Roman generals and leaders would often have the heads and hands of their defeated enemies cut off and put on public display. This happened repeatedly during both the Roman Republic and in the imperial period.
The reasons for this disrespectful treatment of corpses were multiple, but the severed head of a leader is indisputable proof of the person’s death, and of the victor’s willingness to persue his goals with whatever means it takes.
Various methods were developed to preserve the bodyparts for extended periods of time, using vinegar, wax, salt and other ingredients.
Some Cases of Severed Heads and Hands
Sulpicius Rufus was killed by the troops of Sulla in the unrest that followed the conflict over the command of the war against Mithridates of Pontus, in 88 BCE. Sulla had his head and hands cut off and put on public display in Rome.
When Marcus Tullius Cicero was killed on December 7th, 43 BCE, by followers of Marcus Antonius, his head and hands were cut off to be presented to Marcus Antonius in Rome. He had them put on display on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum, the speakers platform where Cicero had won some of his greatest political victories. According to some sources, Fulvia, wife of Marcus Antonius and before that wife of P. Clodius Pulcher, who were both enemies of Cicero, performed the ultimate act of revenge. She held his severed head in her lap, while piercing his tungue with her hairpin, thus symbolically depriving Cicero of his strongest weapon: the spoken word.
When Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) fled to Egypt after his defeat to Julius Caesar at Pharsalus in 48 BCE, he was caught by the pharaoh and killed. His head was severed and conserved, to be presented to Caesar on his arrival in Egypt several months later.
During the civil war that brought Septimius Severus to power, he defeated Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia and a competitor for the throne, in a battle near Lyon in 197 BCE. When Albinus’ body was found on the battleground, Severus had his head cut off and sent to Rome. Another contestant, Pescennius Niger, was defeated by Severus in Syria, killed and his severed head was sent to Byzantium, that still held out against the forces of Severus.
In the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, just N. or Rome, Maxentius was defeated by Constantine I. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber, but his body was recovered the day after, and Constantine had the head cut off, put on a pike and carried in front of the procession, as he and his troops entered the city victoriously. The head was later sent to Africa, where forces loyal to Maxentius still held out.