A Brief History of Crucifixion in the Ancient World

Crucified Feet

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Crucifixion was not only one of the most painful and disgraceful forms of death but also one of the most dreaded methods of execution in the ancient world. The best-known and best-documented account of crucifixion in history was that of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, who died on a Roman cross as recorded in Matthew 27: 32-56, Mark 15:21-38, Luke 23:26-49, and John 19:16-37. Numerous sources, both Christian and non-Christian, substantiate the event.

The term crucifixion bears the meaning "to put up posts," "bind to a cross," and "hang." In general, this form of capital punishment involved torture and execution by fixing a person to a wooden post or tree. Using ropes or nails, the victim's hands and feet were bound and often nailed to either a vertical stake or a stake with a crossbeam. Often the victim was subjected to various forms of public torture before the actual crucifixion.

Once hanging from the cross, the victim suffered a long, excruciatingly painful death, sometimes lasting up to three days.

Who Invented Crucifixion?

While accounts of crucifixions are recorded by several ancient civilizations and cultures, the Persians are most often credited by historians as having invented the practice. The oldest record comes from Herodotus who noted that Darius crucified 3,000 inhabitants of Babylon.

Originating in Persia, crucifixion then spread to the Assyrians, Scythians, Taurians, Thracians, the people of India, the Germans, Celts, Britons, Numidians, and the Carthaginians. The Greeks and Macedonians are also believed to have learned the practice of crucifixion from the Persians.

Perhaps due to the gruesomeness of this horrible practice, detailed accounts of crucifixions by historians are few. The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed live crucifixions during Titus’ siege on Jerusalem, called it "the most wretched of deaths." Cicero (AD 106–43) described it as a "most cruel and disgusting penalty." 

Another historian captured this attitude of the people in the ancient world toward crucifixion: "It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word."

Perhaps the most unique and detailed description of death by crucifixion was given by Seneca (4 BC-AD 65), a Roman philosopher, poet, and playwright:

"Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross."

Crucifixion by the Greeks

Ancient Greeks would secure their victims to a flat board, sometimes only to shame and punish them. While fastened to wooden planks for a period of time, they endured torture. Later, victims would be released or executed in another manner. But Plato made reference to the Greeks employing death by crucifixion as a form of capital punishment.

History affirms that crucifixion became common under the rule of Alexander the Great who, executed 2,000 Tyrians after conquering their city.

Crucifixion by the Romans

Under the Romans, who most likely adopted crucifixion from the Carthaginians, the practice increased in both extent and severity. During the Roman Empire, crucifixion was primarily reserved for traitors, deserters, foreigners, despised enemies, captive armies, slaves, the most violent offenders, and those guilty of high treason.

The Roman form of crucifixion was not employed in the Old Testament by Jewish people, as they saw crucifixion as one of the most horrible, cursed forms of death (Deuteronomy 21:23). The only exception was reported by the historian Josephus when the Jewish high priest Alexander Jannaeus (BC 103-76) ordered the crucifixion of 800 enemy Pharisees.

In New Testament times, the Romans used this tortuous method of execution as a means of exerting authority and control over the population. Throughout the course of history, different types and shapes of crosses existed for different forms of crucifixion.

In honor of Christ's death, the practice of crucifixion was abolished by Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, in AD 337.

Sources

"Crucifixion." The Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. (p. 22).

"Crucifixion." Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (p. 298).