Sarah Bond: The Continued Stigma of Crucifixion

On Monday, Amnesty International called on Prince Charles to raise human rights issues while on a trip to Saudi Arabia this week. Among a number of concerns, a major issue in the past few days has been the sentencing of a jewelry thief to crucifixion and other accomplices to a firing squad. Although it was announced today that the convicted prisoners were beheaded (though other outlets said it was execution via firing squad), it has sparked outrage worldwide. The question to ask here is: If dozens die in state executions in Saudi Arabia every year--the litany of capital offenses include adultery, murder, drug offenses, stealing, sorcery, and witchcraft--why has the sentence of crucifixion in particular gotten so much attention?

Scene from the movie Spartacus (1960).
From the Latin 'crux' ('cross') and the verb fixere ('to append on'), the practice may have originally come from the Near East. Alexander had 2,000 people crucified after the siege at Tyre (Curtius Rufus, Hist. Alex. 4.4.17), and Jews themselves would practice crucifixion in the late Hellenistic period. Antique sources are unanimous in agreeing how utterly wretched the punishment was (cf. Cic. Verr. 2.5.64), but classical cultures continued to utilize it anyways. [NB: Although I am discussing the use of crucifixion as punishment and religious symbol, the bioarchaeology of it is extremely interesting, as Dr. Kristina Killgrove has shown (see here).]

Crucifixion was and is a demonstrative act. It is meant to make an example and to use horrendous pain as a lesson to others. This is how the Romans used it as well. Apart from Jesus, the most famous crucifixion in the modern popular memory is that of Spartacus. In 71 BCE, Crassus put a final, ahem, nail in the coffin of the slave wars and crucified 6,000 slaves on the 132 mile stretch of the Via Appia from Capua (where the revolt began) to Rome. It was a spectacle in the purest sense, and served as a reminder to all slaves of the potestas that Rome exacted over its servile class. I am not saying that Crassus' calculated display was itself the reason, but slave uprisings never again occurred on the scale of the late Republican slave wars again in Rome's history. Best just to wait for manumission, me thinks.

Masaccio's (1426)  'Crucifixion of St. Peter.
With the death of Jesus, crucifixion came to have a new meaning for a small sect of followers of Jesus; however,  Romans continued to use the practice. They had (almost without fail) reserved the punishment for criminals and those of servile origins, and this was no different in the early empire. As the Digest and many other legal sources indicate, punishment was usually commensurate with status. Just compare the deaths of Paul (a citizen = beheading) with Peter (non-citizen = upside down crucifixion; his brother, St. Andrew, was also crucified but on a X).

Crucifixion in particular was used as a death sentence to attach highly visual consequences to the act of treason or rebellion, but early Christians began to use Jesus' death and--like so many marginalized sects do to words or symbols--to invert the dishonorable cross upon which Jesus hung into a symbol of Christian struggle and ultimate salvation, though it appears highly realistic depictions of the crucifixion did not come until later (c. 5th century). Catholic flagellants in New Mexico still recreate the practice today, though they are tied to crosses rather than nailed to them.

Fish and anchor (3rd c.) from the
Catacomb of Domitilla 

When Constantine co-authored a letter with Licinius making Christianity licit--this is the rather dubiously named Edict of Milan (Not an Edict! Not from Milan!)--and subsequently began to promote Christianity, he also began to address Christian beliefs surrounding crucifixion and ideas of the 'celestial body'. Some of Constantine's laws do in fact indicate a Christian intent, even if he was a rather inconsistent lawmaker. Particularly, his ruling that slaves should not be tattooed on their face, which was in the image of God, and the outlawing of crucifixion (CTh. 9.40.2; Soz. HE. 1.8.13; Aurel. Vict. Caes. 41.4). What should be noted is that Constantine replaced the cross with a furca, where victims were hung by the neck on a 'fork'. True, you did die more quickly on a furca than a crux, it seems, but the basic intent was still the same: public death as an example of state power and expected subservience.

Although torture is still arguably in practice within the West, this often goes on more privately than it used to. Executions happen in small, closed rooms in America, and are no longer part of the public sphere. Often the West prefers to keep torturous acts as "intelligence gathering methods" rather than putting them out among the people as displays of treason. However, as Tom Holland pointed out, crucifixion is given mandate by the Qur'an, and is still occasionally used in the Middle East.

So how then are we to interpret our rather Western outrage at crucifixion? Certainly it stems from the inhumanity and torture innate within this mode of punishment. It is a long, drawn out death that would, it seems, indeed be one of the worst ways to die. However, the attention this particular threat of crucifixion has gotten perhaps also speaks to the Christian influence of the West and deep-seeded attachment to the act as a modern symbol of Christ's death and later rebirth. Yet in Saudi Arabia, a country itself under the threat of rebellion in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Saudis are using crucifixion (or the threat of it) in the way it always has been: as a visual deterrent.

1 comment:

  1. along with Mexico ,volunteers in the Philippines each Lent volunteer to be tied to crosses for a short time. I was doing something for the BBC on Jesus of Nazareth, The Son of Man series and they decided to fly in and film it. What a spectacle. On the way to the place where it was carried out, small town, was a Dunkin Donuts sign saying 'this way to the crucifixion', hand written . Naturally along with the donuts, things are being sold, inc a device for for flagellation. I got it as a gift from the BBC for having the patience to work with them :-) Actually, when it comes to docs. they win first prize.


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