Some three or four decades before the birth of Christ, Rome’s first heated swimming pool was built on the Esquiline Hill. The location, just outside the city’s ancient walls, was a prime one. In time, it would become a showcase for some of the wealthiest people in the world: an immense expanse of luxury villas and parks. But there was a reason why the land beyond the Esquiline Gate was left undeveloped for so long. For many centuries, from the very earliest days of Rome, it had been a place of the dead. When laborers first began work on the swimming pool, a corpse-stench still hung in the air. A ditch, once part of the city’s venerable defensive system, was littered with the carcasses of those too poor to be laid to rest in tombs. Here was where dead slaves, ‘once they had been slung out from their narrow cells’, were dumped. Vultures, flocking in such numbers that they were known as ‘the birds of the Esquiline’, picked the bodies clean. Nowhere else in Rome was the process of gentrification quite so dramatic. The marble fittings, the tinkling fountains, the perfumed flower beds: all were raised on the backs of the dead.
The process of reclamation, though, took a long time. Decades on from the first development of the region beyond the Esquiline Gate, vultures were still to be seen there, wheeling over a site named the Sessorium. This remained what it had always been: ‘the place set aside for the execution of slaves’. It was not – unlike the arenas in which criminals were put to death for the delectation of cheering crowds – a place of glamour. Exposed to public view like slabs of meat hung from a market stall, troublesome slaves were nailed to crosses. Even as seedlings imported from exotic lands began to be planted across the emerging parkland of the Esquiline, these bare trees remained as a token of its sinister past. No death was more excruciating, more contemptible, than crucifixion. To be hung naked, ‘long in agony,swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest’, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable. This in turn was what rendered it so suitable a punishment for slaves. Lacking such a sanction, the entire order of the city might fall apart. Luxury and splendour such as Rome could boast were dependent, in the final reckoning, on keeping those who sustained it in their place. ‘After all, we have slaves drawn from every corner of the world in our households, practising strange customs, and foreign cults, or none – and it is only by means of terror that we can hope to coerce such scum.’
Nevertheless, while the salutary effect of crucifixion on those who might otherwise threaten the order of the state was taken for granted, Roman attitudes to the punishment were shot through with ambivalence. Naturally, if it were to serve as a deterrent it needed to be public. Nothing spoke more eloquently of a failed revolt than the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of corpse-hung crosses, whether lining a highway or else massed before a rebellious city, the hills all around it stripped bare of their trees. Even in peacetime, executioners would make a spectacle of their victims by suspending them in a variety of inventive ways: ‘one, perhaps, upside down, with his head towards the ground, another with a stake driven through his genitals, another attached by his arms to a yoke’. Yet in the exposure of the crucified to the public gaze there lurked a paradox. So foul was the carrion-reek of their disgrace that many felt tainted even by viewing a crucifixion. The Romans, for all that they adopted the punishment as the ‘supreme penalty’, refused to countenance the possibility that it might have originated with them. Only a people famed for their barbarousness and cruelty could ever have devised such a torture: the Persians, perhaps, or the Assyrians, or the Gauls. Everything about the practice of nailing a man to a cross – ‘crux’ – was repellent. ‘Why, the very word is harsh on our ears.’ It was this disgust that crucifixion uniquely inspired which explained why, when slaves were condemned to death, they were executed in the meanest, wretchedest stretch of land beyond the city walls; and why, when Rome burst its ancient limits, only the world’s most exotic and aromatic plants could serve to mask the taint. It was also why, despite the ubiquity of crucifixion across the Roman world, few cared to think much about it. Order, the order loved by the gods and upheld by magistrates vested with the full authority of the greatest poweron earth, was what counted – not the elimination of such vermin as presumed to challenge it. Criminals broken on implements of torture: who were such filth to concern men of breeding and civility? Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.
The surprise, then, is less that we should have so few detailed descriptions in ancient literature of what a crucifixion might actually involve, than that we should have any at all. The corpses of the crucified, once they had first provided pickings for hungry birds,tended to be flung into a common grave. In Italy, undertakers dressed in red, ringing bells as they went, would drag them there on hooks. Oblivion, like the loose earth scattered over their tortured bodies, would then entomb them. This was part of their fate. Nevertheless, amid the general silence, there is one major exception which proves the rule. Four detailed accounts of the process by which a man might be sentenced to the cross, and then suffer his punishment, have survived from antiquity. Remarkably, they all describe the same execution: a crucifixion that took place some sixty or seventy years after the building of the first heated swimming pool in Rome. The location, though, was not the Esquiline, but another hill, outside the walls of Jerusalem: Golgotha, ‘which means the place of the skull’. The victim, a Jew by the name of Jesus, a wandering preacher from an obscure town named Nazareth, in a region north of Jerusalem named Galilee, had been convicted of a capital offence against Roman order. The four earliest accounts of his execution, written some decades after his death, specify what this meant in practice. The condemned man, after his sentencing, was handed over to soldiers to be flogged. Next, because he had claimed to be ‘the king of the Jews’, his guards mocked him, and spat on him, and set a crown of thorns on his head. Only then, bruised and bloodied, was he led out on his final journey. Hauling his cross as he went, he stumbled his way through Jerusalem, a spectacle and an admonition to all who saw him, and onwards, along the road to Golgotha. There, nails were driven into his hands and feet, and he was crucified. After his death, a spear jabbed his side. There is no reason to doubt the essentials of this narrative. Even the most sceptical historians have tended to accept them. ‘Tthe death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him.’ Certainly, his sufferings were nothing exceptional. Pain and humiliation, and the protracted horror of ‘the most wretched of deaths’: these, over the course of Roman history, were the common lot of multitudes.
Decidedly not the common lot of multitudes, however, was the fate of Jesus’ corpse. Lowered from the cross, it was spared a common grave. Claimed by a wealthy admirer, it was prepared reverently for burial, laid in a tomb and left behind a heavy boulder. Such, at any rate, is the report of all four of the earliest narratives of Jesus’ death – narratives that in Greek were called evangelia, ‘good news’, and would come to be known in English as gospels. The accounts are not implausible. Certainly, we know from archaeological evidence that the corpse of a crucified man might indeed, on occasion, be granted a dignified burial in the ossuaries beyond the walls of Jerusalem. Altogether more startling, though – not to say unprecedented – were the stories of what happened next. That women, going to the tomb, had found the entrance stone rolled away. That Jesus, over the course of the next forty days, had appeared to his followers, not as a ghost or a reanimated corpse, but resurrected into a new and glorious form. That he had ascended into heaven, and was destined to come again. Time would see him hailed, not just as a man, but as a god. By enduring the most agonising fate imaginable, he had conquered death itself. ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…’
Tom Holland, Dominion, pag. xiii-xvii