The Roman Method of Crucifixion. Part One

Taken and adapted from, “Crucifixion”
Written by, John Osborne
Originally published, 1897


It must be remembered that the cross was not represented as an emblem of our salvation during the first 325 years of the Christianity…

…it was an abominable and detested thing, as the gallows is now, a symbol of shame and slavery; and therefore, until the time of Constantine, who was the first Roman emperor to embrace the Christian religion, there would be no endeavor made by Roman, Jewish or Christian writer to preserve any account of this dread process for the infliction of death. The little we may know about it is to be gathered from writings in which mention must be made of it from necessity, and only by allusion and as related in an illustrative way to some other topic forming the principal subject of the writing.

The apostle Paul frequently alludes to the cross as a symbol of shame and speaks of the offence (σκάνδαλον) of the cross…

…and it must have been with great horror, loathing and disgust that any unconverted man should read about Paul’s glorying in the cross of Jesus Christ, and that he rejoiced in being daily crucified with his Lord. To a Roman of polished but pagan education, such declarations would appear as the extreme aberrations of a disordered brain, and Paul would readily be reckoned as among those intellectual cranks to any one of whom a Festus might exclaim,” Thou art beside thyself, much learning hath made thee mad.”

There were some incidents attending our Savior’s crucifixion, explanations of which have been offered by writers in commentaries that do not account for those incidents consistently and in harmony with what we know of Roman policy and practice in military executions. Two of these incidents are: first, the offer of vinegar mingled with gall to Jesus when on the cross as well as before He was crucified; and secondly, the breaking the legs of the crucified at the time of their being taken down from the cross. The very inadequate explanation of these proceedings is, that they were both acts of mercy; that the vinegar and gall, or, as named in another place, the wine mingled with myrrh, was given in order to partly dull the senses or to stupefy the victim and thus to lessen the pain; and that the legs were broken as a closing act of the scene in order to hasten death and thus the termination of his misery.

These explanations are not admissible, and simply for the reason that thus the period of suffering would be shortened, and they contravene the fact that crucifixion was practiced in order that the sufferings of the victim should be as intense and prolonged as possible. It was a military punishment as at first practiced by the Romans, and had its origin in military necessity. Roman policy, as exercised toward the states that were to be subjugated, was essentially a policy of terror; “Vae victis! woe to the conquered!” was the terrible cry that sounded forth before their armies as they entered upon the bloody work of battle and destruction, and the captives taken were in greater part appointed to death in such manner as would best serve to terrify the people and make them willing, through abject fear, to pass under the Roman yoke.

Thus the death by crucifixion, was the most cruel that could be devised; but it would have been most contradictory to the spirit in which that punishment was inflicted, and would have revealed a broad inconsistency in the procedure, if at any stage the element of mercy had entered to relieve, in never so slight a degree, its bitter and protracted suffering. For it was an infliction carefully so ordered that the body of the victim should not be attached at any vital point while he was kept slowly dying “by inches” under the agonies of starvation and thirst. The sufferer was held for days under the tortures of this living death, unless at times he was fortunately rendered unconscious of his pains by the delirium that accompanied the hard fever and slight loss of blood from the wounds in his hands and feet.

Men of fairly strong constitution lasted out this bitter experience during from three to eight days; the instance recorded of longest survival being nine days; while with the case of a weak or sickly frame the wretched scene might close within the first twenty-four or forty -eight hours, but seldom in less than the time first mentioned.

Our Lord’s death came when He had been on the cross but six hours, and it is one of the objects of this and another paper to show why it should have come so soon. The material contributed by the records is so scanty and vague as to serve merely for a frame work on which to build up our complete account, such as would be furnished by the inferences fairly to be drawn from the extant records of military custom and state policy. That account should proceed upon fair and natural deductions made legitimately from known facts of history and custom; thus may we, haply, make out a rounded and complete story in which there shall be place for all necessary facts and incidents related in the Gospel narrative, and each of them shall fall without design into its own place as forming a consistent and natural part in the whole sad tragedy.

It may be again stated, since the fact is a controlling one and too important to be lost sight of for a moment, that the policy and usage of Rome in her treatment of every nation and tribe subdued to her arms was unvaryingly that of the utmost cruelty…

…and that cruelty was continued in practice until nation, tribe or people had become so completely overawed and reduced that no hope or thought remained to them of opposition to Roman sway. When a Roman general, upon his invasion of a country, had fought a battle and gained a victory, he had a large number of captives, both of those taken from the defeated army and of the unarmed dwellers in cities and villages near the battlefield. They were all different in class and various in condition, and at the absolute disposal of the victor.

With the end of subjugation in view, there was no exchange of prisoners, neither could the captives be allowed to go free. There thus remained for them the fate of either slavery or death; and the only problem before the general was, how to so assort them that those best fitted by education, by trade or other adaptation, could be made useful as slaves in Rome. Such were reserved for the slave market there, and the remaining mass of captives, and generally the far greater part, were made useful to Roman policy in subjugating the country by being put to the slow tortures of starvation; for after long experience in various sorts of military punishment it had been found that this was the most agonizing and protracted method of torment in all the repertory of cruelty.

For the purpose, therefore, of securing the doomed men during the days of gnawing hunger, when in desperation they might use any extreme violence to escape its agonies, the most simple and obvious method was to bind each of them by cords or withes to a tree or post; and thus for the great herd of the condemned a wide space near the camp was reserved in which, in addition to the trees growing there, holes were dug for countless posts; each post was set up by two out of a party of four soldiers detailed to crucify a victim; the other two soldiers passed with the condemned man to the nearest wood or to the ruined houses of some village to obtain the cross bar to be affixed at the top of the post or at a suitable height on the living tree, they also provided themselves with ropes or green withes with which to suspend the man from the cross bar; he bore the cross thus provided for his own crucifixion, for the indolent and merciless soldiers compelled him.

After they had returned in this manner to the place in the field where the upright post had been already set by other captives under direction of the other two soldiers, the cross bar was securely fixed at the top and then two short stakes of equal length were prepared. These were made with the upper end ”square across,” and with the lower end sharpened, and were driven into the ground close beside and nearly in front of the upright post, ” being separated from each other by a little space. The tops of these stakes were from six to eighteen inches from the ground, and on these the victim was forced to stand, a foot on each stake, while the four at once attached the cords around his body, and fastened them over the cross bar close to the upright, so that when the stakes had been taken from under his feet the body hung suspended by the cords or withes. It was then but a short task to drive a nail through each hand and foot so that the poor wretch might be thoroughly secured against any hope of escape; for if left without this nailing, the arms and hands might be readily used for untying the cords that suspended him and so escape would be easy during the darkness of the night.

End of part one.