Crucifixion was believed to be one of the worst punishments that a person could endure. It was not a fast death nor was it one of the more pleasant ways that someone could die. Many people think that the Romans were the only people to crucify their enemies and that a person was always nailed to the cross but this was not always the case. So why was it so unpleasant and how did the actual practice differ from what you see in the movies?
Imagine that you are a prisoner in the ancient Middle East. It was not the best place to commit a crime. If you were caught stealing, you got your hand lopped off. There were other rather nasty punishments for other unlawful undertakings as well. But, at least they were fairly quick and, if you were lucky, you could recover and continue on with your life. Not with crucifixion.
You would be dragged out and tied to a large wooden cross. Wood was a good thing as far as the Roman Emperor Nero was concerned because it burned well as many early Christians discovered. Nero had a particular love for crucifying the Christians he caught and setting them alight in order to provide Roman streets with illumination. Not the cheeriest of streetlights, but it certainly did send a strong message to other Christians: keep your head low and your mouth shut.
Even if you were not about to be used for outdoor lighting, crucifixion was unpleasant. There was a lot of very warm sun in the Middle East and crucified individuals were simply left out in the elements until they died. They were not given food or water, and the strain on their arms was terrible. If you were nailed to the cross (which was done when the Romans really wanted to make a point), you would have had the nails driven in through your wrists and feet. Often, you were also completely naked, since the Romans wanted to make the experience as humiliating as possible. Finally, victims would simply die. On many occasions, their bodies remained up on display even after death had occurred.
The Romans were not the only ancient people who thought that this was a great way to deal with criminals and political prisoners. Carthaginians, Macedonians and Persians also used this method of punishment and execution. In Carthage, it was a regular method of execution and was even something that was used on generals who had lost major battles. Some rulers such as Alexander the Great were known for crucifying large numbers of prisoners or enemy soldiers as well.
While crucifixion was used by many ancient cultures, there were some that relied on other methods of punishment. The Greeks tended to avoid crucifying their own people although they didn’t hesitate to execute a Persian general named Artayctes who was captured during the second Persian invasion of Greece.
Over time, the Romans moved away from crucifixion and began using other methods of executing prisoners. In fact, it was abolished completely in 337 CE by the Emperor Constantine I, otherwise known as Constantine the Great.