Cicero’s Prosecution of Crucifixion
Crucifixion is as closely associated with the image of Jesus of Nazareth as any other save perhaps the manger scene. Yet some question the reality of whether Rome executed Jesus by nailing him to a cross – if doubts about the Gospel accounts can be meaningfully established, it discredits the integrity of the Gospel’s claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.[i]
All four Gospels record that Jesus of Nazareth was scourged and killed by crucifixion. The location was Golgatha just outside the city of Jerusalem where passersby could see and mock him. Aside from that, the Gospels do not go into the gory details of the crucifixion for one very simple reason – it was not necessary.
“Tacitus (“Annales,” 54, 59) reports therefore without comment the fact that Jesus was crucified. For Romans no amplification was necessary.” JewishEncyclopedia.com
Just about anyone living in the Roman Empire, the primary audience of the Gospel authors, knew about crucifixion – and most likely from firsthand experience.[ii] The Jewish crowd at Pilate’s judgement knew about it calling out “crucify him!” Not even Roman historians Josephus, Tacitus or Suetonius found it necessary to explain crucifixion.[iii] But, there are a few exceptions…
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Cicero is commonly regarded as the greatest orator in Roman history. A Senator and Consul, he lived about 100 years before Pontius Pilate was Procurator of Judea.[iv] A lesser known fact is that Cicero was a prosecutor, a Roman lawyer.
In Secondary Orations Against Verres, Cicero wrote about his prosecution of Verres.[v] The charge was the premeditated murder of a noble Roman citizen, one Publius Gavius, because of his public crusade for freedom and citizenship.
Scourging and crucifixion was the murder weapon – death by crucifixion. Cicero’s accusation of Verres in court described how humiliation, psychological and mental anguish were part of the excruciating, long lasting torment of the victim nailed to the cross, a fate reserved only for slaves at that time: [vi]
“…according to their regular custom and usage, they had erected the cross behind the city in the Pompeian road…you chose that place in order that the man who said that he was a Roman citizen, might be able from his cross to behold Italy and to look towards his own home?… for the express purpose that the wretched man who was dying in agony and torture might see that the rights of liberty and of slavery were only separated by a very narrow strait, and that Italy might behold her son murdered by the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.
It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it…that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross…He chose that monument of his wickedness and audacity to be in the sight of Italy, in the very vestibule of Sicily, within sight of all passersby as they sailed to and fro.”[vii]
Seneca the Younger, born in Spain virtually the same year as Jesus of Nazareth, was educated in Rome. He became a stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist gaining acclaim as a writer of tragedies and essays.[viii]
With a penchant for including horror scenes in his tragedies, Seneca was familiar with the gruesome realities of crucifixion. In one “Dialogue,” he wrote to his embittered friend, Marcia, who had been grieving three years over her son’s death. Using a metaphor of crucifixion to describe the mental anguish of people of virtue striving to overcome their own self-imposed tribulations, he wrote:
“Though they strive to release themselves from their crosses those crosses to which each one of you nails himself with his own hand – yet they, when brought to punishment, hang each upon a single gibbets [sic]; but these others who bring upon themselves their own punishment are stretched upon as many crosses as they had desires….”[ix]
Seneca’s letter suggests he expected Marcia to be familiar with the horrific analogy of crucifixion. A gibbet was a gallows-like structure used to hang dead, executed victims by chains or ropes for public display as compared to living victims of crucifixion who were stretched out and nailed to crosses.[x]
By the time of Josephus, crucifixion was commonly used by Rome to punish such crimes as robbery and insurrection devolving to the point it became sport.[xi] Josephus made nine references to Roman crucifixions. In one, he wrote of acts by Procurator Florus and in another from his Roman eyewitness perspective to the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD:[xii]
“…they also caught many of the quiet people, and brought them before Florus, whom he first chastised with stripes, and then crucified…for Florus ventured then to do what no one had done before, that is, to have men of the equestrian order whipped and nailed to the cross before his tribunal…” [xiii]
“So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies”.[xiv]
One central theme to the historical depictions of Roman crucifixion – it was common knowledge that victims were nailed to the cross as an extreme torturous means to kill them. Are the accounts of the Gospels credible in saying that Roman crucifixion was used to kill Jesus?
[i] “Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar.” The Telegraph. n.d. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/7849852/Jesus-did-not-die-on-cross-says-scholar.html rel=”nofollow” rel=”nofollow”> Warren, Meredith J.C. “Was Jesus Really Nailed to the Cross?” The Conversation. 2016. <https://theconversation.com/was-jesus-really-nailed-to-the-cross-56321 rel=”nofollow”> Perales, Ginger. “Was Jesus Nailed or Tied to the Cross?” 2016. <http://www.newhistorian.com/jesus-nailed-tied-cross/6161 rel=”nofollow”>
[ii] Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter V. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[iii] Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. Ed. Church, Alfred John and Brodribb, William Jackson. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0078> Perseus Digital Library. Ed. Crane, Gregory R. Tufts University. n.d. Word search “crucified” <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/searchresults?page=4&q=crucified>
[iv] Linder, Douglas O. “The Trial of Gaius (or Caius) Verres.” 2008. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/Verres/verresaccount.html>
[v] Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “The Fifth Book of the Second Pleading in the Prosecution against Verres.” Ed. Crane, Gregory R. Perseus Digital Library. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0018%3Atext%3DVer.%3Aactio%3D2%3Abook%3D5>
[vi] Greenough, James. B.; Kittredge, George; eds. Select Orations and Letters of Cicero. 1902. Introduction I. Life of Cicero. VII. “From the Murder of Caesar to the Death of Cicero.” <http://books.google.com/books?id=ANoNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false> Quintilian, Marcus Fabius. Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory. 1856. Book 8, Chapter 4. Rhetoric and Composition. 2011. .<http://rhetoric.eserver.org/quintilian/index.html> “Crucifixion.” JewishEncyclopedia.com < http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4782-crucifixion >
[vii] Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “The Fifth Book of the Second Pleading in the Prosecution against Verres.” Ed. Crane, Gregory R. Perseus Digital Library. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0018%3Atext%3DVer.%3Aactio%3D2%3Abook%3D5>
[viii] “Seneca.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Zalta, Edward N. 2015. <https://plato.stanford.edu> Mastin, Luke. “Ancient Rome – Seneca the Younger.” 2009. Classical Literature. <http://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_seneca.html>
[ix] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “De Consolatione Ad Marciam+.” “To Marcia on Consolation.” Moral Essays. Trans. John W. Basore. 1928-1935. “Seneca’s Essays Volume II.” Book VI. Pages xx 1-3. The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_2.html#%E2%80%98MARCIAM1> Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “De Vita Beata+.” “To Gallio On The Happy Life.” Moral Essays. Trans. John W. Basore. 1928-1935. “Seneca’s Essays Volume II.” Book VII. The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_2.html#%E2%80%98BEATA1>
[x] “gibbet.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. 2017. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/dictionary.htm> “gibbet.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2017 <http://www.merriam-webster.com>
[xi] “Crucifixion.” JewishEncyclopedia.com.
[xii] “FLORUS, GESSIUS (or, incorrectly, Cestius).” JewishEncyclopedia.com. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6200-florus-gessius>
[xiii] Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter XIV. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[xiv] Josephus. Wars. Book V, Chapter XI.
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