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What was crucifixion in ancient Rome like?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A painting by Fyodor Bronnikov showing the crucified insurgents along the Appian road from Rome to Capua
A painting by Fyodor Bronnikov showing the crucified insurgents along the Appian road from Rome to Capua

Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment used in ancient times, including by Persians, Romans, Phoenicians and Carthaginians on slaves, freedmen, pirates, rebels and other non-full citizens. In the case of ancient Rome, an additionally low-status citizen (humiliores) could be sentenced to such death – especially in the case of a serious crime, e.g. treason of one’s country.

Sentenced to crucifixion, he was tied/nailed to a stake or a large wooden cross and left there until his death. It was an extremely long and painful death.

In addition to disgracing the convict, the main purpose of the punishment was to discourage others from committing similar crimes, by way of intimidation. Often a condemned man who died on the cross, he was still nailed to the cross for several days, so that his decaying body, eaten by birds/vermin, could affect the crowds. The authorities did not always agree to burial, which additionally meant eternal anxiety for the soul of the deceased, according to ancient beliefs.

In ancient Rome, crucifixion as a form of punishment appeared around the 3rd century BCE thanks to the Phoenicians. The Romans used crucifixion so widely that to this day we associate this punishment mainly with Rome. It is worth mentioning that the crucifixion was probably first used in Persia, during the reign of King Darius (6th-5th century BCE).

Source texts

In the ancient world, the term “crucifixion” was used in the context of various forms of execution: crucifixion in our understanding, impalement or hanging on a tree.

I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet.

Seneca the Younger, Ad Marciam, 6.20.3

It is believed that the custom of crucifixion in Rome developed from the primitive practise of arbori suspendere, or hanging arbor infelix (“the sinister tree”), where the sacrifice was dedicated to the gods of the underworld. However, this hypothesis is rejected by some researchers, including by William A. Oldfather, who indicates that this form of execution consisted only in hanging the suspect from a tree and disgracing him. This punishment was not intended to kill the condemned man, much less to sacrifice him to the gods of the underworld.

Tertullian mentions in the 2nd-3rd century “Apology” that trees were indeed used in the crucifixion. However, it was Seneca the Younger already using the phrase infelix lignum (“unfortunate wood”) for a horizontal beam (patibulum) of the cross, which may be associated with the old custom. The works of Plautus and Plutarch, in turn, are the only Roman sources that say that criminals carried the horizontal beam.

Roman law used this torture not only to kill but primarily to disgrace and emphasize the low status of the convict. In addition, Romans often broke the legs of convicts to hasten their deaths and forbid their burial or stabbed them with sharp tools/weapons.

Criticism of practising crucifixion was already present in ancient times. Cicero described the execution as extremely disgusting.

Way of crucifixion

The Greek and Latin words used in the early Christian sources have an ambiguous meaning. The Greek word used in the New Testament xylon means a living tree, wood or an object made of wood. Another word stauros refers to a vertical bar; however, in koine (Greek dialect) it means “cross”1. The Latin word crux meant more than just “cross”.

Due to the method of attaching the cross beam, the following were distinguished:

  • crux commissa – a cross in the form of the letter “T” (Greek letter tau);
  • crux immissa seu capitata – a standard cross known to us from churches;
  • crux decussata or andreana – the cross of St. Andrew in the shape of the letter “X”.

There was also a type: crux simplex – that is, a vertical bar to which the convict was nailed. Theodor Mommsen, in turn, considered the Y-shaped cross to be the earliest cross shape.

Archaeological finds, especially from Jerusalem (1968), dating back to the 1st century CE suggest that a T-shaped cross was commonly used in the 1st century CE. It is also mentioned by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria or the so-called “Letter of Barnabas” (dated before 135 CE). The practice of using the cross in the form of the letter “T” is largely due to the fact that nailing and hanging a convict in this form was the easiest. The fresco from Puteoli has survived to our times, showing the cross in this form.

A second-century Roman writer – Lucian of Samosata – mentions Prometheus who was crucified over the ravine with his arms stretched out. Artemidor of Ephesus, a 2nd-century philosopher, claims that the cross consists of two beams, nails, and the victim has stretched limbs.

Saved example of the crucifixion

In 1968, in the Givat HaMivtar region of Jerusalem, human remains were accidentally found showing signs of a crucifixion. It was the Jewish burial of a certain Jehohanan, son of Hagcol. It is the only archaeological evidence of death by crucifixion. After analyzing the remains, scientists concluded that the man died in the 1st century CE when he was crucified with his arms stretched out. The feet were nailed down with either one long nail at heel height, or two. As for the hands, there is no clear agreement between scientists. One theory is to nail your forearms; the second the tying of the hands and death by suffocation. The lack of puncture marks on the bones of the hands and arms rather suggests that the second version is more correct.

Crucifixion of Jehohanan

Execution by crucifixion

Sometimes the victim was severely whipped before being hanged, which resulted in significant blood loss and the victim entered a state of shock and dementia. The condemned man was stripped of his clothes. Tools called flagrum or taxillum romanum were used for whipping. In general, the whip was made of two or three straps attached to the handle. There were lead or sharp tips at the end of the straps to intensify the pain.

Two torturers took part in the scourging, and they metered out times in turns; non-fatal places were hit: thighs, calves, back. The head and belly were certainly avoided. The pointed straps sometimes caused deep wounds, and the victim’s body was torn off.
A crown of thorns was not put on the head of the condemned man, because no sources say about it; it was probably an invention only for the execution of Jesus2.

On his way to the place of execution, the convict, who was to be crucified, either had a tablet (titulus) hung around his neck or carried it in front of him. The name and guilt of the condemned man were written on it, so that everyone would know what had happened to him. The plaque was then nailed to the top of the cross.

According to Roman and Jewish custom, death sentences were carried out outside the city, but the most crowded roads were chosen so that the punishment could be seen by as many people as possible. Tacitus says that executions in Rome most often took place behind the Esquiline gate (east of the city) and it was a strictly designated area3. It is assumed that the vertical beam was already permanently stuck into the ground.

Coming back to the execution. The convict had to carry a horizontal beam (patibulum), 1.5-1.8 m long, to the place of execution, from the place of flagellation. His hands were tied to the crossbeam with straps. According to Roman source literature, a person condemned to crucifixion, he never carried the entire cross, contrary to customary faith and contrary to many modern recreations of Jesus’ path to Golgotha. The weight of such a beam was approx. 45 kg, while the whole cross could weigh approx. 135 kg; it is practically impossible for a convict, weakened by the earlier beating, to be able to bear such a burden4. A vertical beam (stipes or staticulum), 1.8-2.4 m high, was already firmly embedded in the ground at the place of execution.

Before the crucifixion, the condemned person was sometimes given bitter wine with the addition of myrrh to drink, which took the form of a painkiller. Then the victim was placed on a crossbeam, and then hands were tied or nailed to the wood5. In the second case, iron, tapered nails, 13 to 18 cm long and 1 cm in diameter, or other sharp tools/fasteners were used. It happened that after execution, nails were gathered by people and carried as healing amulets. Nails were typically hammered into the wrists to keep bones and tendons holding the body weight. Specifically, it was aimed between the radius and wrist bones or between the wrist bones themselves. Probably the periosteum and the median nerve were damaged, which caused severe pain. However, efforts were made to avoid large blood vessels in order not to bleed the condemned out.

The convict was completely naked during his sentence, to additionally humiliate him. The convict nailed to the beam was pulled and attached to a vertical pole; usually, four soldiers could suffice for this type of operation; probably ladders and ropes were used. After joining the beams, the whole gave the torture device a form resembling a cross (hence the later symbolism). Finally, the condemned man’s feet were nailed to the stake from the front. It is possible that the peroneal nerve was damaged in this way, which caused severe pain in the legs.

The cruelty of the executioners took many forms, and the torment could last from several hours to even several days. The condemned man was hung upside down, down and even facing the beam.

So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.

Josephus Flavius ​, Jewish War, V.11

Because the crucifixion itself – without significantly damaging the organs – did not cause death, in most cases the direct cause of death of the convict (occurring within a few to several hours or even days) was asphyxiation, exhaustion, dehydration or bleeding as a result of injuries. In this case, the condemned person initially had relatively straightened legs, bent enough so that the feet could be nailed to the cross. After a few or a dozen or so hours, the leg muscles could no longer support the weight of the body and flexed under the condemned man. At that time, the diaphragm and the costal muscles were pressed so much by the weight of the body that the convict began to choke – and this could take another several or several hours.

Victor Armand Poirson, The Crucifixion of Mercenaries

In Roman times, modifications of the crucifixion were also used, e.g. by placing the abovementioned support on a vertical pole at the height of the convict’s feet, a protruding knot or peg (sedile), thanks to which the convict could rest his legs and breathe relatively freely. The death occurred from the exhaustion of the body, even several days after the commencement of the execution, when the condemned man did not have the strength to support himself. It also happened that the executions were accelerated by breaking the convict’s legs (crurifragium), which made it impossible to support himself and try to catch a breath, or by simply hanging/nailing the condemned man’s hands. In both cases, the lack of support caused problems with the intake of air, and death could occur within a few minutes.

The soldiers watched the condemned man until his death. Once the victim’s death was confirmed, they were allowed to leave their post.
As mentioned earlier, often the body of a convict remained on the cross for a long time after death to further maximize the “message” for potential criminals. Meanwhile, the body was devoured by vermin, vultures and other birds.

Roman law allowed the family of the deceased to remove the body only after they had received permission from the authorities6. Philo of Alexandria (1st century CE), a Jewish philosopher, in his work criticizes the governor of Egypt – Flaccus – for the persecution of Jews and the fact that he, after condemning the prisoners to crucifixion, then refused to remove the bodies and hand them over to his relatives for burial. The writer argues that in the past other governors on the Emperor’s birthday agreed to it7.

It is worth mentioning that sometimes the convicts could count on grace. An example of such an event is given by Josephus in the time of the Jewish uprising (66-73 CE):

I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered

Josephus Flavius ​​, Autobiography, 75

Massive crucifixions

Mass crucifixion was used especially against slaves or rebels, for which we have evidence in the form of ancient texts.

When a slave killed his master, the crucifixion awaited all slaves (regardless of gender and number) on duty in the house, because they did not protect the owner from the assassin and were thus complicit in his death. We have information about an interesting case from 61 CE when the Roman senator Lucius Pedanius Secundus (consul for 43 CE) was murdered in his home. Due to the senatus consultum Silanianum, all of his 400 slaves were to die for failing to prevent a murder. As it turned out as a result of interrogation, the murderer was one of the slaves who held a grudge against his master. However, despite the identification of the guilty party, the remaining servants were punished.

The most famous crucifixion took place after the suppression of the rebellion of Spartacus in 71 BCE. On warning, Marcus Crassus then ordered the crucifixion of 6,000 insurgents along the Appian road leading from Capua to Rome8.

Massive crucifixions also took place in Judea. After the death of Herod I the Great in 4 BCE, an uprising broke out in Judea, after which the governor of Syria – Varus – ordered the crucifixion of two thousand rebels as a warning. During the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Flavius ​​Joseph mentions that the Romans crucified their captives against the city walls9. After the fall of Jerusalem, Titus reportedly had up to 500 Jews crucified daily for some time.

End of crucifixions

Crucifixion was used as a form of punishment until the 4th century CE when in 337 the emperor Constantine the Great forbade this type of execution in honour of Christ, who he was the most famous victim of this execution. The death penalty by crucifixion was replaced by hanging on the patibulum (gallows) on which the condemned man died immediately.

  1. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon
  2. Dio Chrysostom, Orations 67-70; Philo of Alexandria, Flaccus 1:37-39
  3. Tacitus, Annals, 2.32.2, 15.60.1
  4. Due to the fact that the beam was carried, the convicts were called "cross bearers".
  5. There was no single method of executing. The nails caused additional pain and bleeding out.
  6. Craig Evans, The Resurrection of Jesus in the Light of Jewish Burial Practices, "HBU", 4.05.2016
  7. Philo of Alexandria, Flaccus, 83
  8. Appian, Roman history. The Civil Wars, XIII.I.120. There are different translations of Appian, and sometimes you will meet the term "crucifixion" and sometimes "hanging." This is a matter of interpretation.
  9. Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War, XI.1
  • Ewa Andrasz, Kara śmierci przez ukrzyżowanie w Cesarstwie Rzymskim
  • John Granger Cook, Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania, 2012
  • Bart Ehroman, Why Romans Crucified People (The Story Beyond the Cross & Nails), "The Bart Ehroman Blog"
  • Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross
  • Paweł Lisicki, Ukrzyżowanie
  • Paulina Święcicka, Proces Jezusa w świetle prawa rzymskiego: Studium prawno-historyczne
  • Wikipedia

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