How Was A Crucifixion Performed?

Nail through a heel bone contrasted with the usual depiction of a crucified victim's feet.

(Warning to readers: This article discusses subject matter which is necessarily unpleasant.)

Crucifixion is the most famous method of execution in history. Yet what was crucifixion exactly? How was it performed? Two archeological finds (one very recent) as well as contemporary historical accounts will illuminate the matter.

The Romans did not invent crucifixion. It seems they adopted a practise that was common in Persia. The Phoneticians were known to execute prisoners using crucifixion. When Alexander the Great conquered Tyre, he had over 2000 Tyrian soldiers put to death on the beach using this means. Yet while other nations employed crucifixion, it is justly most commonly associated with Rome. No other nation embraced it so enthusiastically. Until the Emperor Constantine (who reigned from 312 to 337 C.E) outlawed the practice, the Romans had employed it for over a thousand years.

What Does Crucifixion Mean?

The word crucifixion comes from the Latin word “crux” which is commonly translated into English as “cross”. Yet the 4 Gospel accounts were not written in Latin and do not use the word “crux” in connection with the death of Jesus. The Gospels and indeed the entire Christian scriptures were written in Greek and the word the Bible uses (commonly translated into English as cross) is the Greek word σταυρός (stauros). According to the highly esteemed Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, stauros is defined this way:

Cross, Crucify [Noun] stauros denotes, primarily, “an upright pale or stake.” On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroo, “to fasten to a stake or pale,” are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed “cross.”  (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)

Though the Latin work crux is almost always translated into English as “cross”, the original word is defined differently in the famous Lewis & Short Latin dictionary:

Crux. In gen., a tree, frame, or other wooden instruments of execution, on which criminals were impaled or hanged (Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary)

Thus the words crucifixion or crucify would not exclusively refer to execution on a “t” shaped frame but would include execution on “other wooden instruments”, including a tree, frame or upright pole.

Who Was Punished With Cruxifiction?

Rome was a slave state. It could not long survive without its massive slave population. By the end of the 1st century C.E, historians estimate that between 35 – 40% of the entire population of Italy were slaves. Fearsome laws had been put in place to keep the massive slave population from revolting against their masters. Crucifixion was the form of capital punishment reserved exclusively for slaves and bandits. For example, when a slave killed his or her master, the law called for all the slaves within the household to be put to death by crucifixion as an example to slaves in other households. This was to be carried out whether or not the other slaves had participated or even been aware of the deadly plot. During the reign of the Emperor Nero (who reigned from 54 – 68 C.E) a Roman Senator named Lucius Pedanius Secundus was stabbed to death by one of his slaves. It is hard to know if this was a premeditated act or a crime of passion. The senator was a very wealthy man and had owned over 400 slaves. The thought of so many innocent men, women and children dying so miserably incensed the population. Even a small faction of senators took the position that the innocent lives should be spared. The majority of the senators were unmoved by what they felt was effeminate sentimentality. The Roman historian Tacitus recounts a speech on the floor of the Roman Senate by a senator named Gauis Cassius who took up the majority cause in defence of Roman tradition and the ancient law;

“Whom shall the number of his slaves protect, when four hundred could not shield Pedanius Secundus? Who shall find help in his domestics, when even fear for themselves cannot make them note our dangers? … To our ancestors the temper of their slaves was always suspect, even when they were born on the same estate or under the same roof… But now that our households comprise nations … you will never coerce such a medley of humanity except by terror. — ‘But some innocent lives will be lost!’ … All great examples carry with them something of injustice — injustice compensated, as against individual suffering, by the advantage of the community.” – Gaius Cassius

In other words, Cassius was arguing that only by fear of mass crucifixion could the slave population be held in check and the slave owning class remain secure in their homes. As regards innocent lives, well doubtless some would be lost but that was more than compensated by the greater good that would result to the slave owning community.  The majority opinion prevailed and over 400 men, women and children were marched to their crucifixion. Soldiers lined the roads to prevent the outraged public from interfering.

Slave rebellions were not unheard of in ancient Rome. The most famous of these and certainly the most successful is known to history as the “Third Servile War” but more popularly called “the War of Spartacus”. Spartacus and about 70 other slaves who were trained as gladiators escaped from their gladiator school in southern Italy. Unlike other slaves, Spartacus and his fellow slaves were trained in combat and so met with repeated success against Roman military units that were sent to apprehend or kill them. In the end, over 120,000 men, women and children joined Spartacus. Only when the Roman Senate sent 8 legions (up to 48,000 highly trained soldiers) under the capable command of Marcus Licinius Crassus was the revolt put down. A great political rival of Crassus named Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known as Pompey the Great) sought to capture some of the glory away from Crassus. Pompey’s army managed to capture about 6000 of Spartacus’s rebels who were fleeing from their defeat at the hands of Crassus. Pompey promptly had them crucified all along the the Appian way into Rome. That would mean that every 36 metres (120 feet) a body was hung all the way from Rome to Capua (near Naples). Their bodies were left to rot for months and it is believed that slave owners would deliberately travel along that route with their household slaves so that they could see firsthand the consequences of defying the Roman order.

From these historical examples it is evident that the purpose of crucifixion was never merely to put a condemned person to death, rather it was intended to terrorise entire populations. Crucifixion was a spectacle designed to horrify and coerce obedience. Crucifixion was not designed to simply and efficiently kill the victim, rather it was designed to torture, humiliate, disfigure and desecrate the victim. Depending on a number of factors including the exact method employed, the victims agonies might be extended over hours or even a day or two. The memory of the horror of crucifixion is preserved in our English word, “excruciating” which means “extremely painful” or “causing intense suffering”. It comes from the Latin words meaning “to crucify”.

That the Roman’s practised crucifixion on a large scale is well known. What is less well understood is exactly how crucifixion was performed. The standard understanding of crucifixion is well known from artistic depictions of the most famous crucifixion in history, that of Jesus Christ. Yet are these depictions historically accurate? Contemporary accounts of crucifixion and archeological finds in modern times suggest that they are not.

The Archeological Evidence

In 1968 a tomb was discovered in east Jerusalem. Inside that tomb was a stone box called an “ossuary” (literally a “bone box”). The first century Jews would leave a body to decay in a rock cut tomb for a year and then return to collect the remains and place them in an ossuary. Thus space could be saved and a single tomb could be used by a family for generations. This particular ossuary had an inscription indicating that the mortal remains within belonged to “Jehohanan the son of Hagkol”. When archeologists examined those remains, they were shocked to find a large iron nail (18 centimetres or 7 inches long) had been driven through the heel bone (see image above). Jehohanan had been crucified for an unknown offence. Only one nail was found. It is believed that as nails were too valuable to be discarded, they would be removed and straightened and used again. However the nail driven through the ankle bone of Jehohanan was bent badly at the end which would have made its extraction very difficult. Anyone who has ever driven a nail into a piece of wood with a knot will recognise that this is what happened here. Thus the nail was left in the bone.

The find gave some important clues as to how the crucifixion had been performed. First, the nail had been driven through the side of the ankle bone and not through the front of the foot as is commonly depicted in traditional Christian images of Christ’s death (see the detail above from the 1632, Diego Velazquez painting, “Christ Crucified”). The nail was not long enough to have pierced through both feet as well as the upright pole. It seems reasonable to conclude that a second nail had been driven through the opposing ankle and into the wooden pole in the middle. Bits of olive wood were found on the end of the nail indicating that the crucifixion had taken place either on an olive tree or on a pole fashioned from olive wood. Since olive trees don’t grow very high and tend not to be very straight, the crucifixion likely took place at eye level. Finally the fact that the remains had been gathered together in the traditional way demonstrated that the family had been able to reclaim the body of Jehohanan and that he had been allowed a proper burial by the Jewish customs of the time. This too had been the case with the body of Jesus after his crucifixion (Luke 23: 50-53).

In 2007 skeletal remains were found near Venice, Italy (although the research on the remains was only published in 2018). These remains were approximately two thousand years old and the evidence suggests they belonged to an underfed male slave who had been buried in the ground and not according to the Roman customs of the time. What made the remains especially interesting was that there was an unhealed fracture through one of the heel bones (the other heel bone was missing) which is exactly what you would expect to see if a metal nail had been driven through it. It looks very much like the unnamed, unfortunate soul had been crucified.  Both of these crucifixions showed that nails, not ropes had been used to affix the feet of the victim. Although in both of these cases the evidence was not substantial enough to determine how the arms and upper body had been fixed to the wooden pole, frame or tree.

What Methods Did Cruxifiction Take?

Contemporary accounts indicate that the Romans did not have a uniform method of crucifixion. Towards the end of the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E, Jews caught fleeing the besieged city of Jerusalem were put to death by crucifixion within sight of the city walls. So many Jews made a desperate attempt to escape the terrible famine within the city that the Roman soldiers were catching 500 or more escapees a day. The orders of the Roman general Titus were that these escapees were to crucified.  To amuse themselves in their grisly task, Roman soldiers would crucify people in all manner of positions. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was eyewitness to these events:

“…so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more: … The main reason why he did not forbid that cruelty was this, that he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterwards be liable to the same cruel treatment. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.” (Flavius Josephus, “The Jewish War”)

Bear in mind that Josephus wrote his account in Greek, so the word he used was not the plural of cross, but the plural of stauros.

The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger wrote of crucifixions that he had evidently seen performed;

“I see before me crosses not all alike, but differently made by different peoples: some hang a man head downwards, some force a stick upwards through his groin, some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet. I see cords, scourges, and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint” (Seneca the Younger, “Of Consolation to Marcia”)

That different types of crucifixion were common is also known from early church tradition. According to tradition, the Apostle Peter was crucified head down. Other church tradition says that the Apostle Andrew was crucified on an X shaped frame. The shape of that form of crux is replicated on the flag of Scotland and the state flag of Alabama.

Jeremy Ward, head of the physiology department at King’s College London said of crucifixion in 2015, “Crucifixion was a method of torture—not just putting to death. It was a particularly cruel and unusual form of disposing of people… From contemporaneous writings, it seems that they’re [being done] at all angles. They could be upside down, tied up, nailed up. It was almost up to the people doing it; there didn’t appear to be a standard form.

Some historians believe that one method of crucifixion that had become more frequently used by at least the second century involved a “T” shaped frame. In places where public executions happened regularly, the upright pole would remain fixed in the ground. According to this theory the intended victim would carry not the upright pole but a second beam called a “transom” to the place of execution. There the victims outspread arms would be either tied to or nailed to the transom which would then be fixed onto the top of the upright vertical pole. The victim would be left to die slowly. This device was named “crux commissa” by 16th century philosopher Justin Lipsius. It is also called the “Tau Cross” after the Greek letter “tau” which is shaped like the capital letter “T” and is different then the traditional “crux immissa” (again named by Lipsius) which is shaped like the small letter “t” and is most commonly depicted in the art of Christendom.

A "Crux Simplex" depicted by Justin Lipsius, 1629

A “Crux Simplex” was a simple upright stake or pole that the victim was nailed to. This depiction is by Justin Lipsius, 1629.

Crux Simplex

The most simple form of crucifixion was performed on an upright pole or stake as is suggested by the meaning of the Greek word stauros. This has been called in Latin the “Crux Simplex”. It is a simple upright stake or pole fixed in the ground. Although the name “Crux Simplex” is not ancient, (originating with Justin Lipsius), the method itself is very ancient and is especially effective.

The Gospel books give a detailed account of Jesus execution. First, Jesus was scourged by the Romans, a process that involved his being whipped till his skin was ripped open and his underlying musculature was reduced to “quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh” (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1986). Then he was forced to carry his stauros (crux) to Golgotha, the place of execution outside the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus’ injuries made it impossible to carry the stauros very far and so a passerby had to be pressed into service to carry his load (Luke 23:26). Once at Golgotha, Jesus is nailed by the hands and the feet to the stauros and then raised into place. This took place at the 3rd hour, or about 9:00 a.m. (Mark 15: 25). Jesus expires at the 9th hour or approximately 3 p.m. (Mark 15: 33). At some point during the process, some of the Jews asked permission from the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate for the legs of Jesus and the two men put to death alongside him to be broken. Yet after the soldiers broke the legs of the two men suffering alongside Jesus, they found that Jesus was already dead and thus his legs were never broken (John 19: 31-33). What was the reason for this strange leg-breaking request? The actual cause of death when a person is crucified is not from loss of blood but rather from asphyxiation, the victim simply stopped being able to draw breath. The exhausted victim could not raise and lower his frame to breath properly and slowly as physical exhaustion sets in, the victim suffocates. Breaking the crucified victim’s legs hastened the process. This wasn’t necessary in Jesus’ case, as he was already dead six hours after having been hung up.

One authority on first century Israel named Joseph Zias (curator of Archaeology and Anthropology for the Israel Antiquities Authority from 1972 to 1997) has written on Jesus’ death. Quoting a 1984 study published by the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, Zias wrote, ” A series of experiments carried out by an American medical examiner and pathologist on college students who volunteered to be tied to crosses, showed that if the students were suspended from crosses with their arms outstretched in the traditional manner depicted in Christian art, they experienced no problems breathing. Thus the often quoted theory that death on the cross is the result of asphyxiation is no longer tenable if the arms are outstretched.” Zias concludes that the most quick and efficient manner would be to, “would be to simply tie the victim to the tree or cross with his hands suspended directly over his head. Death thus would occur within minutes or perhaps an hour if the victims feet were not nailed or tied down.” Of course the Bible record and the two archeological examples cited above make it clear that Jesus’s feet were nailed down (Luke 24: 39, 40). Zias continues, “If the victim is crucified with a small seat, a sedile, affixed to the uptight for minimum support in the region of the buttocks, death can be prolonged for hours and days.

Josephus recounts that during the Jewish revolt the Roman legions had cut down all the trees surrounding Jerusalem to a distance of 90 furlongs (18 kilometres or 11 miles). Certainly with the mass crucifixions taking place they would have had to be economical with their timber making “crux simplex” a more likely instrument of execution than the traditionally shaped cross.

Although it is impossible to know for certain the exact type of instrument used to kill Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude that the most simple form of crucifixion would have been the most likely to have been used and would best fit both the contemporary evidence and the actual meaning of the word the Bible employs, “stauros”. Jesus was likely crucified with his arms stretched directly over his head and his hands nailed to the pole. Jesus’s stauros may have had a small “sedile” or piece of wood attached to the post to provide a sort of seat. Rather than providing comfort, its role was to extend the victim’s suffering by hours. Jesus’ feet were likely nailed to either side of the pole with one nail piercing each ankle bone. Jesus survived the ordeal for six hours before finally, exhausted and drawing breath only with pain and great difficulty, he called out to his heavenly father for a final time and then breathed no more.

 

Image Credits:

Reproduction of a Nail in a Heel bone at the Israel Museum. Photo by Author.

Detail of “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velazquez. Painted in 1632 {Public Domain} Source: Wikimedia Commons

Crux Simplex. Depiction by Justin Lipsius, 1629. {Public Domain} Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “How Was A Crucifixion Performed?

  1. I thought the general notion, or perhaps even from scripture, is that the place of the crucifixion was a special place, and not a random killing site. That is, that it was set aside for the purpose of crucifixion. If this is so, the “very best” sort of crosses may have been there. They were not killed under duress of the killers, but under formal, Roman occupation. This was after they had conquered Israel, and before the destroying of Jerusalem many years later.

    My understanding is that the victim was nailed, not in his metacarpals, or palms, but in his wrists, which I have been told they considered to be part of the hand as well. If nailed in the palms, I have been told that the weight of the body would rip them from off their nails, so they had to be nailed in the wrist just below the palm, so the connecting bones would form a hanging surface.

    Does anyone else have any knowledge on this? Thanks.

    • Hi Joshua, thanks for your comment, You mentioned the place of execution and by coincidence my next article is on Golgotha (Calvary). I expect it will be ready in two to three weeks. Regarding the “very best” sort of crosses. I don’t want to be dogmatic and I certainly wouldn’t rule out that a crux with a T-shaped structure could have been employed as the instrument of Jesus’ execution. The Bible does not describe the instrument, it was not a priority of the Gospel writers. Surprisingly, although crucifixion was common throughout the Roman empire, contemporary writers did not leave much in the way of description either. And the traditional cross only begins to appear in the artwork of Christendom about 3 centuries later. Evidence for a T -shaped crux is surprisingly slight. So while not denying the possibility a more traditional crux could have been used my point is that it seems to me much more likely that a “crux simplex”, a simple pole or stake would have been used for the reasons described in my article.

      Regarding the nails in the hands, I too have read that a nail in the palms would have been unable to bear the weight of the victim. So again I don’t want to be dogmatic but I would only point out that it remains possible that rope was used in addition to the nail or nails. The Bible doesn’t say if one nail went through both hands (if one hand was placed on the other) or whether the hands were nailed separately (like the feet of the crucified Jehohanan). However including the wrist as part of the hand is consistent with how the Bible uses the word the word “hand”. For example at Judges 15:14, Samson’s fetters are described as having been on his hands. Obviously it means wrists. That Jesus was nailed in the area of the hands is demonstrated by the Apostle Thomas insisting on seeing the resurrected Jesus’ wounds. Jesus then invites him to “Put your finger here, and see my hands” (John 20: 27).

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