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What is Crucifixion?

Execution in the Ancient World through Crucifixion

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Jesus Crucified

Jesus Crucified

Today crucifixion is associated with Jesus and Christianity, but as a method of execution it enjoyed widespread popularity with tyrants and governments throughout the ancient world. It is generally considered one of the cruelest and most painful ways to kill someone, and ancient historians like Herodotus record its presence in one form or another among the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Persians, and more.

Crucifixion is also usually associated with nailing a person to a basic cross, the sort assumed to have been experienced by Jesus. In reality crucifixion could take many different forms — the label can be applied to just about any method of attaching someone to a stake or pole for exposure until death (or even after death by some other means, in some cases).

When crucified, a person could be tied, nailed, or even impaled on the pole. The object might be a cross, it might be a large T, it might be an X, or it might simply be a single stake. Seneca wrote: “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.”

Alexander the Great seems to have been the one to bring the practice from the East to the West, applying it to robbers and rebels. The Romans adopted it and spread it even further, turning it into an important instrument of state control over its many far-flung and diverse populations. They also worked to make it even worse than it already was. Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting penalty.” Jewish historian Josephus called it “the most wretched of deaths.”

First the Romans “scourged” the victim: while the victim was tied to a pillar, soldiers would strike him with whips that had pieces of bone or metal inserted in the leather. This had the effect of stripping the flesh off a person’s body, piece by piece. After this, he had to carry the transverse beam of the cross (the patibulum) to the execution site, but only if the cross being used was a t or T type — the vertical pole was always left in place to be re-used over and over. If there wasn’t enough wood for large-scale executions, a simple cross (crux simplex) of just a single stake was likely used.

Once at the execution site, the victim would be nailed through the hands (or wrists) and feet. If he put his weight on a small shelf (sedile) below his feet, enough pressure was applied to the chest that made breathing difficult to impossible. Pulling and pushing oneself up, though, greatly increased the pain in both feet and hands. The victim would thus be left like this, desperate to find an even moderately tolerable position, for as long as was necessary for them to die — usually from suffocation. Afterwards, the body would be left to rot until it fell from the cross.

Roman citizens could only be crucified in the most extreme of circumstances (treason), but others could be crucified for almost any reason. There are a number of cases when Roman authorities engaged in mass crucifixions in order to subdue rebellious populations, especially in the troublesome province of Judaea, as Josephus records at some length. Josephus wrote about Titus’ treatment of the Jews:

    “They were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more... The main reason why he did not forbid that cruelty was this, that he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterwards be liable to the same cruel treatment. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.”

Crucifixion was not a form of execution used by the Jews — in fact, it’s contrary to Jewish laws that require a person hung on a tree to be buried the same day. Romans, however, had no respect for such laws when it came to matters of the state. Jewish victims of crucifixion were hung for as long as anyone else. Shame was as much a part of the point as death, after all.

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