March 25 – the date of the annunciation, the crucifixion, and the origin of December 25 as the date of Christmas?

Today is March 25, Lady Day.  According to various online sources, it is celebrated as the the day that the angel Gabriel announced the incarnation to the virgin Mary, the Annunciation.  This is also the day of Jesus’ conception.  I have read that some ancient sources also considered it to be the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, in line with an ancient belief that a prophet came into the world and left it on the same date.  Finally there is the idea that the date of Christmas, 25 December, probably came about because it was 9 months after the conception of Jesus.

There’s a lot in that to verify.  But I thought that I would post the ancient testimonies that give 25 March as the day of the crucifixion.  For this sounds odd to us.  We know that Easter is the day of the resurrection, the third day after the crucifixion; but Easter moves on the lunar calendar.  So where does 25 March come from?

There is an obvious witness, which no doubt influenced all subsequent writers – St Augustine, De Trinitate book 4, chapter 5:

He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.  But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.  (NPNF translation here.)

This was written early in the 5th century. He repeats this claim in the City of God, book 18, chapter 54 (here):

Now Christ died when the Gemini were consuls, on the eighth day before the kalends of April. He rose the third day, as the apostles have proved by the evidence of their own senses.

But where did he get this idea from, that the crucifixion was on the 8th day before the kalends of April, March 25?

There is a lunar calendar on the statue of Hippolytus in the Vatican Library.[1]  Apparently a note within this indicates the “Passion of Christ” was on Friday March 25.

Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos 8:18: (English)

[18] Quae passio Christi [huius exterminium] intra tempora LXX ebdomadarum perfecta est sub Tiberio Caesare, consulibus Rubellio Gemino et Rufio Gemino mense Martio temporibus paschae, die octavo Kalendarum Aprilium, die primo azymorum quo agnum occiderunt ad vesperam, sicut a Moyse fuerat praeceptum.

And the suffering of this “extermination” was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses.

The Liberian Catalogue of bishops of Rome of 354 AD, part 13 of the Chronography of 354 (here):



An obscure author, Q. Julius Hilarianus, ca. 397, in his Expositum de die Paschae et Mensis, c.15 (PL 13, 1105-14; 1114B):

Eo quippe anno, ut supputationis fides ostendit, et ratio ipsa persuadet, passus est idem Dominus Christus luna xiv, viii kal. April, feria sexta.

In the East there were various dates,[2].  The Acts of Pilate seem to contain the date in at least one version (here):

In the fifteenth year of the government of Tiberius Caesar, emperor of the Romans, and Herod being king of Galilee, in the nineteenth year of his rule, on the eighth day before the Kalends of April, which is the twenty-fifth of March, in the consulship of Rufus and Rubellio, in the fourth year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, Joseph Caiaphas being high priest of the Jews.

There are various versions of the Acts of Pilate, at least two in Greek, plus a Latin version, and it is probably fairly late, at least as we have it.  But Tertullian refers twice to apocryphal material by Pilate, in the Apologeticum, in c.5 and in cc. 21 and 24, which suggests that the Acts of Pilate, or some precursor to them, was already circulating in the second century.[3]

The evidence would suggest therefore that the Acts of Pilate are probably responsible for the Latin tradition that the crucifixion was on 25 March.  This was adopted by Tertullian, and read by Augustine, and then disseminated to the world.  From it, again in the west, the calculation of 25 December arises.

  1. [1]Schmidt, T. C. (2015). “Calculating December 25 as the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon,” Vigiliae Christianae 69, p.542–563. doi:10.1163/15700720-12341243
  2. [2]See
  3. [3]A compilation of some information about this text may be found here.

The crucifixion graffito of Alkimilla from Puteoli

I was unfamiliar with this item until today, and I doubt that I am alone in this.[1]

In 1959 a group of eight Tabernae were excavated at Puteoli.  Taberna 5 was a guesthouse, as is clear from the graffiti within it.  These mention various names and cities.

On the west wall of taberna 5, a mass of graffiti included the following graffito of a crucified woman.[2]  The cross is 40 cm high, the cross-piece is 26 cm long, and the figure is 35 cm high.  The graffiti belongs to the reign of Trajan or Hadrian.

A name, Ἀλκίμιλα (= Alkimila, Alkimilla), is inscribed over the left-hand side of the image, above the shoulder, suggesting that this is the name of the person in question. It is also possible that this is a form of curse text, rather than a record of an actual event.  The marks across the body are perhaps from flaying or whipping.

The Crucified Alkimilla. Trajanic-Hadrianic era. Puteoli: Via Pergolesi 146, Taberna 5. West Wall. Drawing by Professor Antonio Lombatti.
  1. [1]Details via John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, 2014, p.203-4, which gives a photograph of the graffito and the inscription, and a good bibliography.
  2. [2]Published in M. Guarducci, “Iscrizioni grechi e latine in una taberna a Pozzuoli”, Acta of the Fifth International Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy Cambridge, 1967, Oxford (1971), 219-223.

Constantine banned crucifixion – sources

Yesterday someone told me that crucifixion was banned by Constantine.  I wondered how we knew this.

The actual edict has not survived, and is not included in our collections of Roman law.  Our source is only Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History I, 8:13, it seems.[1]  First Sozomen:

He regarded the cross with peculiar reverence, on account both of the power which it conveyed to him in the battles against his enemies, and also of the divine manner in which the symbol had appeared to him. He took away by law the crucifixion customary among the Romans from the usage of the courts. He commanded that this divine symbol should always be inscribed and stamped whenever coins and images should be struck, and his images, which exist in this very form, still testify to this order.

There is no indication of the date on which this was enacted, however.

Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, 41:4 is also referenced in this context:

Denique Constantinus cunctos hostes honore ac fortunis manentibus texit recepitque, eo pius, ut etiam vetus teterrimumque supplicium patibulorum et cruribus suffringendis primus removerit.

Finally, Constantine received all his enemies with honour and protected them by allowing them to retain their properties, and was so conscious of his obligations that he was also the first to abolish the long-established and utterly frightful punishment of the forked gibbet and the breaking of legs.[2]

Whether this passage refers to crucifixion depends on the meaning of the word patibulum, which can mean a number of things.  I find online everywhere the statement that the “patibulum” is the term for the cross-piece of a cross, as “stipes” for the upright; but without any adequate references.

The translation of patibulum given above – “forked gibbet” – is the standard meaning, and it may be found in Lewis and Short.  In Du Cange we find that the term was used for the cross itself in the medieval period.   But dictionaries are not reliable on technical terms.  Thus in the fragments of Plautus (Carbonaria, fr. 2) we find a usage of patibulum in connection with crucifixion, perhaps as the cross-piece:

…patibulum ferat per urbem, deinde offigitur cruci. [3]

…he carries the patibulum through the city, then he is fastened to the cross.

Fortunately Gunnar Samuelson has written a magnificent volume on the terminology.[4]  Unfortunately he does not discuss the use of the word in Aurelius Victor.  Nor does Hengel in his older study of the subject.[5]  Samuelson gives various instances of varied usages, but concludes (p.286, with references):

2.4.6. patibulum

patibulum is a pole or a beam in a broad sense. When used in connection with punishments of humans it is also a pole or a beam in a wide sense. It could be used as a punishment or torture tool used in connection with crux and perhaps also as an equivalent to crux. A condemned person could be forced to walk attached to a patibulum, but it is not sure in what way or in what sense he or she walked. It may be only a variant of walking sub furca. The etymology could be interpreted as support for the notion that a spreading of arms was connected with the noun. In the studied texts patibulum is used in the following sense:

patibulum – “a beam or pole in a wide sense; a beam, a yoke or perhaps a standing pole to which victims were attached (by their limbs); a beam or a yoke which a condemned person carried with outspread arms.”

The statement of Aurelius Victor, considering that it refers to “breaking the legs”, is indeed probably a reference to crucifixion; but perhaps we should be just a little careful here, and mark it as merely a possible.

  1. [1]H/T Sarah Bond, via Dorothy King’s blog, here, for some references.
  2. [2]H.W. Bird (tr.), Aurelius Victor: De Caesaribus, Liverpool (1994), p.49.
  3. [3]M. Hengel, Crucifixion, 1977, p.62.
  4. [4]Gunnar Samuelson, Crucifixion in Antiquity, Mohr-Siebeck, 2013. Preview of p.191 here.
  5. [5]M. Hengel, Crucifixion, 1977.