The most famous crucifixion in the world took place when, according to the New Testament, Jesus was put to death by the Romans. But he was far from the only person who perished on the cross.
In antiquity, thousands upon thousands of people were crucified, which at the time was considered to be one of the most brutal and shameful ways to die. In Rome, the crucifixion process was a long one, entailing scourging (more on that later) before the victim was nailed and hung from the cross.
How did this terrible death sentence begin? And what types of people were usually crucified? Here's a look at the history of this savage practice. [Proof of Jesus Christ? 6 Pieces of Evidence Debated]
Crucifixion most likely began with the Assyrians and Babylonians, and it was also practiced systematically by the Persians in the sixth century B.C., according to a 2003 report in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ). At this time, the victims were usually tied, feet dangling, to a tree or post; crosses weren't used until Roman times, according to the report.
From there, Alexander the Great, who invaded Persia as he built his empire, brought the practice to eastern Mediterranean countries in the fourth century B.C. But Roman officials weren't aware of the practice until they encountered it while fighting Carthage during the Punic Wars in the third century B.C.
For the next 500 years, the Romans "perfected crucifixion" until Constantine I abolished it in the fourth century A.D., co-authors Francois Retief and Louise Cilliers, professors in the Department of English and Classical Culture at the University of the Free State in South Africa, wrote in the SAMJ report.
However, given that crucifixion was seen as an extremely shameful way to die, Rome tended not to crucify its own citizens. Instead, slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians, foreigners, and — in particular — political activists often lost their lives in this way, Retief and Cilliers reported.
The practice became especially popular in the Roman-occupied Holy Land. In 4 B.C., the Roman general Varus crucified 2,000 Jews, and there were mass crucifixions during the first century A.D., according to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus. "Christ was crucified on the pretext that he instigated rebellion against Rome, on a par with zealots and other political activists," the authors wrote in the report.
When Rome's legions crucified its enemies, however, local tribes wasted no time in retaliating. For instance, in 9 A.D., the victorious Germanic leader Arminius crucified many of the defeated soldiers who had fought with Varus, and in 28 A.D., Germanic tribesmen crucified Roman tax collectors, according to the report.
What did crucifixion entail?
In Rome, people condemned to crucifixion were scourged beforehand, with the exception of women, Roman senators and soldiers (unless they had deserted), Retief and Cilliers wrote. During scourging, a person was stripped naked, tied to a post, and then flogged across the back, buttocks and legs by Roman soldiers.
This excessive whipping would weaken the victim, causing deep wounding, severe pain and bleeding. "Frequently the victim fainted during the procedure and sudden death was not uncommon," the authors wrote. "The victim was then usually taunted, then forced to carry the patibulum [the crossbar of a cross] tied across his shoulders to the place of execution." [In Photos: A Journey Through Early Christian Rome]
The cruelty didn't stop there. Sometimes, the Roman soldiers would hurt the victim further, cutting off a body part, such as the tongue, or blinding him. In another heinous turn, Josephus reported how soldiers under Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic Greek king of the Seleucid Empire, would have the victim's strangled child hung around his neck.
The next step varied with location. In Jerusalem, women would offer the condemned a pain-relieving drink, usually of wine and myrrh or incense. Then, the victim would be tied or nailed to the patibulum. After that, the patibulum was lifted and affixed to the upright post of the cross, and the feet would be tied or nailed to it.
While the victim awaited death, soldiers would commonly divide up the victim's clothes among themselves. But death didn't always come quickly; it took anywhere from three hours to four days to expire, the professors wrote. Sometimes, the process was sped up by additional physical abuse from the Roman soldiers.
When the person died, family members could collect and bury the body, once they received permission from a Roman judge. Otherwise, the corpse was left on the cross, where predatory animals and birds would devour it.
To investigate crucifixion (without actually killing anybody), German researchers tied volunteers by their wrists to a cross and then monitored their respiratory and cardiovascular activity in the 1960s. Within 6 minutes, the volunteers had trouble breathing, their pulse rates had doubled, and their blood pressure had plummeted, according to the 1963 study in the journal Berlin Medicine (Berliner Medizin). The experiment had to be stopped after about 30 minutes, because of wrist pain.
That said, victims could have died from various causes, including multiple-organ failure and respiratory failure, Retief and Cilliers wrote. Given the pain and suffering entailed, it's no wonder that crucifixion spawned the word "excruciating," which means "out of the cross."
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.