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According to this article, the Romans first used the axe for decapitation, and then moved to using the sword later. The article states:

[B]eheading, a mode of executing capital punishment by which the head is severed from the body. The ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as a most honourable form of death. ... In early times an ax was used, but later a sword, which was considered a more honourable instrument of death, was used for Roman citizens.

My question is this: When exactly was this switch made? How quickly did it become standard practice? Was there ever a distinction based on class made regarding which instrument was chosen? The article states that the sword was used for Roman citizens. Did the use of the axe continue for non-citizens?

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+1 and welcome to the site! – Felix Goldberg May 9 '13 at 15:25
Thank you, @Felix! =) – Nathan Arthur May 9 '13 at 15:26

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

While I can't find much on when the sword was adopted (at least for the moment) I have found several sources that point towards answers for some of your other questions here.

It appears that the method of death varied depending on who you were, or who was punishing you. The following refers to the reign of Caligula.

Many men of honourable rank were first disfigured with the marks of branding-irons and then condemned to the mines, to work at building roads, or to be thrown to the wild beasts; or else he shut them up in cages on all fours, like animals, or had them sawn asunder. Not all these punishments were for serious offences, but merely for criticising one of his shows, or for never having sworn by his Genius.

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by C. Suetonius Tranquillus

Note: As far as I can tell, "Being sawn asunder" was a method of execution by saw, whereby the convicted would be sawn either horizontally or vertically in half.

For the most part, it seems that non-roman citizens would be executed by Crucifixion rather than by ax - a method of execution that was illegal for use on Roman Citizens (crucifixion) - but it is not impossible, or likely, that the use of the ax was stopped when executing non-romans.

However, I have yet (But I am not an expert on this, and have not done a huge amount of reading) to find any indication that Roman citizens were only executed by decapitation by sword and were never executed by crucifixion. For example, both sources I've cited above indicate that people were executed by being thrown to the beasts, although it is not clear about their citizenship or class, and one lists several other methods of execution used at the Colosseum.

The Roman Executions at the Colosseum included other forms such as:

Being burnt alive

Being bound by the feet to the tails of wild horses and dragged to death

Being torn to pieces by wild beasts

Beaten to death Burned with plates of red-hot iron

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Hmmm. While this doesn't exactly answer the question, it certainly does shed considerable light on the subject. Thank you, and accepted! – Nathan Arthur Jul 19 '13 at 19:40
Another thing to mention in relation with citizenship that citizenship was sometimes revoked in order to be able to convict the person to a different punishment. – jwenting Aug 25 at 9:42

I believe that the ax part of a fasces was symbolic of the magistrate's authority to order executions.

The Romans are alleged to have also beheaded people with devices similar to guillotines. Any source on the history of the guillotine should mention some earlier devices similar to the guillotine used in various times and places.

Thus if you read simply that someone was beheaded without details you can't be certain if an ax, a sword, or a guillotine-like device was used, though the time and place will give some clues. In fact I have seen all three methods in different illustrations of the beheading of the same historical person.

In medieval and modern Europe people were usually blindfolded and kneeling (sometimes their hands were tied before them) or tied to a chair when beheaded with a sword, on hands and knees with their head on a chopping block (sometimes their hands wee tied behind their backs) when beheaded with an ax, and lying horizontally with their head through an opening when beheaded with a guillotine-like device.

This may help in imagining Roman decapitations.

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This answer would be improved by references/citations. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 24 at 22:50

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