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Crucifixion |
No death more hideous

Crucifixion is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 34, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Rome’s awful experts made certain it was painful, humiliating–and slow

Crucifixion - No death more hideous

Crucifixion – No death more hideous
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? …a company of evildoers encircle me, they have pierced my hands and feet… they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots. But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid! …I will tell of thy name to my brethren …men shall tell of the LORD to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.” Psalm 22 (RSV), written a thousand years before that day on Golgotha

The “most extreme form of punishment,” wrote the Roman senator and lawyer Cicero about seventy-five years before the birth of Christ, is crucifixion. He called it “atrociously cruel,” not only in the physical pain it inflicts, but equally in the humiliation it brings to the man crucified.

“The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed,” he said, “not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not merely the actual occurrence of these things but the very mention of them that is unworthy of a Roman citizen or a free man.”

To Romans, both the cross and the executioner who tied the prisoner’s hands, veiled his head and crucified him, were realities not mentioned in polite company. Only rarely were Roman citizens crucified, usually on a charge of high treason in wartime.

For slaves, however, or for rebellious Roman troops, or cities resisting siege, or brigands and highway robbers, it was the acceptable form of punishment, and its usage goes back long before the Romans to the Phoenicians, Persians, and Egyptians. The Phoenicians had tried other forms of execution–spearing, boiling in oil, strangulation, stoning, drowning, burning–but had rejected them all as too quick. Crucifixion, especially in its early usage, was rarely quick.

It was also much-used by the Greeks. Writing in the fifth century b.c., Plato describes the fate of a conspirator who had sought to establish himself as a tyrant: “He is put on a rack and mutilated, forced to watch his wife and children subjected to many other signal outrages, then finally crucified or burned on a coat of pitch.” Herodotus, Plato’s contemporary, describes the execution of the ruler Atayctes: “They nailed him to a plank and left him there, then stoned to death his son before his eyes.”

But it was the ever-efficient Romans who made the most use of crucifixion. Of their three common forms of execution, decapitation by sword was the least severe, burning next, and crucifixion the worst. In its early Roman form, it was reserved entirely for slaves who would hear the dread words from the sentencing magistrate: “Pone crucem servo”–“Put the cross on the slave.” In the Spartacus rebellion of 73 b.c., six thousand slaves were crucified on a single day.

Even death in the arena, where the victims were torn to pieces by wild animals, was not as severe as crucifixion, if only because it came more quickly. But death by wild beasts was costly and cumbersome. Crucifixion, on the other hand, was cheap and could be arranged almost anywhere.

In the Roman practice, the prisoner was always flogged first. The Romans saw this beating as “half death,” because it must stop short of actually killing the prisoner. A man, called a lictor, was trained in the use of the flagellum, which consisted of a wooden handle and several long thongs of leather at the end of which were sewn pieces of bone or chain. The number of strokes was never specified, nor was the part of the body upon which the prisoner could be beaten. As the strokes followed one after the other, however, the prisoner must be checked carefully, because a man could die under a Roman flogging, and if he did, the
solictor would be held responsible.

Sometimes the cross consisted solely of a six-foot vertical stake (they called it the stipes crucis), but more frequently this was combined with a crosspiece (patibulum) in the form of a T, or an X. Sometimes (as with Jesus) the crosspiece was lowered slightly below the top of the upright to make room for a placard proclaiming the man’s crime.

The assembled cross they called the crux humilis, if it was for a common slave or brigand. For a distinguished prisoner–an enemy leader or a celebrated rebel–a crux sublimis was used, raising the victim much higher off the ground.

The victim carried either the whole cross or the crosspiece to the scene of his execution. The Romans made a practice of conducting crucifixions beside the most crowded roads, so that as many people as possible would be paralyzed with horror and fear.

Once at the site, the victim was stripped naked, save for a cloth that covered his genital area and was folded behind his back. His near nakedness was not only intended to add to his humiliation, but more pertinently to expose him to the constant torment of insects.

The soldiers first tied his shoulders to the upright beam, then held one arm flat against the crosspiece. A five-inch spike was then hammered through the tender gap between the bones in the middle of the wrist. After the other wrist was impaled, the legs were then stretched out, one foot placed over the other, and a single spike driven through both feet.

At this point, kind women would sometimes approach the victim and give him a mixture of wine and an herb intended to relieve pain by rendering the accused groggy. This was in fact against the law. Usually, however, the soldiers allowed it. In Jesus’ case, he refused to take it, apparently convinced that he had to remain fully conscious throughout the whole ordeal.

When the cross was raised, the ultimate torment assailed the prisoner. His shoulders were tied back to the upright beam, and by hoisting himself upward he could relieve, to a degree, the excruciating pain in his feet, which were carrying most of his weight. But in this position, he could not properly breathe. He would gasp for air, and in so doing let his weight fall back onto his feet. Sometimes a small plank called a sedecula, or seat, was fastened to provide support and thereby prolong the agony.

Since no vital organs were injured, death usually came very slowly, perhaps over several days. The worst aspect of it, said one witness, was the screaming. Sometimes, out of pity, their own boredom, or some other consideration, the soldiers would break the prisoner’s legs. This prevented him from resting his weight on his feet, and he would suffocate. Such a “humanitarian” measure, however, was not common among Romans. If from no other cause, the victim would eventually die from hunger or thirst.

The actual posture of the victim on the cross depended on the sadistic whim of the executioner. The Roman philosopher, statesman, and actor Seneca notes: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind, but made in many different ways; some of their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet.” Sometimes, writes the Jewish historian Josephus, “the soldiers themselves in rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in different postures as a grim joke.”

It was slaves, however, far more than enemies, who suffered crucifixion under the Romans. The satirical poet Juvenal, born about the mid-first century, tells of a Roman matron who wanted a slave crucified. To her husband’s objection, she replied: “This is my will and my command. If you are looking for a reason it is simply that I want it.” The poet Horace tells of a slave whose master caught him tasting the soup as he brought it from the kitchen. The master had him crucified.

Horace, with gallows humor, speaks of “feeding the crows while on the cross.” Plautus, in 184 b.c., writes of the “horrible cross of slaves,” and he quotes one slave’s fatalistic pessimism: “I know the cross will be my grave, that is where my ancestors are, my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers.”

The usual Jewish form of execution was stoning. However, the idea of exhibiting bodies as a warning to others was required by the Jewish law. The corpses of convicted blasphemers and idolaters must be hanged on a tree to show that they were cursed by God. Jews, too, occasionally imposed crucifixion. Josephus recalls that during the Hasmonian-Hellenistic period, the high priest Alexander Janneus (103—76 b.c.) had eight hundred Pharisees crucified, and ordered their wives and children to be slaughtered before their eyes as they hung dying.

Like the Romans, Jews regarded crucifixion as shameful. A crucified person was regarded as cursed by God. The sheer dishonor of such a death, many said, argued incontestably against Jesus being the Messiah.

Crucifixion remained the standard method of Roman execution until the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century a.d., and formally abolished it.

Not for another two hundred years did “naturalistic” crucifixes, showing the body of a human Christ nailed to the cross, appear in Christian devotions, and not until the thirteenth century did they regularly appear over the altars of Christian churches. By then, the hideous reality of the act itself was something few human beings would ever have to see.

This is the end of the Crucifixion category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 34, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Crucifixion from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at