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Boston Catholic Journal - Critical Catholic Commentary in the Twilight of Reason


The Tortures and Torments

of the Christian Martyrs


De SS. Martyrum Cruciatibus

(a Modern Edition)

Chapter II

Of the Wheel, the Pulley, and the Press, as Instruments of Torture

We now come to other instruments of torture applied to the Holy Martyrs apart from the various types of hanging, both on Cross and Stake discussed in the previous chapter. However, since the instruments named above, together with the Wooden Horse, are without doubt the most terrible and appalling of all, we will look at them now —  and the Horse in the following chapter. Concerning the torture of the Wheel, which is widely held to be the severest of all, it is significant to note its antiquity. This form of torment was first practiced earlier by the Greeks.

We learn this from numerous statements made by their own writers and preserved among us. Aristophanes in the Plutus says:

“By rights you should be bound to the Wheel, and so forced to reveal your evil doings.”

Commenting on this same passage, one ancient commentator adds:

 “The Wheel was a contrivance on which slaves were bound down for punishment.”

Again the same poet, in his Lysistrata states:

“For sorrow! What a convulsion and a straining of every limb do I feel, for all the world as though I were being racked on the Wheel!”

Anacreon, as quoted by Athenceus, speaks of the same thing, when he says,

“Many torments and rackings of the neck I endured on the Wooden Horse, and many on the Wheel.”

Similarly Demosthenes in his Oration against Aphobus says:

“Let us set Milias on the Wheel to be tortured”

And Plutarch, in his Nicias:

“Then he proceeded to bind the barber to the Wheel, and further torture him.”

Also, Lucian in the Epistle to Stesichorus writes:

“After being lopped of their extremities, they were racked and stretched on Wheels;”

And Suidas in his Dictionary under the word Wheel describes it thus:

“The Wheel was an instrument of torture for racking men’s bodies. Whence Aristophanes: ’Let him be torn on the wheel and flogged.’ So slaves were bound to the Wheel and thrashed. And in another passage: ’You will have to speak up on the Wheel and confess your crimes.’ Thus we see people were tortured on the Wheel and questioned to discover their complicity with others and their own wrong doings. Similarly the Wheel was an apparatus of wood, on which slaves were bound for punishment.”

Phalaris seems to give concurrent testimony in one of his Epistles, where we read:

“They were being tortured, or racked, on the Wheels.”

The device is alternately spoken of by Pindar, Homer (both in the Iliad and the Odyssey), Lucian, Ovid, Propertius, Seneca, and Claudian.

Other ancient authors also make mention of the torture of the Wheel, especially Josephus in discussing the Maccabees in the
Jewish War [Bellum Judaicum]:

“Some refused to eat of polluted meats; these he ordered to be tortured on the Wheel, and put to death;“ and again: “For this make ready the wheels, and blow up the fire to a fiercer heat.“ And further on: “But when the Apparitors [constables] had set ready the Wheels and Cords, the Tyrant adds ...“; and again, “The Apparitors were then directed to bring in the elder prisoner; and tearing away his tunic, bound him hand and foot with thongs every way. And when those who applied the lash were wearied out without gaining anything, they fixed him about a great Wheel, stretched around the circumference of which the noble-hearted youth had all his joints dislocated and all his limbs broken.“ And a little further on: ’“Wicked hirelings,’ cried the youth, ’your Wheel is no more able than you to drown my reason; cut off my limbs, and burn my flesh, and rack my joints with the twisters’ On his so saying, they set fire underneath, and divided him limb from limb, stretching his body over the Wheel. And the whole Wheel was stained with his blood, and the grate, which contained the pile of coals, was put out by reason of the drops of blood pouring down upon it, while about the axles of the wheel the gobbets of flesh were carried round and round, the parts adjoining the joints of the bones being everywhere cut to pieces. Nevertheless the noble youth Abraham never uttered so much as  a groan, but nobly endured the twisters, that is the instruments of torment.”

He reiterates this later:

“They proceeded to disarticulate Arthremboles’ hands and feet at the joints, and separating these from the ligaments, tore them away with levers and so perforated his fingers, arms, legs and elbows. But when they found that they could not break his resolution, they dragged off the skin together with the tips of the fingers, and immediately led him to the Wheel, about which were crushed the joints of every limb, and he saw his own flesh cut to pieces and drops of blood distilled from his inwards.”

Also yet again:

“The Apparitors dragged him bound to the catapults to which, when they had tied him at the knees, and secured them firmly with iron bands, they bent back his loins over a rounded wedge, so that all his body being dashed around its circumference, was broken in pieces.“ And further down: “They fastened him to the Wheel, on which he was stretched and burned with fire; moreover they applied spits, sharpened and made red-hot, to his back, and pierced his sides and inwards.”

Other writers speak of the Wheel, for we find in Apuleius’, Golden Ass [also known as The Metamorphoses]:

“Without an instant’s delay, according to the Greek custom, fire and wheel and every kind of torture were exhibited”

And again,

“Neither the Wheel nor the Horse, after the manner of the Greeks, were lacking to his instruments of torment.”

Cicero in the Tusculan Orations, says,

“Thus much we are justified in saying, that the happy life cannot end on the Wheel.”

In Virgil’s, Aeneid, 6 we find:

“And there they hang, stretched out on the spokes of wheels.”

 The 4th century biographer Julius Capitolinus also states:

“The Tribune of the Soldiers who allowed his post to be abandoned was tied beneath a wheeled wagon and so they dragged him, alive and dead, the whole stage.”

St. Basil, too, in his, Homiles on 40 Martyrs, writes:

“Fire moreover was made ready, the sword unsheathed, the cross set up, the sack, the wheel, the scourge prepared;“ and in his Homily on St. Gordius the Centurion: “Let his body be torn on the Wheel.”

St. Gregory of Nazianzen and Nicephorus equally makes reference to these Wheels, as well as many Lives of the Saints, especially in the case of St. Catherine, St. Euphemia, Virgin and Martyr, and St. Felix and his companions.

These Wheels — as we have gathered from the Histories of different Martyrs — were not of one kind only, but of several. Some, which we find spoken of as Machines in the Acts of the Saints, were broad and large, while others were narrow. We will discuss both.

The Wheel of the first sort, that is to say, the larger Wheel of which Nicephorus and the Acts of St. Pantaleemon speak, was made in such a way that being taken up to some high hill, with the victim bound to its circumference, the Wheel, together with the condemned man, was then violently hurled down from the summit of the mountain by a steep and slippery way, so that each member of the Martyr’s body was broken. Thus do we read of that most glorious servant of Christ, Pantaleemon, in the History of his Martyrdom:

“And they said to him, ’Let the great wheel be brought, and carried to the top of the mountain, and have him bound to it and hurled down the mountain in such a way that his flesh may be miserably scattered abroad, and he die.’ The most blessed Pantaleemon was then led away to prison while the wheel was being constructed. As soon as it was finished, the Judge ordered the criers to proclaim through the city, that all men should come together to see the death of the Blessed Pantaleemon, and ordered him to be brought in. When the holy Martyr of Christ was led in, to their amazement he was singing Psalms to the Lord in Christ! Then the Attendants bound him over the wheel; but as soon as they began to roll the wheel, his bonds were loosed, and the Holy Martyr stood up unhurt. The wheel, however, rolling onward, killed many of the Heathen.”

Other types of broad wheels were also used by the Heathen for the massacring of Christians. The circumference of these wheels, to the which the naked Martyrs were bound by cords, was imbedded with blades, sharp nails, and the like, and then suspended stationary in the air. Then revolving the martyrs along with the wheels again and again with all their might over iron spikes fixed in the earth for piercing and cutting, they caused the flesh of the sufferers thus punished to be dreadfully torn and mangled. It was precisely by such a torture wheel that we suppose the Blessed Virgin of Jesus Christ, St. Catherine, to have won the Crown of Martyrdom, to which her Acts in part witness.

Of Wheels of the Second Sort

Other wheels of a lesser breadth than those just described were likewise used by these Devil-worshippers for torturing faithful Christians. Around the circumference of these wheels they would very often fix sharp nails and the like, in such a way that their points, being turned upward, might project beyond the rims. Then on the wheels thus arranged they would bind the Martyrs whose bodies were then pitifully torn by the sharp points of the spikes, as well as by others which stood planted in the earth beneath. In the Acts of St. George we find the following narrated:

“The Emperor ordered a wheel to be brought in stuck all round with sharp points, and the Saint to be bound naked to it, and so mangled by the various devices imbedded within it. The wheel was hung in the air, while underneath planks were laid upon which were closely fixed together a number of spikes, like sharp swords, some with their points straight upward, others curved like hooks, while still others resembled flaying knives. When the revolving wheel approached the planks — and the Holy Man bound like a lamb to it with slender lines and small cords in such a way that they cut into into his flesh and were imbedded within it — it was forced, as the wheel turned, to pass over the swords, and the Martyr’s body was caught on their keen edges and terribly lacerated, contorted, and torn in pieces as if with the instrument known as a “scorpion.”

It is next to be specially noted that the Heathen, after binding the Martyrs to wheels, thrashed them cruelly with rods and cudgels as they were whirled round upon it. The Acts of St. Clement of Ancyra give testimony in the following terms:

“The Magistrate ordered the Martyr (that is, Clement) to be bound to the wheel, and the latter to be revolved at great speed with the Martyr upon it being simultaneously beaten savagely with rods. Immediately the Martyr was bound to the wheel, and the wheel turned rapidly. Now the Martyr, while he was on top of the wheel in its revolution, was exposed to the fellows who stood ready with their rods; but when the wheel carried him underneath,  his body was bitterly crushed and his bones broken.”

Nevertheless, the Heathen were not content in venting their hatred for our fellow-Christians through these means of torture alone, that is to say, through which they bound the Martyrs to wheels and tormented them, for they never ceased to invent new ones. Hence it came about sometimes that, binding them to wheels having sharp spikes fixed all round, and placed over a fire burning below, they would revolve the wheel, together with the Martyr, round and round and round at high speed. In other words, in just the same fashion as meat placed upon a spit and set to the fire be roasted and cooked, so were the Martyrs turned about and roasted, that they might become fine bread of Jesus Christ. In the Acts of St. Christina, Virgin and Martyr, and of St. Calliopius, we find it written: “Set up the wheel”, he (the Prefect) said to his Apparitors, “and kindle a great fire beneath it,” upon which the youth was tightly bound to the wheel and was racked to pieces. Then instantly an Angel of God approached, and put out the flame of the coals; and when the attendants tried to turn the wheel, they could not. But his tender limbs bespattered all the wheel with blood, for it was armed all around with sharp swords.“ In this way, the Blessed Martyrs, bound to wheels, and revolved upon them over a fire, happily won the most noble Crown of Martyrdom.”

Moreover it was the custom with these same impious men to use the several interstices of the wheels, of the narrow sort described above, in such a way that the limbs of Christ’s faithful servants, after being first broken with iron bars, were intertwined and inserted within them so that they appeared, as it were, woven in with the spokes. Then attaching the wheels to the upper end of poles set upright in the ground, they would leave them in this condition to live on for days. This torture, as mentioned by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks, was inflicted at Valence in Gaul upon Felix, a Priest, and Fortunatus and Achilleus, Deacons, who had been sent to Tour by St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, to preach the word of God.

We have already seen that the wheels which were used for stretching and racking the bodies of Christians, were either pulleys or the wooden horse — for by means of these instruments, which contained several small wheels, and so could be collectively spoken of as wheels, were the bodies of Christ’s faithful servants especially torn — or else in no way differed from the wheels just described, as the History of St. Calliopius quoted above seems clearly to imply, for it states that he was so tightly bound to the wheel with small cords, that even before his tormentors began to revolve it, the blessed youth was mangled and torn to pieces.

Of Pulleys

Pulleys, as instruments of martyrdom, are spoken of by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History and in many Acts of the Saints, especially those of Saints Crispinus and Crispianus, and of St. Quintinus, a Roman citizen. Further mention is made of them by Gregory of Tours who, in his History of the Franks, says:

“Stretched at the pulleys, he was beaten with cudgels, rods, and double thongs“; and in another place, “He was stretched on the ground at the pulleys, and finally beaten with triple thongs;“ and still further that, “The King was furious and ordered them to be stretched at the pulleys, and violently beaten ...”

A careful study of these sources will show beyond a doubt that this sort of punishment was especially employed to torture criminals and murderers. It is no surprise, then, atht the true worshippers of God, fighting for His honor, were racked or drawn aloft by means of pulleys at the hands of the Heathen who, after all, accounted Christians among the most criminal of all mankind.

Pulleys — what were they?

The Pulley (as is clear from Vitruvius) was a contrivance for hauling, provided with a roller or little grooved wheel, moving on a small axle, with the pulling rope being led over it. It was used either for hoisting weights to a height and into the required positions in building, or for lowering them, or else for moving things, and lastly for drawing water from wells. Pulleys (see Isidore, Etymologicum) may be best described as made in the likeness of the theta, or eighth letter of the Greek alphabet [Θ] and named trockleae from the word trochla, signifying a little wheel. Some modern writers, then, err who hold the trocklea (pulley) to have been simply a capstan or windlass.

Granted that a pulley is incapable of tearing asunder the bodies of condemned criminals without the addition of some accompanying instrument to help, whether a stake to connect it with, or some device of one sort or another; yet must it not be concluded from this that it was a capstan, but only that it required a capstan of some kind. Inasmuch as in this form of torture the bodies of the victims were often horribly stretched and racked, it appears to us certain — especially when we consider the difficulty of tearing a man’s body apart, and  at the same time consider the relatively little effort exerted by the executioners —  that some small engine was employed in conjunction with the pulley, such as a capstan or the like. If one reads the passages of Vitruvius referring to this subject, it will become apparent that the pulley was not a capstan, nor yet the capstan a pulley. Lastly, we should note that in the accompanying Fig. IX a capstan is illustrated along with a pulley, not to imply these were one and the same, but to show the probability that the victims, for the reason just alluded to, were torn and racked by both these instruments at once. We say “probability” because there are other ways in which it could be done, and very likely sometimes was.

Now the way in which Christians were tortured by the pulley is as follows. First of all, as many stakes were fixed in the earth as there were victims to be punished. This done, the appointed attendants proceeded to bind the Martyrs, sometimes by their hands, sometimes by their feet, to the ropes of the pulleys one way and to the stakes the other; then the ropes being pulled tight according to the Judges’ orders, their bodies were miserably stretched and racked. All this is shown in the Acts of the sons of St. Symphorosa the Martyr, as well as by Gregory of Tours, in his History of the Franks.

Those condemned to this punishment (as we see from the History of the Martyrs, St. Quintinus and St. Ferutius, and other passages in Gregory of Tours already noted) were, at the same time , both racked at the pulleys and simultaneously beaten with cudgels or burned with torches — or else sprinkled with red-hot sulfur, resin, boiling oil, and the like. Thus in the Acts of the Blessed Quintinus we find:

“Then the Prefect, raging with despotic fury, ordered the holy Quintinus to be so cruelly racked at the pulleys that his limbs were forced to part at the joints from sheer violence. Moreover, he commanded him to be beaten with small cords, and boiling oil and pitch and melted fat to be poured over his back, so that no kind of punishment and torment available may fail to contribute to his agony. When this yielded nothing the savage Prefect Rictiovarus, to glut his mad and monstrous thirst for cruelty, further ordered burning brands to be applied.”

Martyrs Hoisted up with Pulleys

Lastly we must consider that the Christian martyrs were not only stretched and racked with pulleys, but were also hoisted aloft by them in the same manner by which condemned criminals at that time, with hands tied behind their backs, were hauled up in the air by a rope in order to extort the truth from them. This kind of torment is said to have been used with the holy Martyr of Christ, St. Servus, of whom we read in the Roman Martyrology on December 7th:

“At Tuburbo in Africa, anniversary of the Martyr, St. Servus, who in the Vandal Persecution under the Arian heretic King Hunneric, was a long time beaten with clubs, then repeatedly hoisted aloft with pulleys, and suddenly let go with the the full weight of his body onto flint stones. Thus scarified by the sharp stones he won the palm of martyrdom.”

Further details concerning the same Martyr can be found in Victor’s, The Vandal Persecution.

Of the Press as an Instrument of Torture

The Christian Martyrs were also squeezed in Presses, much in the way that grapes and olives are pressed to extract wine and oil. It was by this method of torture  that most noble soldier of Christ, St. Jonas, was martyred, of whom we read in the Acts of this Martyr:

“They (the Persian Magi) ordered the Press to be brought and St. Jonas to be placed within it, and violently pressed and cut to pieces. The Attendants did as they were commanded, and squeezed him mercilessly in the Press, breaking all his bones, and finally cut him in two through the middle.”


Illustrations for Chapter II:

Christian Martyrs bound to wheels and hurled from a height over stones Christian Martyrs with limbs woven through spokes of a wheel or drawn over iron spikes Christian Martyrs with limbs woven through spokes of a wheel or drawn over iron spikes Christian Martyrs crushed in presses Christian Martyr hoisted over iron spikes

click to enlarge




Chapters:  1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12



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