by Darcia Helle

Death By Crucifixion in the Roman World

According to the Greek historian Herodotus (484 BC – 425 B.C.), crucifixion seems to have originated with the ancient Persians and dates back to at least 700 B.C. The Romans soon adopted and perfected this ancient death penalty.

In the Roman Empire, the method used to carry out a death sentence was dictated by class. The upper class patricians and equestrians were allowed dignity in death. They were given poison, which they used in private. In complete contrast, the slaves were executed publicly using a variety of brutal methods.

In most circumstances, Roman law forbade crucifixion as a punishment for its average citizens. This punishment was reserved for their enemies, rebellious foreigners, citizens who committed treason, and, of course, slaves. In fact, slaves were crucified so frequently that crucifixion became known as the servile supplicium or slaves’ punishment.


The Roman View On Crucifixion

 The Romans did not view crucifixion as a “normal” death sentence. Crucifixion was considered humiliating, disgraceful, and obscene. This is why crucifixion was reserved for the lowest class of people and the most despicable crimes. Even under these circumstances, some Romans considered crucifixion uncivilized.

In the first century B.C., Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting penalty”.


Spartacus and the Slave Revolt

cross10Spartacus is perhaps the most famous of all Roman slaves. Information is sparse and sources differ on some points, but all agree that Spartacus was a Thracian (an Indo-European tribe from Thrace) born in 109 BC. Plutarch, a Greek historian from the early AD period, described Spartacus as “a Thracian of Nomadic Stock”. He received training in the Roman army, though it’s unclear whether this was as an auxiliary from the Roman legions or as a captive taken by the legions. Either way, he went from soldier to slave in 73 BC, when he was sold to a Roman citizen, Lentulus Batiatus.

Batiatus was an overseer and trainer  at a school for gladiator slaves 20 miles from Mt. Vesuvius. According to some fictionalized versions of Spartacus’s life, upon being trained for the gladiator ring, Spartacus killed his good friend in a “kill or be killed” battle for the entertainment of the Roman patrician class. Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that not long after being imprisoned in the gladiator school, Spartacus organized an escape that turned into a riot now known as the Slave Revolt or the cross4Slave Rebellion. Of the 200 gladiators living at the school, only about 70 made it out to the streets. The escaped slaves seized wagons and weaponry, using their gladiator skills to defeat the small army sent to capture them.

Spartacus then led his men on to Mt. Vesuvius, picking up rural slaves along the way. The slaves took a Roman camp, thwarting the Romans’ attempt to stop them. In total, around 70,000 slaves joined Spartacus and his men as they headed into the Alps.

Historians believe Spartacus intended on a quick march of protest before cross2allowing his men to disband and return to their pre-slave homes. Unfortunately, their revolt had earned them too much attention from the Roman Senate, which tasked Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, with ending the rebellion. Crassus organized 10 legions to block Spartacus and his slaves. In the end, approximately 12,000 slaves were killed in battle. Another 6,000 managed to escape, only to be captured and crucified along the Appian Way, the royal road leading from Capua to Rome.

While Roman leaders and early historians claim Spartacus died in battle, they also agree that his body was never actually found or identified.


The Cross

The earliest crucifixion victims are believed to have been nailed or tied to trees. A variety of methods followed. The Romans seem to have standardized the procedure with the use of the cross.

crossSeveral cross varieties were used for crucifixions. The tau, or Saint Anthony’s cross, was made from a horizontal beam fixed at the very top of the vertical piece, forming a T. The second type of a traditional cross was the t-shape, called the Latin cross, in which the horizontal beam was fixed about one-quarter of the way from the top of  the vertical piece. Saint Andrew’s cross consisted of two diagonal beams forming an X. The last type, consisting simply of a vertical wooden stake, was also used in some instances.


In AD 70, during the time that Roman General and later Emperor Titus was beating down the Jewish revolt and beginning the siege of Jerusalem, he was crucifying more than 500 Jews each day.

Death’s Sweet Release

cross9Death did not usually come quickly. A healthy person could survive as long as two days on the cross. The victim, always naked, would be taunted and ridiculed by the citizens. Insects would infest the victim’s eyes, mouth, and open wounds. Death was slow, demoralizing, and agonizing.

Proper burials for crucifixion victims were not allowed during the Roman period. The victim would be left on the cross as food for birds of prey and any wild animals that could reach high enough to scavenge from the cross. At times, the bodies of the deceased would be removed from their crosses and simply tossed away as trash.

Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, banned crucifixion in 345 AD.

Crucifixion Today

Most of us in today’s world do not live in fear of crucifixion. You would be forgiven for believing that this gruesome form of torture and execution is no longer practiced. However, you would be wrong.

cross11Crucifixion has been used at various times in many countries from the time of its conception.

Japan adopted the practice during the Age of Civil Wars (1138-1560), which is particularly astounding since they had gone the previous 350 years with no capital punishment at all. Crucifixion is believed to have been introduced to the Japanese along with Christianity. The Japanese also crucified its prisoners during World War II.

Today, both Iran and Sudan continue to use crucifixion as a means of execution.


Please click to below to view Darcia’s Helle’s previous posts:

To Burn or Not to Burn? Auto-Da-Fé Is Not Good for Women or Children!

The Disgraceful Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass: Keep the Narcs Out of Our Schools

Why Should I Believe You? The History of the Polygraph

“Don’t Behead Me, Dude!”: The Story of Beheading and the Invention of the Guillotine

Aileen Wuornos, America’s First High-Profile Female Serial Killer, Never Had a Chance

The Terror of ISO: A Descent into Madness

Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom

Cyberspace, Darknet, Murder-for-Hire and the Invisible Black Machine

darcDarcia Helle lives in a fictional world with a husband who is sometimes real. Their house is ruled by spoiled dogs and cats and the occasional dust bunny.

Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.

Join Darcia in her fictional world:

The characters await you.


22 Responses to Don’t Crucify Me, Dude! Just Shoot Me Instead! Spartacus and Death by Crucifixion

  1. Lise Lasalle says:

    Quite an interesting journey you take us on with this great post Darcia. As a born and raised ‘Catholic’ I found out later that the cross was a very popular form of long and tortuous execution. It was not reserved only for our own dude Jesus.

    The ones still longing for that torture are practicing crucifixion but only in the court of public opinion. What a disappointment it must be be for them not to have the real thing anymore.
    You have to admire the slaves and peaceful souls that revolted and tried to free themselves.
    What a strange breed we are.

    • Darcia Helle says:

      One of many things that astound me is the culture of people who reenact Christ’s crucifixion, right down to driving nails through their own hands and feet. I could never be that dedicated to any belief. I wonder if they realize Christ was far from the only person put to death that way.

  2. Rick says:

    Very interesting post, Darcia! It took me back to my days in college when I took one year of ancient history. I’m very surprised that crucifixion is practiced anywhere in the world today, although Iran and Sudan are not exactly beacons of freedom.

    • PatrickHMoore says:

      Unlike LA where no one ever goes to prison and no one ever gets crucified!

    • Darcia Helle says:

      Sometimes I wonder how far we’ve really come from this sort of thing. I can’t say that frying someone in an electric chair is all that much more enlightened.

      I think the KKK have probably stuck a few people up on their crosses in recent history, as well.

      So much for evolution making us any more compassionate.

      • PatrickHMoore says:

        Compassion lives within the staff and contributors of ATCB, I think?

        • Darcia Helle says:

          Absolutely, Patrick. I think writers, as a general rule, tend to be more empathetic. We need to put ourselves in another person’s place if we’re going to write about a situation.

          There are a lot of great people in the world. Now and then my frustration with the narrow-minded shows through. :)

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  8. michael mills says:

    The crucial (no pun intended) in an execution by crucifixion is to suspend the victim from the wrists with the arms outstretched, such that the weight of the suspended body places pressure on the chest, making it very difficult or impossible to breathe.

    The only way the victim can breathe is by pushing himself upward with his legs, which are attached by the feet to the vertical stake. Eventually the victims becomes so weak that he can no longer push himself upward, and so succumbs to suffocation which is the usual cause of death in a crucifixion.

    In order to hasten death, the legs of the victim were sometimes broken after he had been left hanging for a given period. That made it impossible for him to push himself upward, and he then died rapidly due to being unable to breathe.

    Because the essential element in a crucifixion was the suspension of the victim by his arms, this method of execution was often described as “hanging”. That is why certain passages in the New Testament refer to Jesus the Nazarene as having been “hanged”. Passages in the Old Testament also describe execution by hanging from an upright pole; that is quite clearly what we would call “crucifixion”.

    The usual method of suspension was to tie the victim’s outstretched arms to a horizontal cross-beam with ropes, with his feet being similarly tied to the vertical beam supporting the cross-beam. The Romans seem to have introduced the method of nailing the victim’s wrists to the cross-beam and his feet to the vertical beam with a single nail driven through both heels. The nailing method, although initially very painful, actually hastened death as it caused greater trauma and blood-loss.

    There were two methods of supporting the horizontal cross-beam from which the victim was suspended. One was to attach the cross-beam to a vertical pole specially erected for the purpose, either temporarily or permanently; that is the method portrayed in traditional images of the crucifixion of Jesus the Nazarene.

    The other method was to attach the cross-beam to a handy small tree, often an olive tree. That method is what is denoted by the various references in the New Testament to Jesus the Nazarene having been “hanged on a tree”. The existence of such references, in both Christian and Jewish sources (in the latter Jesus is depicted as hanged on a giant cabbage-stalk) suggests that this second method was in fact that used in his execution, and therefore the traditional depictions of the crucifixion in Christian art are in fact historically incorrect.

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