Crucifixion in the Ancient World, before and during the Roman Empire
Crucifixion was a widespread and particularly cruel method of torture and execution in the ancient world long before the time of Christ. It was one of many different ways to inflict a horrible, lengthy and excruciatingly painful death. Other ancient barbaric forms of capital punishment included being impaled with large stakes, being torn apart by wild beasts, being hung from a hook and being burned at the stake.
Crucifixion was so degrading and horrifying a punishment that it was used on the worst of criminals, traitors, rebels and slaves who had turned against their masters. It was used to send a strong message of deterrence to anyone who wanted to challenge a ruler or regime.
There is some evidence that the Ancient Assyrian and Persian Empires practised crucifixion in the 7th century BCE. Crucifixion became common during the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), 300 years before Christ. Alexander the Great spread the practice through the Hellenised ancient world, which meant that it was later practiced by the Carthaginians and the Seleucids. The most famous of all crucifixion practitioners, the Romans, are said to have learned the practice from Carthage. The word 'crucifixion' is based on the Latin term 'crucifixio' meaning to fix to a cross.
Other cultures in the ancient world that used crucifixion as a punishment included the Germans, Celts, Britons and Scythians.
As the Roman Empire was becoming increasingly Christianised, crucifixion was outlawed by Emperor Constantine in 337 CE.
Roman Crucifixion Spikes
Map of Ancient Cities in Turkey
Giaus Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar and the Pirates
Of course, the definitive crucifixion event in history was the death of Jesus Christ in 33 CE. A less compelling episode is the tale of Julius Caesar's capture by Cilician pirates when he was aged 25 or so in 75 BCE. An ancient historian, Plutarch, describes how Caesar's ship was taken off the coast of the Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey) and he was relayed to the pirate lair to be held for ransom.
The pirates demanded 20 talents and Caesar laughed at them with his classic arrogance, telling them he was worth at least 50 talents. While he was at their lair, Caesar behaved as if he was their leader, not their captive. He joined in their exercises and activities, he wrote poems and speeches which he then read to them aloud. If the pirates did not appreciate Caesar's erudition he would tell them they were 'illiterate savages'. Caesar frequently and laughingly threatened to have all the pirates killed. The pirates thought of this as mere boyish playfulness. After 38 days the 50 talent ransom arrived and Caesar was freed at the port of Miletus. He immediately gathered a fleet, returned to the pirate lair, captured nearly all of the pirates and confiscated all their spoils and wealth. Showing exactly how ruthless he could be (even as a young man), Caesar then crucified every single pirate he had captured. Although, in a gesture of mercy, Caesar had their throats slit before they were hung on the crosses.
Crucifixion of Spartacus' Rebels
In the ultimate gesture of ruthlessness, the Roman Senator Marcus Licinius Crassus crucified 6,000 rebel slaves and gladiators, followers of Spartacus, along the Appian Way all the way from Rome to Capua, in 71 BCE. The crosses stretched for 200 kilometres in a horrific display of deterrence for anyone who sought to challenge the might of the Roman aristocracy as Spartacus had done.
Crassus was one of the wealthiest men, not only of Rome, but of all time (a 2008 Forbes survey listed him in the top 10 ever wealthiest people with an estimated 170 billion dollar fortune in today's terms). His wealth was substantially based on slave labour. When Spartacus stirred up the massive slave and gladiator rebellion of 73-71 BCE, Crassus raised an army at his own expense and extinguished the uprising. Crassus celebrated a triumph along the Appian Way after his victory. This event left no doubt in the ancient world about Rome's determination and savagery in the face of threats.
Senator Marcus Licinius Crassus
The Crucifixion of St Peter
Other Notorious Ancient Crucifixions
The widespread practice of crucifixion in the ancient world can also be seen in the following instances of crucifixion.
- Alexander the Great crucified 2,000 survivors of the siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre (a Persian naval base) in 332 BCE.
- St Peter was crucified in 64 CE, upside-down as he did not think he was worthy of death in the same manner as Christ.
Mechanics of Spike Placement
Crucifixion was an extremely public death. There was no dignity in it. This was so even after death, as the corpses were often left hanging as warnings to others. Crucifixions were performed in public locations such as road sides and just outside the boundaries of townships. It was the utmost in humiliation as far as execution goes. Despite popular depictions, the victims died naked with the whole world to see them losing blood, sweat, urine and faeces as they slowly dehydrated, swarmed by flies and insects. It is no wonder the word 'excruciating' stems from 'crucifixion'.
Crucifixion was a purely a capital punishment and did not have any other purpose in the ancient world. Although other types of death in the ancient world were associated with ritual or religion, crucifixion was not.
The victims' extremities were either bound or nailed to the cross. There is some debate about whether the spikes were driven through the victims' hands as described in the Gospel of John or through the wrists as deduced from the Shroud of Turin. Medically it is not possible for the weight of the body to be supported by nails that only go through the hands. The nails need to be placed between the radius and ulna bones in the forearm in order to support the weight. It is possible that a nail or spike could be forced in diagonally through the palm and then through the wrist before being hammered into the cross and in this way support the body as it hangs on the cross.
Prior to being crucified the victim was sometimes scoured or scourged. This was a form of torture where a victim was stripped, tied to a short upright post and then whipped with a 'flagellum', a short whip of heavy leather thongs with two little lead balls attached to the ends of each thong.
In many instances the victim would be made to carry part of the cross to the death site. This was often done through crowded streets to maximise the deterrent effect.
Death by crucifixion could take several days. Some say that the means of death was actually asphyxiation as the weight of the victims body and the positioning made it extremely difficult to take a full breath. However, experiments have been performed which show that people can breathe when fixed to a cross. Crucifixion victims died from multiple causes including exposure, dehydration, possible sepsis (after torture or from nail wounds), and blood loss (from having legs broken or from torture).
If a victim was lucky the executioner would have mercy and break his or her legs while they were on the cross, giving the victim a much quicker death. This was something the Romans used to do commonly.
History of Crucifixion: Warning DISTURBING FOOTAGE
The Roman Empire and Crucifixion
Crucifixion was not used on citizens of the Roman empire, it was too degrading for that. The Romans saved it for the lower rungs of ancient society. Accordingly, crucifixion was referred to as the 'slaves punishment'. According to Tacitus, there was a special site outside the Esquiline Gates of Rome which was the traditional execution ground. There is much evidence that the process of having a designated execution area was common to Roman cities throughout the Empire.
Remains of Crucifixion Victim
Archaeological Evidence of Crucifixion
Crucified bodies were generally left to the scavengers or dumped in the rubbish heaps, so archaeological evidence is rare despite documentary evidence that the practice was widespread. On some rare occasions a body was claimed or allowed to be taken for burial by a victim's family or loved ones. In 1968, in Jerusalem, archaeological exploration uncovered the bones of a young male called "Yehochannan" in an ossuary. Ossuaries were stone burial chests, common in Jewish communities in the Second Temple Period (40BCE-135CE). A 4.5 inch nail was driven into Yehochannan's heel-bone in such a way that it could not be removed. Both of Yehochannan's legs had been smashed.
Crucifixion in Later Times
Crucifixion was used by the Japanese and the Islamic Empire during medieval times. It was also said to have been used by some Native Americans conquered by the Spanish during the 16th century (stemming from their understanding of Christianity).
In modern times, crucifixion has been applied to Jewish inmates of the Dachau Concentration Camp by the Nazis during World War II. The Khmer Rouge used it in Cambodia and the Japanese against the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese War. While it is legal to crucify people under Islamic Sharia Law, it is only rarely practiced as a punishment today. It is practised as a religious ritual in some places though. A form of non-deadly crucifixion happens on or around Good Friday regularly in New Mexico.
Crucifixion is more commonly found reflected in modern art than modern criminal justice systems.
Bizarre 1945 Chicago Crucifixion
The Crucifixion of Fred Walcher - Chicago 1945
In a macabre tale, 46 year old Fred Walcher, an Austrian immigrant to Chicago, was found tied and nailed to a cross made of varnished 6-inch planks in a Chicago lane-way early one morning in 1945. A crown of thorns was placed on his head. Attracted by groaning noises, his rescuers took him down. Walcher was the leader of a group linked to the American Nazi movement. A police investigation revealed that the whole thing was a stunt performed after Walcher told a gathering of his followers that people were stupid and needed something like a crucifixion to 'wake them up'. It was reported that he was not, however, referring to his own crucifixion when he exhorted his followers to take action!
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- Who did Marcus Crassus crucify?
- The Greeks
- The Gauls
- The rebel slave and gladiator followers of Spartacus
- Were nails always used in ancient crucifixions?
- Was crucifixion widespread in the ancient world before the time of Christ?
- Is crucifixion legal under modern Islamic (Sharia) Law in some places?
- The rebel slave and gladiator followers of Spartacus
- The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius, translated by H.M. Bird, (ed, T. Griffith), (1997), Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, London
- Crucifixion in Antiquity, Joe Zias (1998), Century One Foundation,http://www.centuryone.org/crucifixion2.html
- Roman Crucifixion, http://www.roman-colosseum.info/roman-life/roman-crucifixion.htm
- The Annals, Tacitus (109 CE), http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.4.iv.html
- Ossuaries and Sarcophagi, Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0015_0_15249.html
- A Physician Testifies about the Crucifixion, (4 April 1976)Dr. C. Truman Davis, Facts About the Crucifixion, http://www.konnections.com/kcundick/crucifix.html
- Chicago Crucifixion, Chicago Tribune March 10, 1945, http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/unknown-chicago/2011/03/chicago-crucifixion-3-10-1945.html
- Caesar and the Pirates, Plutarch, http://www.livius.org/caa-can/caesar/caesar_t01.htm
- Alexander takes Tyre, from an account by Quintus Curtius Rufus, translated by John Yardley, http://www.livius.org/aj-al/alexander/alexander_t09.html
- Bible Archaeology, Crucifixion, http://www.bible-archaeology.info/crucifixion.htm
- Mary's Christianity Blog, Mary Fairchild, http://christianity.about.com/b/2009/03/06/the-history-of-crucifixion.htm
- The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies, Details and History of Crucifixion. 'The Ancient Method of Execution', http://www.thenazareneway.com/details_history_of_crucifixion.htm
- Crassus and the Appian Way, Brian Zahnd, (March 15, 2008), http://brianzahnd.com/2008/03/crassus-and-the-appian-way/
- Man Crucifies Himself Every Good Friday, Gasmonso (April 12, 2006), http://religiousfreaks.com/2006/04/12/man-crucifies-himself-every-good-friday/
- Hamas enacts Islamic (Sharia) Laws: Hand Amputation, Crucifixion, Lashes and Execution, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2154254/posts
© 2011 Mel Jay
Mel Jay (author) from Australia on June 11, 2011:
Hi danynguyen, thanks for your comment. I think many people feel the way you do. When I read an article about a recent crucifixion in Saudi Arabia, for a moment I was all in favour of it - the man was convicted of appalling sex offences against three small children. He also murdered them - when he had finished with them he took them out into the desert and killed them. The Saudis first beheaded him and then crucified him in a public ceremony, primarily for deterrence I assume. I suspect that many people in many societies are regularly very disappointed with various government and legal responses to the most serious of crimes. I know that in Australia offenders sometimes get less punishment for child sex crimes than things like fraud or armed robbery. I think if this was rectified and people felt that adequate punishments were being handed down, crucifixion would not seem so attractive in certain instances.
danynguyen on June 09, 2011:
Although it was mankind's most despicable, painful and barbaric way to put somebody to death, I'd welcome it to punish today's worst criminals.
Does that make me a soulless man beyond any salvation?
Mel Jay (author) from Australia on May 18, 2011:
Hi Larry, thanks for your comment - I learned a lot doing this one, and the reading was fascinating if a bit gruesome at times. Really hard to find appropriate images for something like this though, a lot of the pictures were simply too grisly to use or too single-purpose. Cheers, Mel
Larry Fields from Northern California on May 18, 2011:
Outstanding historical research. Good job, Mel.
Mel Jay (author) from Australia on May 18, 2011:
Thanks for your comment Alastar :) As always - much appreciated, Mel
Alastar Packer from North Carolina on May 18, 2011:
This an excellently researched and written hub on crucifixion. Just a couple thoughts. The so called 'Shroud of Turin' has the nails through the wrist. Would a medieval forger know this? The 200 kilometer stretch of Spartacus men boggles the mind and that was interesting on the methodology. The modern times was like the cherry on top. Well Done Mel Jay.