The History of Crucifixions
Most people are familiar with crucifixion from the accounts of Jesus of Nazareth’s death on the orders of Pontius Pilate. However, that form of execution dated back at least to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) and was popular with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, as well as the Romans. The practice was discontinued from widespread use by Constantine in 337 CE in deference to Jesus’ crucifixion.
This public method of death involved attaching the victim, with either rope or nails, to a raised pole. Sometimes it was simply a wooden pole, sometimes a crossbar would be attached at the top or partway down (the style associated with Jesus’ death), as well as several other reported variants. There was also sometimes a foot rest or even a seat to help hold the victim up. Death usually occurred from the inability of the body to continue functioning for a prolonged period in such a position, in particular the diaphragm would fail rendering the victim unable to breath. Dehydration and exposure to the elements were also possibilities. Sometimes death was sped up by the guards, who could not leave until the victim was dead, breaking the legs or stabbing the person in the side with a spear (as some stories record happening to Jesus). The purpose of such a form of execution was to make an example of the victim, who was usually a criminal of the lowest classes or someone guilty of treason, as crucifixions were conducted in public places, the crosses making them readily viewable, were incredibly painful, and the victim often took hours if not days to die. It was considered to be among the most shameful forms of execution in the Mediterranean World.
Though a large number of classical sources relay stories of crucifixions, among the most famous being the Roman Statesman Crassus crucifying the 6000 survivors of Spartacus’ Slave Revolt along the Apian Way, only one piece of archaeological evidence exists of someone having been crucified, though this is almost certainly due to the fact that it was generally forbidden for the body to be given a proper burial. Conversely, it has been argued that the shamefulness of such a death adds credibility to Jesus having been crucified, the line of thought being that Jesus’ followers would not have so readily written and spoken about it if the act had not both happened and been well known.
In recent years, the fact that crucifixion is not immediately, or necessarily, if taken down before damage is irreversible, fatal has led to several Christian sects staging voluntary crucifixions around the time of Easter in order to show their devotion to Jesus. Although the practice of crucifixion has long since ended, save for the occasional incident, it has left an indelible mark on our culture and society, such as the word excruciating and the near ubiquitous crucifixes (let alone the influence of Jesus’ death) used by Christians. As such, this method of death is an aspect of ancient history that is well known, but little understood, by most people.
Photo by Richard CliffordGoogle+