When Did We Stop Crucifying People?

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March 29 2013 2:01 PM

When and Why Did We Stop Crucifying People?

The slow death of an ancient torture method.

Penitents being crucified in the Phillippines on Good Friday.
Children watch penitents hanging on wooden crosses during Good Friday crucifixion rites in the northern Philippines in 2011.

Photo by Erik de Castro/Reuters

Sado-masochist Robert Garrison will be nailed to a cross in public view in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday. Garrison says the display will honor the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, while others say it’s offensive to Christians. Is that why crucifixions disappeared from the Christian world in the first place?

Maybe. At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, eventual Roman Emperor Constantine saw a vision in the sky: a cross of light accompanied by the words, “In this, conquer.” The sign not only brought Constantine to Christianity but also gave him a special reverence for Christ’s suffering and death. According to the conventional explanation, Constantine allegedly prohibited crucifixions shortly after the revelation.

A couple of doubts about this story continue to linger, though. Most significantly, there are reports that official crucifixions continued in the Roman Empire throughout Constantine’s reign. Julius Firmicus Maternus, for example, claimed that crucifixion was still a lawful punishment at least two decades after Constantine’s alleged proscription. Our oldest unambiguous record of a crucifixion ban is the Code of Theodosius, published more than a century after Constantine died.

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Even if Constantine did, in fact, end the practice of crucifixion, it’s not clear that he did so out of respect for Christ’s execution. Aurelius Victor, the earliest historian to claim that Constantine banned crucifixion, explained that the emperor was motivated by a sense of humanity rather than piety. Crucifixion is a pretty gruesome way to go—significantly worse than the New Testament makes it seem. Although Christ reportedly expired in a matter of hours, many crucifixion victims clung to life for days. Even in Roman times, it was considered an exceptionally cruel punishment, reserved mainly for those who challenged state authority, such as insurgents and enemy soldiers. (Joel Marcus of Duke described crucifixion as “parodic exaltation,” because it gave rebels the fame they sought, albeit in a grotesque form.) By some accounts, Constantine replaced crucifixion with hanging, a less painful execution method. Constantine’s supposed ban on crucifixion came as part of a package of reforms, further suggesting that he was merely exercising human mercy. Branding prisoners’ faces, for example, was also prohibited around the same time—a reform that had nothing to do with Christ’s execution.

Whether or not Constantine put a stop to Roman crucifixions, he definitely kicked off the Christian fascination with crucifixion and the cross. Before Constantine’s reign, it appears that images of the crucifixion were mainly used by pagans to taunt Christians. The third century Alaxamenos graffito depicts a worshipper standing next to a donkey-headed man on a crucifix. The inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships god.” Not until the fifth century did Christians widely adopt the crucifixion as their own symbol, and the faithful then sought out pieces of Christ’s cross.

Crucifixions have been relegated to history in much of the world, but they still happen elsewhere. Saudi Arabia seems to lead the world in crucifixions these days, occasionally applying the penalty to rapists and other serious offenders. The kingdom crucified a murderer just this week. Yemen has also crucified criminals in recent years. In the modern Middle East, criminals are typically beheaded or otherwise killed before being publicly displayed on a cross or stake. (Execution prior to public crucifixion was also widely practiced in the ancient world.) Rural Russians crucified women thought to be witches during a famine in 1921.

American lawmakers sometimes suggest bringing back crucifixion, usually in jest. In an ironic take on the idea of parodic exaltation, a state legislator in Florida in 1999 suggested crucifying a death-row inmate who believed he was Jesus Christ.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.