Crucifixion in Antiquity

The practice of crucifixion is known from as early as the 5th century in Greece.  Herodotus mentions the crucifixion of a captured Persian general at the hands of the Athenians in 479 BC. Numerous other historical examples are known, including the following:
  • Alexander the Great crucified 2,000 survivors of his siege of Tyre.
  • Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea from 103 to 76 BC, crucified 800 rebels, said to be Pharisees, in the middle of Jerusalem.
  • In Hannibal’s day, crucifixion was an established mode of execution which could even be imposed on generals for suffering a major defeat.
  • Notorious mass crucifixions followed the Third Servile War in 73–71 BC, the slave rebellion under Spartacus.  About 6,000 of his followers were crucified along the 125 mile Appian Way between Capua and Rome.
  • The Romans crucified many Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  Josephus recognized some as friends– three were taken down, but only one survived.
Despite all of the ancient literary evidence, only one example of crucifixion is known from the archaeological record.  A set of remains from the 1st century AD, excavated from a Jewish tomb at Givat Hamivtar in 1968, bore clear signs of crucifixion.  One ankle bone was still pierced by an iron nail, which also included a wooden washer (see featured image). The nail apparently hit a knot as it was being driven in, bending the tip, which prevented it from being removed. The model below demonstrates where the nail was driven into the ankle.


Ankle bone with crucifixion spike, and model showing its location in the foot

There was also a scratch on the right radius bone of the forearm, close to the wrist,  which may have come from a crucifixion nail. The ossuary of the crucified man identified him as “Yehohanan, son of Hagakol.”

Ossuary of the crucified man, Yehohanan ben Hagakol

The ossuary (bone box) pictured above is that of Yehohanan. The inscription in Hebrew, scratched in the face of this limestone ossuary preserves his name (Heb. יהוהנן בן חגקול). Why has only one example of crucifixion been found? The answer is likely two-fold. The first is that not all crucifixions used nails. It appears that ropes were often used, which would not be expected to leave any trace in the archaeological record. The second is that most victims of crucifixion were not notable, and many were not given a proper burial that would preserve their remains. In both of these cases the remains of Yehohanan remarkable—that nails were used in his crucifixion and that he was given an honorable burial.
Constantine the Great abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire in AD 337 out of veneration for Jesus, its most famous victim.

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