Exactly what happened to Regulus is somewhat uncertain; some
authors think he was 'impaled' in some other sense than 'crucified:'
"For this reason, after he had returned voluntarily to Carthage, the
Carthaginians put him to death by enclosing him in a standing posture
in a box the planks of which were stuck full of iron spikes so that he
could not possibly lie down." (Appian's Roman History, Book V, Chapter
1, p. 129). Modern historians, of course, scoff at the whole thing. If
Regulus was enclosed in a nail-studded cask, this, while an impalement
of some kind, is not exactly what we understand by crucifixion,
although some of the sources seem to envision something more like
conventional crucifixion: "I was looking on, when Regulus, the hope and
pride of Hector's race, was dragged along amid the shouts of the
populace to his dark dungeon, with both hands bound fast behind his
back; I was looking on, when he hung high upon the tree and saw Italy
from his lofty cross." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book II).
Some in antiquity delighted in
thinking up imaginative ways to inflict pain on other human beings. One
cannot help but agree with the tyrant's verdict on the inventor of Phalaris' bull, that he who could think of such a thing, ought to
suffer it himself. Could Seneca have deliberately chosen to misidentify
Regulus' death as a crucifixion, knowing that stumped readers would be
brought up short, to feel his a nudge hinting that he really means to
talk about Jesus? This is beyond doubtful, as nothing that he wishes to
say about Regulus applies much to Jesus. Certainly at some point Seneca's
political ideals diverged from Nero's, with Seneca's suicide ensuing;
however, the supposition that the treatment of the Nazarene's followers
may have been central to this divergence is altogether speculative. The
victors get to write history, and we don't remember Nero as an
enlightened, benevolent ruler, but as a madman. In some of the ways in
which Seneca's views diverged from Nero's path, he would have been a
fellow-traveller with the Christians; the man who wrote the
Pumpkinification of Claudius cannot have been an enthusiast for imperial
deification. Beyond that it is difficult to untangle the threads. Be
that as it may, there is not any shortage of crucified rulers; Jesus
is left the last of the lot only because people have forgotten.
Given the vicissitudes of history, other crucified rulers
can be enumerated, such as the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, crucified by
the Persians in the sixth century B.C.:
"The tyrannies were at their height in the time of
Polycrates and his brother Syloson. The former was distinguished for
his good fortune, and the possession of such a degree of power as made
him master of the sea. It is related as an instance of his good
fortune, that having purposely thrown into the sea his ring, which
was of great value both on account of the stone and the engraving, a
short time afterwards a fisherman caught the fish which had swallowed
it, and on cutting the fish open, the ring was discovered. When the
king of Egypt was informed of this, he declared, it is said, with a
prophetic s spirit, that Polycrates, who had been elevated to such a
height of prosperity, would soon end his life unfortunately; and this
was actually the case, for he was taken by the Persian satrap by
stratagem, and crucified." (Strabo, Geography, Book XIV,
Chapter I, Section 16, Volume III, p. 9).
The story goes, Polycrates' daughter had a remarkable dream
presaging his end:
"But the daughter of Polycrates had previously had a
remarkable dream. She had seemed to see her father, raised aloft on an
open and conspicuous spot, being laved and anointed by the hands of
Jupiter and the Sun. The diviners read the dream as foretelling a rich
and happy fortune. But it turned out wholly otherwise. For Polycrates,
beguiled by Oroetes the Persian, was seized and crucified. And so the
dream was fulfilled in his crucifixion. For he was laved by Jove's
hands when it rained, and anointed by the hands of the Sun, when the
dew of agony came out upon his skin. Such prosperous beginnings as his
have not seldom a disastrous ending." (M. Cornelius Fronto,
Correspondence, Volume II, Loeb edition, p. 27).
Even Philo Judaeus comments on this set of circumstances:
"Since in the case of Polycrates at least, in retaliation
for the terrible acts of injustice and impiety which he committed,
there fell upon him great misery in his subsequent life as a terrible
requital for his previous good fortune. Add to this that he was
chastised by a mighty sovereign, and was crucified by him, fulfilling
the prediction of the oracle: “I knew,” said he, “long before I took
it into my head to go to consult the oracle, that I was anointed by
the sun and washed by Jupiter,” for these enigmatical assertions,
expressed in symbolical language having been originally couched in
unintelligible language, afterwards receive a most manifest
confirmation by the events which followed them."
(Philo Judaeus of
Alexandria. Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria (Illustrated)
(Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 29338-29343).
Delphi Classics. Fragments, On Providence II, 24).
It is not clear whether the princes of Lamentations 5:12, hung by
their hands, suffered something like crucifixion: "Princes were hung
up by their hands, and elders were not respected." (Lamentations
5:12). The brave Spartan king Leonidas, whose unsuccessful defense of the
pass at Thermopylae is familiar to all, was posthumously crucified, by
some accounts: "Having thus said Xerxes passed in review the bodies of
the dead; and as for Leonidas, hearing that he had been the king and
commander of the Lacedemonians he bade them cut off his head and crucify
him." (Herodotus, The Histories, Volume 2, p. 228, Book VII, Chapter
238). Whether any of Mommsen's African "sheiks" called themselves
kings, I don't know: ". . .the sheiks in all the communities that had
revolted were crucified; it is said that there were three thousand of
them, and that this revolting atrocity on the part of the Carthaginian
authorities really laid the foundation of the revolution which broke
forth in Africa some years later." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of
Rome, Book III, Chapter II, Kindle location 9754).
Diodorus Siculus mentions that the commander of the Phocians was
crucified: "Philomelus, in a crisis of the war hurled himself over a
cliff, while his brother Onomarchus, after taking over the command of
his people, now became desperate, was cut to pieces in a battle in
Thessaly, along with the Phocians and mercenaries of his command, and
crucified." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book XVI, Chapter
61.2). The Persians, Phoenicians, Macedonians and Carthaginians
practiced crucifixion before the Romans adopted this surpassingly
cruel method of execution. The exact practice of these various nations
differed, although Seneca would probably have felt justified in using
the word for a variety of practices.
Not only did Carthage use crucifixion as a punishment for the outcast and outsider,
or for rebellious vassals; the Carthaginian Senate fell into the bad habit of crucifying
their own unsuccessful generals: "This action of the Conscript Fathers
was mild if we care to look at the violence of the Carthaginian senate
in ordering military affairs. By its command generals who mismanaged
campaigns were crucified even if fortune had turned in their favor." (Valerius
Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book II.7, pp. 197-199, Loeb
edition). It's difficult to see how Carthage was able to staff an officer
corps whose stalwarts ran such a high risk in the event of lack of
success. But perhaps the policy functioned as an incentive, as
Voltaire imagined: ". . .Voltaire's famous phrase about the English
occasionally shooting an Admiral 'in order to encourage the others'
springs to mind." (Fabulous Science, John Waller, p. 87).
The luckless Carthaginian generals ran this risk from rebel
mercenaries as well as their home government: "After the rebels killed Bostar, the military governor on the island [Sardinia], and other
Carthaginians, a force was dispatched form Carthage. After arriving,
however, its mercenary troops mutinied and crucified their
Carthaginian general, then massacred all the Carthaginians in
Sardinia." (Carthage Must be Destroyed, Richard Miles, p. 212). Hamilcar was another crucified Carthaginian leader, whose crucifixion is traced by the
pious Aelian to his looting the temple of Aphrodite: "But I learn that
Hamilcar the Carthaginian looted these objects, melted down the silver
and gold, and then distributed an infamous largess to his troops. And
for these deeds he suffered the most painful and grievous torments and
was punished with crucifixion, while all his accomplices and partners
in that unholy sacrilege died violent and terrible deaths." (Aelian,
On Animals, Book X, Chapter 50, p. 351 Loeb edition). Hanno the Great was
crucified after instigating a rebellion: "Such treachery could not be
overlooked, and Hanno, when captured after his rebellion failed, was
subjected to merciless punishment. After suffering scourging and
terrible torture, he was finally nailed to a cross." (Carthage Must be
Destroyed, Richard Miles, p. 131).
One conquered foreign monarch who suffered this cruel death at the
hands of the Carthaginians was the Spanish king Tagus:
"Meanwhile the direction of affairs was handed over to
Hasdrubal; and he harried with savage cruelty the wealth of the
western world, the people of Spain, and the dwellers beside the
Baetis. Hard was the general's heart, and nothing could mitigate
his ferocious temper; power he valued because it gave him the
opportunity to be cruel. . .Nor was he willing to sate his rage
with ordinary punishments. Tagus, a man of ancient race,
remarkable for beauty and of proved valor, Hasdrubal, defying gods
and men, fastened high on a wooden cross, and displayed in triumph
to the sorrowing natives the unburied body of their king." (Silius
Italicus, Punica, Book I).
The Romans did not normally so treat defeated kings, only on
"These people Antony entrusted to one Herod to govern, and
Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged,— treatment
accorded to no other king by the Romans,— and subsequently
slew him." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 49, Chapter 22).
So there really are many crucified kings Seneca could have had in
mind. The faithful Regulus, however, seems to have been one of Seneca's touchstones. Regulus's self-sacrifice was familiar to students of Roman
history, celebrated in song and story:
"His wife's pure kiss he waved aside,
boys, as one disgraced,
They tell us, and with manly pride
on the ground his visage placed.
With counsel thus ne'er else aread
He nerved the fathers' weak intent,
And, girt by friends that
mourn'd him, sped
Into illustrious banishment.
Well witting what
the torturer's art
Design'd him, with like unconcern
of kin he push'd apart
And crowds encumbering his return,
though, some tedious business o'er
Of clients' court, his journey
Towards Venafrum's grassy floor,
Or Sparta-built Tarentum's
(Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (J.
Conington, Ed.) Book III, Poem 5).
Time has done its dissolving work, and so when we think of first
century kings, there is none who interests us but Jesus. However,
there is really no way of knowing exactly who Seneca had in mind.
Seneca's nephew Lucan presents us with the image of Julius Caesar,
"Caesareas spectate cruces, spectate catenas,
et caput hoc positum rostris effusaque membra
Saeptorumque nefas et clausi proelia Campi." (Lucan Liber vii, lines 304-306)
"'Think of the cross that threatens us, and the chain,
Limbs hacked asunder, Caesar's head displayed
Upon the rostra; and that narrow field
Piled up with slaughter. . .'"
(Lucan, Pharsalia, Book VII)
"Picture to yourselves the
cross and the chains in store for Caesar, my head stuck upon the
Rostrum and my limbs unburied; think of the crime of the Saepta
and the battle fought in the enclosed Campus. . ." (Lucan,
Pharsalia, Book VII, Loeb edition.)
But Caesar's not a king? Lucan thought otherwise; in this
very same speech of Caesar rousing the troops to battle, he muses on
the benefits of victory: ". . .for 'tis I Who when this war is done
shall have the power O'er all that peoples, all that kings enjoy [Quae populi regesque tenent] To
shower it where I will." This alarming comparison occurs only a few lines
earlier, in the same speech. As it turned out, Caesar emerged the
victor, his fate not left to his enemies to determine, so Caesar was not in
the event a crucified ruler. He escaped unscathed on that occasion,
though ending later, not as a crucified ruler, but as a multiple-stab-wound ruler. Is it
conceivable this is not altogether a made-up speech, and that Caesar
was known to have said something like that, which people might recall as
they recall, say, Ben Franklin's 'We must, indeed, all hang together, or
assuredly we shall all hang separately'?
So while there is more than one crucified king, one must concede to the Seneca conspiracy
theorists that it's at least possible Seneca was thinking of Jesus,
because he was certainly aware of Christianity, by mid-century at least
if not at the beginning. Paul stood upon his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard before Caesar.
These things were not done in a corner, Christianity was already a
popular movement with a sizeable constituency. Seneca, as a
highly placed government advisor, cannot have been unaware of the controversy caused by this new sect.
After the catastrophic fire of 64 A.D., Nero punished the Christians
as arsonists. This indiscriminate mass punishment sparked both jubilation and public dismay.
Some people thought the Christians got what they deserved, others were horrified.
In 65 A.D., Seneca was allowed to commit suicide rather than be
punished for his purported role in the anti-Neronian conspiracy of
Piso. On which side of the divide in public opinion over the Christians Seneca stood, we cannot
now know. Did he hate the Christians as much as Nero did, or fear that they had been
unjustly accused? Did he think them criminals or innocent victims? He cannot have had 'no opinion.'
The timing and sequence of events makes one wonder.
Unfortunately exactly what he did think is difficult to reconstruct.
As a first step in finding one's way to reality, the reader should
toss aside Reza Aslan and Bart Ehrman inspired mantras, as to how
Seneca would never have heard of a peasant like Jesus, and how Judaea
was an insignificant corner of the empire, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
Judaea was a wealthy province at a geographical cross-roads, and Jews
made up ten percent of the population of the empire. Christianity's
initial growth was explosive. The conspiracy websites are not really
on to something, Seneca did not invent Christianity, but at least
Talk is Cheap
Seneca is aware of the dilemma stated thusly by Paul:
"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I."