In all of their glorification of the “giants of the faith,” evangelicals either overlook or ignore the fact that same giants were usually far better versed in the classics of antiquity than is common today. To some extent this is understandable: study of these works has taken a beating the last fifty years, and we have the ignorant national discourse to show it. But it is also indicative of Evangelicals’ own narrow view of things. They learn enough about classical antiquity in order to read the maps in the back of the Bible, and that’s about it.
One giant of the faith who was well versed in them was G.K. Chesterton. When he looked at the clash between Elijah and the followers of Yahweh and Jezebel and the followers of Baal at Mt. Carmel, he saw more than two competing teams: he saw a civilisational conflict between those who put there trust in the intangible and those who were driven strictly by commercial considerations. To him the competition between the Romans and the Carthiginians (Carthage was a colony of Tyre) was just the “Western Front” of this war, and archeology has borne this out in a grisly way.
In addition to such unappetising customs, the Carthaginians brought crucifixion to the western Mediterranean. This grisly combined punishment and execution was Middle Eastern in origin; Herodotus mentions it, probably came from Persia. It percolated across the Levant and from there to Carthage. The fact that it combined punishment and execution meant that, in most cases, it was deemed enough by itself.
The Second Punic War (of three) between Rome and Carthage had several classical historians document it and one of those was Livy. His history from the start of Rome to Augustus is sweeping in its scope. Much of the history is centred on battles and punishments, and it’s the latter we will focus on. Although as noted crucifixion was usually considered punishment enough, Livy records two instances during the Second Punic War where people were both scourged and crucified.
The first took place after Hannibal’s victory at Lake Trasimene, in the early stages of his Italian campaign:
He (Hannibal) then ordered a guide to lead him into the territory of Casinum, as he had been informed by people familiar with the country that the occupation of the pass would cut the route by which the Romans could bring aid to their allies. His pronunciation, however, did not take kindly to Latin names, with the result that the guide thought he said ‘Casilinum’; he accordingly went in the wrong direction, coming down by way of Allifae, Calatia and Cales in the plain of Stella, where seeing on every side a barrier of mountains and rivers, he sent for the guide and asked where on earth he was. The guide answered he would lodge that day at Casilinum, whereupon Hannibal realised his mistake and knew that Casinum was miles away in a different direction. He had the guide scourged and crucified as an example to others… (Livy, XXII, 13)
The second took place towards the end of the war, when the Carthiginian general Mago attempted to enter Gades (Cadiz) in southwestern Spain. Formerly a Carthiginian ally, their change in heart proved deadly for the town’s leadership:
Mago on his return to Gades found himself shut out of the town. Sailing to Cimbii, which was not far distant, he sent representatives back to Gades to complain of the gates’ being barred against a friend and ally; the people of the town tried to excuse themselves by saying it had been the work of a section of the populace which was enraged because the soldiers had stolen property of their when they went aboard ship; whereupon Mago enticed to a conference the sufetes of the town (the highest sort of Carthaginian magistrate) together with the treasurer, and, once they were in his power, had them scourged and crucified. (Livy, XXVIII, 37)
The Carthiginians were hard masters, which may in part explain why the Italian allies/subjects of Rome did not bolt en masse after Cannae. But the Romans, the supreme adapters as they were, made crucifixion part of their arsenal against those who had the bad idea of challenge or revolt against Roman authority. Our Lord had predicted that he would be the victim of such a treatment:
When Jesus was on the point of going up to Jerusalem, he gathered the twelve disciples round him by themselves, and said to them as they were on their way: “Listen! We are going up to Jerusalem; and there the Son of Man will be betrayed to the Chief Priests and Teachers of the Law, and they will condemn him to death, And give him up to the Gentiles for them to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify; and on the third day he will rise.” (Matthew 20:17-19, TCNT.)
The Romans lived up to his expectations:
Pilate, however, spoke to them again: “What shall I do then with the man whom you call the ‘King of the Jews’?”
Again they shouted: “Crucify him!”
“Why, what harm has he done?” Pilate kept saying to them.
But they shouted furiously: “Crucify him!” And Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after scourging Jesus, gave him up to be crucified. (Mark 15:12-15, TCNT.)
Scourging someone before crucifixion made death on the cross more rapid, something that Pilate, mindful of the Jews’ Passover, may have wanted to take place.
But that scourging, anticipated by Our Lord, had a purpose, as did the crucifixion:
He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction. But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5 Brenton)
In his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus won a victory, not only over sin, death, and the physical pain of this life, but over those who would posit life only as an extended business deal like the Carthaginians who, with Jezebel’s co-religionists, sacrificed their own children as part of their bargain with the gods.
And that’s good news for everyone.