Roman Crucifixion: The Surprising Lack of Archaeological Evidence

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Crucifixion was a painfully slow method of execution practiced by the ancient Romans. It involved nailing or tying a victim’s legs and arms to a wooden cross which was designed to induce maximum pain. Crucifixion was a widespread punishment throughout the Roman Empire from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. It guaranteed a slow, painful death for the lowest class of criminals who challenged the authority of the Roman Empire. Yet, few people would have known about it if Christ had not been crucified and Christian religion would not have spread around the world. For roughly the last one thousand seven hundred years, the “Cross” has been the symbol of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of man’s sins. Yet, besides Christianity, there is little archeological evidence to substantiate the practice.

Certain ancient writers witnessed and documented the horrors of many who suffered. Josephus, the ancient Jewish chronicler, historian and Jewish general described on separate occasions, thousands of men crucified and the grisly way the bodies were taken down from their crosses (The Jewish War). In 40 AD, the Roman writer, Seneca reported seeing thousands of victims nailed in contorted positions – arms and legs spread wide, upside down, and even nailed genitalia (De Consolatione ad Marciam). Plutarch recounts 6,000 crucified individuals for miles along the Appian Way – the famous road that led directly to Rome. It is believed hundreds of thousands of rebels, slaves, and other criminals were crucified throughout the Empire.

Although there should be abundant archeological evidence, it is surprisingly scarce for several reasons:

1. Crosses were made of wood. They were recyclable due to scarcity of trees. One wooden cross could have been used in one crucifixion after another to kill many victims. Over a period of time, they decayed until they were too unsteady.

2. After victims’ corpses were taken down, they were either thrown into rivers or pits in the ground, eventually rotting into skeletons. Most of these locations have yet to be discovered.

3. The only really durable items used in crucifixions were nails made of iron. Nails were reused for many crucifixions. In the case for nailing Christian martyrs to crosses, many iron nails that penetrated their hands and feet were stolen from tombs by medieval Christians because they were believed to hold miraculous divine powers.

While there is almost a complete lack of physical evidence, in 1968, archeologists discovered an ancient bone box, also called an “ossuary” buried in a deep cave around Jerusalem. Inside they discovered the remains of a young male victim with an oxidized nail driven completely through from the right ankle bone. The victim’s name was “Yehohanan”, a young Jewish man who was crucified around 70 AD. This clue indicates one way the Romans crucified their enemies which involved nailing each foot through the ankle bone to both sides of the crosses.

According to legend, Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem in the 4th Century AD and found the crosses belonging to Christ and the two thieves crucified with Him, plus the nails and the title that hung over Jesus’ body. Some of these items are kept on display at the Basilica of “Santa Croce in Gerusalemme” (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) in Rome, Italy.

For many Christians, the Shroud of Turin is considered to be the linen that wrapped around the crucified body of Jesus Christ. Nail wounds are found in the wrists and feet areas. Unlike the evidence that nails were driven through both ankles bones, the Shroud shows that Jesus’ feet were nailed together to a small piece of wood attached to the front of the cross.

Crucifixion was perhaps the most widespread form of execution in world history yet archeologists have found little physical evidence of this cruel practice. The only artifact discovered was ankle bone driven through by a nail in an ancient ossuary discovered in Jerusalem, fifty years ago. We have the testimonies of ancient writers who witnessed the horrific spectacles. For many Christians, artifacts such as the Shroud of Turin and relics recovered from the site of Christ’s crucifixion by Emperor Constantine’s mother, are tangible proof of crucifixion. What we don’t know are the locations of wooden crucifixes and bodies of victims which have rotted over time. Perhaps with more searching and digging, archeologists may discover more evidence, which would help us learn more details about its widespread infamy.

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