolize Hercules).
The victims of these reenactments of myths were chosen to be the lowest value classes, the “humiliores” or the people of low class. These were the criminals, prisoners of war, and under Nero, Christians.
Dirce In Greek Mythology
Dirce was wife to Lycus in Greek mythology and aunt to Antiope. The Greek god Zeus impregnated Antiope (he raped her), and she gave birth to Zethus and Amphion. In the play by Euphrides Antiope, Antiope returns to the cave where she bore the twins.
At first the twins Zethus and Amphion don’t believe she is their mother. Dirce who treats Antiope cruelly throughout her life, instructs the twins to kill their mother. A shepherd who is a father figure to the boys after helping to raise them convinces them of the truth that Antiope is their real mother.
In retribution the twins, tie Dirce to the horns of a bull and guide it, dragging her to a painful death. The woman who had treated their mother Antiope as a slave died horrifically.
The Greeks made a sculpture of the mythological murder of Dirce. The Romans created their own version of the Hellenistic Period Farnese Bull, a sculpture depicting the death of Dirce by the bull dragging her.
A sculpture of the death of Dirce was not enough, the Romans took it to the next level.
The Christian Dirce Death Ritual
The significance of reenacting myth in the arena was that it gave the Emperor a medium to display his power over all things in Roman life. This included myths, he could perform them exactly as they were known, but also alter them. No one else would dare do such a thing.
The Romans for some reason preferred to select Christian women as the victim for a ritual of Dirce’s death. As was in the myth, the Christian woman was tied to the horns of a bull and dragged to her death.
Saint Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthians, including in his sixth chapter a description of the Christian Dirce death ritual some Christian women experienced.
Through envy women were persecuted, even the Danaides and Dircae, who, after enduring dreadful and unholy insults, attained to the sure course of the faith; and they who were weak in body received a noble reward.
Saint Clement of Rome
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