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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 , 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 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.
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.