Posted in theology

What a horror the cross was to the Romans

By Elizabeth Prata

EPrata photo

In 70 BC, Publius Gavius spoke out against a corrupt Roman governor in charge of Sicily, named Verres. Verres then arrested Gavius in trumped up charges of espionage. He put Gavius in chains without a trial. Law and Order was very important to the Romans. They constantly referred to all other tribes as “barbarians”. They believed themselves to the best of the best, civilized and civilizing the entire world. Their view of the law and the refining influence of scrupulously adhering to it was one of the reasons for their cultural pride.

The Romans’ distaste for crucifixion is extreme.

The invented it, but even mentioning this type of execution was seen as rude, especially if the company was mixed. Cicero said that crucifixion was, “a most cruel and disgusting punishment”. He exhorted that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” (Cicero, Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo 5.16).

Sicily is that large island just off the ‘toe’ of the Italian peninsula. The strait of Messina separates the island from the mainland. It looks like the toe of Italy’s boot is kicking Messina, Sicily. The city is only 1.9 miles from the mainland at the narrowest part of the strait.

Verres decided to flog Gavius for his indiscretion of calling out the corruption in Verres’ governorship. Gavius was shocked, and insisted on his rights as a Roman Citizen. Romans did not put each other in chains. Nevertheless, Verres kept the chains on Gavius and continued with the flogging, and in public no less. Not one word was heard from Gavius except at each lash of the whip, he said “I am a Roman Citizen!”

Gavius’ continued cry for proper justice so incensed Verres that after the flogging, he decided to crucify Gavius.

Insert collective gasp here.

Further, Verres was so angry that he not only erected a cross on the Island for the very first time, but deliberately placed it high on the hill overlooking the Italian mainland so that Italy could look upon its disgraced son Gavius and Gavius could only mourn the closeness of his beloved homeland as citizen as he writhed in agony and expired.

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Cicero was incensed. Cicero at the time was stationed on Sicily as a quaestor, a sort of manager/auditor/administrator for a designated region. Cicero had not attained his fame yet as orator, but sought this low-level administrative elected position as an entry level to politics, as most aspiring politically oriented Romans did. His populace loved him and Cicero did an excellent job.

After Gavius’ death, a collective of people on Sicily asked Cicero to represent them in a kind of civil tort claim against Verres. They’d had enough of Verres’ corruption as a mini-tyrant on the island. I say ‘island’ because geographically it was, but Sicily was the breadbasket of Rome and had power and pull that most islands didn’t. Cicero’s series of orations during the trial of Verres was collected and is now known as “Against Verres”. These orations were the major milestones launching Cicero into history as noted orator and eventually Statesman extraordinaire.

Cicero so hated crucifixion as a disgusting activity against Roman citizens (it was a method of execution reserved for slaves and basest criminals) he said the crime was not just against Gavius but a blot against all Romans. He expounded:

“Here was reared that cross, to which he attached a Roman citizen, in the presence of numerous spectators, which he would not have dared to put up any where, except in the city of those who were the accomplices of his thefts and crimes.”

“O judges, that cross, for the first time since the foundation of Messina, was erected in that place. A spot commanding a view of Italy was picked out by that man, 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.”

I cannot state enough how much of a horror the cross was to all civilized people. Cicero said,

“To put a Roman citizen in chains is a wrong. To flog him is a crime. To execute him is almost parricide. And what shall I call crucifixion? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it.”

The cross, which was apparently still standing, should be thrown into the deep ocean, Cicero said. The spot where the cross was should be purified! The cross was an emblem of agony, conflict not of peace, and a disgusting sight to all who pass!

“With what insolence have you conducted yourselves in the eyes of the Roman people? Have you not yet removed that cross, nor committed it to the deep, which stood at your city harbour, stained with the blood of a Roman citizen? Have you not purified the spot before you entered Rome, and this seat of judgment? A monument of the cruelty of Verres is erected in a territory at peace, and in alliance with the republic is your city fixed upon as the place, where those who cross from Italy should meet the crucifix of a Roman, before he sees a friend of the republic?”

How dare he? How dare Verres conduct himself in such a manner?! Setting aside the rights of a Roman citizen in fact infringes on the rights of ALL Romans, if Verres’ act not be corrected, no Roman’s rights shall stand securely! They were ALL at risk! Cicero said-

“It was not Gavius, not one obscure man, whom you nailed upon that cross of agony : it was the universal principle that Romans are free men.—Nay, do but mark the villain’s shamelessness! And you point out that cross to the people of Regium, whose citizen rights you envy them, and to the Roman citizens that live among you, bidding them think less proudly of themselves and less disdainfully of you : for behold, Roman citizenship has not saved its possessor from such a penalty as this.”

Cicero, Palazzo di Giustizia. Creative Commons, free to use

Here Cicero wails against the vaunted laws of Rome having been abrogated in Verres’ pursuit of vengeance against a fellow Roman. Having done this heinous thing, Cicero says, crucifixion should be reserved for Verres himself, so heinous was his act. THAT’S how horrible the cross was-

“And since those whom I am in fact addressing are senators of Rome, main pillars of our laws and our law-courts and our civic rights, I may rest assured that Verres will be pronounced the one Roman citizen for whom that cross would be a fitting punishment, and no others deserving, even in the smallest degree, of being treated thus.”

Cicero said that the anger of the populace for Verres having committed this disgusting act, Cicero chose not to press this point in his first oration during the trial, so tumultuous were the flames of the people against Verres. Cicero explained,

“O the sweet name of liberty! O the admirable privileges of our citizenship! O Porcian law! O Sempronian laws! O power of the tribunes, bitterly regretted by, and at last restored to the Roman people! Have all our rights fallen so far, that in a province of the Roman people,—in a town of our confederate allies,—a Roman citizen should be bound in the forum, and beaten with rods by a man who only had the fasces and the axes through the kindness of the Roman people? What shall I say? When fire, and red-hot plates and other instruments of torture were employed? It the bitter entreaties and the miserable cries of that man had no power to restrain you, were you not moved even by the weeping and loud groans of the Roman citizens who were present at that time? Did you dare to drag any one to the cross who said that he was a Roman citizen? I was unwilling, O judges, to press this point so strongly at the former pleading; I was unwilling to do so. For you saw how the feelings of the multitude were excited against him with indignation, and hatred, and fear of their common danger. I, at that time, fixed a limit to my oration, and checked the eagerness of Caius Numitorius a Roman knight, a man of the highest character, one of my witnesses. And I rejoiced that Glabrio had acted (and he had acted most wisely) as he did in dismissing that witness immediately, in the middle of the discussion. In fact he was afraid that the Roman people might seem to have inflicted that punishment on Verres by tumultuary violence, which he was anxious he should only suffer according to the laws and by your judicial sentence.”

“~The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, literally translated by C. D. Yonge. London. George Bell & Sons. 1903.

I hope that these snippets of Cicero’s famous first oration supplied you with some background to both the importance of citizenship in the Roman Empire, and the disgust sensible people felt about the cross used as a barbaric method of execution for its citizens. As mentioned, it was all right to execute criminals and slaves using the cross, but even then, such things were not discussed in polite company.

The Latin phrase cīvis rōmānus sum (“I am (a) Roman citizen”) is a phrase used in Cicero’s In Verrem as a plea for the legal rights of a Roman citizen. When travelling across the Roman Empire, safety was said to be guaranteed to anyone who declared, “civis romanus sum”.

Paul capitalized on this as mentioned twice in scripture. (Acts 16:37-38Acts 22:25-28). Paul said further that he didn’t buy his citizenship nor was it conferred to him, but he was born a Roman citizen. When “The officers reported these words to the chief magistrates. And they became fearful when they heard that they were Romans,” verse 28. They had reason to be fearful. Citizenship was a highly protected right. Severe penalties ensued against those infringed upon those rights.

And now perhaps we can understand the horror the disciples felt when they heard the verdict “crucify Him!” And the disgust mingled with fear they’d felt. Peter certainly suffered, denying Christ three times. We can see why so many of them abandoned the place of execution and hid, except for the women.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8).

Our savior died an ignominious death, naked and bleeding, scoffed at and mocked, beaten and spat upon, the worst death devised in all of the civilized world. For us. For you. For me.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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