Dimas and Gestas: Bandits Crucified with Christ

By Stephen Basdeo

Banditry and outlawry always flourish whenever and wherever the state is weak and/or unwilling to enforce its laws. Medieval England is a prime example of this, and of course it is during this period that stories of Robin Hood first emerge, evident by William Langland’s allusions to ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ in The Vision of Piers the Plowman (c. 1377). However, let me take you even further back than the medieval period and into the ancient world, to the time when the Roman Empire ruled Europe and the Near East, and when a young, upstart religious leader was causing a stir in the somewhat backward province of Judea.[1]

Most people will be familiar with the story of Jesus’s last hours on earth; he had been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane; he was brought before the Sanhedrin; then taken to stand trial before Pontius Pilate; and then the crowd demanded his blood by ordering Pilate to crucify him. Jesus was then ordered to carry his cross to Calvary where he was to be crucified (there are very few historians who doubt that Jesus actually existed, but of course, whether one believes he was the Son of God or not is entirely a matter of faith and, thankfully, not a subject which this website deals with).[2]

bandits-on-cross
17th-century illustration of Jesus and the bandits being crucified (c) Wikimedia Commons

Nails were hammered into his hands and feet and he was placed upon the cross. Yet Jesus was not the only person to be crucified that day. The Gospel of Luke tells us that on either side of him were two robbers. One believed Jesus was innocent of any crime, while the other goaded Jesus:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23: 39-41 NIV).

We know very little about the two thieves from the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, more light is shed on their identity in the apocryphal Book of Nicodemus, which gives us the two men’s names:

But one of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, whose name was Gestas, said to Jesus, “If thou art the Christ, deliver thyself and us.” But the thief who was crucified on his right hand, whose name was Dimas, answering, rebuked him, and said, “Dost not thou fear God who art condemned to this punishment?” We indeed receive rightly and justly the demerit of our actions, but this Jesus, what evil has he done?”

While the apocryphal sources give us the names of the two thieves executed with Jesus, we know little about their actual crimes. One thing is for certain, however: they were not simply petty thieves as implied by many modern English translations who simply use the word “thief” or “criminal”. The punishment for petty theft and even some larger thefts (what Americans might call “grand larceny” today) in the Ancient Roman world was usually a fine and an order to repay four times the value of the stolen goods to the victim by way of restitution. Historians generally report that these punishments were fairly standardized throughout the Roman Empire. If a criminal could not pay the debt, a further punishment might be ordering the offender to serve a period of indentured servitude.

killed-by-bandits1
(c) B. D. Shaw

Instead it is more likely that the men were bandits or highwaymen, which is what B. D. Shaw argues in his article ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’, where he translates this passage using the term ‘bandits’.[3] The Roman state enacted a number of measures to deal with bandits; Shaw notes that the construction of watchtowers and military posts throughout the empire were not simply a means of subduing potentially hostile local populations but also to protect travellers from robbers. Similarly, Roman soldiers were not just instruments of conquest but also provided a rudimentary form of policing, functioning as detectives, law enforcers, torturers, executioners, and gaolers. Having said this, this form of policing was only effective in the highly militarised parts of the empire, but there were many areas where the arm of the state could not fully penetrate. For this reason numerous laws were also passed which encouraged local people (whom the Roman state knew would often give tacit approval to the actions of bandits) to betray them in return for a reward. Furthermore, citizens were exempted from homicide laws if they killed a bandit.

Ancient Roman bandits were a class apart from common criminals. The justice meted out to them, if they were caught, was summative (i.e. judgment against them was declared on the spot). The punishment ranged from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, to being burned alive or being crucified. Although the punishment of crucifixion has been held up by Christian scholars throughout history as an example of the savagery of the Romans’ punishment of Christ, it was actually quite a rare punishment in the Roman Empire, which further suggests that the men crucified alongside Jesus were not simply common thieves but bandits or brigands. Banditry was endemic in the Roman Empire and the men who turned to it often belonged to the same insurrectionary groups who wished to overthrow Roman rule, which was often the case with bandits in pre-modern societies, as illustrated by Eric Hobsbawm.

One translation of the New Testament, in fact, in its rendering of Matthew 27: 44, renders that passage as follows:

“Even the revolutionaries who were crucified with [Jesus] ridiculed him in the same way” (New Living Translation)

The word used in that passage, according to Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott, is λῃσταὶ (‘léstés’) meaning ‘brigand, robber’. And this of course is the same word used in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan who helps the victim of a robbery by λῃσταῖς (‘lēstais’), the plural of ‘brigand’. Whether or not Dimas and Gestas were truly revolutionaries is beside the point; the fact is that the Roman state viewed such highway robberies to be subversive and dangerous enough to warrant that most savage form of execution: crucifixion.

In spite of the measures enacted against it, banditry continued to be a problem throughout the entire Roman Empire, from Judaea to Britannia, and the three most common causes of death were old age, sickness, and attacks by bandits. Travelling on the country roads from town to town presented the greatest threat to coming into contact with bandits. Contemporary records reveal that high status Roman citizens could often simply disappear if they travelled beyond city walls without adequate protection. Another sign of the ubiquity of bandits in Roman life is the fact that “killed by bandits” appears as an inscription on several tombs of Roman citizens.

Little more will ever be known about the lives of Dimas and Gestas (and there is no compelling reason to doubt their existence); while Gestas was unrepentant, Dimas seems to have had a conscience and perhaps he may also have been an archetypal noble robber in the style of Robin Hood or Bulla Felix, the Ancient Roman Robin Hood.


Works Cited

[1] Further information on Dimas and Gestas will be briefly considered in my forthcoming book: The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018).

[2] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 339 states of baptism and crucifixion that these “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent.

[3] B. D. Shaw, ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’, Past and Present, 105 (1984), 4-52 (p. 4).

Further Reading:

Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford: OUP, 2011)

Thomas Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality Trans. J. Drinkwater (London: Routledge, 2004)

Hone, William, trans. The Apocryphal New Testament (London: W. Hone, 1820)

 

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‘By god that dyed on a tree’: Crux Simplex in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)
Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)

A purely speculative post; I am not a medieval historian or linguist, and this is just something I’ve noticed whilst reading A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (1510). I may be wrong, and am certainly willing to be corrected; comments are most welcome!


It is generally agreed amongst most major Christian religions that Jesus Christ died on a cross; an upright stake with a crossbeam. That Christ died on a cross, however, has been debated over the centuries, and some early-modern scholars such as Justus Lipsius illustrated the different ways in which a crucifixion could be carried out. In particular, his illustration of the crux simplex in De Cruce Libri Tres (1594) shows a man suspended upon an upright stake, [1] indicating that the instrument of death used to torture Christ could have been a simpler device compared to the cross that is commonly accepted in many Christian religions, [2] although Lipsius does also include illustrations of more recognisable crucifixions carried out upon a standard cross. Even in the modern period Patrick Fairbairn in The Imperial Bible Dictionary (1874) suggested that the ‘cross’ which Christ died upon may originally have been an upright pole. [3]

It is not the intention here to debate whether or not Christ actually died upon an upright stake, but to highlight a surprisingly interesting source where it appears as though it is implied that Christ died, not on a cross but upon a tree. This source is the medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. No precise date can be given for the original composition of this ballad as it is a compilation of a number of Robin Hood tales that were originally disseminated orally, [4] although somewhere between c.1400 [5] and c.1450 [6] seems to be the consensus among researchers. The first printed appearance of the Geste, however, appeared in 1492, with successive editions appearing throughout the sixteenth century. [7] The Geste then made its appearance again in eighteenth-century ballad collections such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), and Francis James Child’s five-volume work English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published between 1882 and 1898). It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes’ and sees Robin and his men relieve a financially distressed knight; participate in archery contests; meeting with the King; and the Geste also tells of Robin Hood’s death at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

It is in Robin’s meeting with the poor knight in the first fytte that the first reference Christ dying upon a tree is found. Robin asks the knight why he is poor. The knight has had to post bail for his son who slew a man of Lancaster, and to get the needed funds he has had to mortgage his lands to the corrupt abbot of St. Mary’s in York. When Robin meets the knight, it is the day that the repayment is due, the funds for which the knight does not have. And neither does the Knight have any friends who can help him out of his financial difficulties:

Hast thou ony frendes sayd Robyn

The borowes that wyll be

have none then sayd the knight

But god that dyed on a tree. [8]

Robin lends the knight the £400 that he needs to repay the abbot, and sends the knight on his way to York with Little John acting as a man-servant. When John and the knight arrive at the Abbey of St. Mary’s, the knight initially pretends that he cannot repay the loan. He initially pleads for mercy from the abbot, but to no avail for the abbot refuses to show any leniency:

The abbot sware a full grete othe

By god that dyed on a tree

Get the londe where thou may

for thou getest none of me. [9]

To the abbot’s chagrin, the knight reveals that he does indeed have enough money to repay the abbot, and that if the abbot had been willing to show courtesy and mercy towards him, he would have been rewarded. The abbot turns to the justice who is in the room and says:

Take my golde agayne sayd the abbot

Syr justice that I toke the

Not a peny sayd the justice

By god that dyed on a tree.[10]

Whoever the anonymous author(s) of the Geste was, it is clear that he is here referring, not a cross, but to a more simple structure. When the Sheriff of Nottingham sees Little John’s archery skills on display at a shooting match, he makes a similar oath ‘by hym that dyed on a tree.’[11] There is also another similar reference later on in the ballad. After an archery contest in Nottingham, when Robin splits the arrow in two, the Sheriff recognises them and the outlaws rush to make their escape. In the ensuing affray Little John is wounded, and he asks Robin:

Mayster then sayd Lytell Johan

If thou ever lovest me

And for that ylke lordes love

That dyed upon a tre

And for the medes of my service

That I have served the

Lete never the proud sheryf

Alyve now fynde me.[12]

Now it might be thought that too much is being read into these passages, and I could just be splitting hairs (feel free to comment below). After all, a tree can indeed mean a cross. The only time that the author uses a variation of the phrases previously highlighted is at the end of the eighth fytte where it says:

Cryst have mercy on his [Robin’s] soule

That dyed on the rode.[13]

According to the Middle English Dictionary Online, the word ‘rode’ can mean ‘cross’ in the term by which it would be popularly understood.[14] It remains to ask, however, why the author, or authors, of the Geste used ‘tree’ throughout the ballad when there were words which would have more clearly conveyed the sense of a cross proper?


References

[1] Justus Lipsius De Crvce Libri Tres Ad sacram profanamque historiam utiles. Vna cum Notis (Antwerp: 1594), p.10.
[2] The exception to this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion. They believe that Christ died upon an upright stake, or pole with no crossbeam. Their position is explained in one of their society’s publications. See Anon. Insight on the Scriptures (New York: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1988), pp.1116-1117. [See jw.org]
[3] Patrick Fairburn The Imperial Bible Dictionary (London: Blackie & Son, 1874), p.376.
[4] Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p.24.
[5] A. J. Pollard writes that ‘textual and linguistic analysis has suggested a possible date of composition of the elements [of the Geste] as early as c.1400 and dates for the compositions to be committed to writing about 1450. See A. J. Pollard Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2004), p.6.
[6] There is debate about the dating of A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, but James C. Holt argues that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400. See James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ ed. by Kevin Carpenter Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), pp.27-34.
[7] Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood, p.6.
[8] Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode and his meyne And of the proude Sheryfe of Notyngham (London: Wynken de Worde, c.1510) Cambridge University Library Shelfmark: Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Frances McSparran (ed.) Middle English Compendium (University of Michigan, 2006) [Internet <<http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mec/index.html>&gt; Accesssed 14/08/2015].