The Latin word crux (“cross”) is where the English term crucifixion comes from, but the original Greek accounts of Jesus’ death use the word stauros (“stake”), which evolved to mean “crucify” over time. Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment performed by affixing a criminal to a wooden cross for a long, drawn-out death. This method of execution was used throughout ancient history, particularly during the Assyrian, Median, Persian and Greek empires. Similarly, the Romans used it as their most severe form of execution, reserved for slaves and criminals. No Roman citizen could be crucified, as it was considered too agonizing and disgraceful. In fact, the pain of crucifixion was so terrible that a new word – excruciating (“out of the cross”) – was used to describe it.

Exactly what the cross looked like or how the criminal was nailed to it isn’t clear, but most scholars agree a variety of forms were employed. Crucifixion evolved from the practice of impaling dead bodies on stakes to discourage civil disobedience. Over time, victims wouldn’t be killed beforehand and horizontal beams were attached to better accommodate a hanging body. The arms of the victim were first attached to a cross­beam with ropes, leather straps, and/or large iron nails. This was then raised onto a vertical stake that had been permanently planted in the ground. Finally, the feet or legs were fastened to the stake in a similar fashion. The victim was then left to hang naked from the cross. The strain of hanging by one’s arms for extended periods would likely have dislocated both shoulders. With the body supported by outstretched arms, hyperinflation of the chest cavity would prevent adequate exhalation, so the victim of crucifixion had to painfully push himself up on his nailed legs to exhale each breath.  Eventually, death came by exhaustion and subsequent asphyxiation (inability to breathe). This process could take days in otherwise healthy people, but if a beating or whipping had occurred prior to crucifixion, death would come sooner due to the prior trauma and hypovolemia (excessive blood loss). 

The Roman guards charged with performing crucifixion could only leave the site after the victim had died. So to speed the process, legs could be broken to prevent breathing, thereby causing death in a matter of minutes. There were no survivors of Roman crucifixions – soldiers would have ensured their victims were definitely dead, since their own lives would’ve been forfeited if anyone lived. Once expired, crucified corpses were often left on display to deter future crime. Barring customary burial, they would’ve decayed on the cross, exposed to the weather and scavenging animals.

Crucifixion was abolished by the Roman emperor Constantine in 337 AD upon his conversion to Christianity. Although the cross originally represented guilt, punishment, and shame, it became a sacred symbol of Christianity and was therefore no longer used for execution.

Despite the thousands of crucifixions that were recorded to have occurred, only one crucified body has been discovered to date. In 1968, the remains of a crucified man were found in Jerusalem. Large spikes had been driven laterally through the heel bones. However, his wrist bones were intact, suggesting spikes had been driven through the bones of his forearms rather than the hands, if at all.