Roman Terror

An Ancient Joke About Crucifixion Reveals its Supreme Cruelty

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).

The written evidence shows that it is more likely that crucifixions occurred on many shaped structures, from X shaped crosses to single beams of wood (“crux simplex”).

The consistent aspect of crucifixion was simply that people were nailed or tied to wooden structures (or trees) and left to die in public view. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that soldiers amused themselves by nailing their victims to the posts in odd positions.

Some of what we know about crucifixion comes from a Roman joke relayed to us by the novelist Gaius Petronius (not to be confused with the biblical Petronius), writing in the first century C.E., a few decades after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

The joke is told by a character in the novel The Satyricon during a voyage at sea, which was probably common as sea voyages were both boring and dangerous. Long-winded jokes are a great way to pass the time and calm the nerves.

Here’s a summary of the joke:

There was once a lady that was famed for her fidelity to her husband. When he died, she was not content to merely display her grief at the funeral. She took up residence at his tomb, mourning day and night without eating. Despite pleading, her family and the authorities could not separate her from her husband’s resting place.

Meanwhile, the governor had sentenced some thieves to be crucified near the burial ground where the widow had taken residence.

That evening, a soldier tasked with guarding the crucified bodies noticed a light in one of the tombs. Overcome with curiosity he left his post and discovered the beautiful woman mourning her husband. He tried to tempt her with food, but she refused, grieving all the more.

Eventually, the soldier persuaded the woman to eat and drink. They got talking. After getting to know the woman, the soldier eventually seduced her. The new lovers slept together three nights, closing the vault so that anybody who came to visit would think the woman died of starvation in her grief for her dead husband.

But while the soldier was sleeping with his new lover, the parents of one of the crucified criminals — seeing the coast was clear — took his body away for a proper burial. When the soldier realised the body was gone he was terrified, he’d surely be executed himself for dereliction of duty.

To save her new lover, the widow offered the body of her own husband to take the place of the crucified criminal. The soldier duly nailed the body up on the cross, knowing it was his only hope. The next day the terrified villagers wondered how on earth the dead man had managed to get up on the cross.

Like much of Petronius’s novel, the joke is both dark and smutty. The author tells us the passengers roared with laughter.

The joke gives us a vivid snapshot of Roman humour and the nature of the crucifixion. Part of the horror of the crucifixion was the denial of the proper rites of burial. It was such an important part of the punishment that soldiers were stationed at crucifixion sites to stop relatives from taking the bodies.

That Jesus of Nazareth was given a proper burial is thanks to a rich and influential gentleman named Joseph of Arimathea, who asked Pilate directly if he could take the body. Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus and gave him a proper burial, before the Sabbath set in. Had Joseph not intervened, Jesus would have been left on the cross, as was customary.

There are many anecdotes of crucified bodies being carrion feed, and that guards seated themselves upwind from the bodies because of the stench. The crucified tended to be executed naked. Nobody is really sure, but a debate goes on as to whether an exception may have been made for Jews (and therefore Jesus), who were allowed to protect their modesty.*

Despite these gruesome details (or because of them), crucifixions occurred in the places where they would be most visible, such as busy crossroads. Travellers would have frequently come across rotten crucified bodies, partly eaten by wild dogs and birds.

After the revolt of slaves led by Spartacus in 73–71 B.C.E, a staggering six thousand slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. Imagine making the 120-mile journey from Capua to Rome and witnessing this vision of hell on earth.

Recent archaeological evidence from Israel suggests that the crucified were not elevated high up, as we see in most paintings of Christ’s crucifixion. Instead, they were likely positioned with their legs bent and nails driven through the sides of their heels into the sides of the vertical beam. This would mean that the crucified could look their grieving relatives straight in the eye.

The supreme indignity of crucifixion was perhaps Rome’s most potent weapon over the multitudes that suffered its injustices and exploitation. The symbolic power of crucifixion was in constantly reminding those multitudes that they were less human in the eyes of their rulers.

  • Update: Joe Zias — a renowned expert — got in touch with me and gave me lots more information on the matter of modesty and crucifixion in ancient Judea. I’ve changed this sentence to reflect that it’s far less certain as to whether Jews were allowed to protect their modesty than I originally thought. Joe wrote to me: “women for reasons of modesty were crucified facing the cross, as opposed to the men with their back on the cross.”

If you’re interested in learning more, I also wrote about the philosophical roots of Christianity here:

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