Monday, May 2, 2016

Origin and Evolution of Roman "Crucifixion"

"Awl in a deye's wuhk," said the Centurion from Australia.
Yet another lurid Christian Crucifiction scene.

Based on and expanded from a back-translation into English from the Italian, Leolaia, Ph.D., I fatti sulla crocifissione, lo stauros, e il palo di tortura. (ca 2008), Section III, "l’Origine della crocifissione Romana," pp. 5-8. Link:

LSJ stands for: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1940). Accessible at PDL and Perseus Greek Word Study Tool.

Lewis & Short stands for: A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1879). Accessible at PDL, and at Numen and Perseus Latin Word Study Tools

PDL stands for: the Perseus Digital Library, . Linked PDL: specified section of work within.  Definitions of all Greek and Latin Words can be verified therein.

Scholars of the subject generally believe that the execution pole called the crux compacta or crux commissa, consisting of a vertical pole and a transverse bar on which a person’s arms were bound or nailed, was a Roman invention that was obtained by combining indigenous practices of executions of Rome and Latium with those acquired from contact with neighbouring peoples. There are several predecessors of crucifixion in the ancient Near East and North Africa, including live impalement, and the post-mortem exposure of the corpse. The first method was to penetrate prisoners or slaves alive with pointed stakes, and as illustrated by some Assyrian reliefs, the best confirmation of this ancient practice is located in the Code of Hammurabi, dating to 1700 BCE; the second method was the exposure of the condemned after death, was likely to have been accomplished by impalement also, and was practiced by the ancient Israelites.

After being stoned to death, the idolaters and blasphemers were hung on trees to show that they were cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23); the law also required that these bodies should not remain suspended upon the trees all night. The ancient Persians instead executed their criminals and prisoners by attaching them while they were still living onto trees and poles. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament claims that "the Persians invented or first used this method of execution [i.e., crucifixion]. Probably they did not contaminate the earth, which was dedicated to Ormuzd, with the bodies of people who were executed." [1]

What distinguishes this practice from the Jewish post-mortem suspension is that the victims were still alive when their bodies were hanged or impaled. It is believed that the references to suspension, hanging or “smiting” in Ezra 6.11 and Esther 7.9 and 10 were Persian suspensions -- the texts do not appear to be specific enough. [2]

The Greco-Persian Wars (449-479 BC) made ​​this form of execution known to the Greeks and Herodotus (Histories, 1.128.2 [ἀνεσκολόπισε], 3.125.3 [ἀνεσταύρωσε], 3.132.2 [ἀνασκολοπιεῖσϑαι], 3.159.1 [ἀνεσκολόπισε], 4.43.2-7 [ἀνασκολοπιεῖσϑαι, ἀνεσκολόπισε], 6.30.1 [ανέσταύρωσαν], 7.194 [ἀνεσταύρωσε]) has frequent references to this custom among the Persians (see also Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.110.3 [ἀνεσταυρωϑη], for its use in Egypt of the time). The verbs, which are inflected forms of ἀνασταυρόω, and ἀνασκόλοπιζω respectively, are obviously derivatives of σταυρός, at that time an upright pale or pole, and σκόλοψ, an upright pointed stake or pole (LSJ).

For example, Herodotus mentions a viceroy called Sandoces, son of Tamas, who had been "condemned to be impaled by Darius" Darius then had a change of opinion: "Sandoces had already been suspended, when Darius, reflecting carefully, he discovered that his good deeds towards the royal family were greater than his error: he found this and realizing that he had acted more quickly than with wisdom, and so made ​​him free. So Sandoces, whom Darius freed, lest he be utterly destroyed (ἀπολέσϑαι), was able to escape death." (Histories, 7.194) The passage clearly indicates that Sandoces was still alive when he was reportedly impaled. The verb ἀπολέσϑαι means “be utterly destroyed, demolished, killed” (LSJ).

The shape of the instrument Persians used in their executionary suspensions varied considerably. Herodotus does not describe it, but explicitly states that tall poles were used for the suspension of impaled heads. (Histories, 4.103.1-3) He also mentions that Polycrates was “executed in a manner not fit to be described and then suspended on a pale / pole” (Histories, 3.125.3); [3] while Plutarch reports that as many as four vertical pales (σταυροι) were used for the same single victim (Artaxerxes 17.5). Ctesias reports that a leader of an Egyptian rebellion or coup was suspended on three pales / poles (Ctesias, Fragments 688F 14.39). Apparently, the configuration of this device did not matter to Persians, it was enough to bring out its purpose.

One of the penalties that the Romans drew on (and developed separately their own penalty of exposure known as dierigere “to hang or erect with limbs apart” [4]) was the Greek penalty of ἀποτύμπανισμος (apotympanismos). This punishment goes way back into the pre-Archaic mists of Greek culture and the first mention of it is in Homer’s Odysseus, or The Odyssey. At the end of the main character Odysseus’ long journey, when he had returned home and revealed himself, his son Telemachus and a farmhand or friend Eumaeus grabbed the goatherd Melanthius who had acted treasonably to Odysseus and had him executed by suspending him hog-tied around some boards:
“I and Telemachus will keep the lordly wooers within the hall, how fierce so ever they be, but do you two bend behind him his feet and his arms above, and cast him into the store-room, and tie boards behind his back; then make fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoist him up the tall pillar, till you bring him near the roof-beams, that he may keep alive long, and to suffer grievious torment.

“Then the two [Eumaeus and Telemachus] sprang upon him [Melanthius] and seized him. They dragged him in by the hair, and flung him down on the ground in sore terror, and bound his feet and hands with galling bonds, binding him firmly behind his back, as the son of Laertes bade them, the much enduring, goodly Odysseus; and they made fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoisted him up the tall pillar, till they brought him near the roof-beams.”

(Homer, The Odyssey, as quoted in [5])

This would be a slow and painful death, suspended while bound to planks or simply crimp-nailed / garroted or tied to a wooden plank or pole. The penalty -- ἀπὸτυμπανίσμος (apotympanismos) – was normally meted out to noxious criminals and they were left to die gradually. It was in broad use in the Greek-speaking areas, even in Pentecontaetian Athens. The only difference in later days is, the criminal was executed in public and exposed to the abuse of the masses. [6]

Through their interaction with the Persians, the Greeks adopted their method of execution as a military strategy, while keeping their own penalty of apotympanismos. The adopted method was practiced mainly by Alexander the Great in his wars against the Persians (336-323 BCE). Thus, after the siege of Tyre in 332 BCE brought to an end, "two thousand men, ... were affixed to cruces and remained suspended along a long stretch of the beach" (Curtius Rufus, Histories of Alexander the Great, 4.4.17. The writer Quintus Curtius Rufus, in the First or Second Century CE, describes this execution in terms of a Roman crucifixion (crucibus adfixi). See also Plutarch, Alexander 7.2 on the suspension of the Persian doctor made ​​by the Macedonian king. After Alexander's death his successors (the Diadochi) continued to use the Persian style against their enemies (see also Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 16.61.2), but the Greeks never fully integrated it into their legal system as a civil punishment. Greeks were allegedly disgusted with a brutal showy execution of this kind (cf. Herodotus, Histories 7.128, 9.78). Possibly as a result of the Greek siege of Tyre, Phoenicians and Carthaginians adopted the tactic of this sort of suspension en masse for use in wartime, unless they were already practicing it – Carthaginian suspensions, at least of individuals, predated Alexander’s siege of the city of Tyre by some 300 years. [7] Carthaginians were notorious for suspending their generals who did not follow ordered strategies and tactics, even if they returned victorious, and also enemy individuals whom they captured or who came under their power (Valerius Maximus, Memorabilia, 2.7, Silius Italicus, The Punic Wars, 2.339-44).
During the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE), the Romans encountered the Phoenician-Punic version of suspension and promptly appropriated it as an instrument of capital punishment for slaves, combining it with their dierectus. Disregarding the purpose for which the Phoenicians had originally conceived, the Romans converted it into a brutal instrument of torture. It was accomplished by placing a wooded transom set on one pole or between two poles called a patibulum. [8] In addition, a thorn- or spike-shaped peg called a sedile [9], an impaling stake or at the very least a short (but sufficiently long) beam was set underneath upon which the victims rested their weight. Without this “seat” or a similar support, the Romans would have to have the condemned sustained with ropes. [10] It is not known, however, if Romans’ development of this penalty was gradual, or if they invented a device similar to our cross straightaway. Before their invention of crucifixion Romans used the patibulum to humiliate condemned slaves marching to their execution. Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes this archaic practice:
"A fairly well known Roman had delivered one of his slaves to other slaves for leading him to death and the punishment was so sensational, he ordered him dragged, whipping through the Forum and any other place in town that was heavilly frequented, ahead of the procession which the Romans staged in honor of the god on that occasion. The men that led the slave to torture, after having stretched out his arms and tied them to a beam (τὰς χεῖρας ἀποτείναντες ἀμφοτέρας καὶ ξύλῳ προσδῆσαντες) that, along the chest and shoulders, extended out to his wrists, followed him with the whip hitting his naked body."

(Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 7.69.1-2)
The punishment of transporting the patibulum, during which a slave was whipped and driven through the city, was practiced in pre-republican Rome. It was the direct ancestor of the ritual of crucifixion in which the victim was carrying his patibulum (the horizontal bar used to hoist up and suspend the condemned). This march of shame not always led to execution, but was often used for the sole purpose of humiliation.

Other descriptions of this primitive form of punishment can be found in Livy and Plutarch, both of whom tell of this custom in pre-republican Rome and reveal that the wood carried by the victim was also called a furca, i.e., yoke or Y-shaped gibbet.

"They were then setting up the grand games in Rome, which had been begun by head. The reason for the repetition was as follows: on the morning of games, before they started the show, a head of a household had led around the Circus under a yoke (furca) a slave, scourging him as he went."

(Livy, Histories, 2.36.1)

"A man had entrusted one of his servants to other servants, with orders to lead him through the Forum with scourgings of the whip and then kill him. While performing the order and beating the slave, who because of his suffering is bent in every way possible and stirred with other contortions in horrible pain, by chance the Sacred Procession in Honour of Iuppiter found itself to advance behind them. ... If a slave had committed some fault, it was already considered a severe punishment to go around the neighborhood carrying on their shoulders the wood that is used in wagons to support the tow-pole. In fact, the one who had suffered this punishment and had been seen by friends and neighbors is discounted, losing their credit and is called a furcifer, since what the Romans called a furca is that thing which the Greeks call an ὑποστάτην (hypostatên: prop) or a στήριγμα (stêrigma: support)."

(Plutarch, Lives, Caius Marcius Coriolanus, 24.3-5)

And this piece of wood that will become in later centuries the horizontal arm of the Roman crux. The crux compacta / commissa might have come into existence when probably the Romans merged the Phoenician suspension method with the preexisting punishment of the forced-march transport of the patibulum. Since then, the punishment of slaves and fugitives was not only to be forced to parade naked through the city streets yoked to a patibulum, but also to be hanged from it. And when was this procedure started? We must examine the first known descriptions of the mode of execution adopted by the Romans and the specific terms used to refer to it.


       [1] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans (1985), p. 16. There is not enough information from the Persian epigraphy to verify this; the inscriptions on the Behistun Rock have been translated either as “impale” or “crucify”, which means the scholars are just as much in the dark as we are. Nevertheless, I find this claim of Persian crucifixion to be dubious.
       [2] See David W. Chapman’s discussion of these passages in his Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion, Tübingen / Grand Rapids, Mich.: Mohr Siebeck / Baker Academic (2008), pp. 162-71.
       [3] Histories 3.125.3: άποκτείνας δέ μιν ουκ άξίως άπηγήσιος Όροίτης άνεσταύρωσε. Clearly back then, one was likely to be led to believe that the method of execution was by impalement, that is, Polycrates perished when the pale inside him hit a vital organ or a blood vessel and he was still on the ground, and so did not have to undergo a humiliating and extended death struggle in this manner.
       [4] The OLD (1982 ed.) defines it as “Word of uncertain etymology used predicatively, app[arently] conveying the sense of peremptory dismissal or sim[ilar]” It doesn’t give a particular meaning for the word, but in the Lewis & Short (1879 ed.) we have “stretched out and raised on high,” i.e., hanged with limbs apart so that one was also put to the rack, so to speak, by Earth’s gravity acting on one’s body mass. Hence the phrase, I dierecte in maxumam malam crucem! from Plautus, Poenulus 1.2.134, can literally translate into: “Go and be hanged with limbs apart into the most wicked extreme torture [i.e., onto the most wicked torture-stake]”, denoting not only the expressed wish for the lifting of the addressed with a patibulum, but also his being parked or affixed onto some kind of stake.
       Nota bene that mala (nom. of malam) seems to have had the same sense in Plautus’ Old Roman Latin, that the word “wicked” does in one of its senses in modern Boston English: as an amplifier.
       There are discrepancies in the etymology of the word itself. Although the Lewis and Short goes by the late 19th Century consensus of the word being derived from dis (divided in two, in two different directions) and erectus (participle of erigo, “raise, set up, erect”). This is affirmed in note 15 of line 457 (Act 2, Scene 4, line156) of T. Maccius Plautus, Trinummis: Three Pieces of Money, in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed., The Comedies of Plautus. London: G. Bell and Sons (1912) (PDL) and in note 1 of line 579 (Act 4, Scene 1, line 7) of Bacchides: The Twin Sisters in Riley, in Riley, The Comedies of Plautus. (PDL). On the other hand, Varro (116-27 BCE), found in Nonius Marcellus (Severan era, early 3rd C. CE), De comp. doct. 49.26 (?) has this to say about the origin of the word: Dierecti dicti crucifixi, quasi ad diem erecti. (Of crucifixus called dierectus, as though erected by daylight).
       [6] Ibid. For a short discussion of the penalty see also Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, trans. John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press (1977), pp. 67-72; nota bene the information in notes 2, 4, 6, 11 and 12, and beware the conflation the author makes between the Greek penalty and (the modern understanding of) crucifixion.
       [7] About 550 BCE the Carthaginian general Malchus lost a battle and was put into exile. Not willing to accept the penalty he returned with his army and besieged his own home town. When his son came out to greet him, wearing all his purples and ornaments, the father had him suspended on a skyscraping cross. See John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck (2014), p. 147, and “The Cross and Its Significance,” The Open Court. London: [vol. and no. unknown], (18??), pp. 149-163, esp. p. 153. The latter dates this event to about 600 BCE. Anecdote sourced from Justin (fl. ca 2nd – 4th C. CE), Epitome 18.7.15. “This he commanded that he be fixed to a very high cross with his adornment in view of the city (Atque ita eum cum ornatu suo in altissimam crucem in conspectus Urbis suffigi iussit).” Trans. J. C. Yardley, Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, I, comm. W. Heckel, Oxford (2011), 8-13, strikeout typeface of “cross” mine, because Justin probably understood the crux to be something T-shaped like the Roman execution device or our utility pole and certainly not a cross! or tropaeum.
       [8] Some may argue that sometimes in Latin patibulum indicates more than the horizontal arm of the cross, be confused with crux, that indicates a pole, impaling stake, T-pole or scaffold tout court. The problem has been studied by G. Serbat in his Les dérivés nominaux latins à suffix mediàtif, Paris, 1975, pp. 54-58 and this confusion is from the late-antique period, not about the sources we are analyzing.
       [9] Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.12.3-4: Sed nobis tota crux imputatur, cum antenna scilicet sua et cum illo sedilis excessu (But to us is imputed a complete cross, certainly with its ship’s yard, and as well as the well-known projection of a seat). The noun excessu is an ablative derived from excessus, meaning protuberance, projection, as well as towering above, departure from standard (i.e., from a regular seat), excess for the intended purpose (i.e., for merely sustaining the person), transgression, and death; itself derived from excedere, to exceed, depart, to go out, to rise above, to transgress, to die. There are other terms for it, such as acuta crux (sharpened torture-stake [Seneca, Ep. 101.10-14, esp. 12]) upon which one was “to press down his own ‘wound’” (vulnus suum premere [ibid.]) with his own body weight; κέρας… ἐφ᾽ ᾧ ἐποχοῦνται οἱ σταυρούμενοι (a horn… upon which “ride” those who are being crucified [Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 91]); finis / summitas (end/high point [Irenaeus, Against all Heresies 2.24.4]); cornu (horn [Tertullian An Answer to the Jews 10.2.7 and Against Marcion 3.18.3-4]). Tertullian tops this last off in both references, with unicornis autem medio stipite palus (of the unicorn [i.e., rhinoceros] on the other hand is the palus at/from the middle of the stake) in the former and unicornis autem medius stipitis palus (of the unicorn on the other hand is the central palus of the stake) in the latter; stake (stipes), in both cases, probably means the main pole of the frame as understood by Tertullian (cf. Apology 12:3 “You put Christians on crosses and stakes” [crucibus et stibitibus imponitis Christianos]).
       Nota bene that vulnus here is a euphemism for the rear end, that is, the arse, κέρας and palus were euphemisms for the phallus and even crux itself was a euphemism for the phallus! (See Sportive Epigrams on Priapus, by divers poets in English verse and prose, translation by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton (1890), p. 101 at Sacred, The Priapreia, Sodomy with Women for vulnus, J. N. Adams, Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press (1982), p.11, n. 1, ref. Archilochus 247 for κέρας; Lewis & Short s.v. palus, II. Transf. "= membrum virile", ref. Horace, Satires 1.8.1-7; Priapeia (Appendix Vergiliana) 2.16-21 and Virgil, Aenid VII-XII. Minor Poems, vol. 2 LCL, ed. and trans. H. R. Fairclough, Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard Univ. Press (1918), p. 483, cited in Cook, Crucifixion, p. 106 n. 245, for crux.)
       [10] Mishaps can occur quite frequently in modern votive crucifixions, especially when the support for the body, probably always a suppedaneum (footrest), gives way. See The Crucifixion of Sebastian Horsley, part 1 and part 2, on You Tube: and respectively (both accessed 4-26-2016). Mr. Horsley’s involuntary descent happens toward the beginning of part 2.

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