Apparently, the first known practice of crucifixion was by the Persians. Alexander and his generals brought it back to the Mediterranean world — to Egypt and to Carthage. The Romans apparently learned the practice from the Carthaginians and (as with almost everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill at it.
A number of Roman authors (Livy, Cicer, Tacitus) comment on crucifixion, and several innovations, modifications, and variations are described in the ancient literature. For instance, the upright portion of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below its top in what we commonly think of as the Latin cross. The most common form used in our Lord’s day, however, was the Tau cross, shaped like our T and there is some archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified.
In this cross, the patibulum or horizontal section, was placed in a notch at the top of the stipes or vertical section. The upright post, or stipes, were generally fixed permanently in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man forced to carry the patibulum, weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution. Historically a placard was carried in front of the condemmed with the charges laid against them which was nailed to the top of the cross.
Without any historical or biblical proof, Medieval and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross on his way to calvary.
Many of the painters and most of the sculptors of crucifixion, also show the nails through the palms. Historical Roman accounts and experimental work have established that the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrists (radial and ulna) and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when made to support the weight of the human body although there is one small area in the hand where it might be possible to support the weight of a body. The misconception may have come about through a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to Thomas, “Observe my hands.” Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrist as part of the hand.
The physical passion of the Christ began in Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of this initial suffering, the one of greatest physiological interest is the bloody sweat. It is interesting that St. Luke, the physician, is the only one to mention this. He says, “And being in agony, He prayed the longer. And His sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.” Every ruse (trick) imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away this description, apparently under the mistaken impression that this just doesn’t happen. A great deal of effort could have been saved had the doubters consulted the medical literature. Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress of the kind our Lord suffered, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. We should not forget that Jesus at this time knew what fate awaiting him was and he would be well aware of the horrendous pain and torment he would suffer so it is not surprising that this would inflict on any person an unbelievable amount of stress. While Jesus was the son of God he was also a human being, like each of us and would experience terror and fear as any of us would at the thought of what he would face. Try and imagine how you might feel if you knew that the next day you would be hung on a cross with large nails hammered through your hands and feet and left to die slowly. This process might well have produced marked weakness and possible shock.