Crucifixion and the Roman Triumph

Mark 4:11 says:
And He said to them, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables,” (NKJV)

Certain mysteries of the Kingdom of God is wrapped in parables so that the chosen people may know it and the outside people may not understand it.
Such a mystery is presented by Mark in his narration of the crucifixion of Jesus.
This study is intended to unveil the mystery in Mark’s narration for those who are chosen by God to receive His Grace and salvation.
The life story of Jesus, as He was in this world was recorded by many during the first century.
Among them, the first century church and our fore fathers have selected four gospels as authorized, based on the accuracy of narration.
They are the gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
They intended the reader to know the truth about Jesus and become a disciple.
Each Gospel is aimed at a certain audience and purpose.
The Gospel according to Matthew is aimed primarily at Jews, where Jesus is portrayed as Israel's Messiah, the King of the Jews.
The audience of Mark was basically those people in the Roman Empire and the purpose was to present Jesus as the King of the Kingdom of God.
Luke was written to those more intellectually minded Greeks who were always looking for the perfect man in their art and literature. So Luke portrayed Jesus as the perfect man.
John, the writer of the fourth gospel, was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. He wrote to everyone.
His purpose was to establish the fact that Jesus was the eternal God who became a man.

Since the Gospel writers had a purpose and an audience in their mind, they selected events in the life of Jesus, arranged them to according to their purpose.
All events recorded were accurate, but all events in Jesus’s life were not included in all gospels.
And they have given special stress to important events also.

As I said before, Mark’s gospel was written for gentiles living in Rome.
So Mark’s gospel had a pattern of meaning that is not recognized by modern readers, who have never heard of the social and political life of the time.
The first century Christians faced a crucial question from the Greeks and Romans.
If Jesus is King and God, how can mortals kill him on a shameful cross along with other murderers?
The intellectual Greeks and the royal Romans could not digest the idea of God dying like a thief.
So Mark took up the responsibility to explain to them that Jesus was indeed a King and His death on the cross was a victory celebration.
To explain his argument, Mark is placing the events of the last hours in the life Jesus side by side to the events in the Roman triumphal celebrations.

This is not a forced comparison. This is not a product of Mark’s hard work or imagination.
Mark was not bringing down a new revelation, from nothing.
But even prior to Mark’s gospel, Christ was understood as a triumphator.
Paul records this marvelous revelation about the triumph of Jesus on the cross in the second epistle to Corinthians and in the epistle to Colossians.
Epistles to Corinthians, both 1 and 2, were written during AD 53 - 57 and Epistle to Colossians was written during AD 58 - 62.
The Gospel of Mark was written around AD 66 - 70.

Mark’s crucifixion and the Roman triumph

As I said before, modern Bible commentators have failed to recognize a pattern of meaning that Mark’s contemporaries understood well.
In Mark’s gospel, the crucifixion procession is a kind of Roman triumphal march, with Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa replacing the Via Sacra of Rome.
The Latin word Via Sacra or Sacred Road was the main street of ancient Rome.
It started from Colosseum, and went up to the top of the Capitoline Hill, through some of the most important religious sites.
The road was part of the traditional route of the Roman Triumph that began on the outskirts of the city and proceeded through the Roman Forum.

The Latin word Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief, Way of Sorrows, Way of Suffering or simply Painful Way) is a street, in two parts, within the Old City of Jerusalem.
It is held to be the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.

Before we go into Mark’s crucifixion narrative that contains a number of striking parallels to the Roman triumph, let’s look at the features of the triumphal march with which Mark’s Roman contemporaries would have been familiar.

The Roman triumph, known as triumphus in Latin, was a triumphal march conducted to honour a victorious military general or ruler.
The origins and development of this honour are obscure.
Roman historians placed the first triumph in the mythical past.
Some historians claim that the tradition evolved from the Etruscan civilization who existed in the north of Rome, before Roman civilization.
The Roman triumphal march may have its roots in Greek ceremonies calling for an appearance or epiphany of Dionysus, the dying and rising god.
In Greece, during the New Year Festival celebrations, Dionysus was represented by the king dressed in special costume.
He was carried into the city in a formal procession, which culminated in a cry for the epiphany of the god (in Greek, thríambos; in Latin, triumpe).
A bull was then sacrificed, and the king appeared as the god.
In Greece, Zeus eventually supplanted Dionysus; probably because of Zeus’s position as king of the gods.

The Roman triumph was both a civil and religious ceremony of ancient Rome
It was held to publicly celebrate and sanctify the military achievement of an army commander who had won great military successes.
Originally and traditionally, he had successfully completed a foreign war.
In Republican Rome, truly exceptional military achievement merited the highest possible honors.
It connected triumphator to Rome's mythical past.
In effect, the general was close to being god and king for a day.

Granting a triumph

In Republican tradition, only the Senate could grant a triumph.
The honour was granted to a general after a decisive battle had been won, or a province subdued by a series of successful operations in a foreign land.
After the war was concluded the general with his army came back to Rome, or ordered his army to meet him there on a particular day, but they stayed outside the city.
The military commander forwarded to the senate a letter containing an account of his exploit.
A meeting of the senate was held usually in the temple of Bellona where the military general would narrate his victory and claim a triumph.
His claims were then scrutinized and discussed carefully.
If the intelligence also proved satisfactory the senate decreed a public thanksgiving.

Rules and regulations for a triumph

The following rules and restrictions were for the most part rigidly enforced.
But the senate assumed the discretionary power of relaxing them in special cases.

1.      That no one could be permitted to triumph unless he had held the office of dictator, of ambassador, or commander of the army or a magistrate.
He should must be actually in office both when the victory was gained and when the triumph was to be celebrated.
2.      That the battle must be fought under his authority and with the troops of the general.
3.      That at least 5000 of the enemy should have been slain in a single battle.
4.      The loss on the part of the Romans should have been small compared with that of their adversaries.
5.      That the war should have been a legitimate contest against public foes, and not a civil contest.
That the dominion of the state should have been extended and not merely something previously lost regained.
The advantage should have been positive.
It should not be merely a compensation for some previous disaster
6.      That war should have been brought to a conclusion
The conquered province transformed to a state of peace
7.      The army being withdrawn, the presence of the victorious soldiers being considered indispensable in a triumph.

The triumphal celebration

The celebration was to conduct a long triumphal procession.
The procession (pompa) mustered in the open space (Forum) of the Campus Martius or Field of Mars, probably well before first light.
From there after all unforeseen delays and accidents, it would move forward in a slow walking pace, punctuated by various planned stops en route to its final destination, the Capitoline temple.
It was a distance of just under 4 km. But the triumphal processions were notoriously long and slow.
The longest triumphal procession could last for two or three days, and possibly more, and some may have been of greater length than the route itself.
In most triumphs, the general funded a post-procession banquet from his share of the loot.

The procession starts by the arrival of the victorious general arrived at the Forum.
He would command that some of the captives be led to prison and put to death.
Then the soldiers proclaimed a victorious military general and the senate decreed a triumph.
The triumphator appeared “arrayed in the triumphal dress and wearing armlets, with a laurel crown upon his head, and holding a branch in his right hand.”
On the day of his triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and purple regalia or ceremonial dress.
The gold-embroidered was called the triumphal toga picta or painted garment.
The dress that identified him with the deity and the king.
He called together the people, praised the gathered soldiers and distributed gifts among them.
The captives who were caught alive and destined for execution went before the triumphator, usually in chains.
Their captured weapons, armour, gold, silver, statuary, and curious or exotic treasures were carted behind them, along with paintings, tableaux and models depicting significant places and episodes of the war.
They are followed by the Rome's senators and magistrates and the general's lictors (member of an ancient Roman class of magisterial attendants) in their red war-robes, their fasces wreathed in laurel.

After them, the triumphator rode in a chariot drawn by four horses, through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession.
A friend or a public slave would hold a crown over his head, from time to time.
He will whisper ill of the military general and will remind him often in his ear, “you are not god”.
In some cases his youngest children might share the chariot with him.
His officers and elder sons rode on horseback nearby.
His unarmed soldiers followed, in togas and laurel crowns, chanting "io triumphe!" and singing songs.
The onlookers threw sweet sweet-smelling flowers over them.
All this, to the accompaniment of music, clouds of incense and the strewing of flowers.
At the Jupiter’s temple at Capitoline Hill, he sacrificed one or two white oxen to Jupiter and laid tokens of his victory at his feet, dedicating his victory to the Roman Senate, people and gods.
There he dined in the porticos of the temple, after which he departed homeward toward evening.
Thereafter he had the right to be described as vir triumphalis ("man of triumph", or triumphator) for the rest of his life.
After death, he was represented at his own funeral, and those of his later descendants, by a hired actor who wore his mask (imago) and toga picta.

Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth. (27 BC – 14 AD)
He developed the Augustus ideology.
The ideology insisted that Augustus saved and restored the Roman Republic.
So they celebrated his triumph as a permanent condition.
His military, political and religious leadership was responsible for an unprecedented era of stability, peace and prosperity.
Thus gradually the Roman triumph became a celebration of the conquest of Rome rather than his conquest for Rome.
The ceremony was reconnected with its roots in the Etruscan civilization as an appearance of the ruler as god.

Parallels in Mark’s narrative

As we said before, Mark’s crucifixion narrative contains a number of striking parallels to the Roman triumph.
All details of the Roman triumph may not find a parallel in the gospel narrative, but all major incidents in the triumph is paralleled.
Some similarities are amazing and striking. It enhances our understanding of Jesus as a victorious King.
Let us understand it one by one.
Mark’s crucifixion narrative is found in chapter 15, verse 16 to 39.
All scripture read below are taken from the New King James Version, unless it is otherwise mentioned.

1. Gathering of Roman soldiers
The Roman triumph started by the gathering of the whole military battalion who went for the war, outside the city or at the Roman Forum (market place).
The triumphal procession officially starts from the Forum.
Mark purposefully starts his narration about the crucifixion events with the Roman soldiers leading Jesus into the courtyard of the Praetorium.

Mark 15:16 Then the soldiers led Him away into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison.

Praetorium is the military headquarters.
For Praetorium, Matthew speaks about the common hall (Matthew 27:27) and John speaks about the hall of judgment (John 18:28)
So we may assume that Jesus was brought into the common hall in the military headquarters of the governor’s palace for judgment.

Mark goes on to tell that they called together the whole battalion, that is at least 200 men.
It would be extremely odd for the entire soldiery to be called together to mock and beat a single prisoner.
But in a Roman triumph, the entire soldiery was ordered to assemble in a place for the Roman triumph.
Thus Mark carefully chose to mention the place to evoke a parallelism with the gathering of the soldiery in preparation for a triumphal march.

2. Triumphal garb in purple

Mark 15:17 And they clothed Him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on His head,

The Roman triumphator appeared in a ceremonial purple robe and with a crown.
The wearing of purple was outlawed for anyone below the rank of a knight.
He was dressed in a purple, gold embroidered purple colored triumphal garment.
It was the ceremonial dress traditionally associated both with the ancient Roman monarchy and with the statue of Jupiter Capitolinus.
The ceremonial dress identified him as near-divine or near-kingly.
The face of the triumphator was painted red in imitation of the same statue.
The crowd cried triumpe, a call for the manifestation of the god.
These constructed a connection between the triumphator and the roman god, Jupiter.
However, the triumphator was only recognized as under the authority of the god.
But later the king was identified in the ceremonial robe with the deity.

Mark finds a parallel to this incident in the clothing of Jesus.
The Roman soldiers “clothed Him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on His head”.
The soldiers were purposely mocking Jesus by creating a parallel to the Roman triumph because Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and claimed to be the king.

3. The crown

Mark 15:17 And they clothed Him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on His head,

On the day of his triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel.
The whole ceremonial dress included, the purple painted robe embroidered with gold; a laurel crown; red boots and painting on the face in red color.
The triumphal robe and the gold laurel crown were borrowed from the statue of the god in the temple Jupiter Capitolinus.

The triumphator was drawn in procession through the city, in a four-horse chariot to the temple of Capitoline Jupiter.
His peers watched him and the crowd applauded him.
His sumptuous triumphal chariot was bedecked with charms against the possible envy and malice of onlookers.
A public slave would held a crown over the head of the triumphator and whisper often in his ear, “you are not god”.
This is to remind him of his mortality and keep him away from pride.
But in contrast, Jesus was the King, God and eternal.

4. Accolades from soldiers

Mark 15: 18, 19
18 and began to salute Him, "Hail, King of the Jews!"
19 Then they struck Him on the head with a reed and spat on Him; and bowing the knee, they worshiped Him.

As we said just now, before the triumphal procession began, when the triumphator appeared in ceremonial garb, he would meet with the soldiers to receive their accolades.
So in Mark’s gospel the immediate sequel to the appearance of Jesus in royal garb is the mock homage of the soldiers.
Their shout, “Hail, King of the Jews” and they “worshipped Him”, are parallel to the accolades given to the triumphator.
Then the Roman soldiers struck Jesus on the head with a reed and spat on Him.
Verse 20 says, that after the mockery scene, the Roman soldiers took the purple rob off from Jesus, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him out to crucify Him.
This shows that all their previous actions were done in mockery imitating the Roman celebration.
But unknowingly they we creating a parallel triumphal celebration.
And Mark noted it well.

5. Simon of Cyrene

Mark 15: 21 Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.

As the soldiers lead Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, they compel an onlooker, Simon, to bear the cross.
Simon is identified as from Cyrene, a Greek colony in North Africa.
It may also suggest another formulaic element in a triumph.

A consistent feature in triumphs is the sacrificial bull, led along dressed and crowned to signify its identity with the triumphator.
But the bull is not alone; an official walked alongside the bull.
He carries over his shoulder a double-bladed ax, the instrument of the victim’s death.
Like the official who bears the ax, Simon carries the instrument of the sacrifice.
The cross is the instrument of the sacrifice of Jesus.

The parallel might appear to be coincidental, but for two remarkable details.
Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus, who were church figures during the time of Mark. (Romans 16:13; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 4:14).
That means, Simon’s link to the community of faith via his sons was well known to Mark’s readers.
He came from out of the town, from Cyrene which was a Greek colony in North Africa.
It suggests that Mark envisions his role as divinely planned.
Like the official who carried the ax, Simon carried the cross.

6.   Capitol and Golgotha

Mark 15: 22 And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull.

Crucifixions were common enough in the Roman world that major cities set aside special places for them.
The crucified bodies, in various stages of suffering or decomposition, provided a public warning to potential malefactors.

In Rome, the place for crucifixion was the Campus Esquilinus.
In Jerusalem, Mark gives the name of the place, Golgotha
Mark goes on to translate the name for his readers: “which is translated, Place of a Skull.”
In Hebrew Golgotha has a shade of meaning that denotes not an empty skull but more generally the head.
This is also true of the Greek translation.
Therefore, “place of the head” or perhaps “place of the death’s-head” would be a more accurate understanding.

There is a remarkable coincidence in the name of the place that may constitute another allusion to the triumph.
Roman legends records that, during the laying of a foundation for a temple on a certain Roman hill, a human head was discovered with its features intact.
Then the soothsayers proclaimed: “Romans, tell your fellow citizens it is ordered by fate that the place in which you found the head shall be the head of all Italy,”
Since that time the place is called the Capitoline hill from the head that was found there.

The temple of Jupiter Capitolium, was the terminus of every Roman triumph.
Here the triumphal procession ended and the triumphator scarified the bull as a token of his victory to Jupiter.
The bull dies and the triumphator appears in the purple robe as an epiphany of the god.

Jesus was crucified on Golgotha which was a “place of head”.
Golgotha was the Capitolium to which Jesus the triumphator ascended.
There He died as a sacrifice for the atonement of the sins of all humans.
It was the climax of His victory celebration.
Apostle Paul, even before Mark recorded this revelation in Colossians.

Colossians 2:15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.  (NKJV)

7.   Myrrhed Wine

Mark 15: 23 Then they gave Him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it.

The supreme moment of the triumph is the moment of sacrifice.
Just prior to the sacrifice of the bull, or simultaneous with the sacrifice, the triumphator was offered a cup of expensive wine.
The triumphator would refuse the wine and then pour it on the altar or on the bull itself.
The wine obviously signifies the blood of the victim.
The links between triumphator, wine and victim signify their connection which is confirmed by the similar dress worn by both the triumphator and the bull.
The bull is the god who dies and appears as the victor in the person of the triumphator.

During the Last Supper, Jesus himself makes the connection between the drinking of wine, sacrifice and triumphant renewal:

Mark 14 : 24, 25
24 And He said to them, "This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many.
25 "Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."  (NKJV)

They offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh. Myrrh was mixed for aroma and was expensive.
But Jesus refused the wine.
It suggests that the painful humiliation of the crucifixion is in fact a victorious triumph.
The very next words in Mark’s account are “and they crucified him.” (Mark 15: 25)
This again suggests a close association between wine and sacrifice.

8. The inscription and the accolade

Mark 15: 26 And the inscription of His accusation was written above: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

The inscription 'King of the Jews' was not a mistake by the Roman soldiers, but a purposeful mockery at Jesus.
It was common for the victim of Roman justice to wear a sign, often around his neck, announcing his crime to passers-by.
It was also common in a triumph for lectors in the procession to carry placards announcing the name and positions of the captives in the war.
If Mark was thinking of a parallel to this event, it would be better to mention it during Jesus’ journey to Golgotha.
But Mark purposefully mentioned it at the cross.
That means Mark had a different parallelism in his mind.

Mark parallels this inscription on the cross to the accolade given to the triumphator at his epiphany.
After the bull is sacrificed and died, the triumphator emerged as god in the ceremonial garb of Jupiter.
He will be lifted before people as an epiphany of god.
At this moment, the triumphator is again acclaimed as lord, and his two of his vice regents appear with him in confirmation of his glory.
Marks found a parallel to this in the inscription on the cross of Jesus, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
Then Mark goes on to say that “they also crucified two robbers, one on His right and the other on His left.” This is the epiphany.

9.   Two thieves

Mark 15: 27 With Him they also crucified two robbers, one on His right and the other on His left.

This is another remarkable detail reported by Mark.
In the world of Mark’s audience, placement on the right and left of an elevated person signified royal enthronement.
In Mark 10: 35-37, we read about James and John, the sons of Zebedee, requesting Jesus to grant them a promise in His Glory, that they may sit, one on His right hand and the other on His left.

In the Roman triumph, the triumphator is normally alone, but the few exceptions are notable.
There were historical evidence for the triumphator sat in the chariot with someone on right and left, at certain triumphal celebrations.  
Suetonius, a Roman historian of the early second century, records a triumph of the youthful Tiberius.
He narrates the story that Tiberius “took his seat beside Augustus between the two consuls.”
Vitellius was a Roman emperor who ruled only for 8 months from 16 April to 22 December 69 AD.
He accepted the title “imperator” at Lugdunum in 68 A.D.
At the occasion, he “spoke in praise of his conquering general, Valens and Caecina in public assembly and placed them on either side of his own curule chair.”
In 71 A.D. Vespasian celebrated his triumph over the Jews with Titus beside him in the triumphal chariot and Domitian riding alongside.
And the three then performed together the culminating events of the triumph.

In each of these instances, a threesome appears elevated above an admiring throng.
They expressed power through solidarity.
It is probable, then, that the crucifixion of criminals on either side of Jesus is a conscious expression of the mockery of his kingship on the part of the soldiers.
They are the mock equivalent of those displayed on either side of an enthroned ruler.

10.        Portents by gods

Mark 15: 39
38 Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
39 So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, "Truly this Man was the Son of God!" (NKJV)

The culmination of the Roman triumphal procession is at the temple of Jupiter at Capitolium.
The sacrificial bull dressed similar to the triumphator and thus similar to the god Jupiter was sacrificed at the temple and the triumphator appeared in his ceremonial dress as god.
This epiphany is the last event of the celebration, which was confirmed in portents by gods.
And afterwards the triumphator dined at the portico of the temple and went home.

The opening sentence of Mark’s gospel identifies Jesus as “the Son of God,” (Mark 1:1)
But no human voice gives him that title until after he dies.
A Roman soldier is awe struck as he watches Jesus breathe his last and he exclaimed, "Truly this Man was the Son of God".

The portents were paralleled also by the tearing of the veil of the temple in two from top to bottom.
The moment of Jesus’ death, the moment of his sacrifice, is the culmination of Mark’s parable of triumph.
Mark’s narration has an intention to prove that the seeming scandal of the cross is actually an exaltation of Christ.


Let us summarize Mark’s narrative as now decoded.
The Praetorian Guard gathers early in the morning to proclaim the triumphator.
They dress him in the purple triumphal garb and place a crown of laurel on his head.
The soldiers shout in acclamation of his lordship and perform acts of homage to him.
They accompany him through the streets of the city.
A person who carries the implement of the victim’s death walked alongside of the sacrifice.
The procession ascends to the place of the death’s head, where the sacrifice is to take place.
The triumphator is offered sweet smelling expensive wine.
He does not drink it but pours it out on the altar.
At the moment of the sacrifice, the triumphator is again acclaimed as lord.
And two of his vice regents appear with him in confirmation of his glory.
The epiphany of the triumphator is accompanied by divine portents confirming that he is one with the gods.

As these triumphal processions were occupying center stage in Rome, members of the church at Rome were struggling to understand and communicate the notion that God had revealed himself in the person of Jesus.
And Jesus was both the Crucified One and the Coming One.
It would have been natural for them to make comparisons between the Lord Christ and the Lord Caesar.
It would have been natural for them to look for evidence of God’s sovereignty in Jesus’ humility.
It is plausible that Mark arranged some of these details to hint at a correspondence between the mockery of Jesus and the empty, futile adoration of the Roman imperator.
For Mark, it is the mocked Jesus, not the gaudy Roman emperor, who is the true epiphanic triumphator.

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