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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Crucifixion was a most cruel and disgraceful punishment; the terms applied to it by ancient writers are, 'the most cruel and disgraceful,' 'the worst possible punishment,' 'the worst punishment in the world.' It was the punishment chiefly of slaves; accordingly the word 'cross-bearer' was a term of reproach for slaves, and the punishment is termed 'a slave's punishment.' Free-born persons also suffered crucifixion, but only those of low condition and provincials. Citizens could not be crucified. This punishment was reserved for the greatest crimes, as robbery, piracy, assassination, perjury, sedition, treason, and (in the case of soldiers) desertion. Its origin is ancient. In Thucydides we read of Inarus, an African king, who was crucified by the Egyptians. The similar fate of Polycrates, who suffered under the Persians, is detailed by Herodotus, who adds, in the same book, that no less than 300 persons were condemned to the cross by Darius, after his successful siege of Babylon. Valerius Maximus makes crucifixion the common military punishment of the Carthaginians. That the Greeks adopted it is plain from the cruel executions which Alexander ordered after the capture of Tyre, when 2000 captives were nailed to crosses along the sea-shore. With the Romans it was used under their early monarchical government, and was the death to which Horatius was adjudged for the stern and savage murder of his sister, where the terms employed show that the punishment was not at that time limited to any rank or condition. It appears also from the passage that scourging then preceded crucifixion, as undoubtedly was customary in later times. The column to which Jesus was fastened during this cruel infliction is stated by Jerome to have existed in his time in the portico of the holy sepulcher, and to have retained marks of his blood. The Jews received the punishment of crucifixion from the Romans. Though it has been a matter of debate, yet it appears clear that crucifixion, properly so called, was not originally a Hebrew punishment. The condemned, after having been scourged, had to bear their cross, or at least the transverse beam, to the place of execution, which was generally in some frequented place without the city. The cross itself, or the upright beam, was fixed in the ground. Arrived at the spot the delinquent was supplied with an intoxicating drink, made of myrrh and other bitter herbs, and having been stripped of his clothing, was raised and affixed to the cross, by nails driven into his hands, and more rarely into his feet; sometimes the feet were fastened by one nail driven through both. The feet were occasionally bound to the cross by cords, and Xenophon asserts that it was usual among the Egyptians to bind in this manner not only the feet but the hands. A small tablet, declaring the crime, was placed on the top of the cross. The body of the crucified person rested on a sort of seat. The criminal died under the most frightful sufferings—so great that even amid the raging passions of war, pity was sometimes excited. Sometimes the suffering was shortened and abated by breaking the legs of the criminal. After death, among the heathens, the bodies commonly remained on the cross till they wasted away, or were devoured by birds of prey. A military guard was set near the cross, to prevent the corpse from being taken away for burial; but among the Jews the dead body was customarily taken down and buried. The execution took place at the hands of the hangman, attended by a band of soldiers, and in Rome, under the supervision of the Triumviri Capitales. The accounts given in the Gospels of the execution of Jesus Christ are in entire agreement with the customs and practices of the Romans in this particular. The punishment continued in the Roman Empire till the time of Constantine, when it was abolished through the influence of the Christian religion. Examples of it are found in the early part of the emperor's reign, but the reverence which, at a later period, he was led to feel for the cross, induced him to put an end to the inhuman practice.

Death by crucifixion (physically considered) is to be attributed to the sympathetic fever which is excited by the wounds, and aggravated by exposure to the weather, privation of water, and the painfully constrained position of the body. Traumatic fever corresponds, in intensity and in character, to the local inflammation of the wound. In the first stage, while the inflammation of the wound is characterized by heat, swelling, and great pain, the fever is highly inflammatory; and the sufferer complains of heat, throbbing headache, intense thirst, restlessness, and anxiety. As soon as suppuration sets in, the fever somewhat abates, and gradually ceases as suppuration diminishes and the stage of cicatrisation approaches. But if the wound be prevented from healing, and suppuration continue, the fever assumes a hectic character, and will sooner or later exhaust the powers of life. When, however, the inflammation of the wound is so intense as to produce mortification, nervous depression is the immediate consequence; and if the cause of this excessive inflammation of the wound still continues, as is the case in crucifixion, the sufferer rapidly sinks. He is no longer sensible of pain, but his anxiety and sense of prostration are excessive; hiccup supervenes, his skin is moistened with a cold clammy sweat, and death ensues. It is in this manner that death on the cross must have taken place, in an ordinarily healthy constitution. The wounds in themselves were not fatal; but, as long as the nails remained in them, the inflammation must have increased in intensity until it produced gangrene. De la Condamine witnessed the crucifixion of two women of those fanatic Jansenists called Convulsionnaires. One of them, who had been crucified thrice before, remained on the cross for three hours. They suffered most pain from the operation of extracting the nails; and it was not until then that they lost more than a few drops of blood from their wounds. After they were taken down, they seemed to suffer little, and speedily recovered. The probabilities of recovery after crucifixion would of course depend on the degree of constitutional irritation that had been already excited. Josephus relates that of three of his friends, for whom he had obtained a release from the cross, only one survived. The period at which death occurred was very variable, as it depended on the constitution of the sufferer, as well as on the degree of exposure and the state of the weather. It may, however, be asserted that death would not take place until the local inflammation had run its course; and though this process may be much hastened by fatigue and the alternate exposure to the rays of the sun and the cold night air, it is not completed before forty-eight hours, under ordinary circumstances, and in healthy constitutions; so that we may consider thirty-six hours to be the earliest period at which crucifixion would occasion death in a healthy adult. Many of the wounded at Waterloo were brought into the hospitals after having lain three days on the field, and even then sometimes recovered from severe operations. It cannot be objected that the heatof an Eastern climate may not have been duly considered in the above estimate; for many cases are recorded of persons having survived a much longer time than is here mentioned, even as long as eight or nine days. Eusebius says that many of the martyrs in Egypt, who were crucified with their heads downwards, perished by hunger. This assertion, however, must not be misunderstood. It was very natural to suppose that hunger was the cause of death, when it was known that no food had been taken, and when, as must have happened in lingering cases of crucifixion, the body was seen to be emaciated. But it has been shown above that the nails in the hands and feet must inevitably have given rise to such a degree of inflammation as to produce mortification, and ultimately death; and it is equally certain that food would not, under such circumstances, have contributed to support life. Moreover, it may be added that after the first few hours, as soon as fever had been fully excited, the sufferer would lose all desire for food. The want of water was a much more important privation. It must have caused the sufferer inexpressible anguish, and have contributed in no slight degree to hasten death. As-Sujuti, a celebrated Arabic writer, gives an interesting account of a young Turk who was crucified at Damascus A.D. 1247. It is particularly mentioned that his hands and feet were nailed, and even his arms (but not as if it was in any way remarkable). He complained of intense thirst on the first day, and his sufferings were greatly increased by his continually seeing before him the waters of the Barada, on the banks of which he was crucified. He survived two days, from the noon of Friday to the noon of Sunday.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Crucifixion'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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