The Tortures and Torments
of the Christian Martyrs
De SS. Martyrum
(a Modern Edition)
Of Instruments the Heathen used to Tear the Flesh of
Christ's Faithful Servants, to wit, Iron Claws, Hooks, and Currycombs
Three separate and quite distinct instruments
were employed by the devil-worshippers (as we find in many Acts of
the Martyrs) for mangling Christians, namely, iron claws,
hooks, and currycombs. Of these the first sort
are mentioned in many places by Tertullian, particularly in his work
Against the Gnostics, where he writes:
"Some Christians they proved
by fire, others by the sword, others by wild beasts; yet others
tasted martyrdom from cudgels and iron claws."
And in his Apology to the Heathen:
"You set Christians on crosses
and fix them to stakes. Tell me, what deformed likeness will not
the clay assume, when set up on cross and stake? On the gallows-tree
is the body of your God first dedicated; and with claws you scarify
the sides of Christian martyrs."
And again elsewhere,
"Yes! Let claws pierce their
flesh and crosses hang their bodies on high."
So too St. Cyprian in the Epistle
to Donatus says:
"Spear and sword and
executioner are ready, and the claw that pricks and pierces," and
in another place, "Now would the wooden horse rack them and the
iron claw pierce."
Also St. Gregory of Nyssen, in
his Life of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus describes that:
"The posts were set up whereon
the bodies of those who remained firm were stretched, and lacerated
with horrible claws."
St. Augustine, in his Letters
,equally makes reference to them:
"When he has the open confession
of such enormous crimes — and this by no racking of the horse or
ploughing of the iron claws..."
St. Jerome, in his Epistle
to the Innocents also testifies that:
"When the bloodstained claw
was mangling the livid flesh, and pain was seeking to tear the truth
from furrowed sides;" and the same Author a little further on, "Either
side doth the executioner plough and furrow," that is with the iron
And Prudentius in his Hymn of
St. Romanus speaks of:
Costas bisulcis execandas
("Sides that must be cut open with the cloven claws")
and further on:
Quam si cruenta membra carpant ungulae,
("And if the claws rend your bleeding limbs ...");
and still elsewhere:
Ille'virgas, secures, et bisulcas ungulas ...
Tormenta, carcer, ungulae,
("Rods, axes, and cloven claws ... racks, prison, iron claws.")
Now these claws — which can be verified by one preserved
to this day in the Church of St. Peter in the Vatican among the relics
of the Saints, and which we ourselves have seen, kissed, and venerated
— were a sort of iron pincers made as follows:
First, two longer pieces of iron were fastened together, much in the
same way as those forming a smith's iron pincers are joined and paired
together. The ends were rounded, and toward the extremities slightly
hollowed, so that little spears or spikes may be set within them — for
the greater convenience of the tormentors mangling those set on the
wooden horse, tied to stakes, or hung up aloft, whether ordinary criminals
or the Blessed Martyrs.
This is plainly shown by a fragment
of one these spikes, half destroyed by heat and blunted, which is to
be seen still fixed there. But in the upper parts, that is, beginning
from the junction of the two pieces of iron, they were one palm in length
and two fingers in width, thin rather than thick, being of a slender
and subtle construction. Moreover, six iron points were attached to
them, three on each, and so arranged that in the middle of one of them
two points were firmly fixed in the surface of metal, but in the middle
of the other only one, facing the other two. When the pincers were closed,
the one that stood single in the middle of the one piece, met and interlocked
with the two pricks on the other, entering in between them, as it were.
Not only this, but there were
other similar sets of points fixed within the instrument's jaws (so
to speak), the arrangement of the pricks being the same always. The
result was that the flesh of those who were tormented with these pincers
or claws was torn and ploughed by the points.
It is no surprise, then, if some of the authorities cited above have
spoken of these instruments as cloven or two-furrowed, and had
described them as cutting furrows, or ploughing the flesh of condemned
Countless Soldiers of Christ were mangled and torn with this instrument
of martyrdom, especially Saints Papus, Clement of Ancyra, Theophilus
and Theodorus, St. Maurice and his companions, Saints Justa, Rufina,
Eulalia of Barcina, Saints Erasmus, Callinicus and Pelagius.
Whether the Pincers
Preserved in the Church of Saint Peter are More Properly Scorpions
or Iron Claws
Some have held that the sort of
iron pincers preserved in the Church of the Vatican among
the relics of the Saints, as described above, were not claws
at all, but scorpions. But how can we possibly deem these pincers
scorpions rather than claws, when — as shown in the previous
chapter — these (scorpions) were included under the name of
rods, whereas those presently described are a sort of iron toothed
pincers? Moreover the former (as the Acts of the Martyrs and
the passages of Holy Scripture quoted above indicate) were in use among
the Ancients only for beating offenders, but the latter for mangling
and rending them. This is confirmed by the shape and form of these pincers,
for to anyone carefully considering this it will at once be obvious
that they were not made for thrashing criminals, but for tearing and
torturing them. If, in fact, the executioner took them in his hands
with the intention of beating an offender, he would need to keep
the two pieces of iron pressed together; and it would follow that the
points, since they could not torment the victim, must have been set
and fixed there for no useful purpose whatever.
We would add further that it is
the proper function of claws (as St. Augustine and Prudentius
make clear in their writings) to rend the flesh of its victims; to tear
and plough it. And who can fail to see that these pincers preserved
in the Church of St. Peter are perfectly adapted to do this? There can
be little or no doubt then that the this instrument belonged to the
class of claws and no other sort whatever.
Of Different Instruments
of Martyrdom Made of Iron
Having established that these
claws belonged to the class of iron pincers, we must now attempt to
determine exactly what types were used for the tormenting of the Blessed
Martyrs; for we know them to have been of many kinds. Some were toothed,
and by means of six iron pricks pierced the victim's skin when closed
together, and cruelly rent and tore his limbs. These are of the type
that we have just been discussing. Others were specially made for crushing
and twisting. These are mentioned by Bishop Synesius, who, when treating
in his Letters of the savage cruelty of the Governor Andronicus,
" ... unless with the pincers,
an instrument contrived for pulling ears and twisting lips."
Others again were intended for
cutting, of which sort mention is made in the Roman Martyrology
on June 26th in these words,
"At Cordova in Spain the anniversary
of St. Pelagius, a young man who by reason of his confession of
the Faith was ordered by Abdur-Rahman, King of the Saracens, to
be cut limb from limb with iron pincers, and so gloriously consummated
In this same class of instruments
of martyrdom may be included the pincers or scissors by
which Christians of either sex — but more especially women — were shorn
by the servants of devils to bring them shame. We see this in the
Acts of St. John the Apostle, the History of St. Fausta,
virgin and martyr, and of St. Charitina, likewise virgin and martyr.
To this day the pincers with which St. John the Evangelist was shorn
are preserved in the most holy Church of St. John Lateran — a relic
most deserving of visitation and reverence.
Different Ways in Which the Martyrs were Tortured with
the Iron Claws
Christians were mangled with the
claws in several ways: sometimes bound on the wooden horse, or tied
to stakes or pillars, sometimes hung up, at times with the head downward.
The first and second of these methods are found in the Acts of
Saints Nestor, Hilary, Justa and Rufina, Januarius and Pelagius, as
well as St. Maurice and his companions. This was commented on in Chapter
I on the subject of stakes; the last by the Histories of Saints
Epimachus, Felix, and others already named. For further information
read again what was said in Chapter III concerning the word Fidiculae.
Of Iron Hooks as Instruments of Martyrdom
Such hooks are mentioned by Cicero
in his Philippics:
"A hook was driven into that
and in the Pro Rabirio:
"From lash and hook and terror
of the cross neither our past history, our previous life, nor our
honors availed to protect us."
Also Juvenal in his Satires
" ... Sejanru ducitur unco"
("Sejanus is dragged along with the hook of criminals")
Horace, in his Ode to Fortune
(1. 35) states the following:
Te semper anteit saeva
Clavos trabales, et cuneos manu
Gestans aena, nec severus
Uncus abest liquidumque plumbum.
("Ever before thee goes harsh necessity, bearing in her brazen hand
the spikes and wedges; nor is the cruel hook wanting and the molten
And Suetonius, in his Tiberius
tells us that:
"The executioner, as though
by the Senate's authority, displayed before him ropes and hooks."
Moreover, Lampridius, in his
Life of Commodus, says men shouted in scorn of that Emperor,
when he was dead:
"He who massacred the Senate,
let him be dragged along by the hook; he who massacred all
men, let him be dragged along by the hook; he who robbed the
temples, let him be dragged along by the hook!"
Similarly, writing of Vitellius,
Suetonius tells us that:
"Eventually he was mangled
with countless blows at the Gemonian steps and slain, and thence
dragged with the hook to the Tiber;"
Ammianus Marcellinus, relates
"The wooden horses were stretched,
and the executioner was making ready the hooks," and again, "The
hooks and bloody tortures."
So, too, Prudentius in one of
Stridentibus laniatur uncis
("He is torn to pieces with the sounding hooks").
Also the Acts of St. Sebastian,
where we read,
"Search in the sewer that
is near by the Great Circus, and there will you find my body hanging
from a hook."
Further mention is to be found
of hooks in the Histories of other Martyrs, as Saints Plato,
Pontianus, Nicetas, as also of Saints Tatiana, Martina, and Prisca,
Roman Virgins and Martyrs.
From all of this it is very clear that the ancients used hooks not only
for mangling criminals or dragging them to the place of execution, that
is to say the Gemonian steps, but likewise for hanging them up aloft,
and finally for dragging the dead bodies of infamous criminals, guilty
of many abominations and crimes, to the sewers and receptacles of filth
and refuse, or to the Tiber. We need not wonder, then, that St. Sebastian's
body, after his death, was dragged with a hook to the Cloaca Maxima,
the Great Sewer of Rome, since Christians were esteemed by the Heathen
as dishonorable. The hook, then, may be best described and defined thus,
"It is a longish stick, or miniature spear, having an iron at one end,
curved and bent back upon itself" which was in use among the Romans
for hauling condemned criminals to the Gemonian steps and punishing
them, and lastly for dragging the dead bodies of evil men into the public
Methods by Which the Blessed Martyrs were Dragged and
Tortured by the Hook
It was precisely in the same fashion
that Christians were tortured with the hook as they were with the iron
claws mentioned earlier, as we have seen in the Acts of Saints
Plato and Pontianus.
Of Iron Currycombs as Instruments of Martyrdom
For tearing of the flesh of faithful
Christians iron combs were likewise applied. We find evidence of this
in the Acts of several martyrs, especially of St. Blase, Saints
Tatiana, Julitta, and Barbara, virgins and martyrs, and a host of others
whose names are known to God alone.
These combs resembled, as their
name and use imply — and as shown in some representations in ancient
paintings of St. Blase, copied, it is thought, from some very early
drawings — those used to comb wool. Attached to these combs was
a small spear or staff of a convenient length, as was the case with
the claws, for these likewise were used for mangling the martyrs.
Thus we see how three different
instruments were framed for rending the flesh of the Blessed Martyrs,
to wit, claws, hooks, and combs of iron. The Saints were
torn with these combs, and subsequently martyred in precisely the same
way as those who suffered under the iron claws.
Of Shards or Fragments
of Pottery used for Lacerating the Flesh of the Saints
Sometimes the Christians' flesh
was torn and rent by way of greater cruelty still with fragments of
pottery, by which not only were their sides lacerated, but their stomachs,
thighs, and legs as well. Eusebius, who was an eye-witness of
such cruelties, depicted the fury of the tormentors in his History:
"Truly, it was in the Thebaid [the epic
poem by Statius] that all previously described cruelties were exceeded.
For here the tormentors would take shards of pottery instead of
claws and with them tear and lacerate the whole body until they
scraped the skin off the flesh;" and again in another passage: "It
was held to be a common and ordinary matter for a man to be ploughed
and furrowed with the iron claws. But further, when this form of
torture was applied to any, not only were his sides (as is usually
done to robbers and murderers) pierced and rent, but his abdomen
likewise, as well as his thighs and legs. In fact the harrow was
made to penetrate to his very marrow."
How the Saints were
Stretched to the Fourth and Fifth Hole of the Stocks
Not content with these forms of
torture, the devil's ministers daily sought fresh ways of cruelty and
new sorts of punishment. And while they indeed discovered many new methods,
yet they could never succeed in bending or breaking the divine valor
of the Christians. Rather, all these torments simply ended in strengthening
them the more. The tyrant's cruelty might indeed torture and mangle
their bodies, but not their minds which, fortified with celestial courage
and celestial aid, they were in no way able to weaken or overcome. Oh,
happy, Oh, blessed times! Oh, fortunate beings! Whose valor and whose
virtue were such that even mere young boys in those days did not flinch
under torment, however terrible. These gallant athletes of Christ were
torn and rent with iron claws and scourges, and while this was done,
though they were in the most agonizing pain, not a murmur nor a complaint
was ever heard, for with steadfast and silent endurance these brave
hearts were patient in adversity.
Illustrations for Chapter