Roman Crucifixion

Definition of Roman Crucifixion as an Ancient Method of Execution

Crucifixion Definition
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Crucifixion Definition

The word "crucifixion" comes from the Latin crucifixio, or crucifixus, meaning "fixed to a cross."

Roman crucifixion was an ancient method of execution in which the victim's hands and feet were bound and nailed to a cross. It was one of the most painful and disgraceful methods of capital punishment.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed live crucifixions during Titus’ siege on Jerusalem, called it "the most wretched of deaths." Victims were usually beaten and tortured and then forced to carry their own cross to the crucifixion site. Because of the long-drawn-out suffering and horrible manner of execution, it was viewed as the supreme penalty by the Romans.

Forms of Crucifixion

The Roman cross was formed of wood, typically with a vertical stake and a horizontal cross beam near the top. Different types and shapes of crosses existed for different forms of crucifixion:

  • Crux Simplex - a single upright stake.
  • Crux Commissa - a capital T-shaped cross.
  • Crux Decussata - X-shaped structure, also called St. Andrew's cross.
  • Crux Immissa - the lower case, t-shaped cross upon which the Lord, Jesus Christ was crucified.
  • Upside Down cross - history and tradition says the Apostle Peter was crucified on an upside down cross.

Crucifixion in the Bible

Crucifixion was practiced by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians and then later quite extensively by the Romans. Only slaves, peasants, and the lowest of criminals were crucified, but rarely Roman citizens.

The Roman form of crucifixion was not employed in the Old Testament by the Jewish people, as they saw crucifixion as one of the most horrible, cursed forms of death (Deuteronomy 21:23). In New Testament Bible times, the Romans used this tortuous method of execution as a means of exerting authority and control over the population.

Before nailing the victim to the cross, a mixture of vinegar, gall, and myrrh was usually offered to alleviate some of the victim's suffering. Wooden planks were usually fastened to the vertical stake as a footrest or seat, allowing the victim to rest his weight and lift himself for a breath, thus prolonging suffering and delaying death for up to three days. Unsupported, the victim would hang entirely from nail-pierced wrists, severely restricting breathing and circulation.

The excruciating ordeal would lead to exhaustion, suffocation, brain death and heart failure. At times, mercy was shown by breaking the victim's legs, causing death to come quickly. As a deterrent to crime, crucifixions were carried out in highly public places with the criminal charges posted on the cross above the victim's head. After death, the body was usually left hanging on the cross.

Christian theology teaches that Jesus Christ was crucified on a Roman cross as the perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins all of mankind, thus making the crucifix, or cross, one of the central themes and defining symbols of Christianity.



Also Known As

Death on the cross; hanging on a tree.


The crucifixion of Jesus is recorded in Matthew 27:27-56, Mark 15:21-38, Luke 23:26-49, and John 19:16-37.

(Sources: New Bible Dictionary; Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible; The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.)