Crucifixion during the Roman Empire

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Death by crucifixion is an ancient practice, which was utilized frequently by the Romans to punish criminals in the society. Crucifixion was a process, which involved excruciating pain and humiliation for the convicted criminal; it was necessitated by the need to discourage other citizens from engaging in crime especially against the leadership. The offender was forced to carry a huge wooden cross along the streets, as the guards in charge of the process continued to inflict pain through whipping and beating (Weber, 1979)

Upon reaching the destination, where crucifixion was to take place, the convict was nailed onto the cross using nails measuring approximately 18 centimeters in length and 10 millimeters in width. Thereafter, the cross, along with the convict, was erected vertically on the ground and it remained in that position until after the criminal was confirmed dead. However, it is believed that some of the crosses were fixed permanently on the ground to serve as a constant reminder to the passersby and local inhabitants that death by crucifixion was the ultimate destiny for criminals (Hewitt, 1932).

Death through crucifixion is a slow process and as such, it took a long time, depending on the health of the victim, for it to be achieved. It is claimed that some of the persons remained alive for more than 2 days while others succumbed to death in a matter of hours. However, it is notable that some of the guards assigned with the task of crucifying and guarding the convict utilized several tactics to hasten the death and to reduce the chances of the convict surviving the ordeal (Hengel, 1989).

For example, before crucifixion, these guards ensured that the convict was weakened through harsh beatings concentrated on weak points such as the chest, the head, and limb joints among others, which subjected the criminal to low chances of survival even if the process was abandoned half way. In addition, the guards facilitated a quick and painful death by ensuring that while nailing the victim, the nails went through major bones on the legs, tibia and fibula, to break them thereby weakening the functioning of the body. Some of the texts also suggest that, due to the weakness of the palm flesh to sustain the weight of the body, there is a logical reason to believe that the nails on the hands were driven through the radius and the ulna, which are the two major bones that connect the palms to the elbow joints.  Otherwise, the only other possibility was to increase support by tying the nailed hands to the cross (Tzaferis, 1985).

It is also evident that Roman executioners hastened the death of the victim by spearing him in the chest. One of the major historical and biblical figures to die in the hands of Roman executioners through crucifixion was Jesus, who was crucified for treason. Jesus was perceived as a threat to the leadership of the roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar, by claiming that he was the king of the Jews and that there was another greater kingdom than the Roman empire, which belonged to his father. He was also accused of blasphemy due to his claims that he was the son of God yet he was a man with flesh and blood and therefore no different from other humans (Hengel, 1989).

According to Jewish beliefs, crucified persons were not supposed to remain on the cross on the Sabbath day, which is equivalent to Saturday on the Gregorian calendar, and therefore it had been ordered that all the people crucified together with Jesus had to have their legs broken so as to ensure that they died on that very day. It is important to note that while hanging on the cross, the crucified persons had a chance of prolonging their death by supporting themselves with the legs thus reducing muscle tension created by the force of gravity. However, when it was the turn for Jesus to have his legs broken, the guard realized that he was already dead but to be sure, he pierced him on the chest with a spear (Hewitt, 1932).

The crucifixion of Jesus also makes it clear that the Romans crucified their victims without their clothes on. To begin with, after Jesus was condemned to death, the executioners undressed him after which they clothed him in a purple robe, probably explaining why the Catholic Church among others use purple as the theme color for commemorating his death. However, after his crucifixion, the guards are said to have scrambled for his clothes, which they shared among themselves. This shows how little condemned suspects were respected owing to the fact that these humiliating actions were conducted in full glare of the public, which had come along to witness the execution. His mother, Mary, and other women were present when these shameful acts were going on and it is only imaginable how embarrassing it may have been for them (Hewitt, 1932).

The Roman crucifixion is not covered in the Old Testament since it was considered to be the most horrible form of punishment, it was during the New Testament times, the Romans mainly used this form of execution to instill fear and exert authority over their citizens in an effort to create control. Researchers have confirmed that before the victim was crucified a concoction of myrrh, vinegar, and gall was usually given to the victim to sometimes alleviate the pain of the victim. Wooden planks were occasionally fastened as a footrest or seat and this gave the victim an opportunity to support himself on the footrest and facilitate breathing hence prolonging the period of suffering for at least three days (Hengel, 1989).

On condition that the victim was not supported, he would entirely hang from the nails pierced on his wrists hence complicating breathing and circulation of blood and oxygen. At other times, mercy was extended to the victims by breaking their legs thus causing the victim to die quickly and reducing the suffering period. As a lesson to other criminals, crucifixions were executed in public places where the charges against the criminal were nailed above his head. Unconfirmed reports say that there was a long cross and a short cross, the latter was the most common and it did not exceed more than seven feet in height. From the fact one soldier who was crucifying Jesus put a sponge on hyssop plant so that he could give Jesus something to drink is sufficient evidence that Jesus was crucified on a short cross since a hyssop plant typically grows to 20 inches (Hewitt, 1932).

In June 1968, some building contractors working in northern Jerusalem accidentally came across a Jewish tomb which was estimated to be at the time of Jesus. In the tomb were skeletal remains of middle aged man who had been crucified. The evidence found on the heel bone proved that he had been pierced by an iron nail which was estimated to be 11.5cms. The nail had penetrated the lateral surface of the heel and the distal end of the nail was bent meaning that perhaps after the nail had penetrated the tree it struck a knot in the wood making it almost impossible to remove. Remains of olive wood was found between the heel bone and the nail’s head suggesting that before the nail was driven through the victim a wooden plank of olive had been penetrated before so as to increase the stability of the nail hence making the victim almost impossible to free  his legs (Hewitt, 1932).

Due to the long time the corpse had been lying in the tomb under poor and primitive preservation methods, the post mortem analysis were difficult to conduct and there emerged conflicting anthropological conclusions. However, some scholars have argued that the Roman crucifixion was a bloodless death as the victims were usually tied on the cross but recent research has proven that there is sufficient evidence that nailing of the victim on both hands and the legs was a rule and thus tying the victim to the cross was the exception. The pain of the crucifixion process is not hard to imagine, the extreme pain from the nails and the position of the crucified victims is sufficient evidence that this would definitely interfere with the normal breathing process. The crucified victims could not exhale normally and this would eventually result to painful muscle cramps. Additionally, as the crucified victims struggled to exhale properly they had to move their limbs thus adding pain to the scoured back and the pierced limbs and this would reopen wounds and cause more bleeding and suffering (Weber, 1979).

Every breath on the cross would be additional agony and finally the combination would eventually result to asphyxia. This also explains why the legs had to be broken, as for the case of the two robbers crucified alongside Jesus and without the support of their legs; the crucified could not raise their legs and this would catalyze their death for they could not exhale sufficiently. The Romans usually left the crucified naked and hanging in public places to add ridicule to the crucified. Insects would frequently land on their mouths and wounds and they were unable to remove them. In addition, scavengers such as vultures were left to feast on the dead bodies as the authorities sometimes forbid family members from conducting a decent burial. Crucifixion was the most agonizing and disgraceful form of execution that has ever been known to man (Hengel, 1989).

Did you like this sample?
  1. Hengel, M. (1989). Crucifixion, Fortress Press. Philadelphia.
  2. Hewitt, J. (1932). The Use of Nails in Crucifixion. Harvard Theological Review 25:29-45.
  3. Tzaferis, V. (1985). Crucifixion: The Archeological Evidence. Biblical Archeological Review, 44-53.
  4. Weber, H. (1979). The Cross: Tradition and Interpretation. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
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