In the ancient world crucifixion was seen as particularly disgraceful and grievous form of execution. Assyrian battle reliefs depict a precursor to crucifixion – impaling victims on poles outside the walls of conquered cities. The Persians made widespread use of crucifixion, although sometimes the crucifixion took place only after the victim had been executed by other means.
There are also reports that crucifixion was used by peoples as varied as the Assyrians, Scythians, Celts, Germans, Britons and inhabitants of India, although the reliability of some of these accounts is questionable. Common to most of these cultures was the perspective that crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the worst offenders, as well as for slaves.
The practice of crucifixion became widespread under Alexander the Great. It became the common form of execution for traitors, defeated armies and rebellious slaves. Later, under the Roman Empire, only non-citizens, lower class Romans and violent offenders could be crucified. The only possible exceptions were is cases of high treason or desertion during wartime.
Slaves were particularly vulnerable to the imposition of crucifixion. Latin literature reflects the dread slaves felt at the prospect of this fate. It was officially accepted as the most painful and disgraceful form of capital punishment, more so that decapitation, being thrown to wild animals or even being burned alive. For these reasons this heinous penalty was often imposed upon foreigners who were seen as threats to Roman rule.
There are also accounts of crucifixion being practiced among Jews. Josephus wrote that the Sadducean high priest Alexander Janneus (in office from 103 to 76 B.C.) committed the following atrocity against his enemies, the Pharisees: “While dining in a conspicuous place with his concubines, he commanded that about 800 of them be crucified, and while they were still alive before their eyes he had the throats of their children and wives cut”.
Victims were often scourged or otherwise tortured prior to crucifixion. Crucifixions were carried out on either a single vertical stake or on a vertical stake with a crossbeam near or on its top.
Sometimes blocks were attached to the stake as a seat, footrest or both. Depending upon the presence of these blocks, the victim might linger, alive, for up to three days. The blocks allowed a victim to rest some of his weight, increasing the chance of breathing and proper circulation. Without the blocks a victim’s weight would rest totally upon his arms, which were attached to the crosspiece by ropes, nails or both. This would prohibit breathing and circulation and lead to both brain and heart failure. To end the torture, a victim’s legs could be broken, after which death would quickly follow.
Oftentimes the charge against the guilty party would be written out and nailed to the cross above his head. As a deterrent to would-be-rebels and criminals, crucifixions were usually carried out in highly visible locations.
During Jesus’ lifetime crucifixion was used by the Romans to exercise and gruesomely display their authority over others. The Jews viewed this tortuous execution as a cursed form of death. Deuteronomy 21:23 states that “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Documents discovered at Qumran reveal that many Jews of Jesus’ time applied this text to Roman crucifixion. This perspective of crucifixion demonstrates why the apostle Paul wrote that the cross of Christ was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).
Who would have imagined that the Holy One of God would voluntarily take upon himself the curse that should have been ours?
This emblem of shame has thus become the symbol of our salvation.
NIV Archaeology Study Bible