What is the ‘Tarpeian Rock’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word — or, today, phrase — of the week. Today’s phrase: Tarpeian Rock…. 

Two years ago, I stood near the Tarpeian Rock, and I didn’t even know it was an historic site. My husband and I were travelling in  Italy and we spent a week in Rome. While there, we had a tour of the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Hill. It was grand and remarkable and impressive but our guide never uttered the words Tarpeian Rock.

Recently, reader John Friesen emailed me with the phrase — as he discovered it —  in Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August. Here is how the author used it:

There is a Latin phrase Arx tarpeia Capitoli proxima (“the Tarpeian Rock is close to the Capitol”) which some have interpreted to mean that “one’s fall from grace can come swiftly”.

The Tarpeian Rock was a steep cliff of the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Roman Forum. It was used during the Roman Republic as an execution site when convicted prisoners were flung from the 80-ft-high cliff to their deaths. Some people believe that similar punishments were inflicted on the disabled and mentally ill, but there is no proof of that.