Roman Terror

An Ancient Joke About Crucifixion Reveals its Supreme Cruelty

Steven Gambardella
5 min readOct 22, 2020
Detail from The Entombment of Christ by Michelangelo Caravaggio, 1603. (Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine waking up in a far-flung future where people literally pray to models of the electric chair. The veneration of the crucifix by millions of Christians would be as puzzling to the Romans as electric chair veneration would be to you.

Crucifixion is one of the nastiest forms of execution devised, and yet, it’s one of the most ubiquitous symbols of spiritual “comfort” in the modern world. In the Roman world, the crucifix was a sight that would send a chill down your spine.

The public punishment was so humiliating and excruciating that Roman citizens were spared from the horror (beheading was the preferred punishment for citizens). Crucifixion was reserved for the people who mattered the least to Romans: slaves and the conquered mobs of the empire.

Crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s Death Star. It was a weapon of terror, an example-making deterrent to sedition.

Surprisingly little is actually known about crucifixion. Wooden structures rot away over time, and the nails were taken as amulets and keep-sakes. Nobody knows for sure if the “cruciform” shape of the cross was used consistently. Nobody really knows how Jesus was crucified. The chances are that his “cross” was actually T-shaped (“Tau” cross).