Crucifixion probably first began among the Persians. Alexander the Great introduced the practice to Egypt and Carthage, and the Romans appeared to have learned of it from the Carthaginans. Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering. It was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution and it was usually reserved only for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the worst of criminals. Roman law usually protected Roman citizens from crucifixion, except perhaps in the case of desertion by soldiers.
It was customary for the condemned man to carry his own cross from the flogging post to the site of crucifixion outside the city walls. He was usually naked or had only a minimal amount of clothing. Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lb. (136 kg), only the crossbar was carried. The crossbar, patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lb. (34 to 57 kg), was placed on the victim’s neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms then were tied to the crossbar. The procession to the site of crucifixion was led by a complete Roman military guard, headed by a centurion. One of the soldiers carried a sign, titulus, on which the condemned man’s name and crime were displayed. Later, the titulus would be attached to the top of the cross.
At the site of execution, by law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh, gall, as a mild analgesic. The criminal was then thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the patibulum, the hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing apparently was preferred by the Romans. The archaeological remains of a crucified body, found in an ossuary near Jerusalem and dating from the time of Christ, indicate that the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 in (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 in (1 cm) across. Next, the feet were fixed to the cross, either by nails or ropes. To accomplish this, flexion of the knees may have been quite prominent, and the bent legs may have been rotated laterally. To prolong the crucifixion process, a horizontal wooden block or plank, serving as a crude seat, often was attached midway down the stipes.
When the nailing was completed, the titulus was attached to the cross, by nails or cords, just above the victim’s head. The soldiers and the civilian crowd often taunted and jeered the condemned man, and the soldiers customarily divided up his clothes among themselves. The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days. However, even if the whipping had been relatively mild, the Roman soldiers could hurry death by breaking the legs below the knees.
Since no one was intended to survive crucifixion, the body was not released to the family until the soldiers were sure that the victim was dead. By custom, one of the Roman guards would pierce the body with a sword or lance. Traditionally, this had been considered a spear wound to the heart through the right side of the chest.
The Crucifixion of Jesus
After the whipping and the mocking, at about 9 AM on a Friday (John 19), the Roman soldiers took Jesus and the two thieves to be crucified. Jesus apparently was so weakened by the severe punishment that he could not carry the patibulum from the city to the site of the crucifixion one third of a mile (600 to 650 m) away, so Simon of Cyrene was summoned to carry Jesus’ cross, and they then made their way to Golgotha, or Calvary, an established crucifixion site. (Luke 23:26-27) Here, Jesus’ clothes, except for a linen loincloth, were removed. He then was offered a drink of wine mixed with myrrh, gall, but, after tasting it, refused the drink. (John 19: 28-30) Finally, Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. The titulus was attached above Jesus’ head.
The soldiers and the civilian crowd taunted Jesus throughout His. Christ spoke several times from the cross. Since speech occurs during exhalation, these short, sudden remarks must have been particularly difficult and painful. At about 3 PM that Friday, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, bowed his head, and died. (Matthew 27:45-46) The Roman soldiers and onlookers recognized his moment of death.
Since the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the crosses on the Sabbath, they asked Pontius Pilate to order the crucifying to hurry the deaths of the three crucified men. The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Rather, one of the soldiers pierced his side, probably with an infantry spear, and produced a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19:33-34) Later that day, Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb, where He rose three days later.