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Roman Empire & Methods of Persecution: Crucifixion

Crucifixion and Social Status

Although the Roman Empire would later become the ultimate Christian authority, this would not prevent them from condoning the persecution of its founder. Indeed, this method of persecution as it was administered to Jesus Christ was actually a routine form of punishment reserved primarily for slaves, rebels, pirates or any enemy or criminal deemed especially dangerous or hated by Roman officials.

The practice was generally not performed on Roman citizens unless they were convicted of a major crime against the state, such as treason. Jewish high-ranking officials were usually exempted from the practice, Josephus does mention a few of these cases. However, these were most likely performed as a means of signifying the loss of honor. Because of these specific designations, death by crucifixion was considered particularly shameful.

The Act of Crucifixion

Crucifixion was an especially brutal method of execution, as it usually involved days of slow, tortuous suffocation before death. The body was then left to be eaten by birds. Leaving the body in this manner was considered a further punishment to the victim, as he was often denied formal burial. In this way, the crucifixion served not only as a means of punishment, but also as a way of displaying the social status of a supposed criminal. Roman authorities sometimes broke the legs of the criminal prior to death in order to hasten the process and reduce the duration of the pain.

Prior to being crucified, the criminal would typically be beaten in order to release a large amount of blood and put the body into a state of shock. The carrying of the cross itself – as is depicted in the New Testament’s account of the Stations of the Cross – was also a part of the procedures, although historians say that criminals were more often forced to carry just the horizontal beam, and not the entire cross.

The victim was then stripped naked and ‘nailed’ to the cross, using five to seven-inch long iron spikes. Indeed, beyond the theological testimonials to this effect, archeologists have uncovered evidence of the ritual. In 1968 a heal bone pierced by a nail was found that dated back to first century Jerusalem.


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