Crucifixion is an ancient method of execution, where the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang there until dead. It is widely considered a not uncommon and extremely dishonorable and painful form of judicial execution in the Roman Empire during the time of Christ, though similar methods were employed in other ancient cultures such as Persia.
Crucifixion has special significance in Christianity, since according to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified but later resurrected. Because of this the Christian cross or crucifix has become a main symbol of Christianity.
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Crucifixion in the Roman Empire
The Romans adopted the custom of crucifixion from Carthage, and used it for slaves, rebels, pirates and especially-despised enemies and criminals. Therefore crucifixion was considered a most ignominious way to die. Condemned Roman citizens were usually exempt from crucifixion (like feudal nobles from hanging) except for major crimes against the state, such as high treason. The Romans used it after the Third Servile War (the slave rebellion under Spartacus), and during the Roman Civil War and the destruction of Jerusalem.
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 victim took days to die slowly from suffocation—caused by the victim's blood-supply slowly draining away, to a quantity insufficient to supply the required oxygen to vital organs. 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 for the victim.
Under ancient Roman penal practice, crucifixion was not only a means of execution, but also a means of exhibiting the criminal’s low social status. It was the most dishonourable death imaginable. The elite of Roman society (only about 10% of the population) were almost never subject to corporal 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. Control of one’s own body was vital in the ancient world. Capital punishment took away control over one’s own body, thereby implying a loss of status and honour. The Romans often broke the prisoner's legs to hasten death, and usually forbade burial.
A cruel prelude was scourging, which would cause the victim 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 victim was usually stripped naked -- the New Testament gospels, dated to around the same time as Josephus, describe soldiers gambling for the robes of Jesus.
Emperor Constantine, the first Emperor known to receive a Christian baptism, abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire at the end of his reign.
- Martin Hengel, Crucifixion. Fortress, 1977.