Amid the bloodshed of the French Revolution, a gentle physician persuaded the national Assembly to carry out their numerous executions in a more humane way, allowing the condemned to have the most rapid and painless death possible. Dr. Guillotin's suggestion was adopted and the resulting machine of death came to be known by his name.
Today we are even more diligent in our attempts to make execution swift and painless, but in ancient times the opposite was true. In the centuries before Christ, the Persians and then the Romans were contriving a means of death which would be as cruel, degrading, and painful as possible. What they invented was the cross (Greek: stauros – stau ROSS).
In ancient Persia the stauros was simply an upright stake. The already lifeless corpse of an executed man would be impaled on that stake, or suspended from it, as a gesture of ultimate contempt. When the stauros made its way west to ancient Carthage and then Rome, two changes took place. First, a crossbeam was added, changing the form of the stauros. Second, the victim was affixed to that stauros while still alive.
The victim was first stripped naked and scourged. (Men often died from the scourging alone.) Then he was nailed or tied to the crossbeam and lifted up for public display. As the hours passed, the body suffered from blood loss, exposure, and traumatic shock. Savage thirst and pain racked the victim. The body weight was thrown forward against the pectoral muscles, making breathing more and more difficult. Finally, when exhaustion made the effort of breathing impossible, the person suffocated.
(The bones of one such victim were dug up in 1968. Though his legs had been broken, the spike pinning his feet together was still in place. At his wrist, between the two bones of the forearm, a groove had been worn into the bones by the constant writhing against the nail.)
The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion the supreme capital penalty—the most painful, dreadful, and ugly. Such a hideous death could be inflicted only on the worst of slaves and foreigners. And such was Jesus, who “took the form of a slave and became obedient unto death—even death on a stauros.”