On feeling cross

The most horrendous punishment of crucifixion was used in the Roman Empire until 337 AD, when Emperor Constantine I abolished it as a practice contrary to Christian belief because of all the witchcraft and superstition surrounding it.

It was common that people would scrape splinters off the cross even while the criminal was still dying on it, and use the wood, mixed in wine, to supposedly enhance male potence. Some sought after the nails used in a crucifixion; the nails' use was the same as that of the wood. (After all, potence aids are not in any way or fashion a recent invention, and the harvesting of rhino horns is in no way the ultimate limit of the callous depravity of their manufacture.)

Others believed that wherever a cross was set up, beneath it grew a ruby in the ground, growing bigger with every death on that cross. For that reason many well-used crosses were vandalized in the night, thieves pushing them down to dig under them; this eventually led to the practice of setting legionnaires to guard sites of crucifixion, but gave rise to a new horror: legionnaires, bored and well away from all supervision, often tortured the still dying criminals, and in several abhorrent cases cut down female criminals to rape them. (The case, recounted by Thallus, was reported to the future emperor Domitianus, who decreed a decimation against the offending unit: each squad of ten men drew lots, and the unlucky one was crucified by his fellow soldiers.)

The end of crucifixion is, however, less interesting than its foul origin. The manner of the cross was used widely in the ancient world: in Rome, in Seleucid Persia, in Carthage, in Greece and Macedonia, in Egypt even. It was terrifying, humiliating death, and designed to be so. The horror of crucifixion was such that the Greek letter tau, which resembled the engine of suffering, was considered unlucky, and if a man wished ill on another, he scratched the letter on the other's door.

Crucifixion was slow but certain: the victim might suffer for an hour or for days, but death always came. If the executioners felt merciful, the victim's hands were bound so he could choke, or his side was pierced with a spear, or his legs were broken; even, as a way of most unmerciful mercy, a pack of dogs or flesh-eating monkeys might be set loose on the victim to quicken his or her demise.

One account that one wishes had not survived tells of a squad of legionnaires set to guard twelve crucified criminals until they died; as the legionnaires were bored of their task and wished it over, they gathered sticks under the crosses and set a fire on them, and the crucified either suffocated or burned to death.

Human ability for callous cruelty is infinite, and practice makes perfect monsters out of men; but still, where did this particular horror originate? Alexander the Great found the practice in Persia, and brought it to Egypt, Greece and Carthage; and from Carthage's salt-strewn fields Romans brought it to their own undesirables. A story surrounds this grisly import; the following is it, as recounted in Strabo's Historica hypomnemata, quoted by Claudius in his work on Carthaginian history.

When the final Punic War of Carthage and Rome reached its conclusion in 145 BC, when Carthage fell to the furious troops of Scipio Aemilianus, the city was utterly destroyed. The Punic fleet was sunk into the harbor, ruining it; the houses were looted, then burned, or because of haste burned first, then the remains looted; the gods were thrown down, and their priests burned alive; the priests of the underground god were thrown into their well, which was bricked shut, and then the temple was burned down atop it. The people were herded together, trampled by horses, peppered with arrows, mistreated; the survivors, bare fifty thousand, a tenth of the people, were sold into slavery. What remained of the burned city was eventually pulled to the ground, leaving nothing. Carthage was destroyed.

The only unharmed survivors were three men dressed as beggars, save for their jeweled sandals; they waited for the Romans under a banner with a legion eagle on it, and they were conducted unharmed to Aemilianus.

The consul and general was sitting at the front of his crimson tent, watching the city burn, as the strangers were brought to him; and he had wine and more suitable clothing brought to them; the clothing being undecorate legionnaire uniforms, without the armor light in the heat of Africa.

As they drank, Aemilianus watched the burning again, and finally said: "It is a great thing, but I am not glad to see it."

One of the strangers, a tall dark man not of Roman nor of Carthaginian aspect, laughed at this, and said: "Not glad? To see what your people have yearned for for a century, and which will make you, conqueror of Africa, renowned and heroic for all your life, and for a thousand years past that? Would you rather see the land afire from the Gates of Heracles to the Gates of Alexandria, sinking to the sea as a burnt husk, to better illuminate your glory?"

The consul shuddered. "Do not speak of such things, magician. Do not tempt me."

The magician sent his two companions away; the consul instructed that a ship be given to them, to convey them to whatever port they wished. They passed out of my knowledge.

A supper was set before the remaining two, but the food tasted like ash to the consul; and the cries of the survivors were loud in his ears though those crying were distant, and getting ever more so as the slave caravans departed.

The magician ate with great relish, tearing flesh off the bone of a lamb with long, strong, sharp white teeth; and when he was done, and the consul had eaten what he could, he smiled and took yet another cup of wine. "Carthage has fallen, o conqueror. My part of the agreement is done. What of yours?"

Aemilianus averted his eyes from the burning and grunted. "It does not comfort me to see this. Not thinking someone may some day give the same order of desolation for Rome."

The magician laughed. "What are the odds of that? Rome is reducible by no mortal power. Unless night come alive it shall not fall."

"Name your price", the Roman grunted. "Save me these banterings and threats."

"Why, it is no threat to speak simple truths, is it?" the magician said, but then grew solemn. "This and this only I require of you: that you introduce one thing, and stand in its support all the days of your life. You in your military aspect are perfect for the task; and I know you shall find wars in which to pioneer this trifling thing. You know, I am sure, the Carthaginian way of treating blasphemers? It is not eastern stoning, nor western stone sinking into the waves; the high ones of Carthage, the priests of the underground god, take their blasphemers and nail them to a certain shape, made of wood or iron."

"I will have no good iron wasted to such cold torture", the consul said.

"Why, what better for cold torture than cold iron, perhaps warmed by warm flowing freshly-scourged blood? But jests aside: this is your part, o consul: you shall make crucifixion the way you deal with deserters, pirates, traitors, uppity slaves: and you shall convince by your example the practical people of Rome of how this is a death dark enough for the darkest crime."

"I will never see a Roman citizen treated to that ignoble death. Not by another Roman's hand."

"Very well then; restrict it then to slaves and foreigners and similar riff-raff. Just make it the signature of your empire."

"Rome is no empire. We are free men unlike the... unlike the throne-circling slaves of the distant and foul land you and your pestilential like most probably call home, were that place of vermin not too decent for the lot of you." The consul found his hand on the handle of his dagger, and quickly drew it back to his side.

"My, such presumption! Would it please you more if I told you I am as Carthaginian as one can be; that it is merely a long life in the darkness below that has made me long of face, bright of eye, and sharp of tongue? That it is a life of parchment and ink, curve and number, that you see etched on my face, and which so disquiets you? But no matter. We the quiet brotherhood have delivered; our part is demonstrated; I am sure you in your Roman honor will do likewise."

The magician rose, but before he could leave, the Roman raised a hand. "Tell me this, then, you ruin-offal, you ruin-peddler: why do you want this? Is this thing worthy of Carthage's ruin?"

The magician laughed, and said this before he departed out of all history: "Let us just say there is great aesthetic... pleasure, or fit, in that mode of death being in time available to one particularly troublesome... person. There is nothing better."

And in Latin "nothing better" is "non plus ultra"; if one was deliberately perverse, it could also stand for "there is nothing beyond the plus", the shape of the cross of death.

Romans took to the use of that Carthaginian device quickly; by the birth of Christ, it was universal in the then-Empire, and universally dreaded. Such was its universality that anyone convicted of a crime severe enough was sure to meet the crossbar and the nails, the hoist and the long agony. Especially a blasphemer, a traitor, a rebel convicted of calling himself the King of the Jews...

Oh, and one more thing: The victim of crucifixion often had to bear the crossbar to the place of the death. The crossbar alone is a minus sign; when the device is complete, it is a plus sign. As one is converted into the other, so is life made death. Such is the equation inherent in the cross, and thus is mathematicians' mockery of our holiest object complete. The most compassionate sacrifice has for its background the symbol of their brutish intimidation.

Contact your Congressman, your Senator, the PTA, and your priest immediately. Something needs to be done to this menace.

last updated: (Mar 20 2011)