The Roman Method of Crucifixion. Part Three, Finale

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

Originally published, 1897


During the long and frequent wars waged by Rome…

…the constant practice of crucifixion continued in her unvarying course of conquest, the Roman soldiers in crucifying their thousands of captives, must have become adepts in the art. Constant opportunities for observation would teach them that victims suspended by certain portions of the body would survive much longer than when suspended by other portions; they would find that where a red swelling came in consequence of stricture by the rope, there the heat and fever would occur, the inflammation would be followed by suppuration and mortification, and then by a gangrene which would all too quickly terminate the sufferer’s life.

We of this day know that if any of the limbs had been bound by the ropes for suspension, there would have been a stoppage of the circulation of the blood and then would have ensued the consequences just above stated; the soldiers, of course, knew nothing about the circulation of the blood, but experience acquired from repeated observation would ere long indicate to them by what parts suspension could be made so as to permit of longest duration of life; manifestly, then, the method concluded on would be, as the man stood on the two stakes at the foot of the post and with his back against it, to pass the rope around the waist and just under the ribs, then tie it with a hard knot moderately tight, leaving the knot at the middle of his back, then the two ends of the rope, being long enough, were passed over the cross-bar close to its junction with the post, and a turn or two around the post would make all secure; then the nails through hands and feet would prevent any violent movement of the body, and particularly would keep the hands from any attempt to untie the rope.

Held in such a way, there would be pressure exerted by the sufferer’s weight only on the soft and yielding viscera of the abdomen, on the ribs and other framework near to the exterior, but no constriction could be brought on any large vein or artery to cause obstruction or hindrance to the circulatory flow.

After such simple methods were the doomed men prepared for their horrible fate; and to the number of hundreds, sometimes of thousands, were set up on crosses without the camp. Josephus relates that at the siege of Jerusalem by Titus there could not be found wood enough to erect crosses for all the prisoners condemned to that death. The crucifixions were occasions of rare sport for the degraded soldiery; they gloried in the mockery, the jibes and insults that could be freely flung into the faces of the condemned; in the hearts of such men, unsoftened by any influence of Christian civilization, were harbored no feelings of pity or mercy, their words, albeit often in a language unknown to those on the cross, were yet sufficiently interpreted to the victims by glaring eyes and gestures of hate, and by acts of cruelty and brutality.

During the days through which the sufferers survived, their torments would be the sport and jest of the executioners…

…and when, from the loss of blood at the wounds, from the bitter pangs of hunger and thirst, and also from exposure to the scorching heat, a raging fever had come upon the victim by the second or third day, then the pleasure of the hardened brutes was greatest; they gloated over the pitiable throes and convulsions, and took delight in the groans, shrieks and curses of the hapless sufferers. So through the long drawn hours of every day did their besotted natures find interest and entertainment in the hard wretchedness of the crucified; through the day indeed, but not through the night. For then came the soldiers’ time for sleep, and no sleep was possible if these awful cries from the field of torment near to camp came to fill their ears; for the delirium and fever would not end with the day but continue unrelieved through the hours of night. The cries must be stopped during the night if the soldier would have his rest undisturbed. Therefore, some means must be provided for closing the mouths and hushing the voices of these raging men.

An infernal drink was made whose corrosive and astringent qualities admirably served this purpose; a vinegar of scarifying acidity that resulted from the acetous fermentation of a strong wine, received a strong admixture of gall, a vegetable product; and this, when administered in such scant quantity on a bunch of hyssop as to just moisten the mouth and throat, hotly parched and swollen to great tenderness as they were, would by its irritating and rasping influence corrugate and constrict the throat and paralyze the vocal cords. So with a pail of the mixture and with hyssop tied at the end of a stick, the watch specially detailed at night for this duty, passed everywhere among the groves of crosses, offering the vile stuff to every one they heard crying out; and eagerly was the little sop received; for it was at least, moisture, a semblance of the pure drink they were longing and moaning for; but the next moment came the hard gripe of acid and gall, increasing their suffering, closing the throat and almost stopping the breath. Thus was quiet secured for the night by the guard furnished with vessels of vinegar mingled with gall, until the daybreak came and the awakening of the camp, when these duties were no longer required, and the victims resumed their mournful cries as one by one they recovered from the effects of the bitter mixture.

So through the days of suffering and nights of horror when even the poor relief of a cry was denied them, did the heavy hours of torture pass; by the end of the second day many of those with weak constitutions would be relieved by death, others in greater number would succumb during the third, fourth and fifth days, by the sixth and seventh only those of greatest vitality would survive, and by the seventh or eighth day the last of them had passed away, all having been kept on their crosses till death. But what was to be done with those remaining alive, if, on any day before the eighth, military policy or necessity required the removal of the army? They must not be released, nor must they be left to be rescued by friends and relatives and in a condition to be nursed back to life and health after the army had withdrawn; nor, on the other hand, should their torment be brought to a merciful end by a spear thrust in some vital part, but some way must be devised for rendering the short remnant of their lives still a prolonged misery even after their rescue by friends when the army had gone.

Such a way was found; just before departure, the guard with clubs passed among the crosses, and whenever the doomed one on any of them gave signs of life, a blow on each leg broke the bones, and so the poor wretch, even if delivered and restored to freedom, was forever a helpless cripple from the compound fractures of his legs. There was little surgical skill among those barbarous people to amend so great a disaster; the victim must suffer on till death, his only comfort being in the sympathy and alleviating cares rendered at the hands of his friends.

The offering of the vinegar and gall and the leg-breaking have both, in the absence of positive knowledge on the subject, been wrongly interpreted as acts of mercy…

…the drink, it is asserted, was intended as a stupefying potion to dull the pain by taking away in whole or in part the consciousness of the victim; and the breaking of the legs it is said, was for the purpose of hastening death and so giving quicker relief to the intolerable suffering; but such theories are wholly inconsistent with the policy of utmost cruelty practiced by the Romans. To have rendered any one insensible to pain or suffering would have been to defeat the very object in view when he was attached to the cross; and if there had been any real purpose to shorten the misery of the wretched men, a spear thrust into the heart would have effected that result much sooner and more surely than the leg-breaking. And further, no stupefying effect could be produced by the vinegar and gall, indeed, it would have a result entirely the opposite; and breaking the legs would not necessarily hasten death; it might in some case accidentally happen that some small and sharp slivers from the broken bone might be driven through the wall of the femoral artery or femoral vein, and so death would immediately result. Doubtless this happened…  But yet the men who gave the blows knew nothing about arteries and veins, so that death by loss of blood in this way, being a mere contingency, we cannot conclude that such an end was calculated on or looked for by the executioners.

As the soldiers detailed for this leg-breaking duty passed the doomed men in review, many would be found with life so nearly gone as to present almost the semblance of death; the exhausted body was still, the heart worn out by fever and pain, had nearly ceased to beat, or at least its throbs were so feeble as to send the blood slowly to the inner parts of the body, leaving the exterior so little colored by it as to induce belief that the pallor indicative of death had already come; so there was doubt whether the victim yet lived or might be only in a faint; that doubt was quickly and brutally solved by the thrust of a spear into his side; if blood in its natural state followed, the sufferer was yet living and his legs were broken; but if no blood or if blood separated into white scrum and red fibrin as we of this day know it, came forth, he was dead, and the soldiers would not uselessly waste their strength in giving the unnecessary blows with their clubs.