The Tortures and Torments
of the Christian Martyrs
De SS. Martyrum
(a Modern Edition)
Of Red-Hot Plates, and Torches, and Blazing Brands
While the Heathen subjected Christians
of either sex to be racked on the horse and mangled with scourges,
iron claws, and the like (as we described in the preceding chapter),
and to be stretched in the stocks to the fourth and fifth hole,
still their savagery and rage remained unabated. In addition to
these tortures, they would
often have quicklime, molten lead, or boiling oil poured over their
fresh wounds; at other times they would order them to
be torn open with shards of pottery or violently rubbed and scrubbed
with hair cloths, or lastly, to be horribly burned with red-hot plates, torches,
and blazing brands.
Of Red-Hot, or Fiery Plates
Fiery Plates are spoke of by
Plautus in his Asinaria in these words:
Stimulos, laminas, cruceque
("Goads, plates, and crosses");
By Cicero,in his Contra Verres:
when the red-hot plates and other tortures were
brought on the scene?
By Horace, in his Epistles:
Scilicet ut ventres lamina candente nepotum
Diceret urendos correctus.
("So far reformed as to direct his grandsons' bellies to be scorched
with the white-hot plate!")
Also by St. Cyprian, in his Praise of Martyrdom:
"For the Martyr's body is stretched on the rack
and hissing to the red-hot plates."
By Prudentius in the Hymn on the Martyrdom of St. Vincent:
Stridensque flammis lamina ...
("And the plate hissing with fiery flames ...)
And again in that of St. Romanus:
Nec inusta laminis ardet cutis
("And the flesh burns
scorched by the plates");
And lastly, Victor in the Vandal Persecution:
"For then did Papinian, the venerable Bishop and
Father of our City, have all his body burned with
white-hot plates of iron."
The Acts of the Blessed Martyrs
are filled with instances
of this kind of torture, and Eusebius mentions it repeatedly,
particularly in his Ecclesiastical History. In fact,
such burning, when confined to the sides, was
counted among common and public punishments.
As a means of torture, a plate in this sense was (as many of the above quoted
authorities and numerous Histories of the Holy Martyrs appear
to imply) a piece of any metal, longer than it was broad, and
thicker than a layer or leaf. In fact, a layer or leaf differs from a plate
in that the former is thinner and will
bend spontaneously, and crackles, whereas a plate is
thicker and makes no crackling sound. Armor is made from this type
of plate, and
when heated red-hot was often used in antiquity for
purposes of torture. Such a piece of iron heated in the fire was applied
to the bare flesh of the Blessed Martyrs or of
criminals, and held there until it had miserably burned the victim.
It was with this instrument of martyrdom that those most
glorious soldiers of Christ, St. Laurence, St. Bassus Bishop, St. Vincent,
and many others were tortured.
Furthermore the Theatre of Cruelties shows how, in many cases,
the Heretics of our own day have used the same method, and how
Catholics even at the present time (1591) have been burned with fiery
plates by the Huguenots and Calvinists.
Of the Torches with which the Blessed Martyrs were Burned
Torches are mentioned in many
of the Histories of the Saints,
especially those of St. Saba, an officer of
soldiers; of Saints Eulalia of Emerita and Barbara, virgins and martyrs;
and of St. Clement, Bishop of Ancyra.
These torches were of two sorts — some were made of the inner and
denser parts of trees which produce resin, such as the pine,
pitch-pine, larch, or fir. These types of torches
are often spoke of by ancient writers such as Varro,
"Rome is alive with women; and what rites were
done at night-time, even now a pine torch indicates;" and
again, "A torch is there, wrapped about with flame."
So also Virgil, in his First Georgic:
Ferro faces inspicat acutas
("He sharpens pointed torches with the knife "), where by torches the
Commentators understand brands of pine wood.
And we find in his Seventh
Et castis reolent altaria tedis
("And the altars are fragrant with consecrated pine torches").
"Rushing to and fro in terror of the Furies'
blazing torches;" and in another speech, "Just as on the stage, Conscript
Fathers, you see men, driven into crime by constraint of the gods,
shudder in terror before the blazing torches of the Furies."
And lastly, by Suetonius in
his Life of Nero:
"Often, the Emperor confessed, was he terrified by his mother's phantom,
the whips of the Furies and their blazing
Torches of the second kind were made of
twisted coils of rope smeared with wax or pitch. These are mentioned
by Virgil, in his First Aeneid:
Et noctem flammis funalia vincunt
("And torches disperse the darkness with their flames")
By Cicero, in De Senectute:
"His delight was in the torch of wax;"
and again in the De Officiis, "Statues stood in every street, at which
frankincense and torches of wax ...
And by Valerius Maximus, in speaking of Caius Duilius,
"Going to feast by the
light of a torch of wax, with a flute-player preceding
With this distinction explained, we may add that torches of both
these sorts — to wit, pine torches and torches of waxed or
pitched rope — were used by the Heathen for scorching
Christians to the point of death. The use of pine torches is attested by
the Acts of St. Barbara, virgin and martyr,
cited above (for while some have maintained that the
Saint was burned with torches, others have recorded more particularly
that it was with pine torches that she was tortured.
In fact both kinds of torches were often used in those days, as the authors
we have quoted seem to
indicate. But of the two,
the pitch-pine is more abundant in resin than the other
trees which produce resin as well, and produce a more pleasant flame (as Pliny
says) and supply light for sacred functions. Torches, therefore,
made of pitch-pine were more in use in antiquity than any
others of a similar sort.
This form of torture is also — as we find in the Theatre of Cruelties
— employed by the heretics of our own day
for afflicting Catholics, and particularly by the Huguenots in their
hatred of our holy religion, as we read
in that work.
Of Blazing Brands, or Flambeaux
Mention was earlier made of
burning brands — which some mistakenly confuse with torches — in sundry
Acts of the Blessed Martyrs, as of Saints Theophilus,
Felix and Fortunatus, Pantaleon, Regina virgin
and martyr, Theodore a priest, Alexander a Bishop, Parmenius and his
companions, and countless other holy martyrs.
These brands or flambeaux belong — if representations of them carved
in ancient marble to be seen in Rome are in fact accurate — to the same general class as torches, but were made
in the following way: first, certain vessels were
narrowed from the top or mouth to a gradually more and more
contracted shape, like a pyramid reversed or turned upside down.
These vessels were either of earthenware, as is shown by some that
are, from time to time, dug up in the ruins of Rome, or else of iron, as Columella states.
Afterward, they were enclosed with little staves of wood squared
and tied together, and which like the vessels
themselves were made finer and smaller from the top downward, and
were then filled
with fuel which gave off fire and flame. These
staves, if we consider the uses to which these flambeaux were put, we
must conceive of as being some five or six spans long,
more or less.
But that the instruments that we have described from ancient examples
were flambeaux and not torches, that is torches of pine-wood,
or of twisted coils of rope, can be proven in many ways. In the
first place it should be noticed in the
marble engravings we mentioned before that the flame begins to burn more fiercely
where the staves end, from which it follows they were not torches of
the first kind, but of the second, to wit, brands or flambeaux; for
if they had been ordinary torches, the
wooden staves, which acted as handles, would necessarily have been
consumed by the fire contained in the vessels.
Consider, moreover, that we never see wax tapers burning
all their length in candlesticks, but only at the end,
so that they may the more efficiently burn and be consumed, and
therefore giving better light.
Some may perhaps object, and say there is nothing really to show
they were not ordinary torches of the first sort, inasmuch as the
staves or handles were not burned because they were of iron, and not
of wood at all. But this cannot possibly have been the case, for these brands or flambeaux were employed
by the ancients for scorching criminals when hoisted on the horse,
or suspended aloft, or tied up to pillars or stakes, and must
therefore be conceived as having been light rather than heavy, so
that the executioners might readily wield
them in their hands. This view moreover is
confirmed by the example of the iron claws or nippers
mentioned earlier; for these, though of no great weight, were yet attached
to very light handles for the easier torturing of
It is clear from these and other considerations that these brands or
flambeaux were different from the ordinary torches first described;
and Virgil confirms this by these verses in his Ninth Aeneid:
Princeps ardentem conjecit lampada Turnus,
Et flammam affixit lateri, quae plurima vento
Corripuit tabulas, et postibus haesit adesis.
("First Turnus hurled a blazing brand and touched the flank with flame,
that fanned to fury by the wind seized on the planks
and cleaved to the doorposts, which it began to gnaw away.")
Of the Manner in which the Martyrs were Burned and Scorched with
In just the same fashion were the Blessed Martyrs burned and scorched
with these fiery brands as they were tortured by means of iron
claws, currycombs and hooks — as is testified by many of the Acts of the Martyrs above quoted and the details we
have already provided in Chapter I concerning pillars, trees and stakes
as employed in torturing Christ's servants.
Of Torments by which the Martyrs were Tortured after being Taken
Down from the Horse
Lastly it must be noted how these same servants of Christ, after being
taken down from the wooden horse, were then tortured with the
instruments described above, or else racked and stretched and their
legs drawn asunder in the stocks to the fourth or fifth hole (as
related in Chapter III), or rolled naked over shards of pottery, or
even sometimes drenched with boiling oil or the like. These torments are
illustrated in the Acts of the Blessed Martyrs — in the case of St. Vincent and St. Pelagius, of St. Felix and St. Fortunatus,
Illustrations for Chapter VI: