Crucifixion was invented and used by other people groups, but it was “perfected” by the Romans as the ultimate execution by torture. The earliest historical record of crucifixion dates to c. 519 BC, when King Darius I of Persia crucified 3,000 of his political enemies in Babylon. Before the Persians, the Assyrians were known to impale people. The Greeks and Carthaginians later used crucifixion, as well. After the break-up of Alexander the Great’s empire, the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes crucified Jews who refused to accept Hellenization.
Crucifixion was meant to inflict the maximum amount of shame and torture upon the victim. Roman crucifixions were carried out in public so that all who saw the horror would be deterred from crossing the Roman government. Crucifixion was so horrible that it was reserved for only the worst offenders.
The victim of crucifixion was first severely scourged or beaten, an ordeal that was life-threatening by itself. Then he was forced to carry the large wooden crossbeam to the site of the crucifixion. Bearing this load was not only extremely painful after the beating, but it added a measure of shame as the victim was carrying the instrument of his own torture and death. It was like digging one’s own grave.
When the victim arrived at the place of crucifixion, he would be stripped naked to further shame him. Then he would be forced to stretch out his arms on the crossbeam, where they were nailed in place. The nails were hammered through the wrists, not the palms, which kept the nails from pulling through the hand. (In ancient times, the wrist was considered part of the hand.) The placement of the nails in the wrists also caused excruciating pain as the nails pressed on large nerves running to the hands. The crossbeam would then be hoisted up and fastened to an upright piece that would normally remain standing between crucifixions.
After fastening the crossbeam, the executioners would nail the victim’s feet to the cross as well—normally, one foot on top of the other, nailed through the middle and arch of each foot, with the knees slightly bent. The primary purpose of the nails was to inflict pain.
Once the victim was fastened to the cross, all his weight was supported by three nails, which would cause pain to shoot throughout the body. The victim’s arms were stretched out in such a way as to cause cramping and paralysis in the chest muscles, making it impossible to breathe unless some of the weight was borne by the feet. In order to take a breath, the victim had to push up with his feet. In addition to enduring excruciating pain caused by the nail in his feet, the victim’s raw back would rub against the rough upright beam of the cross.
After taking a breath and in order to relieve some of the pain in his feet, the victim would begin to slump down again. This action put more weight on his wrists and again rubbed his raw back against the cross. However, the victim could not breathe in this lowered position, so before long the torturous process would begin again. In order to breathe and to relieve some of the pain caused by the wrist nails, the victim would have to put more weight on the nail in his feet and push up. Then, in order to relieve some of the pain caused by the foot nail, he would have to put more weight on the nails in his wrists and slump down. In either position, the torture was intense.
Crucifixion usually led to a slow, tortuous death. Some victims lasted as long as four days on a cross. Death was ultimately by asphyxiation as the victim lost the strength to continue pushing up on his feet in order to take a breath. In order to hasten death, the victim’s legs might be broken, which would prevent him from pushing up in order to breathe; thus, asphyxiation would follow shortly after (see John 19:32).
Crucifixion was finally outlawed by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.