The flagellum has done its work and the man’s back is a single open wound. What is left of the muscle flexes and tears itself afresh as the wretch writhes and twists in agony. Two soldiers of the duty Century cut him down from the whipping post and throw him onto his back on the stony ground. A thin shriek like steam from a kettle is all the sound a throat raw from screaming can make.
The man’s arms are pulled to either side and lashed to a roughly cut timber weighing over a hundred pounds, the patibulum. His head and neck are now forced forward by the baulk lying across his lacerated shoulders. The soldiers kick him to his feet. Half crazed with pain he staggers this way and that under the crippling weight as the soldiers drive him, like a beast, along the path to the place of execution.
Unprotected, his bare feet are lacerated by sharp rocks and leave a bloody trail in the dust. A few idlers follow the group and throw stones at the man’s back, causing clouds of insects to rise briefly from the mangled flesh. One youth runs forward with a goatskin of water to tempt him, but the Centurion in charge of the detail knocks him aside, breaking the boy’s nose with his fist.
After an interminable time laboring under the morning sun the group arrives at the stipes, the vertical post to which the patibulum will be fixed. The man is thrown on to his back once more, but already half-dead and delirious from his injuries he barely stirs. Soldiers cut the ropes binding his arms to the cross-piece but then drive thick, square nails through his wrists and into the wood. Fierce new pain runs from fingertips to neck and the man’s eyes bulge in horror.
It takes eight soldiers, four on either side, to lift the patibulum and its burden into position on top of the stipes where dowels locate it centrally in place. As his weight tears the sinews and nerves in his pierced wrists the man vomits and thrashes about tormenting his bloody back against the rough timber and dislocating his shoulders and elbows. So extreme is his suffering his tongue protrudes between his teeth and he bites it in two; blood pours over his lip as he howls.
The soldiers step to either side of the stipes to avoid staining their tunics with the blood and bile and from this position force the soles of the man’s feet against the post and nail them in place. A square of wood under the nail’s head ensures he cannot pull his feet free. Desperate to relieve the agony in his arms the man pushes down on to his spiked feet and then flops back again with a wail. There is no relief.
Now begins the slow, hideous descent into death. Hung from the arms, air can be drawn into the lungs, but not easily expelled. Each breath is won at a terrible cost as the arms or the legs or both must lift the body and move it against the rough wooden post to which the blood and serum of the raw flesh has clotted. The sun beats down relentlessly on the naked skin and the dehydrated body tortures itself still further with blinding headaches and crippling cramps. Flies gather to feast on the blood running down the back and legs and become a heaving black mask over the man’s face where such sweat as remains is mixed with blood from burst vessels in the eyes and nose and from the ragged and swollen remains of the tongue. Eventually, the body stops moving and the dreadful torment is finally over.
The soldiers march away. There is nothing for them to do and they have no interest in such a familiar spectacle.
One man, nearby, squats and waits. After dark, he will release his son, Dismas, and take him for burial.