i just finished reading the first chapter of t.p. wiseman's catullus and his world, called 'a world not ours'. it is quite eye-opening, and disturbing. catullus includes a number of incredibly violent images in his poems, and wiseman comments (p.5):
What lies behind these sadistic imaginings is the Roman idea of punishment, for that is what Catullus wants to exact.
It is striking that throughout Roman literature, from Plautus to Prudentius, we find instruments of torture referred to as something familiar.
he goes on to describe just how ubiquitous violence and cruelty was in the roman world of the late republic (and early empire). he goes on to remind the reader of the public nature of such violence (p.7):
Judicial torture was also done in public: at the entrance to the Subura the bloody scourges hung ready for use, and any passer-by in the Forum might see, and hear, the dreadful carnifices in their red caps (to mark them out as men beyond the pale) inflicting agony on some criminal before his execution. It was a spectacle to enjoy: the populace could 'feast their eyes and satisfy their souls' at the torture and death of a notorious malefactor.
furthermore, there was no police force to protect one from harm (p.8):
A passing rustic makes an untimely joke? A humble neighbour's dog keeps you awake? Out with the whips, and have the culprit beaten--if he dies, too bad. In a city without a police force, where self-help was basic to the operation of the law, the humble citizen needed a powerful friend for his protection, and the great men of the time went about with armed escorts as a matter of course.
this is why i argued, when 'The Passion' was criticized due to its extreme violence, in spite of the Gospel writers not having included such detail in their accounts, that these criticisms were ill-founded. there is a reason the Gospel writers did not include the gruesome violence visually depicted in the movie: they did not need to. such brutality, at the state's hands, would have been commonplace for someone living in the roman empire. as wiseman writes, quoting suetonius' life of vespasian (f.n.18), 'It was, after all, a city where a dog might pick up a human hand in the street.'