Crucifixion is a method of execution in which the victim is nailed or tied—usually naked—to a large wooden cross (Lat. crux) and left to hang there until dead. Simply binding the victim's limbs to the cross with rope is thought to have been the most common method; nailing the victim to the cross was reserved for especially serious cases. Death may come by exposure, but more often it comes by way of suffocation: as the victim becomes weaker, they cannot support their body's weight and their lungs become laboriously constricted.
Contrary to popular religious depictions of crucifixion, victims were never nailed to the cross through the palms of the hands without the wrists being tied to the cross arm as the flesh of the hands cannot support the victim's entire body weight; the person would simply fall off. If not nailed through the hand, the stake would have been driven through the wrist (between the radia and the ulna) by tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 in (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 in (1 cm) across.
There can be several contributing causes of death by crucifixion: physical shock, dehydration, exhaustion, asphyxiation due to collapse of chest muscles, and loss of blood. Death could come in hours or days, depending on exact methods, the prisoner's health and environmental circumstances.
Crucifixion probably originated with ancient Persians. There is evidence that captured pirates were crucified in the port of Athens in the 7th century BC. Alexander the Great introduced the practice throughout his empire. He once crucified a general that disagreed with his campaign plans.
The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, by Matthias Grunewald
Romans adopted the custom from Carthage and used it for rebels, slaves and especially despised enemies or criminals.
They used it during Spartacus rebellion, during the Roman Civil War and the destruction of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was considered a dishonourable way to die.
The prisoner usually had to carry the horizontal beam to the place of execution, not necessarily the whole cross. If the crucifixion happened in an established place of execution, the vertical beam was probably permanently embedded in the ground.
The Romans often broke the prisoner's legs to hasten death. Burial afterwards was not usually permitted. In some cases, the nails were gathered afterwards and used as healing amulets.
The Roman Empire abolished crucifixion when Christianity became the state religion. Some medieval Muslim rulers used it sporadically.
The Japanese method of crucifixion, used before and during the Tokugawa Shogunate, was different.
The victim — usually a sentenced criminal — was hoisted upon a T-shaped cross.
Then, executioners killed him with spears.
The body was left to hang for a time before burial.
There are some reports that, after the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, some natives performed human sacrifice by crucifixion due to their superficial understanding of Christianity.
Crucifixion, while rare in recent times, has been used in recent wars, such as in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and during the Sino-Japanese war, where it was used among the many methods of torture and execution used by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians--largely in emulation of cruel military practices by their medieval ancestry.
During World War I, there were persistent rumors that German soldiers had crucified an Allied (Canadian) soldier on a tree or barn door with bayonets or combat knives. The report was initially reported by Sergeant Hary Band of the Canadian First Division. His report of the 1915 account is as follows:
"On 24 April at St Julien I saw a small party of Germans about 50 yards away. I lay still and in about half an hour they left. I saw what appeared to be a man in British uniform. I was horrified to see that the man was literally crucified, being fastened to the post by eight bayonets.
"He was suspended about 18" from the ground, the bayonets being driven through his legs, shoulders, throat and testicles. At his feet lay an English rifle, broken and covered with blood."
The event supposedly happened to, according to a Red Cross Nurse and multiple testimonies from men of the same unit, a Harry Banks of Canadian 48th Highland Regiment. This story was widely used in the black propaganda of the time, together with a similar rumor that Germans had bayoneted Belgian babies. Such rumours made for highly graphic and disturbing pictures and were ideal for helping to demonize the enemy.
After the war, investigators tried to determine the veracity of the story of the crucified soldier, but it was inconclusive.
There are persistent stories that crucifixions continue to occur in certain parts of Africa, particularly in Sudan.
Some very devout Catholic Filipinos get themselves crucified for a limited time in Passion Week to imitate the suffering of Christ.