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Crucifixion in the Ancient World

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Our most valuable source of information about crucifixions, of course, comes from the four Gospels. For there, in minute detail, we hear of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, as is well known. But another valuable source of information about the practice of crucifixion is ancient Greek and Roman literature. Though the Greeks and Romans did not write about crucifixion frequently, they wrote about it often enough to supply important data about this method of execution.

The Romans did not invent crucifixion as a method of execution, though it seems that they perfected it. On the basis of the writings of the Greek author Herodotus, it seems that the Persians were the first to use crucifixion (Herodotus 1:128.2; 3:125.3; 3:132.2; 3:159.1). For example, Herodotus tells us that King Darius (mentioned in the Bible) had 3000 Babylonians crucified in about 519 B.C. (4:43.2,7; 6:30.1; 7:194.1). The sources reveal that, two centuries later, Alexander the Great also used crucifixion in his conquests. For example in his History of Alexander, Curtius Rufus tells us that Alexander had 2000 citizens of Tyre crucified after he had conquered that city (4:4.17). The Romans eventually conquered the Greeks (Carthaginians) and it was from them that the Romans probably learned crucifixion. However, as the Romans themselves were fond of noting, crucifixion was also used by many "barbarian" peoples, such as Indians, the Assyrians, the Scythians, and the Celts. It was also later used by the Germans and the Britains (For the exact sources, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 22-23).

We moderns still recoil with horror when we hear of Christ's crucifixion. But what did the ancients think of crucifixion? They considered it to be the most shameful, the most painful, and the most abhorrent of all executions. The Roman statesman Cicero called it "the most cruel and disgusting penalty" (Verrem 2:5.165) and "the most extreme penalty" (Verrem 2:5.168). The Jewish historian Josephus, who certainly witnessed enough crucifixions himself, called it "the most wretched of deaths." The Roman jurist Julius Paulus listed crucifixion in first place as the worst of all capital punishments, listing it ahead of death by burning, death by beheading, or death by the wild beasts. And from Seneca we have this quotation, which is one of the most unique descriptions of a crucifixion in non-Biblical literature:

  • Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man by found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly wounds on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross (Dialogue 3:2.2).

The ancients considered death by crucifixion to be not just any execution, but the most obscene, the most disgraceful, the most horrific execution known to man.

How common was crucifixion in the ancient world? Quite common, at least among the Romans. Though Roman law usually spared Roman citizens from being crucified, they used crucifixion especially against rebellious foreigners, military enemies, violent criminals, robbers, and slaves. In fact slaves were so routinely crucified that crucifixion become known as the "slaves' punishment" (servile supplicium; see Valerius Maximus 2:7.12). Appian tells us that when the slave rebellion of Spartacus was crushed, the Roman general Crassus had six thousand of the slave prisoners crucified along a stretch of the Appian Way, the main road leading into Rome (Bella Civilia 1:120). As an example of crucifying rebellious foreigners, Josephus tells us that when the Romans were besieging Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus, at one point, crucified five hundred or more Jews a day. In fact, so many Jews were crucified outside of the walls that "there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies" (Wars of the Jews 5:11.1).

How was crucifixion actually carried out? The first thing we learn from the sources is that there was great variety in the way crucifixions were done. The main thing was to expose the victim to the utmost indignity. The Romans appear to have followed the same procedure in most cases, but even they departed from this at times. Seneca points to this reality when he writes in one place, "I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet" (Dialogue 6:20.3).

So what form did a more normal crucifixion take? First came the flogging or scourging. The flogging usually was done by two soldiers using a short whip (flagrum, flagellum) that had several leather thongs of different lengths. Tied to these leather thongs were small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones. The victim was stripped of his clothing and his hands were tied above him to a post. The back, legs and buttocks would then be flogged until the person collapsed. With the back and legs thus torn open there would be extensive blood loss. This blood loss from the flogging often determined how long it took the crucified person to die on the cross. The fact that Jesus was not able to carry his cross all the way, and the fact that he died in six hours, indicates that this flogging must have been especially severe. The ancient sources tell us that many some people died just from the flogging.

Next the condemned man was made to carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion outside the city walls. This was not the whole cross, however, which probably would have weighed well over 300 pounds. The condemned man typically carried the crossbeam (patibulum) across his shoulders, shoulders that had just been ripped open by the flogging. This crossbeam would have weighed from 75-125 pounds. This procession to the site of crucifixion was ordinarily led by a complete military guard, headed by a centurion. A sign (titulus) which told what the condemned man was guilty of, was sometimes carried by a soldier and sometimes put around the condemned man's neck. Later this sign would be attached to the top of the cross.

There is some evidence in the sources that certain cities in the Roman Empire had places of execution set up outside the walls of the city. The Roman historian Tacitus records that there was such a place in Rome on the Campus Esqulinus (Annals 2:32.2; 15:60.1). Golgotha, outside the walls of Jerusalem, also appears to have been such a set place of execution. At these places of execution would have been permanently located the upright beam of the cross (stipes) onto which the crossbeam piece which the condemned man carried would be attached.

When the victim reached the place of execution, by law, he was given a drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall). This was intended to be mild narcotic that would deaden the pain. It is significant that Jesus refused this drink. The criminal was then stripped naked, thrown to the ground on his back with his arms outstretched along the crossbeam. The hands then would either be tied or nailed to the crossbeam, but the sources clearly indicate that nailing was the Romans' preferred method. Then the victim, now nailed to the crossbeam, would be hoisted up so that the crossbeam was attached to the upright beam. Finally the feet were nailed, one on top of the other, to the upright beam with another iron spike. Jutting out from the upright beam was a small block or plank (sedile) which the crucified would straddle, thus absorbing some of the weight of the body.

From the sources we know that there was a high cross and a short cross. The short cross was the more common and was no more than seven feet high. The fact that a soldier put a sponge on a hyssop plant to give Jesus a drink, suggests that he was crucified on a seven foot cross, since the hyssop stalk was typically 20 inches long.

Was Jesus nailed to the cross or tied with ropes? For many years, some Christian scholars denied that Jesus had been nailed to the cross for they claimed that no evidence could be found in the ancient sources that showed that crucified victims were nailed. They held to this belief, even though the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was nailed (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 24-29). Since that time, many examples of nailing have been found in the ancient sources. In addition to this, an archeological breakthrough occurred in June, 1968. For the first time ever, the remains of a crucified man were found in an ancient burial chamber in the northern portion of Jerusalem. The remains were from the time of Jesus, the first century A.D. The name of the crucified man was scratched onto the ossuary. His name was Jehohanan ben Hagqol. The nail driven through his feet was still in place in the feet. It was about 7 inches long and made of iron. Chemical examination of this nail revealed that the cross which the nail had been driven into had been made out of olive wood. Further evidence revealed that the nails had been driven, not through his palms, but through his wrists, between the radius and cubitus. The ancients considered the wrist to be part of the hand. This great archeological find clearly demonstrated once and for all that nails were used in crucifixion.

The pain of crucifixion is not difficult to imagine. In addition to the excruciating pain from the nails, the position of the crucified on the cross led to marked interference with normal respiration, especially exhalation. Earlier I had quoted from Seneca who had described the crucified victim as "drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony." The crucified person could not exhale properly and this eventually would lead to painful muscle cramps. Furthermore, adequate exhaling required the crucified to lift his body by pushing up on the feet and rotating his elbows. This, of course, resulted in searing pain in both feet and hands. Lifting of the body to properly exhale would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden cross, probably reopening wounds and causing more bleeding. On the cross every breath would be an agonizing affair and finally in combination with exhaustion would lead to asphyxia. This also explains why the legs of the crucified were often broken, as was the case with the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus (John 19:31-33;). The legs of the crucified were broken often out of "mercy." Without the support of their legs, the crucified were unable to raise up their bodies, which in turn made it impossible for them to exhale properly thus greatly speeding up death, often within minutes. All of this means that the seven sayings of Jesus were uttered with great difficulty, for speaking takes place during exhalation. It was hard enough for Jesus to exhale, let alone speak. But speak He did nonetheless.

Death by crucifixion at times came quickly, but sometimes didn't come to the crucified for several days. There the crucified would hang, naked, the object of jeering and ridicule, insects landing in their mouth, eyes, and open wounds, and unable to remove them, exposed to the elements, unable to eat or drink. Crucifixion in the ancient world, as the ancients themselves tell us, was the most disgraceful and agonizing execution known to man.

And this is the death that Jesus Christ died. All this our Savior did for us, to save us from our sins.

April, 2000.

Sources:

Haas, N. "Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv'at ha-Mivtar." Israel Exploration Journal 20:38-59.

Tzaferis, V. "CrucifixionThe Archaeological Evidence." Biblical Archaeological Review 11 (January-February 1985), 44-53.

Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Translated by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Weber, Hans-Ruedi. The Cross: Tradition and Interpretation. Translated by Elke Jesset. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.

Edwards, William D., Gabel, Wesley J., and Hosmer, Floyd E. "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ." The Journal of the American Medical Association 256 (March 21, 1986).