Crucifixion is an ancient method of painful execution in which the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross (of various shapes) and left to hang until dead. The term comes from the Latin crucifixio (“fixing to a cross”, from the prefix cruci-, from crux (“cross”), + verb figere, “fix or bind fast”.)
Crucifixion was in use particularly among the Seleucids, Carthaginians, and Romans from about the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD. In the year 337, Emperor Constantine I abolished it in the Roman Empire, out of veneration for Jesus Christ, the most famous victim of crucifixion. It was also used as a form of execution in Japan for criminals, inflicted also on some Christians.
A crucifix (an image of Christ crucified on a cross) is the main religious symbol for Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, but most Protestant Christians prefer to use a cross without the figure (the “corpus” – Latin for “body”) of Christ. Most crucifixes portray Jesus on a Latin cross, rather than any other shape, such as a Tau cross or a Greek cross. The term crucifix derives from the Latin crucifixus or cruci fixus, past participle passive of crucifigere or cruci figere, meaning “to crucify” or “to fix to a cross”
Crucifixion was often performed to terrorize and dissuade the onlookers from perpetrating the crimes punishable by it. Victims were left on display after death as warnings so that others who attempt dissent might be forewarned. Crucifixion was usually intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”), gruesome, humiliating, and public, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal. Crucifixion methods varied considerably with location and time period.
The Greek and Latin words corresponding to “crucifixion” applied to many different forms of painful execution, from impaling on a stake to affixing to a tree, to an upright pole (a crux simplex) or to a combination of an upright (in Latin, stipes) and a crossbeam (in Latin, patibulum).
In some cases, the condemned was forced to carry the crossbeam on his shoulders to the place of execution. A whole cross would weigh well over 300 pounds (135 kilograms), but the crossbeam would weigh only 75–125 pounds (35–60 kilograms). The Roman historian Tacitus records that the city of Rome had a specific place for carrying out executions, situated outside the Esquiline Gate, and had a specific area reserved for the execution of slaves by crucifixion. Upright posts would presumably be fixed permanently in that place, and the crossbeam, with the condemned person perhaps already nailed to it, would then be attached to the post.
The person executed may have been attached to the cross by rope, though nails are mentioned in a passage by the Judean historian Josephus, where he states that at the Siege of Jerusalem (70), “the soldiers out of rage and hatred, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest.” Objects used in the crucifixion of criminals, such as nails, were sought as amulets with perceived medicinal qualities.
While a crucifixion was an execution, it was also a humiliation, by making the condemned as vulnerable as possible. Although artists have depicted the figure on a cross with a loin cloth or a covering of the genitals, writings by Seneca the Younger suggest that victims were crucified completely nude. When the victim had to urinate or defecate, they had to do so in the open, in view of passers-by, resulting in discomfort and the attraction of insects. Despite its frequent use by the Romans, the horrors of crucifixion did not escape mention by some of their eminent orators. Cicero for example, in a speech that appears to have been an early bid for its abolition, described crucifixion as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment”, and suggested that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
Frequently, the legs of the person executed were broken or shattered with an iron club, an act called crurifragium, which was also frequently applied without crucifixion to slaves. This act hastened the death of the person but was also meant to deter those who observed the crucifixion from committing offenses.
The gibbet on which crucifixion was carried out could be of many shapes. Josephus describes multiple tortures and positions of crucifixion during the Siege of Jerusalem as Titus crucified the rebels; and Seneca the Younger recounts: “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.”
At times the gibbet was only one vertical stake, called in Latin crux simplex or palus, or in Greek μόνος σταυρός (monos stauros, i.e. isolated stake). This was the simplest available construction for torturing and killing the condemned. Frequently, however, there was a cross-piece attached either at the top to give the shape of a T (crux commissa) or just below the top, as in the form most familiar in Christian symbolism (crux immissa). Other forms were in the shape of the letters X and Y.
The New Testament writings about the crucifixion of Jesus do not speak specifically about the shape of that cross, but the early writings that do speak of its shape, from about the year 100 on, describe it as shaped like the letter T (the Greek letter tau) or as composed of an upright and a transverse beam, sometimes with a small ledge in the upright.
In popular depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus (possibly because in translations of John 20:25 the wounds are described as being “in his hands”), Jesus is shown with nails in his hands. But in Greek the word “χείρ”, usually translated as “hand”, referred to arm and hand together, and to denote the hand as distinct from the arm some other word was added, as “ἄκρην οὔτασε χεῖρα” (he wounded the end of the χείρ, i.e., he wounded her hand).
A possibility that does not require tying is that the nails were inserted just above the wrist, between the two bones of the forearm (the radius and the ulna).
An experiment that was the subject of a documentary on the National Geographic Channel’s Quest For Truth: The Crucifixion, showed that a person can be suspended by the palm of the hand. Nailing the feet to the side of the cross relieves strain on the wrists by placing most of the weight on the lower body.
Another possibility, suggested by Frederick Zugibe, is that the nails may have been driven in at an angle, entering in the palm in the crease that delineates the bulky region at the base of the thumb, and exiting in the wrist, passing through the carpal tunnel.
A foot-rest (suppedaneum) attached to the cross, perhaps for the purpose of taking the person’s weight off the wrists, is sometimes included in representations of the crucifixion of Jesus, but is not discussed in ancient sources. Some scholars interpret the Alexamenos graffito, the earliest surviving depiction of the Crucifixion, as including such a foot-rest. Ancient sources also mention the sedile, a small seat attached to the front of the cross, about halfway down, which could have served a similar purpose. A short upright spike or cornu might also be attached to the sedile, forcing the victim to rest his or her perineum on the point of the device, or allow it to insert into the anus or vagina. These devices were not an attempt to relieve suffering, but would prolong the process of death. The cornu would also add considerably to the pain and humiliation of crucifixion.
In 1968, archaeologists discovered at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in northeast Jerusalem the remains of one Jehohanan, who had been crucified in the 1st century. The remains included a heel bone with a nail driven through it from the side. The tip of the nail was bent, perhaps because of striking a knot in the upright beam, which prevented it being extracted from the foot. A first inaccurate account of the length of the nail led some to believe that it had been driven through both heels, suggesting that the man had been placed in a sort of sidesaddle position, but the true length of the nail, 11.5 centimetres (4.53 inches), suggests instead that in this case of crucifixion the heels were nailed to opposite sides of the upright.
Cause of death
The length of time required to reach death could range from a matter of hours to a number of days, depending on exact methods, the prior health of the condemned, and environmental circumstances. Death could result from any combination of causes, including blood loss, hypovolemic shock, or sepsis following infection, caused by the scourging that sometimes preceded the crucifixion, or by the process of being nailed itself, or eventual dehydration.
A theory attributed to Pierre Barbet holds that, when the whole body weight was supported by the stretched arms, the typical cause of death was asphyxiation. He conjectured that the condemned would have severe difficulty inhaling, due to hyper-expansion of the chest muscles and lungs. The condemned would therefore have to draw himself up by his arms, leading to exhaustion, or have his feet supported by tying or by a wood block. When no longer able to lift himself, the condemned would die within a few minutes. Experiments by Frederick Zugibe have, however, revealed that, when suspended with arms at 60° to 70° from the vertical, test subjects had no difficulty breathing, only rapidly increasing discomfort and pain. This would correspond to the Roman use of crucifixion as a prolonged, agonizing, humiliating death. Legs were often broken to hasten death through severe traumatic shock and fat embolism.
Since death does not follow immediately on crucifixion, survival after a short period of crucifixion is possible, as in the case of those who choose each year as a devotional practice to be non-lethally crucified.
There is an ancient record of one person who survived a crucifixion that was intended to be lethal, but that was interrupted. Josephus recounts: “I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.” Josephus gives no details of the method or duration of the crucifixion of his three friends before their reprieve.
Despite the fact that the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, as well as other sources, refers to the crucifixion of thousands of people by the Romans, there is only a single archaeological discovery of a crucified body dating back to the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus. This was discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. It is not necessarily surprising that there is only one such discovery, because a crucified body was usually left to decay on the cross and therefore would not be preserved. The only reason these archaeological remains were preserved was because family members gave this particular individual a customary burial.
The remains were found accidentally in an ossuary with the crucified man’s name on it, ‘Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol’. Nicu Haas, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University Medical School in Jerusalem, examined the ossuary and discovered that it contained a heel bone with a nail driven through its side, indicating that the man had been crucified. The position of the nail relative to the bone indicates that the feet had been nailed to the cross from their side, not from their front; various opinions have been proposed as to whether they were both nailed together to the front of the cross or one on the left side, one on the right side. The point of the nail had olive wood fragments on it indicating that he was crucified on a cross made of olive wood or on an olive tree. Since olive trees are not very tall, this would suggest that the condemned was crucified at eye level.
Additionally, a piece of acacia wood was located between the bones and the head of the nail, presumably to keep the condemned from freeing his foot by sliding it over the nail. His legs were found broken, possibly to hasten his death as described in John 19:31-35. It is thought that because in Roman times iron was rare, the nails were removed from the dead body to conserve costs. According to Haas, this fact could help to explain why only one nail has been found, as the tip of the nail in question was bent in such a way that it could not be removed.
Haas had also identified a scratch on the inner surface of the right radius bone of the forearm, close to the wrist. He deduced from the form of the scratch, as well as from the intact wrist bones, that a nail had been driven into the forearm at that position. However, much of Haas’ findings have been challenged. The scratches in the wrist area were determined to be non-traumatic and, therefore, not evidence of crucifixion. A later reexamination of the heel bone revealed that the two heels were not nailed together, but nailed separately to either side of the upright post of the cross.
The Orpheos Bakkikos crucifixion, hematite seal, early Christian era (possibly of Roman origin), but reflecting ancient Greek themes. Formerly housed at the Altes Museum in Berlin, but lost or destroyed during World War II.
Crucifixion (or impalement), in one form or another, was used by Persians, Carthaginians, Macedonians, and Romans. Death was often hastened. “The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died, and were known to precipitate death by means of deliberate fracturing of the tibia and/or fibula, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to asphyxiate the victim.”
The Greeks were generally opposed to performing crucifixions. However, in his Histories, ix.120–122, the Greek writer Herodotus describes the execution of a Persian general at the hands of Athenians in about 479 BC: “They nailed him to a plank and hung him up … this Artayctes who suffered death by crucifixion.” The Commentary on Herodotus by How and Wells remarks: “They crucified him with hands and feet stretched out and nailed to cross-pieces; cf. vii.33. This barbarity, unusual on the part of Greeks, may be explained by the enormity of the outrage or by Athenian deference to local feeling.”
Some Christian theologians, beginning with Paul of Tarsus writing in Galatians 3:13, have interpreted an allusion to crucifixion in Deuteronomy 21:22-23. This reference is to being hanged from a tree, and may be associated with lynching or traditional hanging. However, ancient Jewish law allowed only 4 methods of execution: stoning, burning, strangulation, and decapitation. Crucifixion was thus forbidden by ancient Jewish law. The Aramaic Testament of Levi (DSS 4Q541) interprets in column 6: “God [will set] right errors. [He will judge] revealed sins. Investigate and seek and know how Jonah wept. Thus, you shall not destroy the weak by wasting away or by [crucif]ixion. Let not the nail touch him.”
Alexander the Great is reputed to have crucified 2000 survivors from his siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre, as well as the doctor who unsuccessfully treated Alexander’s friend Hephaestion. Some historians have also conjectured that Alexander crucified Callisthenes, his official historian and biographer, for objecting to Alexander’s adoption of the Persian ceremony of royal adoration.
In Carthage, crucifixion was an established mode of execution, which could even be imposed on a general for suffering a major defeat.
The hypothesis that the Ancient Roman custom of crucifixion may have developed out of a primitive custom of arbori suspendere—hanging on an arbor infelix (unfortunate tree) dedicated to the gods of the nether world—is rejected by William A. Oldfather, who shows that this form of execution (the supplicium more maiorum, punishment in accordance with the custom of our ancestors) consisted of suspending someone from a tree, not dedicated to any particular gods, and flogging him to death. Tertullian mentions a 1st-century AD case in which trees were used for crucifixion, but Seneca the Younger earlier used the phrase infelix lignum (unfortunate wood) for the transom (“patibulum”) or the whole cross. According to others, the Romans appear to have learned of crucifixion from the Carthaginians.
Crucifixion was used for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state. It was considered a most shameful and disgraceful way to die. Condemned Roman citizens were usually exempt from crucifixion (like feudal nobles from hanging, dying more honorably by decapitation) except for major crimes against the state, such as high treason.
Notorious mass crucifixions followed the Third Servile War in 73–71 BC (the slave rebellion under Spartacus), other Roman civil wars in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. To frighten other slaves from revolting, Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’ men along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome. Josephus tells a story of the Romans crucifying people along the walls of Jerusalem. He also says that the Roman soldiers would amuse themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions. In Roman-style crucifixion, the condemned could take up to a few days to die. The dead body was left up for vultures and other birds to consume.
The goal of Roman crucifixion was not just to kill the criminal, but also to mutilate and dishonour the body of the condemned. In ancient tradition, an honourable death required burial; leaving a body on the cross, so as to mutilate it and prevent its burial, was a grave dishonour.
Under ancient Roman penal practice, crucifixion was also a means of exhibiting the criminal’s low social status. It was the most dishonourable death imaginable, originally reserved for slaves, hence still called “supplicium servile” by Seneca, later extended to provincial freedmen of obscure station (‘humiles’). The citizen class of Roman society were almost never subject to capital punishments; instead, they were fined or exiled. Josephus mentions Jews of high rank who were crucified, but this was to point out that their status had been taken away from them. The Romans often broke the prisoner’s legs to hasten death and usually forbade burial.
A cruel prelude was scourging, which would cause the condemned to lose a large amount of blood, and approach a state of shock. The convict then usually had to carry the horizontal beam (patibulum in Latin) to the place of execution, but not necessarily the whole cross. Crucifixion was typically carried out by specialized teams, consisting of a commanding centurion and four soldiers. When it was done in an established place of execution, the vertical beam (stipes) could even be permanently embedded in the ground. The condemned was usually stripped naked—all the New Testament gospels describe soldiers gambling for the robes of Jesus.
The ‘nails’ were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches (13 to 18 cm) long, with a square shaft 3⁄8 inches (0.95 cm) across. In some cases, the nails were gathered afterward and used as healing amulets.
Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire in 337 out of veneration for Jesus Christ, its most famous victim.