Humankind has long been inventive when it comes to the sphere of killing one another; I could probably write a whole other blog solely on the subject of weaponry for the next 50 years before running low on material, and that doesn’t even approach the field of organised execution. Hanging and stoning are two old-as-the-hills methods still, unfortunately, in use in some parts of the world, and countless others have been developed with varying degrees of complexity, pain and success involved. However, one execution method has proved to carry more cultural weight than all others, and mostly thanks to one man; I speak, of course, of crucifixion.
We all think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment, but like so many Roman things it wasn’t their invention (seriously, even their religion was nicked from the Greeks). Crucifixion first started off in Persia in around the 6th century BC, in the area that would later become the Seleucid Empire after Alexander the Great went and conquered all of it. Like so many other things, the practice later spread across the remnants of Alexander’s Empire, including his native Greece, and here it began making its way towards the ‘civilised’ world of the time. The Greeks were, apparently, generally opposed to this horrible method of execution and used it very sparingly, but much of Alexander’s old Empire would later find its way into Roman hands, and so the idea eventually made its way to Rome. Given that this was a culture whose primary form of entertainment (garnering hundreds of thousands of spectators, something even modern sporting culture can’t match) involved various people and animals dressing up to kill one another in as ‘entertaining’ a fashion as possible, it is perhaps not surprising that the Romans thought crucifixion showed potential as an execution method, particularly for those they wanted to make an example of.
This is hardly surprising; of all humanity’s execution methods, few can rival crucifixion when it comes to being horrifying and showy. This is partly helped, slightly bizarrely, by its cheapness; to show them off to the general populace, something like hanging or beheading would require some sort of raised platform, which covers only a small area and takes a decent amount of time and energy to create. The Roman alternative (the arena) was even more expensive, requiring an investment in either animals or an elaborate set of costumes and procedure in order to provide an ‘entertaining’ execution, and given that games were generally free to go and watch (paid for by the emperor or local governor to curry goodwill with the populace) it wasn’t going to pay itself back. By contrast, the sum total of all monetary investment required for crucifixion is two long sticks, some rope or nails, and a bloke to affix the resulting structure to; the crosses were even moved to the required site by the prisoners themselves, and erecting them took a few soldiers almost no time at all. This cheapness made it easy to show off their victims on a vast scale; after the gladiator Spartacus’ slave revolt was crushed in 71BC, the 6,000 captured prisoners were all crucified along the Appian way, a trail of crosses stretching from Rome to Capua. That’s 200 kilometres (125 miles), along both sides of the road. A forceful example indeed.
The very nature of crucifixion itself also helps when it comes to being showy. The crosses used in crucifixion were big old things, three or four metres tall if they’re an inch, just to ensure the unfortunate victim could be seen from great distances away. The mechanics of the execution build on this; it is often assumed that death by crucifixion comes from exhaustion, hunger, pain and blood loss, but in fact crucifixion causes death by suffocation as much as anything. With one’s upper body held only by spread eagled arms, it becomes very tiring to keep it in position, and one’s head and torso tend to fall forwards after time. However, with the arms pinned in position this stretches out one’s joints extremely painfully, offering no respite from the agony, and pulls upwards on the ribcage. This in turn puts extreme stress on the diaphragm, meaning it has to pull one’s entire weight upward every time you attempt to take a breath, and crushes the lungs under one’s own weight, slowly squeezing the air and life out of the victim. If the executors were feeling kind, then the victim would be tied to the cross, resulting in a slower but slightly less agonisingly painful death. However, Jesus was famously attached to his cross by nails through his feet and wrists (some versions say the hands, but the flesh there isn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of a body properly), and whilst this could offer the possibility of blessedly quick unconsciousness and death due to blood loss and the extreme pain, the sheer agony of the experience doesn’t bear thinking about. No matter how devoted to their cause the victim was, their screams must have undoubtedly echoed for miles as they died, just adding to the showiness of their death. Crucifixion was the ultimate tool, for the Romans, for sending out a warning, a very obvious, demonstrative way of discouraging people from following the lead of the victim.
That this approach failed somewhat is like saying the Pope thinks God is a kinda alright guy; crucifixion has guaranteed martyrdom for countless early saints and, of course, Jesus. The concept of ‘he suffered and died on the cross for us’ is, more than anything, the fundamental message of Christianity, embodying the idea of undergoing extreme pain and hardship simply to try and do right by the world and emphasising the pure and unadulterated goodness of Jesus as a person. But this has had an unexpected effect in the long run; since the story is told so often to children, the gory details are often glossed over, or the story simply because so fundamental and oft-told that it becomes very easy to forget just how horrific his agony would have been. Even this post has treated the subject of crucifixion with a decidedly neutral tone, without considering properly just how horrible it is to inflict this level of pain onto a fellow human being. Crucifixion might have been abolished by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago (by Emperor Constatine, if you’re wondering), but it would not do to forget it. Very few things are ever worth forgetting, and torture and murder are most certainly not among them.