PUNISHMENTS IN ANCIENT ROME
Crucifixion is a well-known form of Roman punishment. That's what the Romans did to Jesus. After the Spartacus Slave Revolt, it was said, slaves were nailed to crosses along a 100 miles stretch of the Appian Way. Many of them remained there, it was said, until their bones were picked clean by vultures. Some historians doubt whether this really took place. There is some archaeological evidence that crucifixions did occur but it is unclear if the punishment was widely practiced.
The Emperors had no tolerance for people who revolted. In A.D. 70, Titus put down a Jewish revolt and and punished rebellious Jewish zealots by salting agricultural land, slaughtering and enslaving thousands of Jews, and looting menorahs and other sacred objects. Thousands of Jewish slaves were brought to Rome from Judea. During a huge triumphal procession, commemorated by the Arch of Titus, Jewish prisoners were paraded through the streets and strangled at the Forum. Josephus claimed that all together over 1 million Jews died as a result of the Roman crackdown.
The Romans burned and sacked the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Arch of Titus in Rome has a frieze showing legionnaires carrying candelabra and silver trumpets from the Temple. The Roman's added insult to injury by razing the Roman standard on the ruin of the Temple with an image of a pig (Jews like Muslims refrain from eating pork).
The most common punishments were fines. In some case, people were exiled, a fairly common practice in ancient Greece. Wooden soles were sometimes strapped to the feet of prisoners, making escape difficult. Lacking pliability, wood restricts the foot's movement. According to Romae Vitam: “For theft the common punishment for a Roman citizen was to pay damages usually many times the value of the object stolen. The Romans made the difference between manifest and non-manifest theft, which depended on how close the thief was to the scene of the crime, manifest theft being the worst kind of theft. Initially, the penalty for manifest theft could be flogging, slavery or even death. Later on it was changed to paying damages amounting many times (usually four times) the value of the object stolen.”
Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “The status of homo sacer was given to those who broke oaths. Homo sacer translates best as “man who is set apart.” Those punished with this title were not allowed to be ritually sacrificed, but they could be killed by anyone, with impunity. Some people were deemed homo sacer by a group of vigilantes, without any actual legal standing. (It is believed this may have occurred in early Rome, since they lacked the standing forces necessary to enforce the law, allowing people to take matters into their own hands on occasion.) In addition, any legal rights the convicted would have normally had, such as land ownership, were revoked, essentially ridding him of what made him a part of society. The Law of the Twelve Tables, the foundation of Roman law, specifically mentions homo sacer, making it the punishment for patrons who deceive their clients. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]
Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Punishments of Slaves in Ancient Rome
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It is not the purpose of the following sections to catalogue the fiendish tortures sometimes inflicted upon slaves by their masters. They were not very common, for the reason suggested in, and were no more characteristic of the ordinary correction of slaves than lynching is characteristic of the administration of justice in our own states. Certain punishments, however, are so frequently mentioned in Latin literature that a description of them is necessary in order that the passages in which they occur may be understood by the reader. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]
“The most common punishment for neglect of duty or petty misconduct was a beating with a stick or a flogging with a lash. The stick or rod was usually of elm wood (ulmus); the elm-rod thus used corresponded to the birch of England and the hickory of America, once freely used in flogging. For the lash or rawhide (scutica or lorum) was often used a sort of cat-o’-nine-tails, made of cords or thongs of leather.Another punishment for offenses of a trivial nature resembled the stocks of old New England days. The offender was exposed to the derision of his fellows with his limbs so confined that he could make no motion at all—he could not even brush a fly from his face. A variation of this form of punishment is seen in the furca, which was so common that furcifer became a mere term of abuse. The culprit was forced to carry upon his shoulders a heavy forked log, and had his arms stretched out before him with his hands fastened to the ends of the fork. This log he had to carry around in order that the other members of the familia might see him and take warning. Sometimes to this punishment was added a lashing as he moved painfully along. |+|
“Less painful and degrading for the moment, but even more dreaded by the slave, was a sentence to harder labor than he had been accustomed to perform. The final penalty for misconduct on the part of a city slave for whom the rod had been spoiled in vain was banishment to the farm, and to this might be added at a stroke the odious task of grinding at the mill, or the crushing toil of labor in the quarries. The last were the punishments of the better class of farm slaves, while the desperate and dangerous class of slaves who regularly worked in the quarries paid for their misdeeds by forced labor under the scourge and by having heavier shackles during the day and fewer hours of rest at night. These may be compared to the galley slaves of later times. The utterly incorrigible might be sold to be trained as gladiators.” |+|
“The minor punishments were inflicted at the order of the master or his representative by some fellow slave called for the time carnifex or lorarius, though these words by no means imply that he was regularly or even commonly designated for the disagreeable duty. Still, the administration of punishment to a fellow slave was felt to be degrading, and the word carnifex was often applied to the one who administered it and finally came to be a standing term of abuse and taunt. It is applied to each other by quarreling slaves, apparently with no notion of its literal meaning, as many vulgar epithets are applied today. The actual execution of a death sentence was carried out by one of the servi publici at a fixed place of execution outside the city walls.” |+|
Severe Punishments of Slaves in Ancient Rome
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “For actual crimes, not mere faults or offenses, the punishments were far more severe. Slaves were so numerous and their various employments gave them such free access to the person of the master that his property and very life were always at their mercy. It was indeed a just and gentle master that did not sometimes dream of a slave holding a dagger at his throat. There was nothing within the confines of Italy so much dreaded as an uprising of the slaves. It was simply this haunting fear that led to the inhuman tortures inflicted upon the slave guilty of an attempt upon the life of his master or of the destruction of his property.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]
When offenses were more serious, bits of bone, and even metal buttons were attached to stick or floggong lash “to tear the flesh, and the instrument was called a flagrum or flagellum. It could not have been less severe than the knout of Russia, and we may well believe that slaves died beneath its blows. To render the victim incapable of resistance he was sometimes drawn up to a beam by the arms, and weights were even attached to his feet, so that he could not so much as writhe under the torture. In Roman comedies are references to these punishments, and the slaves make grim jests on the rods and the scourge, taunting each other with the beatings they have had or deserve to have. But such jests are much commoner than the actual infliction of any sort of punishment in the comedies. |+|
“For an attempt upon the life of the master the penalty was death in its most agonizing form, by crucifixion. This was also the penalty for taking part in an insurrection; we may recall the twenty thousand crucified in Sicily and the six thousand crosses that Pompeius erected along the road to Rome, each bearing the body of one of the survivors of the final battle in which Spartacus fell. The punishment was inflicted not only upon the slave guilty of taking his master’s life, but also upon the family of the slave, if he had a wife and children. If the guilty man could not be found, his punishment was made certain by the crucifixion of all the slaves of the murdered man. Tacitus tells us that in the reign of Nero four hundred slaves were executed because their master, Pedianus Secundus, had been murdered by one of their number who had not been detected. The cross stood to the slave as the horror of horrors. The very word (crux) was used among them as a curse, especially in the expression (I) A.D. (malam) crucem. |+|
Punishment for Dereliction of Duty by Roman Soldiers
Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “As soon as the morning appears, those who have made the rounds carry the tablets to the tribune. If they bring the full number back they are suffered to depart without any question. But if the number be less than that of the guards, the inscriptions are immediately examined, in order to discover from what particular guard the tablet has not been returned. When this is known, the centurion is ordered to attend and to bring with him the soldiers that were appointed for that guard; that they may be questioned face to face with him who made the rounds. If the fault be in the guard, he that made the rounds appeals at once to the testimony of his friends who were present. Such evidence always is demanded from him; and in case that he is not able to bring this proof, the whole blame rests upon himself. The council is then assembled; the cause is judged by the tribune, and the guilty person sentenced to be bastinadoed. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]
This punishment is inflicted in the following manner. The tribune, taking a stick into his hand, gently touches the criminal; and immediately afterwards all the soldiers of the legion attack him with sticks and stones; so that the greatest part of those that are thus condemned are destroyed immediately in the camp. If any one escapes, yet he is not saved. For all return into his country is shut against him: nor would any of his friends or kindred ever dare to receive him into their houses. Those, therefore, who have once fallen into this misfortune are lost without resource. The conductor of the rear, and the leader of the troops, if ever they neglect to give the necessary notice in due time, the first to the inspectors of the watch, and the second to the leader of the succeeding troop, are subject also to this punishment. From the dread of a discipline so severe, and which leaves no place for mercy, every thing that belongs to the guards of the night is performed with the most exact diligence and care.”
Tribunes and Punishments for Roman Soldiers
Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The soldiers are subject to the control of the tribunes, as these are to that of the consuls. The tribunes have the power of imposing fines, and demanding sureties, and of punishing with stripes. The same authority is exercised by the prefects among the allies. The punishment of the bastinadoe is inflicted also upon those who steal any thing in the camp; those who bear false testimony; who, in their youth, abuse their bodies; and who have been three times convicted of one fault. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]
“These offenses are punished as crimes. There are others that are regarded as the effects of cowardice, and disgraceful to the military character. When a soldier, for example, with a view of obtaining a reward, makes a report to the tribunes of some brave action which he has not performed. When any one, through fear, deserts his station, or throws away his arms in the time of engagement. For hence it happens that many, through the dread of the allotted punishment, when they are attacked by much greater numbers, will even encounter manifest destruction, rather than desert that post which they had been ordered to maintain. Others again, when they have lost their shield, or sword, or any other part of their arms in the time of action, throw themselves precipitately into the very midst of the enemy; hoping either to recover what they have lost, or to avoid by death the reproaches of their fellow-soldiers, and the disgrace that is ready to receive them.
“If it happens that many are at one time guilty of the same fault, and that whole companies retire before the enemy, and desert their station; instead of punishing all of them by death, an expedient is employed which is both useful and full of terror. The tribune, assembling together all the soldiers of the legion, commands the criminals to be brought forward: and, having sharply reproached them with their cowardice, he then draws out by lot either five, or eight, or twenty men, according to the number of those that have offended. For the proportion is usually so adjusted, that every tenth man is reserved for punishment. Those, who are thus separated from the rest by lot, are bastinadoed without remission in the manner before described. The others are sentenced to be fed with barley instead of wheat; and are lodged without the entrenchment, exposed to insults from the enemy. As the danger, therefore, and the dread of death, hangs equally over all the guilty, because no one can foresee upon whom the lot will fall; and as the shame and infamy of receiving barley only for their support is extended also alike to all; this institution is perfectly well contrived, both for impressing present terror, and for the prevention of future faults.”
Poena Cullei (Thrown Into River in a Sack with a Monkey)
Capital punishment was quite prevalent in ancient Rome. It was used for a number of crimes in which someone would be jailed or even placed on probation today. Among the crimes for which one could be executed in ancient Rome were deserting the army, running away from slavery, and even under some circumstances, adultery.
Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “ Poena cullei was a special type of capital punishment, one which was reserved for a particular crime: parricide, or murder of a member of one’s family. Once convicted, the murderer would have his face covered with a wolf’s skin and sandals were placed on his feet (presumably to keep him from defiling the air or the ground). He would now wait in prison until a sack was made for him. Once it was ready, a dog, monkey, snake, and rooster were placed in the sack, along with the murderer, and the sack was thrown into a river or the ocean. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]
Cicero wrote: “They therefore stipulated that parricides should be sewn up in a sack while still alive and thrown into a river. What remarkable wisdom they showed, gentlemen! Do they not seem to have cut the parricide off and separated him from the whole realm of nature, depriving him at a stroke of sky, sun, water and earth – and thus ensuring that he who had killed the man who gave him life should himself be denied the elements from which, it is said, all life derives? They did not want his body to be exposed to wild animals, in case the animals should turn more savage after coming into contact with such a monstrosity. Nor did they want to throw him naked into a river, for fear that his body, carried down to the sea, might pollute that very element by which all other defilements are thought to be purified. In short, there is nothing so cheap, or so commonly available that they allowed parricides to share in it. For what is so free as air to the living, earth to the dead, the sea to those tossed by the waves, or the land to those cast to the shores? Yet these men live, while they can, without being able to draw breath from the open air; they die without earth touching their bones; they are tossed by the waves without ever being cleansed; and in the end they are cast ashore without being granted, even on the rocks, a resting-place in death.”
Damnatio ad Bestias (Killing by Wild Animals)
Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for "condemnation to beasts") was a form of Roman capital punishment in which the condemned person was killed by wild animals in the arena. Unlike the betiarii, who were able to defend themselves to some degree, those condemned via damnatio ad bestias were either defenseless, tethered to one spot, or armed with only a wooden weapon. This form of execution, which first came to ancient Rome around the 2nd century B.C., was considered a type of blood sports called Bestiarii and regarded as entertainment for the lower classes of Rome. Killing by wild animals, such as lions, formed part of the inaugural games of the Colosseum in A.D. 80. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this penalty was also applied to the worst criminals, runaway slaves, and Christians. [Source: Wikipedia +]
“The exact purpose of the early damnatio ad bestias is not known and might have been a religious sacrifice rather than a legal punishment, especially in the regions where lions existed naturally and were revered by the population, such as Africa and parts of Asia. As a punishment, damnatio ad bestias is mentioned by historians of Alexander's campaigns. For example, in Central Asia, a Macedonian named Lysimachus, who spoke before Alexander for a person condemned to death, was himself thrown to a lion, but overcame the beast with his bare hands and became one of Alexander's favorites. During the Mercenary War, Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca threw prisoners to the beasts, whereas Hannibal forced Romans captured in the Punic Wars to fight each other, and the survivors had to stand against elephants. +
Lions were rare in Ancient Rome, and human sacrifice was banned there by Numa Pompilius in the 7th century B.C., according to legend. Damnatio ad bestias appeared there not as a spiritual practice but rather a spectacle. In addition to lions, other animals were used for this purpose, including bears, leopards, Caspian tigers, and black panthers. It was combined with gladiatorial combat and was first featured at the Roman Forum and then transferred to the amphitheaters. +
The practice of damnatio ad bestias was abolished in Rome in A.D. 681. It was used once after that in the Byzantine Empire: in 1022, when several disgraced generals were arrested for plotting a conspiracy against emperor Basil II, they were imprisoned and their property seized, but the royal eunuch who assisted them was thrown to lions. Also, a bishop of Saare-Lääne was sentencing criminals to damnatio ad bestias at the Bishop's Castle in modern Estonia in the Middle Ages. +
Types of Damnatio ad Bestias
Whereas the term damnatio ad bestias is usually used in a broad sense, historians distinguish two subtypes: objicere bestiis (to devour by beasts) where the humans are defenseless, and damnatio ad bestias, where the punished are both expected and prepared to fight. In addition, there were professional beast fighters trained in special schools, such as the Roman Morning School, which received its name by the timing of the games. These schools taught not only fighting but also the behavior and taming of animals. The fighters were released into the arena dressed in a tunic and armed only with a spear (occasionally with a sword). They were sometimes assisted by venators (hunters), who used bows, spears and whips. Such group fights were not human executions but rather staged animal fighting and hunting. Various animals were used, such as hyena, elephant, wild boar, buffalo, bears, lions, tigers, bulls, wolves, and leopards. The first such staged hunting (Latin: venatio) featured lions and panthers, and was arranged by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 186 B.C. at the Circus Maximus. [Source: Wikipedia +]
The custom of submitting criminals to lions was brought to ancient Rome by two commanders, Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, who defeated the Macedonians in 186 B.C., and his son Scipio Aemilianus, who conquered the African city of Carthage in 146 B.C. It was borrowed from the Carthaginians and was originally applied to such criminals as defectors and deserters in public, its aim being to prevent crime through intimidation. It was rated as extremely useful and soon became a common procedure in Roman criminal law. The sentenced were tied to columns or thrown to the animals, practically defenseless (i.e. objicere bestiis). +
Some documented examples of damnatio ad bestias in Ancient Rome include the following: Strabo witnessed the execution of the rebel slaves' leader Selur. The bandit Laureolus was crucified and then devoured by an eagle and a bear, as described by the poet Martial in his Book of Spectacles. Such executions were also documented by Seneca the Younger (On anger, III 3), Apuleius (The Golden Ass, IV, 13), Titus Lucretius Carus (On the Nature of things) and Petronius Arbiter (Satyricon, XLV). Cicero was indignant that a man was thrown to the beasts to amuse the crowd just because he was considered ugly. Suetonius wrote that when the price of meat was too high, Caligula ordered prisoners, with no discrimination as to their crimes, to be fed to circus animals. Pompey used damnatio ad bestias for showcasing battles and, during his second consulate, staged a fight between heavily armed gladiators and 18 elephants. +
The most popular animals were lions, which were imported to Rome in significant numbers specifically for damnatio ad bestias. Bears, brought from Gaul, Germany and even Northern Africa, were less popular.Local municipalities were ordered to provide food for animals in transit and not delay their stay for more than a week. Some historians believe that the mass export of animals to Rome damaged wildlife in North Africa. +
Victims of Damnatio ad Bestias
Christians: The use of damnatio ad bestias against Christians began in the 1st century AD. Tacitus states that during the first persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero (after the Fire of Rome in 64), people were wrapped in animal skins (called tunica molesta) and thrown to dogs. This practice was followed by other emperors who moved it into the arena and used larger animals. Application of damnatio ad bestias to Christians was intended to equate them with the worst criminals, who were usually punished this way. There is a widespread view among contemporary specialists that the prominence of Christians among those condemned to death in the Roman arena was greatly exaggerated in earlier times. There is no evidence for Christians being executed at the Colosseum in Rome. [Source: Wikipedia +]
The spread of the practice of throwing Christians to beasts was reflected by the Christian writer Tertullian (2nd century). He states that the general public blamed Christians for any general misfortune and after natural disasters would cry "Away with them to the lions!" This is the only reference from contemporaries mentioning Christians being thrown specifically to lions. Tertullian also wrote that Christians started avoiding theaters and circuses, which were associated with the place of their torture. "The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions", a text which purports to be an eyewitness account of a group of Christians condemned to damnatio ad bestias at Carthage in 203, states that the men were required to dress in the robes of a priest of the Roman god Saturn, the women as priestesses of Ceres and were shown to the crowd as such. The men and women were brought back out in separate groups and first the men, then the women, exposed to a variety of wild beasts. The victims were chained to poles or elevated platforms. Those who survived the first animal attacks were either brought +
Political Criminals: 1) “Deserters from the army. 2) Those who employed sorcerers to harm others, during the reign of Caracalla. This law was re-established in 357 A.D. by Constantius II. Political criminals. For example, after the overthrow and assassination of Commodus, the new emperor threw to lions both the servants of Commodus and Narcissus who strangled him – even though Narcissus brought the new emperor to power, he committed a crime of murdering the previous one. The same punishment was applied to Mnesteus who organized the assassination of Emperor Aurelian. Instigators of uprisings, who were either crucified, thrown to beasts or exiled, depending on their social status. +
Criminals: 1) Poisoners; by the law of Cornelius, patricians were beheaded, plebeians thrown to lions and slaves crucified. 2) Counterfeiters, who could also be burned alive. 3) Patricides, who were normally drowned in a leather bag filled with snakes (poena cullei), but could be thrown to beasts if a suitable body of water was not available. 4) Those who kidnapped children for ransom, according to the law of 315 by the Emperor Constantine the Great,were either thrown to beasts or beheaded. +
Karl Smallwood wrote in Listverse: “The very first case of damnatio ad bestias in Roman history occurred when Aemilius Paullus sentenced a group of army deserters to death in 167 BC. To make it interesting, he ordered them crushed to death by a horde of elephants. The spectacle proved so popular that death by animals became a part of everyday life for the Romans—literally. Every morning, a Roman citizen could go to the arena to watch such executions take place before an afternoon of actual gladiatorial combat.” [Source: Karl Smallwood, Listverse, January 15, 2014]
Crucifixion is a well-known form of Roman punishment. That's what the Romans did to Jesus. After the Spartacus Slave Revolt, it was said, slaves were nailed to crosses along a 100 miles stretch of the Appian Way. Many of them remained there, it was said, until their bones were picked clean by vultures. Some historians doubt whether this event really took place. There is some archaeological evidence that crucifixions did occur but it is unclear how widely the punishment was widely practiced. It was not used on Roman citizens unless they did something particularly treasonous.
Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “The Romans had a genius for brutality. They were good at building bridges and they were good at killing people, and they were better at it than anybody in the Mediterranean basin had ever seen before.... [Source: Allen D. Callahan: Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“Crucifixion was considered such a humiliating form of punishment that if you were a Roman citizen, of course, you couldn't be crucified, no matter what the offense. It was usually the execution of choice... for slaves and people considered beneath the dignity of Roman citizenship. It was a form of public terrorism.... You would be punished by being hung out publicly, naked until you died. And this sent a very powerful message to everybody else in those quarters that if you do or even think about doing what this guy's accused of having done, you, too, can wind up this way and it was very effective; excruciating, perhaps the most excruciating form of capital punishment that we know. <>
“It was a Roman job, there's no mistake about that. There has been some examination of the question of whether Jews... actually crucified people in any circumstances. There's some evidence that crucifixion did take place; members of the Pharisee party at one point were crucified, maybe a century and a half before Jesus. But that's disputed. It's a Roman form of execution and it was a public execution on a political charge.” <>
Nailed to a Stake with a Horizontal Beam: a Myth?
Robin M. Jensen wrote in the Washington Post, “The iconic image of the Christian cross tends to feature a central vertical beam transected by a perpendicular beam about a third of the way down. This version of the cross is visible everywhere from emoji (which include both the two-beam Latin cross and the Orthodox cross, also known as the Suppedaneum cross, which has another bar near the bottom) to roadside memorials and, of course, church steeples. [Source: Robin M. Jensen, Washington Post, April 14, 2017. Jensen is the Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame, and author of “The Cross: History, Art”<||>]
“But the actual crosses Romans used for executions probably took a different shape. The Greek and Latin words for “cross” — “stauros” and “crux” — do not necessarily describe what most people imagine as a cross. They refer to an upright stake upon which the condemned could be bound with hands above their heads. Most historians surmise that Jesus’ cross was more likely to have been T-shaped, with the vertical element notched to allow executioners to tie the victim to the crossbeam, then raise it and set it securely into the top. The Tau cross, named for its resemblance to the Greek letter, has been adopted over time by various Christian orders and sects, and it probably bears a stronger resemblance to the object upon which Jesus died on than those crosses more commonly depicted in Christian art. <||>
Another Myth: “Jesus was fixed to the cross by nails in his hands and feet. Nearly every depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion — including masterpieces such as Sandro Botticelli’s “Mystic Crucifixion” and Diego Velázquez’s “Christ Crucified” — shows Him attached to the cross by nails through his palms and his feet. The New Testament Gospels do not, however, directly say that Jesus was nailed to the cross. In fact, the only reference to such nails in the Gospels comes from the book of John and the story of doubting Thomas, who asks to see the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands to confirm that he is really encountering the resurrected Christ (John 20:25). The tradition that Jesus was nailed to the cross may also derive from the passage in some translations of Psalm 21:16 that says, “They pierce my hands and feet.” <||>
“Yet, while some physical evidence for nailing the feet of crucifixion victims has been found by archaeologists, it would have been impossible to fix the condemned to a cross by nails alone, since the bones in the hands or wrists would not have supported the weight of the body. Rather, Romans would have at least also tied victims’ wrists to the crossbeam, or perhaps draped their arms over the back of the beam and secured them with ropes. Suffocation, rather than loss of blood, would be the cause of death.” <||>
Evidence of Crucifixion
Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Crucifixion was something very, very real. There are too many ancient sources that talk about it. Josephus himself describes a number of crucifixions that took place in Judea at about this time. So we can be fairly confident [of the crucifixion] as a historical event because it was a very commonplace affair in those days and very gruesome. Now different medical historians and other archaeological kinds of research have given us several different ways of understanding the actual practice of crucifixion. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]
“In all probability the feet were nailed either directly through the ankles or through the heel bone to the lower post of the cross. The hands or the arms might be tied rather than nailed. It depends but it suggests really that crucifixion was a very slow and agonizing form of death. It's not from bleeding. It's not from the wounds themselves that the death occurs. It's rather a suffocation because one can't hold oneself up enough to breathe properly, and so over time really it's really the exposure to the elements and the gradual loss of breath that produces death. It's an agonizing death at that. <>
“... [E]vidence of crucifixion in archaeological form has been rare until the discovery that was made in recent times of an actual bone from a coffin which was found to have a nail still stuck in it. This is apparently someone who actually did experience crucifixion. .... Now what apparently happened was the nail that had been used to put him on the cross by being placed through his heel bone had stuck against a knot or bent in some way and so they couldn't pull it out without really causing massive tearing of the tissue and so they left it in, and as a result we have one of those few pieces of evidence that show us what the practice was really like.” <>
Skeleton Foot with a Nail: Proof of Crucifixion?
In 1968, archaeologists found the remains of a crucified man in a burial box outside Jerusalem whose wounds were remarkable similar to those described in the Bible as possessed by Jesus. Although it was known that the Romans crucified thousands of alleged criminals and traitors; this was the first crucifixion victim ever found.
Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: In 1968, a team of builders was hard at work laying foundations for some new houses and roads in Giv'at Ha'mivtar, a suburb of north Jerusalem. At the time, the whole area was a wasteland, and the builders were digging it up in preparation for this new development. One morning they stumbled across something unusual. They suspected it might be important, so they called in experts to advise them. The experts confirmed that they had found an ancient tomb. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]
“But the most amazing discovery was yet to come. When they looked inside the tomb, archaeologists discovered an ossuary - a stone box - containing bones from the time of Jesus. It was the custom in Jesus' time for the bones of the dead to be removed from their tomb after six to twenty-four months, and placed in an ossuary to make the tomb available for other corpses. |In this particular ossuary, the archaeologists found one bone that particularly caught their attention. What made this bone distinctive was the rusty nail still lodged in it. After further investigation, they established that these were the remains of a crucified man called Jehohannan. For the archaeologists, it was a breakthrough moment. Jehohannan was the first victim of crucifixion ever found in Israel. Experts at the time believed he would be the first of many, because the records showed that the Romans had crucified thousands of Jewish rebels.
Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth wrote: “At the beginning of the summer of 1968 a team of archaeologists under the direction of V. Tzaferis discovered four cave-tombs at Giv'at ha-Mivtar (Ras el-Masaref), which is just north of Jerusalem near Mount Scopus and immediately west of the road to Nablus. The date of the tombs, revealed by the pottery in situ, ranged from the late second century B.C. until A.D. 70. These family tombs with branching chambers, which had been hewn out of soft limestone, belong to the Jewish cemetery of Jesus' time that extends from Mount Scopus in the east to the Sanhedriya tombs in the north west. [Source:Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth from Expository Times, February 1973 <+>]
“Within the caves were found fifteen limestone ossuaries which contained the bones of thirty-five individuals. These skeletons reveal under the examination of specialists a startling tale of the turbulence and agony that confronted the Jews during the century in which Jesus lived. Nine of the thirty-five individuals had met violent death. Three children, ranging in ages from eight months to eight years, died from starvation. A child of almost four expired after much suffering from an arrow wound that penetrated the left of his skull (the occipital bone). A young man of about seventeen years burned to death cruelly bound upon a rack, as inferred by the grey and white alternate lines on his left fibula. A slightly older female also died from conflagration. An old women of nearly sixty probably collapsed from the crushing blow of a weapon like a mace; her atlas, axis vertebrae and occipital bone were shattered. A woman in her early thirties died in childbirth, she still retained a fetus in her pelvis. Finally, and most importantly for this note, a man between twenty-four and twenty-eight years of age was crucified. “The name of the man was incised on his ossuary in letters 2 cm high:Jehohanan.<+>
Archaeological Clues from the Real-Life Crucifixion
Jehohanan’s open arms had been nailed to a crossbar; his knees had been doubled and turned sideways; his legs were nailed on either side of the cross (not together as is often depicted in paintings) with a large iron spike driven horizontally through both heels. The anklebones had broken in a way that called to mind the passages in John.
Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth wrote: Jehohanan “was crucified probably between A.D. 7, the time of the census revolt, and 66, the beginning of the war against Rome.... According to Dr. N. Haas of the Department of Anatomy, Hebrew University--Hadassah Medical School, Jehohanan experienced three traumatic episodes. The cleft palate on the right side and the associated asymmetries of his face likely resulted from the deterioration of his mother's diet during the first few weeks of pregnancy. The disproportion of his cerebral cranium (pladiocephaly) were caused by difficulties during birth. All the marks of violence on the skeleton resulted directly or indirectly from crucifixion. [Source:Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth from Expository Times, February 1973 <+>]
Christian Funerary inscription“A description of Jehohanan's death would be helpful toward imaging Jesus' suffering since both were crucified by the Romans in the same century and not far from the walls of Jerusalem. The lower third of his right radial bone contains a groove that was probably caused by the friction between a nail and the bone. Hence, his arms were nailed to the patibulum through the forearms and not through the wrists, the bones of which 'were found undamaged.' It is logical to infer, therefore, that, contrary to the customary portrayal in paintings and biographies,' Jesus had his arms pierced and not his hands. We should probably translate the only two passages in the Gospels that mention of the crucified Jesus (Lk 24, Jn 20) not as 'hands', but with Hesiod, Rufus Medicus, and others as 'arms'. Hence, according to Jn 20, Jesus said to Thomas, 'place your finger here and observe my arms...' <+>
“The legs had been pressed together, bent, and twisted to that the calves were parallel to the patibulum. The feet were secured to the cross by one iron nail driven simultaneously through both heels (tuber calcanei). The iron nail contains after its round head the following: sediment, fragments of wood (Pistacia or Acacia), a limy crust, a portion of the right heel bone, a smaller piece of the left heel bone, and a fragment of olive wood. It is apparent that Jehohanan had been nailed to the olive wood cross with the right foot above the left. Dr. Haas is undoubtedly correct, furthermore, in concluding that the iron nail bent approximately 2 cm because it hit a knot necessitating the amputation of the feet to remove the corpse from the cross. <+>
“While Jehohanan was on the cross, presumably after an interval of some time, his legs were fractured. Once forcible blow from a massive weapon delivered the coup de grace, shattering the right shins into slivers, and fracturing the left ones, that were contiguous with the cross (simplex), in a simple, oblique line. The above discoveries throw some light on the manner in which Jesus died, but the question with which we began has not been adequately answered. How could Jesus have died so soon? <+>
“Christian art has continuously portrayed Jesus as attached to the cross with his extremities fully extended. Jehohanan's torso was forced into a twisted position with his calves and thighs bent and unnaturally twisted. Since the bent nail did not secure the legs to the cross, a plank (sedecula) was probably fastened to the simplex, providing sufficient support for the buttocks and prolonging torture. If Jesus had been crucified in a similar fashion, and we cannot be certain of this although it is probable, his contorted muscles probably would have generated spasmodic contractions (tetanizations) and rigid cramps would eventually permeate the diaphragm and lungs so as to prohibit inhalation and exhalation. Jesus could have died after six hours. <+>
“The two crucified with Jesus, however, did not die so quickly--could this have been because they had not been previously tortured, or because they had been crucified in another manner? Perhaps it is logical to assume that because Jesus had been the centre of attention for at least the preceding week he might have received more of the executioners' attention prior to the final acts of crucifixion. Especially would this be the situation if the other two were crucified because they had been judged to be robbers or criminals (cf. Km 15, Mt 27, and Lk 23) but Jesus condemned for insurrection against Rome. These speculations are not wild but they do extend beyond all the available data: we can only wonder why Jehohanan was crucified, why his legs were broken, and if there were a particularly torturous crucifixion for one charged with insurrection. As we search for these answers we must remember Jesus' particular circumstance: the torture could not last more than seven hours because the approaching Sabbath must not be violated, especially near conservative Jerusalem. <+>
“In conclusion, we now have empirical evidence of a crucifixion. Death on a cross could be prolonged or swift. The crucifixion of Josephus' acquaintance who survived should not be projected to the crucifixion of Jesus. The major extrabiblical paradigm for crucifixion is no longer Josephus; it is the archaeological data summarized above. The crucifixion of Jesus, who did not possess a gladiator's physique and stamina, did not commence but culminated when he was nailed to the cross. After the brutal, all night scourging by Roman soldiers, who would have relished an opportunity to vent their hatred of the Jews and disgust for Palestinian life, Jesus was practically dead. I see not reason why the Synoptic account does not contain one of the few bruta facta from his life when it reports that, as he began to stagger from Herod's palace to Golgotha, he was too weak to carry the cross; Simon of Cyrene carried it for him. Metaphors should not be confused with actualities nor faith with history. It is not a confession of faith to affirm that Jesus died on Golgotha that Friday afternoon; it is a probability obtained by the highest canons of scientific historical research. The humanists' and rationalists' facile answer to the question why Jesus died so quickly is no longer acceptable in critical circles; note, for example, the concluding remark in the most recent 'biography' of Jesus by a Jewish scholar: 'Others thought that he called out in despair: "My God, my God (Eli, Eli), why hast thou forsaken me?" And Jesus died." <+>
Why So Little Physical Evidence of Crucifixion?
Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: After nearly four more decades of digging, no more victims of crucifixion have ever been found. Why not? In Tel Aviv, curators at the Israel Antiquities Authority museum had a unique opportunity to find out. They have access to an extensive collection of Jewish ossuaries from the time of Jesus. Surely among all these examples there must be a clue as to what became of all the crucifixion victims. But despite combing through every ossuary, the Tel Aviv experts did not find any bones that suggested the victim had been crucified. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]
“The implications of this lack of evidence were unsettling. One of the central tenets of Christian history was under threat, and the case for the resurrection of Jesus potentially undermined. The logic was clear. If the bones of crucified rebels were not ending up in ossuaries, then perhaps it was because the original victims were not being placed in tombs in the first place. And if that were true then was it possible that the body of Jesus was never placed in a tomb? Perhaps his tomb was found to be empty by his followers simply because it was never occupied at all? |::|
“If that is the case, then it raises a big question: where, if not in a tomb, did the bodies of Jewish rebels like Jesus finish up? To answer that one, archaeologists began to hunt in the unlikeliest locations. Just south of the city of Jerusalem is one such place. Today it is a park, but from the evidence of chiselling all over the rock face, it is clear to archaeologists that this was once a quarry. At the time of Jesus, quarries had a dual purpose. Not only were they used to cut stone for building, they were also used by the Romans for public executions. Historians now believe that Jesus would have been crucified in just such a quarry. But places like this served other purposes too. The remains of some tombs hewn from the rock suggest that people were not just killed here, they were buried too. Was this the fate of Jesus' body, to be placed in a simple quarry tomb close to the place where he died? |::|
“Well, perhaps not, because quarries like this fulfilled yet another purpose for the people of Jesus' time, and even today the local people use it in the same way. Scavenging stray dogs and birds of prey are drawn here not because it is a park, but because one corner is a rubbish dump. |::|
“Since the first century, quarries have doubled as city rubbish dumps, but two thousand years ago they were places of execution too. The people who nailed Jesus to the cross were Roman soldiers, and crucifixion was the lowest form of punishment they knew. To suffer the ignominy of dying on a cross marked you out as beneath contempt, an outcast. It is hard to see those soldiers bothering to treat the bodies of their crucified victims with honour and respect. Surely the easiest solution would be to take the bodies down and throw them on the garbage dump, to be dealt with by the dogs and birds. |::|
“Maybe that would explain why not a single bone of a crucified rebel was found in all those ossuaries? According to this theory - shocking though it may sound - the body of Jesus never made it to a tomb: it was thrown on a rubbish tip and eaten by dogs. This theory held some sway in the 1990s, but then came the evidence against it - evidence which suggests not only that Jesus' body may not have been thrown to the dogs, but that his body must have made it to the tomb, exactly as depicted in the gospel accounts. The case begins with the nails themselves. |::|
Nails Not Used in Crucifixions Perhaps Because They Were Valuable Talismans?
Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: “The truth is that most rebels were not nailed to their crosses, but tied to them. Some would have been nailed to their crosses - it was a Roman practice - but historians believe there is little chance of finding any of their remains. The reason is simple: the nails of crucified victims were regarded as some of the most powerful charms, or amulets, in the ancient world. Ordinary people prized them very highly, believing that they had healing properties. And apart from their popularity as charms, the crucifixion nails were often reused by the Roman soldiers. So immediately after crucified victims were cut down from their crosses, the nails would be removed from their bodies and pocketed. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009. Roberts is author the book“The Miracles of Jesus”. |::|]
“No wonder the bones of only one clearly crucified victim have ever been found - not because animals ate the remains off a rubbish tip, but because there is no way for archaeologists to tell if the bones found in tombs were those of crucifixion victims or not. Those tell-tale signs, like nails stuck through bones, are always missing. |::|
“So why was the bone of Jehohannan discovered with a nail still through it? Why didn't looters make off with it, or Roman soldiers reuse it? Well, the answer lies in that particular nail. It has a bent tip. When they took his body down from the cross, they must have found they could not prize it out. When Jehohannan was nailed to his cross, this nail must have hit a knot in the wood and bent, fixing it to the bone for good. So the discovery of this bone does not mean that Jesus' body was thrown to the dogs. In fact, there are strong grounds for thinking that Jesus - like all Jews - would have been given a proper burial. |::|
“Under Jewish law everyone, even the most despised criminal, had to have a proper burial in order to save the land from being defiled. To that end, there were strict procedures for the disposal of bodies, which had to be laid in tombs by sunset on the day of death. All the evidence suggests that the Romans would have respected local religious customs. The strength of their empire was built on adaptability and tolerance of indigenous beliefs, as long as they didn't contradict the aims and beliefs of the Romans themselves. History records that, more than once, Pontius Pilate himself caved in to Jewish demands. |::|
“To expose the corpse of an executed Jew beyond the interval permitted by the Law, and then to allow it to be mutilated by scavengers just outside the city of Jerusalem, was a recipe for a riot. So, what would have happened to Jesus' body? The normal practice would have been to wash, perfume and bind the body so that it wouldn't smell in the heat at the funeral seven days later. This was a laborious procedure which could take up to twenty-four hours. It was governed by religious custom and by a powerful sense of respect for the body. |::|
“But if Jesus died in the afternoon, as the gospel accounts suggest, then there would not have been sufficient time to prepare the body that day. The women would be forced to leave the body unwashed in the sealed tomb, then come back another day to finish the job. However, the timing was very unfortunate. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus died on a Friday, in which case the women could not return the following day - Saturday - because that day was the Sabbath. The earliest opportunity for the women to attend to the body of Jesus was first light Sunday morning, precisely when the gospels say the women did return to the tomb.
Christian Martyr's Last Prayer
Persecution of Christians in Rome
Under Roman rule, Christians were denied business opportunities and status in society, prohibited from worshiping, attacked by mobs, persecuted, tortured and killed in organized campaigns by the Romans government. The Roman historian Tacitus accused them of "hatred of the human race." The Book of Revelation was written in response to the Roman persecutions.
Christians sometimes had their foreheads tattooed by Romans (some Christian slaves carried religion symbols to counteract images inscribed on them by their Roman masters) or were condemned to work in mines. In the worst cases, they were arrested and given the choice of recanting their faith or facing execution, with some being thrown to hungry lions in the Coliseum and other arenas.
Tacitus wrote Christians, "were nailed on crosses...sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and exposed to the fury of dogs; others again, smeared over with combustible materials, were used as torches to illuminate the night."
Due to persecution, Christians met in secret primarily in the houses of wealthy members. This only seemed to raise the level of hostility against them. Because early Christians held services "behind closed doors" at night instead of during the day in open temples like the Roman they were accused of having orgies and engaging in cannibalism (partly from a misinterpretation of the practice of Communion).
The Romans demanded that their gods be worshipped, but at the same time they received the local gods. The reason the Jews and Christian were persecuted is that they presented a threat and refused to worship the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions in the Roman empire. Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and many others were practiced. There were lots of other strange religions around--- Manichaeans, Donatist, Pelagians, Arians. Subjects from all religions were expected to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and worship the Roman emperor as a god.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018