The Tortures and Torments
of the Christian Martyrs
De SS. Martyrum
(a Modern Edition)
Of the Wooden Horse as an Instrument of Martyrdom; and
Other Sorts of Bonds
the Wooden Horse was used as an instrument of torture is alluded
to both by Cicero in the Pro Deiotaro, the Pro Milone,
and the Philippics, and by other ancient writers such as Valerius
Maximus, Quintilian, Seneca, and Ammianus Marcellinus. We also encounter
numerous references to it in the different Histories and Acts
of the Martyrs, especially those of St. Crescentianus, Sts. Dorothy,
Agatha, and Eulalia, Virgins and Martyrs, Sts. Felix and Fortunatus,
Sts. Alexander and Bassus, Bishops and Martyrs — not to mention countless
others of either sex. In addition to these writers and the Lives
of Saints, we find mention of the Wooden Horse made by St. Cyprian,
in his Epistle to Donatus and elsewhere, by St. Jerome, St. Augustine,
Eusebius, Isidore, and others — as well as by Prudentius, repeatedly,
in his Hymns.
All these agree that the Horse was an ancient instrument of torture
that was used for forcing the truth from suspected or guilty
persons. Cicero, for example, in his Pro Deiotaro, writes:
"By the custom of our ancestors
a slave may bring no charge against his master, even under examination
by torture, when pain can force the truth from the most unwilling
witness. Yet such was the duress brought to bear on this slave that
the man whom he could not so much as name when on the horse, he
openly accused once set free." And again, "To elicit facts, the
horse is the proper place; to discuss points of law, the Court."
The same may be gathered from
what Ammianus Marcellinus says:
"Though he stood bent
double under the wooden horse, yet he persisted in a stubborn
and uncompromising denial."
Apart from being used as a means
of extricating the truth from those accused of crimes, the wooden
horse, we find, was equally used as a means for torturing men and cruelly
racking them to the end of punishment — as was plainly the case
with the Christian martyrs. Accordingly we find frequent mention made
of this instrument in the Histories in such recurring phrases
as, "he was tortured on the horse", "suspended on the horse", "hoisted
on to the horse", "put on the horse", etc.
With regard to the use of the wooden horse as an instrument of torture,
the various writers are all agreed — but not so concerning its precise
description and exact form. For some have declared in so many words
that it was a red-hot plate of metal; others a sort of rack by means
of which a man was suspended with hands tied above his head and with
heavy weights attached to both feet.
Others again, Sigonius among them,
and many religious authors who have followed him, hold it to have been
a sort of wooden framework provided with pulleys and adapted, alternately,
for stretching and relaxing, and intended for torturing people and compelling
them to tell the truth about some circumstance:
"Now the nature of this torture,"
he says, "was as follows. After binding the arms and legs of the
person to be tortured to this frame by means of small thongs known
as fiddle strings, they then extended the framework and set it upright,
so that the victim found himself suspended upon it, as on a cross.
This done, they proceeded in the first place to force apart all
the joints and articulations of his limbs; then the placed red-hot
plates close to his body, and last of all tore his sides with two-pronged
iron hooks ..."
On the contrary, others maintain
that it was merely a wooden contrivance fashioned something like a horse
(as we will explain further on), having two channeled wheels, or pulleys,
fixed at either end in hollows made to receive them, and capable of
being revolved upon their pins or axles. Over these, ropes were led
in such a way that accused persons could be fastened to them, and so
tortured through being racked and stretched.
These, then, are the various opinions held by different writers concerning
the Wooden Horse. Given this diversity of opinion, we can only arrive
at a genuine understanding of the actual nature of this device if the
evidence is very carefully considered. Upon examining the first of these
opinions, we find it the least compelling . For how can we suppose the
"horse" itself to have been a red-hot plate, when we read in almost
any History of the Martyrs, as well as in the works of other
ancient authors, of men being first hoisted on the horse and
once there, then being burned with red-hot plates?
The second and third opinions
concerning the nature and construction of this device, can also be conclusively
discredited. How possibly can the facts that our predecessors have presented
in their writings about the wooden horse be made to accord with these
conjectures? They cannot. Indeed, we will now demonstrate that the last
quoted opinion alone authentically accords with the facts. This view
may be restated for the sake of clarity as such:
The "horse" in antiquity was
an engine of wood fashioned to resemble a real horse, having two
small, channeled wheels, or pulleys, situated at both ends which
were hollowed out to receive them. Over the axles of these wheels
or pulleys, ropes were led, and the wheels revolved, by which means
the person tied to them was racked and stretched in various directions.
To understand this more clearly,
let us examine how the ancients constructed this device we call the
wooden horse. To begin with, they prepared a straight beam of wood of
a convenient length and breadth; into the two ends of this, which they
had previously hollowed out somewhat, they attached small channeled
wheels that turned upon axles. In order to raise the entire device above
the ground, they used four other pieces of timber, shorter and thinner
than the first, which they then fastened with iron nails near the four
corners, and so constructed a mechanical device standing on four legs
and somewhat resembling a real horse.
Once completed, the victim to
be tortured was placed upon its back and had his two legs forcibly drawn
apart. The tormentors then took ropes, one binding the tied the man's
feet, and the other his hands after they had twisted the latter behind
him. Next, leading these ropes over the small wheels or pulleys and
carrying them to a small device much like a winch or windlass (we conjecture)
that was attached to the "horse's legs, they wound the ropes around
it and turning it round, drew the bonds taut in such a way that the
man, tied with his back to the horse's back and his face looking skywards,
was then stretched along with them. Thus they would continue turning
the winch, drawing the ropes tighter and tighter, until every limb was
strained and every joint dislocated.
Eventually they would either leave
him in this condition, or else at a sign from the Judge relax the ropes
and let him drop and hang bent under the horse's belly, to increase
his pain. Then the Judge, sufficiently assured that the pain inflicted
would induce the truth that would either convict or acquit the prisoner,
would proceed to question and cross-question him rigorously of his complicity
in the matter in question. However, if the victim was still resolute
in holding out and defied the magistrate's expectations, he would then
order hot plates to be brought, or iron claws, hooks and the like, to
inflict greater pain still, in the hope of yet eliciting the truth.
So much, then, for the shape, construction, and purposes of the wooden
horse. It is only left now to confirm the explanation we have given
in each and every particular by other considerations and the evidence
provided by ancient authors.
In the first place, that this device made from wood was made in the
likeness of a real horse is clear from the very name given it: "the
horse" (equuleus) [literally, "little horse" in Latin].
Moreover, to this day many sorts of benches and other articles of furniture
that are raised up from the ground on four legs are called "horses."
Again, the language employed by many ancient writers shows clearly that
in speaking of prisoners being set on the wooden instrument, they had
in their mind the mounting of actual, live horses. Thus Cicero, in the
Tusculan Orations, [actually, Cicero's "Disputations"]
"They mount the wooden horse,"
"Trying to get on the horse's back."
So again the poet Pomponius writes:
"And when I had leapt" (a
word properly used of anyone mounting a horse) "on the back of the
pulley horse, I was tortured full-trot," — (after mounting the horse
with the channeled wheels, I was tortured at a great pace, that
is to say, by means of the ropes and pulleys provided for that purpose.)
So, too, we routinely read
in descriptions of the Blessed Martyrs' sufferings — particularly in
that of Saints Abundius and Abundantius — that the Christians were
hoisted on the horse to be tortured. It is perfectly plain, then,
that the horse was a device of wood made in the likeness of a horse,
and nothing else whatever.
Lastly, this view would seem to be strongly corroborated by St. Jerome
in his, Epistle to the Innocents, and Seneca, of whom the former
writes that persons tortured on the wooden horse kept their eyes turned
heavenwards, the latter that they lay extended full length on it. Thus
St. Jerome says:
"Although his body was
stretched upon the horse, his eyes — the only part of him the tormentor
could not bind — gazed up to heaven;"
"You actually try to persuade
us it makes no matter whether a man be full of joy or be lying on
If therefore, as it is said
here, prisoners lay on the wooden horse and looked up to heaven, it
is more likely this instrument was constructed like a horse than otherwise.
Again, the fact that the horse was fitted with little channeled wheels,
or pulleys, may be concluded from the verses of the ancient poet Pomponius
previously quoted, as appears to be the case from the facts and explanations
we have given above.
That victims were hoisted up on the horse, with their arms twisted behind
their back and their legs bound to the instrument with cords, which
themselves were led over small devices that were essentially pulleys,
and so stretched and torn asunder — this, I repeat, may be proved from
many and various passages, particularly in Eusebius' History
where he says:
"For in the first place some
were suspended with hands tied behind them to the wood, and by means
of certain engines all their limbs stretched and strained apart
Further, that this is to be understood
of the wooden horse, is indicated in the passage which immediately follows:
"Next, at the magistrates'
command were they terribly racked in their whole body by the tormentors,
and not only their sides, as is commonly done with murderers, but
their stomach also, as well as their shins and knees were beaten
with iron scourges or claws."
Moreover the evidence can be yet
further corroborated by another passage from St. Jerome's Epistle
to the Innocents, where he writes:
"But indeed the woman was
stronger than her sex, and although the horse was racking her body,
while her hands, stained with the filth of the prison, were bound
with cords behind her, yet with her eyes ..."
This can also be further adduced
from Prudentius' Hymn on the Martyrdom of St. Vincent, in which
the Tyrant addresses the tormentors:
Vinctum retortis brachiis
Sursum et deorsum extendite,
Compago donec ossium
Divulsa membratim crepet.
("Go bind the man with arms twisted behind the back, and rack him
up and down, until the framework of his bones crack, as he is torn
limb from limb.")
And again from the account of
St. Romanus, where the indomitable Martyr speaks from the horse's back:
Miserum putatis. quod retortis
Extensus ulnis, pod revelluntur pedes.
Compago nervis quod sonat crepantibus.
("You deem me unhappy, because I hang stretched here with elbows
twisted behind me, because my legs are drawn asunder and all my
frame cracks as the sinews are racked.")
From all these passages it plainly
follows, in our opinion, that prisoners were bound hand and foot with
cords, the hands being twisted behind the back, and by the revolution
of certain small contrivances through which the ropes passed, were racked
limb by limb and and torn apart.
That the horse was provided with devices of the nature of pulleys, may
be further corroborated from what Vitruvius the architect says in his
works [De Architectura libri decem] when treating of the use
of pulleys and other instruments for hauling, such as the capstan and
windlass. He lays it down that a running rope after being led over a
pulley must, if weights are to be lifted or shifted, be carried eventually
to some engine of the windlass kind.
The fact that victims lay stretched full length on the horse with face
turned upward, while the ropes were being pulled taut, is shown vividly
by the passages quoted from St. Jerome and Seneca; but there is one
other point that should be noted (as we are advised in the Epistle
of St. Jerome), to wit, that in order to further increase the torment,
the executioners sometimes fastened the hair of women undergoing the
punishment of the horse to its wooden frame. Little wonder that
this intensified the pain, for when the ropes were slackened by the
tormentors, and the victims fell under the horse's belly (as we will
soon see from the account of Ammianus Marcellinus) with bodies hanging
bent in a curve, the hair was bound to be strained and dragged out of
the scalp, to the extreme torment of the woman.
That victims fell underneath the instrument with bodies hanging bent
when the tightened ropes were slackened, is attested to, among other
authors, by Ammianus Marcellinus, who writes:
"He delivered up many
innocent persons to the tormentors, and put them to hang with bodies
bent underneath the horse," and again (as already quoted), "Although
he remained with his body bent underneath the horse, he still persisted
in a stubborn and uncompromising denial."
Now in these passages, and
particularly the latter, did the author mean to imply that the ropes
were slackened in order to increase the pain, or was it done
to the end of diminishing and relieving it? The first is our
own opinion, whereas the second is maintained by Sigonius and his followers.
Sigonius holds that the ancients relaxed the ropes by which the bodies
of prisoners were stretched on the horse, for the purpose of relieving
the pain. Accordingly he writes:
"Even as the horse, or rather
the strings upon it were drawn tight in order to increase pain,
so were these relaxed again to relieve it ..."
To substantiate this practice,
he quotes the following from Valerius Maximus:
"When Zeno was being tortured
by Nearchus the Tyrant, he [Zeno] declared that there was something
of benefit for the other [the Tyrant] to hear privately; then when
the horse was slackened, he caught the tyrant's ear between his
teeth and bit it off;"
And again in another place,
"Hieronymus the Tyrant exhausted
the efforts of the tormentors, which were of no avail; for he broke
the scourges, loosened the cords, relaxed the horse and put out
the red-hot plates, before he could compel the other to reveal his
confederates in tyrannicide."
Another point is to be noted.
This slackening of the ropes clearly implies what we had stated at the
beginning of the chapter concerning the wooden horse: that it was raised
somewhat from the ground in all parts. It follows, then, that Prudentius,
in his Hymn on the Martyrdom of St. Romanus, represents that
soldier of Christ crying out from the horse as from the top of an elevated
Audite cuncti: clamo longe,
Emito vocem de catasta celsior
(Hear all men: I cry aloud and proclaim my tidings, I utter my voice,
lifted high on this scaffold.")
Fidiculae — What did Those
in Antiquity Understand by the Word
Sigonius, in a passage quoted
above, states that in his opinion these were the thongs or bands by
which the prisoner's limbs were bound to the wooden horse, and that
to speak of criminals as being tortured with the fidiculae is
the same thing as saying they were attached by these thongs to the horse,
and afterwards all the joints of their bones stretched and dragged apart
to their extreme agony. However, there are too many considerations that
convince us beyond a doubt that the scholars who hold this view are
St. Isidore, for example, declares in no uncertain terms that fidiculae
were not thongs at all, but rather iron claws or hooks by which those
condemned to torture were lacerated. This agrees with what Prudentius
says in his Hymn of St. Romanus the Martyr, where he speaks of
fidiculae as if they were types of claws or hooks. These
are the words, Prudentius tells us, spoken by Asclepias the Judge:
Vertat ictum carnifex
In os loquentis inque maxillas manuum,
Sulcosque actuos, et fidiculas transferat,
Verbositatis ut rumpatur locus.
("Let the executioner aim a blow at the speaker's lips, and strike
his jaws with sharp cuts and iron claws, to the end that
the place from which the words come may be destroyed.")
That by fidiculae here
Asclepias meant claws, is made clear by the verses the author immediately
Implet jubentis dicta lictor
Charaxat ambas ungulis scribentibus
Genas, cruentis et secat faciem rotis:
Hirsuta barbrissolvitur carptim cutis,
Et mentum adusque vultus omnis scinditur.
("The cruel lictor [the bodyguard of a Roman magistrate]
obeys the Judge's orders; he marks both his cheeks with the writing
of the iron claws, and ploughs his face with bloodstained wheels.
The skin and the beard that roughens it are flayed away in patches,
the chin and all the features are lacerated.")
On the other hand, the historian
Suetonius in De Vita Caesarum seems to contradict this view in
a passage where the fidiculae are spoken of, apparently, as quite
a different form of punishment:
"He had devised yet another
method of torture; after treacherously inducing his victims to drink
long and heavily, he would suddenly have their privates tied up,
so that they suffered agonies both from the constriction of the
strings (fidiculae) and the distension of their bladders
by the accumulated urine."
But without disputing Suetonius's
authority, it may be conceded that what he describes here is something
altogether different from what is recorded as to fidiculae in
the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs and the other authorities
However, with regard to what we said above concerning other kinds of
tortures in which prisoners were stretched on the wooden horse and tormented,
it should be noted that our ancestors often stretched a person on the
horse, and then by means of fidiculae or iron claws tore at his
limbs, or else burned them with red-hot plates of metal, or the like.
This is to be found recorded in several collections of Acts of
the Blessed Martyrs, and particularly in St. Cyprian's Epistle to
Donatus, where he writes:
"The spear was there,
and the sword, and the executioner standing ready, the iron claw
that mangles and scrapes the sides, the horse that stretches the
limbs, and the fire that burns — many kinds of torments for one
poor human body!"
And again in another place:
"But soon the hard-hearted
Judge's cruelty was roused anew, and the victim, already worn out
with pain, was again torn by the lash, beaten by the cudgels, racked
on the horse, lacerated by the iron claw and scorched by the flames."
So too St. Augustine writes in
his Epistle to Marcellinus:
"When, I ask, did you
drag forth confession of such heinous crimes, not by the horse that
stretches the limbs, nor the iron claws that mangle or the flames
that burn, but by mere blows of the lash?"
Likewise Cicero, In Verrem:
"But what when fire and red-hot
plates and the rest of the torturer's contrivances were brought
in?" and in the Philippics: "Call up before your eyes bonds
and lashes, the horse, the executioner, and grim Samarius the torturer."
"And all his apparatus of
cruelty must be paid back to him, his horses and his iron claws,
his fetters and crosses, his stakes and fires, and the hook that
drags the mangled corpse from the arena."
Also Ammianus Marcellinus:
"The horses were stretched
ready, and the executioner was fitting his hooks and preparing his
instruments of torture."
It only remains to quote a few
verses from the Hymns of Prudentius illustrating the same point.
From the Hymn of St. Vincent, Martyr:
Extorque si potes, fidem
Tormenta, carcer, ungulae,
Stridensque flammis lamina,
Atque ipsa poenarum ultima
Mors Chistianis ludus est.
("Rob me of my faith, if you can. Tortures, prison, iron claws,
the red-hot plate crackling with flames, and death itself, the last
of punishments, all are but sport to Christian men.")
And a little further on in the
Ridebat haec miles Dei,
Manus cruentas increpans
Quod fixa non profondius
Intraret artus ungula.
( "All this God's champion made mock of, clapping his bleeding hands,
laughing because the hook that pierced his flesh ate not more deeply
Likewise from the Hymn
of St. Romanus, the Martyr:
Amor coronae poenae praevenit
Lictoris artem, sponte nudas offerens
Costas bisulcis excecandas ungulis.
("Love of the crown of martyrdom forestalls the savage skill
of the torturer, [the martyr] willingly offering naked flanks to
be lacerated by the two-pronged hooks.")
And again in the same:
Non ungularum tanta vis
Mucrone, quanta dira pulsat pleuris:
Nec sic inusta laminis ardet cutis,
Ut febris atro fele venas exedit.
"Not so sharp do the iron claws tear the side with their keen points, as pleurisy
does when it makes its dread attack; not so hot the fiery plates
burn and scorch the skin, as fever and black bile when they consume
From all these passages, therefore,
it very clearly appears that the view we have adopted concerning the
"horse" is, in fact, the correct one; that is to say, that it was a
mechanical device constructed of wood wrought in the likeness of a real
horse — and not as Sigonius mistakes it, as being merely a sort of scaffold
or platform. For, if it were the latter, how could the poet Pomponius,
cited above, have spoken of prisoners leaping on the horse, and
Cicero have used words of the same implication? Or how could Ammianus
Marcellinus have described men being racked on the horse, and then when
the ropes by which they were bound were slackened, immediately falling
underneath it with the body hanging bent in a curve and not extended
We must now look into Sigonius' reasons and clarify our refutation of
them. His first point is that Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History),
when mentioning the horse, implies that it was some sort of scaffold
or platform of wood that was generally used to raise something aloft.
His words are:
"But when these cruel and
tyrannical forms of torture, by reason of the Saints' holy patience,
which was confirmed by Christ's merits, seemed to have been applied
and inflicted in vain, the devil devised new contrivances against
them. For this reason they were thrown into dungeons, and lay miserably
in places dark and gloomy and full of every horror, while sometimes
their feet were fixed in heavy stocks and stretched wide apart,
even as far as the fifth hole."
This shows the horse, Sigonius
adds, to have been a wooden platform, on which the bodies of criminals
were stretched. Other passages he relies on are from Sozomen's History,
where, speaking of Busiris, a Christian from the Galatian town of Ancyra
who was crucified for the Faith at Myros, a city of Phrygia, under the
Emperor Julian the Apostate, he writes:
"So when they had brought
him to the beam of torment, he ordered this to be raised aloft,"
and again, "From among the Christians which had been cast into prison
he selected first a young man named Theodore, and bound him to the
stake on which punishments were usually inflicted, where he was
mangled with iron claws for a long time".
Similarly Prudentius — not to
quote a second time the verses from his Hymn on the martyrdom of St.
Romanus, where he makes that Saint speak of uttering his voice from
on high on the scaffold — says of a martyr:
"Scindunt utrumque milites
Mucrone bisulco pensilis latus viri."
("The savage soldiers cut open with a two-edged sword either
side of the man as he hung there.")
These are the main citations to
which Sigonius and those who are in agreement with him appeal, and which
we now must refute. It is clear to us that Sigonius has confused the
wooden horse on the one hand, with the wooden platform or scaffold upon
which criminals were set to be tortured on the other; and also with
the heavy fetters or stocks in which jailed prisoners had their legs
fixed and stretched asunder to the fourth or fifth hole, and so kept
in constant pain.
Moreover it may be noted that this word platform has yet another
meaning, signifying sometimes, though less properly, a device like a
long and large set of stocks in which slaves were kept shackled when
exposed for sale. It is also used on occasions to mean the frame or
gridiron upon which St. Lawrence and other martyrs died. So Prudentius,
in his Hymn on St. Lawrence, sings:
Postquam vapor diutius
Decoxit exustum latus,
Ultro et catasta Judicem
Compellat affatu brevi:
Converte partem corporis,
Satis crematus jugiter.
("When the heat had long been scorching and roasting the one
side, accosting the Judge from the frame — that is from the iron
gridiron — the Martyr said shortly and briefly: Turn my body now
over the other side; this one is burned enough and to spare.")
But it is obvious that the true
and general meaning of the word platform or scaffold pertained
to a raised place upon which people were lifted up so that their tortures
might be better seen by those present, and that Sigonius' understanding
of the word horse, confused the two things, considering them
One word more concerning the sort of shackles or stocks into
which prisoners were set in jail with their legs
parted to the fourth or fifth hole, and so kept for periods of prolonged
torment. Clearly this instrument can in no way be considered the same
as the wooden horse, as has been maintained, for various reasons. First,
because by the operation of the former, the bodies of men were made
broader, whereas by the latter, as we find stated by Seneca,
longer. Secondly, it is plain that the former punishment was
only used in the jail (as we shall soon see when we come to bonds and
fetters), while the latter, on the contrary, and as countless Acts
of the Blessed Martyrs bear witness, was used outside the prison walls,
and most generally in the public places of cities. Thirdly, on the horse
not only were the legs of the victim racked and stretched prior to mangling
by the iron claws, but the entire body. In the stocks, on the
other hand, the legs alone were drawn asunder. All this suffices to
show that shackles or stocks were something entirely different
from the wooden horse.
Of Many Different Ways by which the Bodies of the Prisoners
were Racked and Stretched
It had long been the practice
of the ancients to rack and stretch the bodies of accused persons in
several ways: by means of the horse, by pulleys, or by hanging them
up with heavy weights attached to the feet — and by other methods as
well, such as mangling with claws and iron combs and similar instruments,
or by burning them with red-hot plates. These tortures were effected
in different ways as well, either by hoisting the victims on the wooden
horse, or suspending them in any of the different ways described in
Chapter I, where we found that they were tied to stakes, trees, or pillars.
Of How People were Bound
to the Wooden Horse, and how they were Suspended as from an Elevated
Beam; also the True Significance of Being Hanged on the Horse
Again and again we read in accounts
of the passions of the Blessed Martyrs words of the following sort:
"The Martyr was hanged on a horse"— by which many assumed (as we had
mentioned above) that the horse was not framed to resemble a
real horse, but was, in fact, something different. When we carefully
examine the works of ancient authors, however, we find that this word
"hanged" also signified simply being raised or lifted
up to any place. To speak, then, of a Martyr's being hanged
on the horse is the same thing as saying that he was simply lifted
up upon it. Hence it is that in reading the Histories of
the Saints who have won the Crown of Martyrdom, we find the Judge or
Emperor who is ordering someone to be tortured on the horse using words
such as these: "Let the man be hoisted on the horse, and there racked."
For example, in the Acts of the most Blessed Saints Abundius,
Priest, and Abundantius, Deacon, we read the following: "Then Diocletian
commanded them to be hoisted on the horse and tortured for a long time;
and when they were being so tortured ..." To be hanged on the
horse, then, means nothing more nor less than simply to be lifted up
and placed upon it.
This is also confirmed in the Histories of Sts. Regina and Marguerite,
Virgins and Martyrs, for at the beginning we find written, "Marguerite
was hanged on the horse", while a little further on it is added, "After
many days the people again came together and she was brought before
the Judge, and scorning to make sacrifice to idols, she was again hoisted
on the horse ..."
This is not to say that on occasion the martyrs actually hanged suspended
from the horse to which they were bound, for when the ropes by which
they were tied were slackened, they would fall underneath the horse's
belly with bodies bent in a curve, as we mentioned earlier. Thus they
did not hang straight down from the instrument, as persons hanged usually
do, but with their bodies bent underneath it — something amply referred
to by Ammianus Marcellinus in many passages that we have already quoted.
Of Stretching or Extending
the Wooden Horse
Mention is sometimes found in
Ammianus and other writers of the horse being stretched and again relaxed.
This of course is to be understood not of the engine itself, but of
the ropes by which the victim to be tortured was bound to it, inasmuch
as when these ropes were drawn tight or slackened, the horse itself
appeared in a way to be extended and again relaxed.
Why the Wooden Horse was Called a Post, and in Other
Places a Cross
The material of the wooden horse
(as already stated) was formed of an oblong post or beam of timber,
supported on four other pieces or legs. This is referred to by St. Jerome,
Epistle to the Innocents, in these words: "Her hair was fastened
to the post, and her whole body bound to the horse; then a fire was
brought near her feet, and at the same moment the executioner tore both
her sides ..." In the same way Prudentius speaks of the horse
simply as the accursed post in his Hymn of St. Romanus
the Martyr, where he says:
Incensus his Asclepiades
Eviscerandum corpru equulleo eminus
Pendere, et uncis ungulisque crescere.
("Angered by the words, Asclepiades had ordered his body to
hang aloft in order to be mangled on the horse, and to endure the
hooks and iron claws.")
And a few lines further down:
Jubet amoveri noxialem
Plebeia clara poena ne damnet virum.
("He commands the accursed post to be removed, to save
the noble victim from so plebeian a doom.")
Neither is this the only other
name given the wooden horse, for we find it also called mala mansio,
or "bad quarters." [Literally, a bad, or evil, dwelling or place] Again,
it is sometimes spoken of as a cross; thus in the Acts of St.
Dorothy, Virgin and Martyr, among the holy days of the month of February,
we find written, concerning a certain Theophilus who was tortured on
the wooden horse, "Now behold! I am a Christian; for have I not been
hanged upon the cross" — that is to say the wooden horse. For this same
horse has a certain likeness to the cross.
It is no wonder it was so called, for in the first place we read of
other sorts of instruments of torture also being called crosses; and
secondly, because the bodies of those tortured upon them would be stretched
out like those of persons crucified; and finally, because the wooden
posts which represented the horse's legs, besides being nailed to the
main timber, were also joined to one another and connected by cross
pieces, although they were wide apart nearer the ground, and inasmuch
as they did, each pair of posts formed, as it were, the two arms of
One more quotation should suffice this topic. Sozomen, speaking of a
Christian named Busiris, writes:
"So taking him to the
public place where the wooden horse was, he ordered him to be hanged
up aloft upon it. Whereupon Busiris, lifting his hands to his head,
stripped bare his own sides, and addressing the Governor, said there
was no call for the lictors to take needless pains in lifting
him up on to the horse and then again removing him to the ground
This passage further corroborates
our earlier explanation as to what the wooden horse really was, and
that is to say, a mechanical device [constructed of wood, elevated on
four legs, with ropes, pulleys, and a winch] made in the likeness of
a live horse, upon which the Martyrs were lifted up to be tortured,
and not a mere platform or scaffold.
Of the Stocks and Different
other Methods of Biding Prisoners Securely
We have already made a distinction
between the wooden horse and the stocks in which Martyrs were kept in
torment with their legs forced apart to the fourth or fifth hole. we
must now endeavor to make a distinction between different types of
bonds that were used by the ancients, namely the stocks, thongs,
chains, shackles, fetters, manacles, neck collars, and the jail.
Plautus enumerates these in his play, the Asinaria:
Advorsum stimulos, laminas,
crucesque, compedesque, Nervos, catenas, carceres, numellas, pedicas,
boias. ("Against scourges and red-hot plates, against the cross
and the stocks, against thongs, chains, prisons, shackles, fetters,
and neck collars.")
Of the Stocks
By "stocks" we understand
a device made of wood, into which the legs of prisoners and criminals
were placed to be constrained, constricted, and confined. Both Plautus
and Terence, among ancient writers, make mention of this device:
Plautus in the Captivi,
Ubi ponderosas crassas
("When he is set in the heavy ponderous stocks")
Terence makes mention of it in
Molendum usqe in pistrino,
vapulandum habendae compedes ("We must grind for ever in the
mill, and be beat, and endure the stocks").
Horace again mentions something
about it in his Epodes:
Ibericis peruste funibus
Et crura dura compede.
("You whose side is chafed with Iberian bonds, and your legs
galled by the rough timbers of the stocks.")
And again in the Epistles:
... Argentum tollas licet,
in manicis et
Compedibus salvo te sub custode tenebo.
("Yes! You may take the money, but I will keep you manacled
and in the stocks under a hard taskmaster.")
It was in these sort of stocks
that the Blessed Martyrs were cruelly tormented; for (as we see in the
passages quoted above) after scourging and scarifying with iron claws,
their legs were stretched and forcibly drawn apart even to the fourth
or fifth hole of this instrument. Of this Prudentius speaks in one of
In hoc barathrum conjicit
Truculentus hostis martyrem,
Lignoque plantas inserit,
("Into this dungeon the truculent tyrant threw the martyr, and,
forcing his legs apart, inserted his feet in the stocks.")
It also seems clear from what
Eusebius says that when so set in the stocks, they were necessarily
compelled to lie flat on their backs on a wooden board. He writes:
"Some, moreover, after scourging,
were set in the stocks and their legs forced one from the other
as far as four holes apart, in such a way that they were necessarily
compelled to lie on their back on the wood, although they could
not do so without great difficulty, since their entire bodies were
covered with fresh wounds inflicted by the lash."
These too are mentioned in the
lines just quoted from the Asinaria of Plautus; and are described
this way by Nonius:
"The shackle is a species
of wooden contrivance formerly employed for torturing criminals
by the ancients, the victim's neck and feet being both inserted
That is to say, it was a wooden
instrument with round holes, into which the feet and neck of prisoners
were inserted, and fixed there in such a way that they could not withdraw
Our own belief, however, is that by the word shackle the ancients
actually signified several different sorts of bonds.
We are led to this conclusion by the words of Sextus Pompeius,
who speaks of shackles in these terms:
"The shackle is a sort of
bond or fastening wherewith four-footed beasts are secured; it is
made of a thong or a strip of raw ox-hide, as a general rule."
This so clearly differs from Nonius'
account, that, unless we are prepared to maintain that one or both were
must conclude the same word to have been applied with two different
These are mentioned by Plautus
in the Captivi:
Nam noctu nervo vinctus
("For at night-time he shall be kept guarded and bound with
And in the Curculio:
Atque ita te nervo torquebo,
ibidem ut catapultae solent ("And I will wrench your limbs with
a thong, even as the catapults are used to do"); and in other passages
as well. Likewise St. Cyprian, in his Epistles to Clergy
and People, says, speaking of Celerinus: "For nineteen days
he was shut up in prison, bound with thongs and iron bands ..."
But Sextus Pompeius adds something
more to his description of the thong, saying, "We likewise give this
name to an iron fetter for the feet, though Plautus speaks of it as
used also for the neck."
From the various sources of information
that we have gathered, then, the following definition seems most suitable:
"A thong is a species of bond used for securing the feet or neck."
Hence the saying of Cato recorded by Aulus Gellius: "Thieves guilty
of private thefts pass their days in confinement by thong and fetters,
public robbers in purple and gold. "
Fetters were nooses by which the
feet of prisoners or criminals were secured, and called so because they
confine the feet, just as manacles, or handcuffs, are so called because
they imprison the hands.
Manacles are bands for the hands;
as the Psalm [149.8] declares: "For binding their kings in fetters and
their princes in bands of iron."
Plautus again in his Mostellaria
Ut cum extemplo vocem
Continuo exiliatis, manicas celeriter connectite
("So that the moment I call, you may instantly spring forth;
then quickly fasten the manacles together.")
And in the Captivi:
Injicite huic actutum manicas
("Go, put manacles instantly on this scoundrel here").
Also Virgil in the Second Aeneid,
tells us that:
Ipse viro primus manicas,
atque arcta levari
Vincla jubet Priamus("King Priam himself is the first to bid
release the man from his manacles and constraining bonds.")
And this is not to mention a number
of other authors, whom, for the sake of brevity, we must refrain from
The English heretics at this present moment (1591) are vigorously engaged
in pursuing a course of cruelly afflicting Catholics by means of iron
manacles, or handcuffs as they call them.
Using this sort of instrument,
a man is hung up and tortured, his two hands being put through an iron
ring toothed inside, and violently squeezed. Indeed, so fierce and intense
is the pain that unless the back is allowed to lean somewhat against
a wall and the tips of the toes to touch the floor, the man will fall
helplessly into a dead faint. If you wish to learn more of these atrocities,
read Father Sanders' Work on the Anglican Schism, in which the
author calls this kind of torture the iron gauntlets. And now
to proceed to other instruments of torture.
Of Neck Collars
These may be described as follows:
Neck-collars were a sort of neck-band for condemned criminals, made
either of wood or iron, which enclosed their necks firmly, much as the
yoke upon oxen.
But there were other sorts of
neck-collars as well, differing from those just described, and yet of
the same nature, and generally also called collars, which Nonius
thus defines as follows: "The collar is any sort of bond whereby the
neck is constrained." So in Lucilius we find, "That with manacles, leash,
and collar, I may fetch home the fugitive." Indeed these neck-collars,
as is plainly shown in the Acts of St. Balbina and of Pope Alexander,
were largely employed among men of earlier days for binding and making
fast the necks of prisoners and criminals. So we read:
"Soon, kissing the neck-collars
of the most glorious Martyr, Pope Alexander, that Blessed Martyr
of Christ, St. Balbina, heard these words pronounced: 'Cease, daughter,
to salute these collars, and go seek instead the bonds of my master,
Hence it would seem these last
were something of the same nature; and indeed when the bonds are examined,
which are preserved to this day in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula
at Rome, by which that Holy Apostle of Christ was bound, they will be
found to include a round iron collar for the securing of the Martyr's
A chain is an iron bond by which
slaves or prisoners are made fast to hinder their escaping. Thus Livy
the Historian, writing of the first years after the foundation of Rome:
"Turnus, awaking from
sleep, found himself surrounded by guards. His slaves were seized,
who for love of their master were preparing to resist, swords being
produced from all corners of the refuge. There could be no longer
any doubt, and Turnus was loaded with chains."
Also Cicero, In Verrem,
writes that, "The miscreant orders chains to be bound upon unfortunate
and innocent men" — apart from other writers who make similar references.
Moreover we read again and again in the Acts of the Saints that
in the days of persecution the Christians were bound with iron chains.
We find reference to this, among others, in the History of St.
Anastasia, a Roman Martyr, Saint Febronia, Virgin and Martyr, St. Chrysanthus,
and many other Saints and Martyrs of either sex.
What is more, if anyone wishes to learn more about the manner in which
prisoners were bound with chains in antiquity, he can still find such
representations to this day carved and cut on the Arch of the Emperor
Constantine. There he will see a number of captives so confined.
Of Prisons or Jails
A prison or jail is a place wherein
criminals are kept guarded, and to which they are confined against their
own free will. The first prison at Rome was built by King Ancus Martius
[circa 640-616 BC], as Livy tells us:
"Likewise the pit or dungeon
of the Quirites [the citizens of Rome at large]— no
insignificant structure as viewed from the more level ground —
is the work of King Ancus. The state having largely increased in
prosperity, and, as was to be expected with so numerous a population,
the distinctions of right and wrong being grown confused and crimes
of fraud and stealth becoming frequent, a jail was built to deter
the increasing lawlessness, in the midmost of the city, looking
over the forum itself."
There were two different methods
of guarding prisoners among the ancients, to wit, the public jail
and the private house. Confined to the latter were persons accused
prior to their confession or conviction. This was spoken of as free
custody, when persons were entrusted to the custody of magistrates
at their own house, or to that of private noblemen. Thus Livy, speaking
of the Judge of the Bacchanalia, writes:
"The Consul begs his father-in-law
to clear a part of his house, that Hispala might be lodged there
..." Then, a few lines further on, "The Consuls ordered the Curule
Aediles [minor patrician magistrates] to seek out all his priests,
arrest them, and keep them for future examination in free confinement."
The same thing again is implied
in what Sallust says, writing of the Catilinarian conspiracy:
"The Senate decreed that the
Magistracy be abolished, and Lentulus and the rest of the confederates
be kept in free custody. Accordingly Lentulus was delivered over
to Publius Lentulus Spinther, who was Aedile at the time, Cethegus
to Quintus Cornificius."
These passages clearly confirm
what we say, to wit, that accused persons, prior to the confession of
their crimes, had been entrusted by the ancients to what was known as
free custody, whereas after confession or conviction they were
cast into the common jail. This is corroborated by writers on Roman
Law, such as Venuleus, who says:
"An accused person who has
confessed, pending the pronouncement of his sentence, must be cast
into the public prison;"
"An accused person who had
confessed was, merely on the strength of his confession, thrown
Christ's faithful followers, then,
in times of persecution, were not only shut up in the Tullianum and
the Mamertine prisons, but were also often detained under military guard
at the houses of private individuals. Evidence of this can be found
in the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs, especially by those of Saints
Stephen and Alexander, Roman Pontiffs.
Of Other Sorts of Bonds
Among these may be included leashes
or lashes, that were employed to bind prisoners. Hence the name lashers,
often mentioned in Plautus, was applied to those whose duty it was to
bind or to beat with lashes any of their fellow-slaves at the direction
of their masters. The same title was also often given to the lictors
and magistrates' officers who attended them when on duty in their provinces,
and who bore the fasces before them.
Of the Wooden Horse, or Rack, used by the Heretics upon
Catholics; of their Imprisonments and Different Types of Tortures by
which Prisoners were Afflicted
The Heretics of this present time
(1591) in England (as Sanders' Origin and Progress of the Anglican
Schism, his Theatre of Heretic Cruelties, and a work entitled
On the Anglican Persecution, amply testify) have tortured a number
of priests, including Fathers Campion, a Religious of the Society of
Jesus, Sherwin, Briant, Janson, Bosgrave, and others, to the tearing
apart of all their limbs, and nearly to death itself, by means of an
instrument called by themselves the wooden horse, or the rack.
This sort of torture, as
we have already seen, involves stretching a man out on his back and
binding his hands and feet joint by joint, after which the ropes are
gradually drawn taut through the use of pulleys or wheels until all
his limbs are eventually dislocated. This agonizing and monstrous torment
is used by the Heretics of our own day upon Catholics whom they have
cast into prison, which we find described in the book, A Trophy of
the English Church.
They also continue to use
other methods for torturing these prisoners, sometimes driving iron
pricks and long needles under their finger-nails, or (as is related
of a priest in the work quoted just above) tying them feet uppermost
to wooden posts and leaving them situated in this way until they are
suffocated by the stench of their own excrements. At other times they
enclose them in an instrument of iron which squeezes a man together,
making him round like a ball, and will leave him confined in this way
for hours at a time. Others are forcibly dragged from prison and violently
brought before assemblies of heretic ministers, while still others
are bound in pairs together with chains (see again Sanders, (Anglican
Schism and Theatre of Cruelties), and marched from one foul
and stinking dungeon to another yet more stinking and horrible still.
Concerning these imprisonments of Catholics in England, simply consult
the work cited above, On the Anglican Persecution.
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