9 Brutal But Fascinating Facts About The Historical Crucifixion Process

In the 3rd century BCE, Rome introduced crucifixion as the ultimate form of capital punishment. Pirates and other criminals as well as enslaved people were typically victims of this profoundly painful, humiliating, and public form of execution.

While Western society most commonly associates crucifixion with Jesus of Nazareth, historical crucifixion did undergo a number of shifts and variations, many of which have become a longstanding source of historical debate.

The list below contains the most commonly known processes for and types of crucifixion used throughout ancient Rome.

  • A Special Whip Would Rip Off The Victim's Flesh Prior To Crucifixion

    A Special Whip Would Rip Off The Victim's Flesh Prior To Crucifixion
    Photo: Rubén Betanzo S. / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    History tells us that the Romans used an instrument called the Flagrum or “flagellum,” which consisted of several leather whipping cords connected to a single handle. These cords typically had knotted metal tied to the ends made of zinc or iron. Bone and hooks were also tied to the cords in some instances.

    The Flagrum would be used to flay the victim's back before crucifixion. Victims were also forced to hunch their backs, which apparently caused increased damage to the skin and inflicted greater pain.

  • Two Nails Would Be Hammered Into The Victim's Feet

    Two Nails Would Be Hammered Into The Victim's Feet
    Photo: Sir James / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    The nails used in crucifixions were so long that, for years, archeologists believed only a single nail would have been driven through both feet, and the victim would have had to cross one foot over the other before the single nail was driven through. However, historians now believed that these nails, which were 5- to 7-inch-long iron spikes, were used for each foot.

    The nails apparently had to be that long in order to ensure they would pass through the body and into the wood with enough depth to hold up a person's weight. The way in which they were hammered in produced relatively little bleeding but maximum pain.

  • Nails Were Driven Directly Into The Wrists And Possibly The Ankles

    Nails Were Driven Directly Into The Wrists And Possibly The Ankles
    Photo: Pvasiliadis / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While there is still some debate among archeologists as to whether nails were driven through the palms or the wrists during crucifixion, the nails inevitably pierced sensitive nerve endings, causing excruciating pain.

    Specifically, crucifixion would cause damage to the ulnar and/or median nerves. Some researchers have also theorized that these nails could have been placed near the elbow, where the bones of the arm and forearm join together.

  • Nails Might Have Been Driven Into The Ankles

    Recent evidence challenges the notion that the feet were nailed together onto the front of the cross with one big spike. In the 1980s, archeologists discovered the skeletal remains of a man crucified during the first century BCE, which proved that, at least in some cases, the feet were nailed to the two sides of the cross through the heels or ankles with two spikes.

    In either case, however, nailing the feet increased the time it took to die on a cross. If hanging just by the arms, the condemned would have difficulty breathing and quickly suffocate. Nailing in the feet allowed the person to lift themselves up with their legs; they could then open their diaphragm enough to take a breath. This is further illustrated by the fact that, if the centurions monitoring the execution wanted to hurry things along, they would simply break the legs of the condemned so they could no longer lift themselves up for air.

  • The Cross Would Tear At The Victim's Already-Wounded Back

    The Cross Would Tear At The Victim's Already-Wounded Back
    Photo: Paulus Pontius / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As the condemned continually pulled themselves up to breath and then released in exhaustion, the person's back would rub up and down against the raw wood of the cross. This is after victim's back would have already been flayed by a flagellum.

    This massive amount of blood loss could potentially send the victim into hypovolemic shock, which can occur after losing more than 1/5 of the body's blood supply. This was occasionally the cause of death during the crucifixion.

  • Gravity Played A Significant Role In The Victim's Death

    During crucifixion, the victim would be strung up in a way that would strain both their breathing and circulation. With arms outstretched, a person would have to lift themselves up in order to exhale. Eventually, this would prove too difficult a task, and the person would slowly suffocate on the cross.

    Some historians have said that Roman centurions would often simply watch the victim, waiting for gravity to slowly kill them.