That Jesus carried the horizontal bar of the cross, also named patibulum
, is often assumed, and argued by John Granger Cook. Gunnar Samuelsson disagrees, however, and argued that we grope in the dark about the exact nature of the σταυρός that Jesus carried
. Both major crucifixion scholars refer in their argumentation to Latin sources in which a patibulum
is carried. But these sources have not been thoroughly assessed on their own. In this article the eight Latin sources mentioned in support of the ancient practice are analysed. It is argued that only four of these sources should be counted as referring to ‘traditional’ cross-bearing practices.
... Carrying a patibulum
is often equated with carrying a σταυρός, without proper discussion.5
Samuelsson, however, has met opposition in John Granger Cook, who has also written a study of crucifixion in the ancient Mediterranean world. The latter critiques the former on a number of issues, and the main point is that it is not altogether unclear what crucifixion was. Cook also discusses what a patibulum was, and its relation to carrying a σταυρός.6
Most of the preface to his revised edition is dedicated to the critique of Samuelsson.7
In this article I will focus on the Latin texts on cross-bearing (or, the carrying of the patibulum) that Samuelsson, Cook and others use in the discussions about crucifixion terminology. Supposed Greek texts on cross-bearing will be treated separately in another article (for reasons of space), yet the following applies to the Latin as well as the Greek texts: a systematic and critical analysis of cross-bearing in antiquity is missing in current scholarship, with Samuelsson and Cook – and to a lesser extent Bøe – having discussed most texts somewhat (although not as a main object of study).8
The present study is occasionally aided by resorting to the semantic and interpretational theory of Umberto Eco (1932–2016),9
which I will use to show that interpreting involves more than isolating a text. Often Samuelsson's views on the cross-bearing sources contrast with those of Cook, and therefore I mainly interact with these two scholars, but other (recent) works on crucifixion are treated as well.
While this goes too far to go deep into the discussion here, it suffices to say that prior to the Christian usage of both terms,10
a crux was never carried, and a patibulum
could be the object that was carried in an ancient Roman penal context. However, the term patibulum
was also used sometimes to designate the whole of the execution device. Cook has sufficiently demonstrated that while the crux was sometimes the upright post of suspension, the patibulum
was never only an upright post, but always either a horizontal beam fastened to an upright pole, or a separate horizontal beam (the object to be carried).11
And here our interest lies with those texts that contain the term patibulum
in combination with verbs of the semantic domain ‘carry’, ‘bear’, as the ‘traditional’ view is that the Latin equivalent for σταυρός (in the case of carrying a torture object) is patibulum
The following eight Latin sources [are] discussed:
6. Macrobius, Sat. 1.11.3–5
- Plautus, Bacch. 361–2; Carb. fr. 2; Mil. glor. 358–60; Most. 55–7
- Clodius Licinus, Rer. Rom. 21
- Lex Puteolana ii.8–10
- Firmicus Maternus, Math. 6.31.58
- Macrobius, Sat. 1.11.3–5
... for Macrobius, the Greek σταυρός is the equivalent of patibulum
...[although] Cook acknowledges that ‘[m]ost other authors who tell the story call the object carried by the slave a furca
as well as that the subsequent execution of the slave is unmentioned (yet other classical authors do mention it). Indeed, this event in Roman history has often been described, and Macrobius’ version with a patibulum
is in the minority: Arnobius is the only other source to mention a patibulum
in this context.113
7. Cross-Bearing Sources Reassessed
- 113. From a chronological perspective, the patibulum enters the story at a relative late date: Livy 2.36.1 (sub furca caesum medio egerat circo, LCL 114.336–7); Cicero, Div. 1.55 (per circum cum virgis caederetur, furcam ferens ductus est, LCL 154.284–5), whose source is Fl. Coelius Antipater F48 (see Cornell, Fragments, i.263–4, ii.412); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. 7.69 (οἱ δ’ ἄγοντες τὸν θεράποντα ἐπὶ τὴν τιμωρίαν τὰς χεῖρας ἀποτείναντες ἀμφοτέρας καὶ ξύλῳ προσδήσαντες παρὰ τὰ στέρνα τε καὶ τοὺς ὤμους καὶ μέχρι τῶν καρπῶν διήκοντι παρηκολούθουν ξαίνοντες μάστιξι γυμνὸν ὄντα, LCL 364.354); Valerius Maximus 1.7.4 (servum suum verberibus mulcatum sub furca ad supplicium egisset, LCL 492.84–5); Plutarch, Cor. 24 (ἐκαλεῖτο δὲ φούρκιφερ· ὃ γὰρ οἱ Ἕλληνες ὑποστάτην καὶ στήριγμα, τοῦτο Ῥωμαῖοι φοῦρκαν ὀνομάζουσιν, LCL 80.178); Lactantius, Inst. 2.7.20–1 (uerberatum seruum sub furca medio circo ad supplicium duxerat, L. Caelius Firmanus Lactantius, Divinarvm institutionum libri septem, Fasc. 1: Libri i et ii (ed. E. Heck and A. Wlosok; Leipzig: Saur, 2005) 146); Arnobius 7.39.2 (servum pessime meritum per circi aream mediam transduxisse caesum virgis et ex more mulctasse post patibuli poena, Arnobius, Contre le Gentils, vol, vi: Livres vi–vii. Texte établi, traduit et commenté par B. Fragu (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010) 61). There are other instances of this incident, although these other sources do not mention the slave carrying: Augustine, Civ. 4.26 and Iulius Paris, Epit. 1.7.4, who interprets Valerius.
The interpretation of (ancient) texts is an arduous task. Often different options are available, especially if large parts of context are missing such as in ancient fragments or descriptions from a time not close to our own and from a culture with customs and ritual strange to us. The two great crucifixion scholars John Granger Cook and Gunnar Samuelsson disagree on many issues surrounding crucifixion, as well on ancient sources that supposedly speak of cross-bearing. I have shown that sometimes the Latin evidence for a ‘classical’ view on cross-bearing is exaggerated, and sometimes it is undervalued. In some cases there was no definitive answer as to whether a source referred to cross-bearing or not. In this I hope to have presented a balanced view.
To sum up, of the eight Latin sources put forward as evidence, I would argue that cross-bearing in the ‘classical’ sense of carrying a patibulum
is found in Plautus, Carb
. fr. 2, possibly Mil. glor.
358–60, Clodius Licinus, Rer. Rom
. 21,117 as well as the Lex Puteolana
ii.8–10. These four sources stretch from the third century bce to the start of the first century ce, and the authors and inscription are situated/found in/around Rome. We must be hesitant to draw a general picture of crucifixion from these sources, but at least some of them testify to individuals carrying the patibulum
towards the place of crucifixion. We may carefully assume a common knowledge in/around Rome, but how cross-bearing was rooted in practice in other parts of the Republic and early Empire is less certain.
We still know very little about the patibulum
, the range of its dimensions, or how it was fastened to either the condemned or the upright post. This shows how limited textual study is: people might have known exactly what crucifixion involved; how it was done might have ‘been in the air’ so to speak, but we are left with fragments and incomplete knowledge. It is vital to look further, not only to the non-Christian Greek sources which speak of carrying a σταυρός – which I intend to do elsewhere – but also to the reception of cross-bearing terminology of the Gospels in Early Christianity, which too may shed light on the cross-bearing sayings.