In addition to other quaint techniques – stoning, amputating limbs – thought to be essentially gone from the modern state’s arsenal of punishments the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) also employs crucifixion, which is fact sanctioned by the Quran (Sura 5). They are of course not the only Islamic barbarians who have done this: it has happened in Yemen and the Maghreb. More surprising, this left-over from antiquity has been carried out in the twenty-first century by actual established governments. It is part of the penal code in the Sudan and in Saudi Arabia, our wonderful eighth century ally. It is also on the books in Iran, but has never been implemented, and the Burmese army has been implicated in at least one instance of crucifying villagers. Sometimes the victim has been executed first and then hung on the cross, a barbaric practice nevertheless.
The point of crucifixion is twofold: to provide the condemned with a lingering, agonizing and humiliating death and to serve as a ghastly warning to others. Though one might suspect there is nothing like a rotting body hanging on a cross to get the point across about obeying the law, the deterrent effect of even this gruesome punishment can be questioned. Few would disagree, however, that crucifixion falls clearly into the category of “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the practice is generally condemned in modern societies as barbaric. Actually, most modern industrialized democracies also consider capital punishment itself to be relatively barbaric (American exceptionalism again).
Crucifixion, at least in the west, is typically immediately associated with the Romans, in large part because of their role in the execution of Jesus. True, they became enthusiastic practitioners of the art, mostly for extreme crimes – slave rebellion, piracy, desertion, high treason – and except for special cases like desertion generally applied it only to non-citizens, at least until later imperial times, but the use of the cross was almost certainly borrowed from the Carthaginians in the wake of the Punic Wars of the second century BC. Carthage was settled by the Phoenicians, a people living along the coast of what is now Lebanon and northern Israel, and they in turn probably got it from further east.
The idea of hanging or nailing a body to a tree is fairly widespread (perhaps reflected now in crucifying an already executed man), and tying a prisoner to a pole for beating or execution is an obvious development. Impalement may have been the first instance of using a pole for prolonging pain, and crucifixion may have developed from that. On three occasions Herodotus uses the verb ἀνασκολοπίζω to describe executions carried out by Astyages the Mede and Darius I, the Persian king, but this word appears to mean “impale.” Likewise, ἀνασταυρόω means “impale” and ἀποτυμπανίζω “beat to death (?),” and they only come to mean “crucify” in Roman era texts. On the other hand, he notes that in 479 BC that a captured Persian general πρὸς σανίδας προσπασσαλεύσαντες ἀνεκρέμασαν: “nailed to a plank he was hung up.” This sounds more like crucifixion.
My guess for the inventors of crucifixion are the Assyrians. There is no compelling evidence that they used it, but these appear to be the first people to understand that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun thing to do after a victory. We know they burned and flayed people alive, hung flayed skins over city gates and decorated trees with severed heads. Crucifixion would fit right into this box of tricks. The continual rise and fall of Assyrian power, incidentally, is a vivid demonstration of the inherent instability of political systems based on fear, a lesson for the new caliphate. The entire Near East rejoiced when the Assyrian capital Nineveh finally fell in 912 BC.
The Neo-Babylonians probably used crucifixion (and perhaps invented it), and it is likely their successors, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, did. The Iranian elite were outsiders, Indo-Europeans (cousins to the Greeks and Romans), but were overwhelmed by the millennia-old Semitic Sumero-Babylonian culture of Mesopotamia. Their subjects expected punishments to be barbaric; Alexander faced the same problem when he conquered the empire.
The Herodotus episode notwithstanding (the Persian general’s crime struck the Greeks as horrific), the Greeks generally rejected such brutal punishments as unfit for a civilized state, especially since they were practiced by non-Greeks, who were of course barbarians. As noted, as the new king of the Persian Empire, Alexander was compelled to adopt a number of customs offensive to the Greeks, but the direct evidence that he employed crucifixion all comes from the weaker, more sensationalist sources. According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century AD, in 167 BC Syrian troops of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah) crucified a number of people in Jerusalem, but this is not mentioned in 1 Maccabees, where one would surely expect it. Jewish tradition did not sanction crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution, but according to Jospehus Alexander Jannaeus, king of the Jews from c.103 to 76 BC had 800 of his country crucified in the wake of a civil war. Who knows? Nasty people frequently have nasty things falsely associated with them.
Because of Christianity crucifixion is typically associated with a T-shaped cross, but this was not inevitable, though very likely common. A simple pole or even a tree could serve, providing the economy crucifixion package, and the “cross” might be in the shape of a Y or an X. The victim might even be crucified upside down, something Roman soldiers did for amusement when they had a large number of crucifixions to deal with. It is likely that many or perhaps most crucifixions were at eye-level, since the job would be much easier. The victim could be tied or nailed to the cross; only one nail has ever been found (near Jerusalem) but this is probably because they were valuable and thus retrieved (the Jerusalem nail is damaged). Nails would have to be through the wrists or perhaps the carpal tunnel or the weight of the body could rip them out through the fingers. Midway down the upright there might be a sort of shelf or seat – the sedile – which would allow the victim to take some of the weight off his arms, presumably to prolong the whole process. The foot rest usually included in depictions of the Crucifixion is unattested in antiquity.
In exactly what manner Jesus was crucified is not known with any certainty, since the details come from the Gospels, which come two to three generations after the event and might be considered tendentious. That he was indeed crucified is generally accepted by scholars for a variety of reasons, though not by Muslims, because it is denied by a passage in the Quran. Since the cross became such an icon it is likely that there was a cross bar, and this might account for the tradition that he dragged the cross to the execution place. In actuality he would have carried only the cross piece, and it is likely the pole was a permanent fixture. He may well have been crucified at eye level; iconographic needs would have subsequently elevated him.
What do you die from when hanging from a cross? Apparently there are a variety of possibilities: shock, sundry pulmonary problems, sepsis from scourging or nails, dehydration if you last long enough or even feeding animals if you are at eye level and have no one to shoo them away. Asphyxiation is a traditional explanation: when you can no longer hold yourself up the extension of your arms over your head would lead to fatal breathing problems because of the distension of the lungs and chest muscles. The provision of the sedile might support this notion, yet frequently the victim had his legs broken, which means he could no longer support himself by pushing against his tied or nailed feet or a foot step. Further, there are plenty of accounts of people being tortured by being suspended by their arms without asphyxiating, and one scholar actually did this with test subjects (students no doubt!), who had no problem breathing, though pain increased quickly. The whole point after all is pain and duration.
Sometimes the victim was offered a wine mixture that was supposed to alleviate the pain; Jesus supposedly turned it down. This is hard to understand, inasmuch as suffering was the whole point of crucifixion, and one hesitates attributing outbursts of sympathy from professional executioners or Roman soldiers. Easier to understand is the fact that soldiers often put a victim out of his misery with a stab from their spear or sword. Why? Because if you were stuck with guarding the crucified (crucifees?) in order that they not be rescued, then the sooner they were dead, the sooner you went to the barracks or the tavern.