How Was Crucifixion Perceived in the Ancient World?

By Clement Harrold

The purpose of crucifixion for the ancient Romans was twofold: (1) to produce a protracted death struggle aimed at killing the victim in a gradual and excruciating way lasting hours or even days; (2) to humiliate the victim and provide the ultimate deterrent against anyone else who might consider defying the power of Rome.

From the perspective of ancient Roman elites, therefore, crucifixion was a form of punishment unparalleled not only in its violence but also its usefulness. Excruciating physical agonies converged with abject humiliation to constitute the political deterrent par excellence to anyone who might be foolish enough to challenge the ascendancy of the empire.

Speaking to the horrors which crucifixions regularly instilled in the minds of onlookers, the New Testament historian N.T Wright describes the scene vividly:

[I]f you had actually seen a crucifixion or two, as many in the Roman world would have, your sleep itself would have been invaded by nightmares as the memories came flooding back unbidden, memories of humans half alive and half dead, lingering on perhaps for days on end, covered in blood and flies, nibbled by rats, pecked at by crows, with weeping but helpless relatives still keeping watch, and with hostile or mocking crowds adding their insults to the terrible injuries. (p. 54)

It was with good reason, then, that the great orator Cicero famously cataloged this form of execution as the “most cruel and terrifying penalty” (In Verrem, 2.5.165).

Inextricably connected with the physical torments of crucifixion was the social humiliation that came with it. Combining extraordinary physical agony with intense public shaming was part of what made crucifixion such a powerful deterrent. This shame aspect was compounded by the common practice of crucifying victims naked or mostly naked, as well as situating their crosses at prominent sites such as a major crossroad, public arena, or high hill.

Worse still was the association of crucifixion with the condition of being a slave. While slaves weren’t the only people subject to crucifixion in the Roman Empire, nevertheless the historical sources are clear that when an individual was crucified, he—or, in some cases, she—was deliberately being framed as a slave, with all of the social degradation that came with that framing. This helps cast light on the radicality of St. Paul’s dramatic statement in Philippians 2 that Almighty God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (v. 7).

All told, these historical considerations serve to remind us of the immense social stigma associated with crucifixion in the ancient Roman world. Putting ourselves in the shoes of a first-century citizen of the Mediterranean world is no easy task, but when it comes to meditating on the passion and death of Our Lord, we would do well to reflect on the sheer anguish, horror, and scandal associated with that awful method of death which He freely chose to undergo for our sake.

Clement Harrold is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His writings have appeared in First ThingsChurch Life JournalCrisis Magazine, and the Washington Examiner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2021.

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