Throwing or dropping people from great heights has been used as a form of execution since ancient times. People executed in this way die from injuries caused by hitting the ground at high velocity.
In pre-Roman Sardinia, elderly people who were unable to support themselves were ritually killed. They were intoxicated with a neurotoxic plant known as the "sardonic herb" (which some scientists think is hemlock water dropwort) and then dropped from a high rock or beaten to death.
During the Roman Republic, the Tarpeian Rock, a steep cliff at the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, was used for public executions. Murderers and traitors, if convicted by the quaestores parricidii, were flung from the cliff to their deaths. Those who had a mental or significant physical disability also suffered the same fate as they were thought to have been cursed by the gods.
Later, during the Roman Empire, the Gemonian stairs were used for this purpose. Their use as a place of execution is most closely associated with the later part of the reign of the emperor Tiberius. The condemned were usually strangled before their bodies were bound and thrown down the stairs. Occasionally the corpses of the executed were transferred here for display from other places of execution in Rome. Corpses were usually left to rot on the staircase for extended periods of time in full view of the Forum, scavenged by dogs or other carrion animals, until eventually being thrown into the Tiber. Death on the stairs was considered extremely dishonourable and dreadful, yet several senators and even an emperor met their demise here.
Suetonius records the rumours of lurid tales of sexual perversity and cruelty of Tiberius during the later part of his reign while he was living at Capri, Tiberius would execute people by having them thrown from a cliff into the sea while he watched. These people were tortured before being executed and if they survived the fall, men waiting below in boats would break their bones with oars and boathooks.
In pre-colonial South Africa, several tribes including the Xhosa and the Zulu had named Execution Hills, from which miscreants were hurled to their deaths. These societies had no form of imprisonment so punishment was corporal, capital or expulsion. It is believed that during the Namibian war of independence numerous SWAPO troops were dropped from South African helicopters over the sea.
During the Spanish Civil War, both the fascist Nationalist and left-wing Republican sides of the conflict made use of this execution method on their prisoners, though the practice was far more widespread on the part of the Nationalists.
During the authoritarian regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, political prisoners were executed by being thrown from helicopters. Also, during Argentina's Dirty War of the late 1970s, those secretly adbucted were often thrown from aircraft, in what were known as death flights.
Iran may have used this form of execution for the crime of sodomy. According to Amnesty International in 2008, two men were convicted of raping two university students and sentenced to death. They were to be thrown off a cliff or from a great height. Other men involved in this incident were sentenced to lashes, presumably because they did not engage in penetrative sex with the victims. The European Union condemned Iran for this action in a declaration against Iran's use of the death penalty.
- Pericles Collas (n.d.). A Concise Guide of Delphi, pp8. Athens. Cacoulides.
- News Scan Briefs: Killer Smile, Scientific American, August 2009
- G. Appendino, F. Pollastro, L. Verotta, M. Ballero, A. Romano, P. Wyrembek, K. Szczuraszek, J. W. Mozrzymas, and O. Taglialatela-Scafati (2009). "Polyacetylenes from Sardinian Oenanthe fistulosa: A Molecular Clue to risus sardonicus". Journal of Natural Products 72 (5): 962–965. doi:10.1021/np8007717. PMC 2685611. PMID 19245244.
- Platner (1929). A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Tarpeius Mons, pp509-510. London. Oxford University Press.
- Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Tiberius 61.2,62.2
- Iran: UA 17/08 - Fear of imminent execution/ flogging | Amnesty International
- Death Sentences in Iran