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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 IV


Of Different Instruments Employed for Scourging the Blessed Martyrs

Having discussed bonds and thongs and the nature of the “wooden horse,” we must next turn our attention to  the various kinds of whips and scourges used in torturing the Martyrs. Indeed, after binding the Christians to the “horse”, it was the frequent practice of the Heathen — as we had seen in many instances already quoted from the History of the Saints, especially those of St. Crescentianus, St. Regina, virgin and martyr, and Bishop Bassus — to beat them mercilessly with rods, cudgels, whips, and the like; then to flay them with iron “claws” or similar devices; and finally to roast them with torches, burning brands, and red-hot metal plates.

We will now discuss the various instruments used for scourging in this order: first, whipping instruments, then, iron hooks, claws, and currycombs; and lastly,  torches, brands, and fiery plates.

As to the first, which were widely used in antiquity we find lashes, scourges, cudgels, rods, scorpions, thongs, and loaded whips.

Of Lashes

Plautus speaks of lashes in the Epidicus, as follows:

Ita non omnes ex cruciatu poterunt eximere Epidicum. Periphanem emere lora vidi ...
(“So all his friends shall not save Epidicus. I saw Periphanes buying lashes.”)

Also Terence, in Adelphi:

Nam si molestus pergis esse, jam intro abripiere, atque ibi. Usque ad necem operiere loris.
(“For if you are going to be troublesome, you shall be rushed indoors, and there lashed to death.”)

And Cicero, as well, in his Philippics:

Cum eum jussu Antonii in convivio servi publici loris caeciderunt. (“When the public slaves scourged him with lashes at a feast by Antonius’ orders ...”)

Similar mention is found repeatedly in the Acts of the Martyrs, as, for example, in the account of St. Asterius and his companions in martyrdom, of St. Euphemia, virgin and martyr, and many other witnesses of Christ of both sexes.

These lashes used by the ancients were thongs made of leather, usually employed (as we have seen from the passages quoted from Plautus and Terence) for the correction of slaves. It is no surprise, then, to find consistent examples in the accounts of the martyrdom of Christ’s faithful followers being beaten with thongs; for they were always counted by the Heathen as wretches of the lowest condition. These same lashes served not only to bind the martyrs and thrash them, but even to tear them in pieces, as we witness in the Acts of the Blessed Martyrs concerning the passion of St. Tyrsus:

 “His mind (the Governor’s) was suddenly filled with great wrath, and he ordered certain stalwart young men of a fierce and savage disposition to pummel the martyr with their fists. Then, after binding him with lashes attached firmly to his hands and feet, they started strenuously pulling in opposite directions, so that all the articulations of his joints were broken, and he was torn limb from limb.“

Of Thongs, Also Used for Scourging the Martyrs

The word “thong” or “nerve” (as we explained in the preceding chapter) actually appears to have had several meanings. Sometimes it simply signified a fastening for binding criminals, as we had previously noted; but at other times it appears to take the form of a scourge with which the Christians, fired by love of the only true God, were beaten by the Heathen. It is in this sense that we presently examine it. So understood, it appears to have been an animal’s nerve that was used for the purpose; and most generally a bull’s. This was the case with those most glorious athletes of Christ, Saints Ananias, Isidore, Benedicta, virgin and martyr, and many others whose names are written in the Book of Life.

Of Cudgels and Scourges

Cudgels and scourges were very often used for thrashing Christ’s faithful followers. Scourges are spoken of by Juvenal in his Satires, Suetonius in his Otho, St. Cyprian, Eusebius, and other ancient writers. They were thinner and finer than cudgels, but thicker than rods. We find evidence of this in the Laws of Theodosius (“Of driving on the public roads, stage-drivers and couriers”) the following provision:

“Decreed, that no man use a cudgel for driving, but either a rod, or at most a scourge at the point of which is set a short goad.”

This is sufficient to show that scourges were in use among the ancients as we stated above.

Besides Christians, other persons of the more humble class were condemned to be thrashed with these instruments, as Plautus, in his Amphitryon, implies; even the Vestal Virgins themselves, if by their neglect the fire impiously consecrated to Vesta, the Roman’s false goddess, had been allowed to go out (See Valerius Maximus and Livy the Historian).

However, to return to the Blessed Martyrs of our Lord Jesus Christ, we find that many of them were beaten with scourges and cudgels: with cudgels, Saints Felix and Alexander, Privatus and Bassus, Bishops, Julius, a Senator, and many others; and with scourges, the Blessed Martyrs Neophytus, Julianus, Tryphon, Sabbatius, and countless others, whose names are forgotten. Of these we find the following record in the Roman Martyrology under February 20:

“Commemoration of the Blessed Martyrs at Tyre in Phoenicia, the number of whom is known only to God. Under the Emperor Diocletian and by order of Veturius, master of the soldiers, they were slain with many kinds of torments following one after the other. First, their whole bodies were torn with scourges; then they were delivered to various kinds of wild beasts but, by divine goodness, were in no way hurt by them. Finally, given up cruelly to fire and sword, they won the crown of martyrdom.”

Here it must be mentioned that the Christians were sometimes beaten so long with cudgels and scourges that they died under the lash. Thus perished those gallant soldiers of Christ, Saints Sebastian; Julius, a Senator; Maxima, virgin and martyr; Eusebius, Sabbatius, and many more of either sex.

Of Cudgeling, Decimation, and other Military Punishments

We often read in the Histories of the Saints how Christians, — especially Christian soldiers — were ignominiously condemned to dig, beaten with cudgels and rods, stripped of their military belts, and decimated —  all of which were forms of punishment for Roman soldiers guilty of various offenses.

Let us, then, examine each of these penalties, some of which were less and some more severe. While within the City walls, the Portian Law safeguarded Roman citizens against the Magistrates’ rods and axes, this was not the case in camps and in the field. Indeed, the Laws drew a distinction between military and civil discipline, between the terror needful to bend an army to obedience and that required to govern a peaceful people. From the orders of a General in the field there was no appeal.

The lighter penalties inflicted on soldiers were of the nature of disgrace and degradation only, such as:

  • being dismissed from the service in ignominy

  • being fined or otherwise having their pay diminished

  • relinquishing their spears

  • change of their quarters

  • to winter in the open country

  • to eat their rations standing

  • to dig a trench

  • to be unbelted and disarmed

  • to be fed on barley

  • and to be blooded by opening a vein.

Graver punishments involved causing bodily harm, such being beaten with rods, sold into slavery, struck with a cudgel or an axe, to be decimated, or to be crucified. We will find all these methods well documented in Sigonius, book 1, On the Ancient Civil Law of the Romans.

First as to dismissal from the service with ignominy: we find this mentioned and described by the Consul Aulus Hirtius in the following terms:

“Caesar, speaking from the suggestus (platform) and addressing the assembled Tribunes and Centurions of all the Legions, said thus, ’Whereas, Caius Avienus, in Italy you have stirred up Roman soldiers against the Commonwealth, and have plundered the provincial towns, I hereby expel you with ignominy from my army.”

As to deprivation of pay, this is clear enough in itself, but I may add that the phrase “broken in pay” was applied (so Nonius states) to those soldiers whose pay, in order to brand them with disgrace, was stopped, that is to say, the sum of money representing their gains for a month, or a year, was confiscated. So Varro, quoted by the same author, speaking of the life and habits of the Roman people, writes:

“What was known as a soldier’s pay was the money given him half-yearly or yearly; when his pay was stopped as a mark of disgrace, he was said to be broken of his pay.” Livy again says: “As a mark of disgrace, it was decreed this legion should receive a half-year’s pay in lieu of a whole year’s.”

Now with regard to other punishments, as that of surrendering the spear, Festus explains the matter this way:

“Penalty of the spear so called was when a soldier was sentenced by way of punishment for a military offence to hand in his spears.”

As to changing quarters in camp, Polybius tells us that if it was determined that soldiers should be punished with disgrace, they were ordered to pitch outside the camp. Accordingly in Livy, we find the men who had been beaten at Cannee complaining:

“Now are we reduced to a worse condition than returned prisoners of war had to suffer in former days. For only their arms, and their position in the line and the place where they might pitch in camp were changed, all which they could recover by one good achievement for their country’s good or one successful battle.”

As to winter quarters, read Livy (book 26.):

“A further disgrace was inflicted in every case, namely, that they should not winter in a town, nor construct winter quarters within a distance of ten miles of any city.“ As to rations, the same author (book 24.) writes: “The names of all who withdrew from their post during the previous defeat, I shall order to be reported to me, and summoning each before me, shall bind one and all upon oath never, except in case of sickness, to take food or drink otherwise than standing, for as long as they shall remain in the service.”

As to digging, we may appeal to Plutarch, who says in his Lucullus that it was an old form of military disgrace for culprits to be compelled to strip to their shirts and dig a trench, while the rest of the troops looked on.

For the other penalties mentioned, see Livy again (book 27.):

“The cohorts which had lost their standards, he ordered to be served with barley; and the Centurions of those maniples [a Roman Army tactical formation] whose standards had been lost, he unbelted and deprived of their swords.“ Polybius also speaks of barley being served out instead of wheat as a mark of disgrace.”

In the way of letting blood as a punishment, the historian Aulus Gellius says the following:

 “This was another old-fashioned military punishment, to order by way of ignominy: a vein to be opened and the offender blooded.”

Concerning other and more severe forms of punishment, the following passages from Livy provide clear evidence. Writing of Scipio’s reform of military discipline before Numantia, Livy tells us that:

“Any soldier he caught out of the ranks, he scourged —   if he were a Roman citizen: with staves, if a foreigner: with cudgels,“ and in another place, “Publius Nasica and Decius Brutus, the two Consuls, held a review of the troops, on which occasion a punishment was inflicted that was likely to have an excellent effect on the minds of the recruits, before whom it was carried out. A certain Caius Matienus, who had been accused before the Tribunes of the People of desertion from the army in Spain and condemned to the fork, or pillory, was beaten with rods for a long time, and then sold into slavery for a sesterce.“ Also Cicero, in his Philippics: “The legions deserved cudgeling which deserted the Consul, if he was Consul.”

Now, according to Polybius, this punishment of cudgeling was inflicted in the following way. First the Tribune took up a cudgel and just touched the condemned man with it; after this, all who were in camp at the time were set upon him, beating the culprit with cudgels, pelting him with stones, and most often killing him inside the camp. Moreover, if any escaped, they were no better off, since they could neither return to their fatherland, nor be harbored at home by their relations.

The most ancient instance of decimation is recorded by Livy and was carried out under his Consulship by Appius Claudius, a man of a very stern and harsh disposition. To quote the Historian’s words:

“Appius Claudius, the Consul, called a general muster and rebuked the troops as disloyal to military discipline and deserters from the colors — and not without good reason. Turning to individual soldiers whom he saw unarmed, he demanded where their standards and their weapons were, asking a similar question of ensigns who had lost their colors, as well as Centurions and double-pay men who had forsaken the ranks, and finally had them beaten to death with rods. Of the remaining rank and file, each tenth man was chosen out by lot for punishment.”

The mode of carrying out such an order is detailed by the same author, who writes concerning Scipio’s punishment of his mutinous army at Suero:

 “Then was heard the voice of the herald proclaiming the names of those condemned in the council. These were now stripped and dragged forward, while at the same moment all the paraphernalia of punishment were exhibited; they were then  lashed to a stake and beaten with rods or struck down with an axe.”

Crucifixion as a military punishment is also mentioned by Livy:

“Deserters to the enemy were more severely dealt with than mere runaways. Those with a Latin Name were beheaded, while Roman offenders were crucified.”

These, then, were the different sorts of military punishments exercised in the Roman Army. That these continued in use down to the very end of the Republican period, is clear from Suetonius when he says of Augustus:

“Any cohorts which had given ground, he decimated and fed the survivors on barley; Centurions who had deserted their post and likewise Manipulars in the same case he punished with death. For other offenses he inflicted various ignominious penalties — such as to stand all day in front of the Praetorium, or headquarters, in some instances wearing the tunic only and stripped of their belts, others holding a ten-foot pole or even carrying a sod of earth.”

Regarding Christian soldiers who won the Crown of Martyrdom at the hands of the Heathen, it is to be noted (as we find in their several Histories) how they were sometimes condemned to dig the ground or else were decimated, very frequently beaten with cudgels and rods, or stripped — that is, deprived of their military belts.

As to Christian soldiers being condemned to dig the ground, we find the following written in the History of St. Marcellus, Pope, concerning them:

 “At the date when Maximianus returned from the parts of Africa to the City of Rome, being eager to please Diocletian and further his design of building Thermae, or Baths, to be called after his name, he began, out of hatred towards the Christians, to constrain all soldiers of that Faith, whether Romans or foreigners, to forced labor, and in many places condemned them to quarry stone, while others were condemned to dig sand.” [for the construction of the thermae] The same may also be found recorded in the Acts of St. Severa, a Roman Virgin.

Decimation again is attested by the Histories of those most Blessed Martyrs of Christ, St. Maurice and his companions, where we find written, “Let the fatal lot give every tenth man to death,” — and what else was decimation but so putting to death every tenth soldier? The Roman Historian Tacitus, reports of this practice as well:

“Every tenth man of the disgraced cohort was chosen by lot and cudgeled to death,“ and again, “Inasmuch as every tenth man of the beaten army is beaten to death, even brave men are at times chosen out by the lot.”

The next punishment, cudgeling, was virtually universal for all those martyred Christian soldiers who found it an occasion of joy to be rid of this poor, brief life for Christ’s sake.

However, it was not Christian soldiers alone who were beaten with cudgels, but other faithful servants of Christ as well; for the Laws of the Romans decreed that whoever professed themselves to be filled with God’s grace should be beaten with cudgels as a penalty.

Finally, further testimony to  this effect is to be found in the Acts of St. Hesychius, of St. Marcellus a Centurion, of Saints Eudoxius, Zeno, Macarius, and their companions, — one hundred and four in number — and many, many others. This is especially true in the Acts of St. Marcellus, just mentioned, where we see that the military belt, so often mentioned, was nothing more nor less than the ordinary soldier’s sword-belt, or rather baldric, for in this account we find the following:

 “In the city of Tingitana, when Fortunatus was Procurator and Commander of the Troops, the Emperor’s birthday came round. So when all were indulging in festivities and offering sacrifices, one Marcellus, a Centurion of the Legion of Trajan, deeming the rejoicings to be profane, threw off his military belt before the standards of the legion which were present, and testified with a loud voice, saying, “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the King everlasting.” Likewise he cast away his Centurion’s staff and his arms, further declaring, “From this day forth I make an end of fighting for your Emperors ...” But the soldiers, astounded to hear such words, seized him and reported the matter to Astasianus Fortunatus, Commander of the Legion, who ordered him to be put in prison.

Presently when the feasting was ended, he took his seat at the council board and ordered Marcellus the Centurion to be brought in; this being done, Astasianus Fortunatus, the Commander, thus addressed him: “What was your intent when, in defiance of military discipline, you ungirded your belt and threw away your baldric and staff? ” Then some lines lower down, “This soldier, in casting off his military belt, has openly proclaimed himself to be a Christian, and publicly before all the people spoke many blasphemies against the gods and against Caesar. We now refer this matter to you, that we may do as you see fit.”

These same words were addressed by his jailers, concerning the Blessed Marcellus, to Agricolaus the Judge, to whom he had subsequently been sent to be tried. Now when we read at the beginning of this account how Marcellus cast away his military belt; and again further on, how being charged before the Commander, he casted away his baldric; and yet again, when the soldiers were stating the case against him before Agricolaus, his belt once more — it is abundantly clear that  these were one and the same thing. In fact, a baldric, if we may believe the authority of Varro, On the Latin Tongue, was a belt of leather decorated with studs or bosses and worn aslant from the right shoulder to the left hip. So Quintilian writes, “That fold which is carried aslant from right shoulder across to the left side, like a baldric, must be neither too chokingly tight nor yet too loose.”

One point important to observe is the constancy of Christian soldiers. It was unwavering; and such was their burning desire to suffer for Christ’s sake, that there is frequent mention of their having, voluntarily —  and in contempt and defiance of the heathen emperors and other great officers — cast off the military belt. Thus we read of St. Hesychius:

“Now he was a soldier, and having heard read the order of Maximianus to the effect that any which should refuse to make sacrifice to idols, should lay down his military belt, suddenly and of his own volition he unbuckled his own.”

We find this again concerning St. Eudoxius and his sainted companions:

“Eudoxius instantly removed his girdle and tossed it in the Commander’s face. With this act, seen by his comrades as a direct appeal to them and a call to emulation, the whole number of them that stood around, one hundred and four in all, likewise hurled their belts in his face.” 

Of Rods and Scorpions

Frequent mention is made of rods with which prisoners were beaten. We find reference to them in different plays of Plautus, by Valerius Maximus, by Cicero, and by Prudentius in the Hymn of St. Romanus.

Rods in antiquity were of many sorts — some of elm-wood, as Plautus says in the Asinaria:

Ipsos, qui tibi subvectabant rure huc virgas ulmeas ... (“The very fellows that used to bring you your supply of elm-rods from the country.”)

And a little further on in the same play:

Mihi tibique interminatus est, nos futuros ulmeos.
“He threatened you and me; we should presently feel the elm.”)

Thus Plautus shows us that people in antiquity routinely corrected their slaves with these rods of elm-wood.

Others again, were made of birch, a tree which Pliny describes as:

“This Gallic tree (the birch, to wit) is of a remarkable glossiness and slenderness, a terrible material for the rods used by magistrates. Its flexibility makes it equally convenient for hoops as well as for the plaited work of baskets.“

Yet others again were of oak, ash, or willow. Rods of the first sort are mentioned in the Acts of St. Acatius, a Centurion, and of the third, willow, by Prudentius in his Hymn of St. Romanus in these lines:

Cum puer torqueretur jussu Praesidis,
Impacta quoties corpus attigerat salix,
Tenui rubebant sanguine uda vimina.
(“When the lad was tortured by the Governor’s orders, every time the willow struck and wealed his body, the switches grew wet and red with drops of blood”)

Moreover, in the Epidicus of Plautus we find:

Lictores duo, duo viminei fasces virgarum
(“Two apparitors and two bundles of willow rods and switches”).

Switches, in fact, were made of poplar twigs, elm, red wood, birch, vine, twisted hazel, or willow, the last being best for this purpose.

Of Rods Made of Vine Wood

Rods made of vine wood were used for beating military offenders; in fact, the Centurions’ sign of office was a vine staff, which they used to chastise soldiers too slow in obeying. This is shown in Pliny:

“The vine staff in the Centurion’s hand is an excellent specific for bringing sluggish troops to the colors, and when used to chastise offences makes even the punishment respectable; ”

And Tacitus, as well:

“The Centurion Lucillus was killed in a mutiny — an officer nicknamed in soldiers’ slang ’Give us another,’ because after breaking his staff over a soldier’s back, he would loudly call for another, and then another.”

So too Juvenal ,writing of Caius Marius in his Eighth Satire:

Nodosam post haec frangebat vertice vitem,
Silentus pigra munires castra dolabra.
(“Then he would strike you over the head with a knotty staff, if you were overly slow in entrenching and sluggish in your spade work.”)

Of Rods of Iron and Lead

Although rods for beating offenders withal were generally made of thin twigs of trees, sometimes they were made of iron or lead. This is shown in divers Acts of the Blessed Martyrs, such as those of Saints Paul and Juliana, Saints Christopher and Callinicus, among others.

Of Prickly Rods, otherwise called Scorpions

Not with smooth rods alone were those of antiquity accustomed to chastise offenders and Christians as well, but also with knotty and prickly rods which they appropriately named “scorpions.” Whenever we find record in the accounts of the martyrdom of the saints — that such and such faithful servants of Christ were beaten with thorny, prickly, and knotty rods — it is understood as their having been scourged with “scorpions”.

Rods, then, were of two distinct types; they were either smooth or prickly. If they are alluded to as of the first sort, smooth, they were either of twigs or of metal. If of twigs, either of elm, birch, oak, ash, or willow; but if of metal, then either of iron, and this sometimes red-hot, or of lead.

Something more may be added to what has already been said of rods in the Histories of Saints Hermillus and Stratonicus, to this effect:

“Greatly angered at these words, Licinus ordered Stratonicus to be stretched face upward and thrashed on the stomach with rods of a three-cornered shape. Now this was a grievous torture, scarcely tolerable by the human frame, for the corners of these rods cruelly cut the flesh like so many swords.”

Not only were the martyrs named above — Saints Acatius, Paul, Christopher, Callinicus, Hermillus, and Stratonicus — beaten with smooth rods, but many others as well, including Saints Pontianus, Zeno, Theodore, Paula a virgin, Regina, Claudius, and a vast number of others of either sex. But it was under knotty and prickly rods, or scorpions, that those glorious soldiers of Christ, Saints Basil, Cyrinus, Bassus a Bishop, Symphorian, Nicostratus, Simplicius, and countless others, were mercilessly beaten.

Even while being beaten with rods was an extremely painful form of punishment, intended to shame the individual as well,  it was, notwithstanding, a lighter penalty than some others. The ignominy associated with it is clearly shown in various Roman laws such as the Porcian Law, the Symphronian, etc., as well as from direct statements of ancient authorities, such as found in Cicero’s Pro Rabirio and  in Verrem; it is also found in Josephus’ Jewish War, where it is spoken of as something extraordinary that Caestius Florus scourged Jews who enjoyed Roman citizenship with rods, and fastened them in the criminals’ collar or pillory.

Even now, Catholics are often beaten with rods by the heretics of our own time (1591). This is illustrated by Sanders, in The Anglican Schism, where he says:

“Nor should this be left unmentioned, that many of the common people, refusing to attend the churches and profane services of the Protestants, and having no  money to pay the fine, are by the judge’s orders, long and cruelly dragged through the city of Winchester, stripped naked, and savagely beaten with rods.”

The manner in which this is done is declared in the Theatre of Cruelties in these words: “The Catholics were tied at the cart’s tail, and so whipped through the streets.”

Of Loaded Scourges, with which the Martyrs were Beaten

Loaded scourges — as the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs indicate, to say nothing of Prudentius, and certain paintings which can be seen here in Rome — were a sort of whipping instrument made of cords or thongs, with little balls of lead fastened to their end. They were liberally used to scourge the loins, back, and neck of condemned persons. We find this mentioned in many accounts of  martyrdom, as well as by Prudentius, who writes in his Hymn of St. Romanus:

Tundatus tergum crebris ictibus
Plumboque cervix vertebrata extuberet:
Persona quaequae competenter plectitur,
Magnique refert, vilis sit, an nobilis.
(“Let his back be pounded with quick-falling blows, and his neck scourged with lead till it swell up: each is appropriately punished, and it makes no small difference whether he be a common fellow or a noble.”)

The fact nevertheless remains that it was customary in antiquity to punish only persons of the more common sort with loaded scourges. The punishment was still in vogue in the days of the Emperor Honorius, who beat the impious heresiarch Jovinian and his vile associates with loaded whips, before finally banishing them into exile.

While scourging with these loaded whips was not meant to kill criminals — and it was actually forbidden by an enactment of the civil law to beat a prisoner to death, — yet many nevertheless died under the blows of these cruel instruments. This is clear from Ammianus Marcellinus  in an Epistle of Ambrosius, where he writes:

“What answer shall I make afterward, if it be discovered that, on authority from me, Christians have been killed, whether with the sword, with cudgels, or with loaded whips?”

Among Christians who laid down their lives for Christ under the loaded whip were: Sts. Maximus, Papias, Severa a Roman virgin, with her brothers Marcus and Calendius, also Sts. Gervasius, Januarius, Concordia, Privatus, Severus, Severianus, and countless others, whose names we cannot possibly cover in this volume. Many were the other faithful servants of Christ who were beaten with loaded scourges without losing their lives. These were (to name a few only) Saints Laurence, Artemius, Procopius, Gordian, Erasmus and Theodore Bishops.

Of Other Ways in which Lead was used for Torturing the Holy Martyrs

Lead was also used in antiquity for torturing prisoners in two other ways. First, after stripping them stark naked, they would pour it, in a boiling state, over their bodies — a form of punishment that we will examine more carefully in Chapter IX .

The other way in which lead was used was neither for scourging nor burning, but for straining and dislocating the several joints of persons condemned to this torture.  Arms being twisted backward and fastened above their heads, they then had leaden weights hung upon their feet. Such leaden weights are referred to by Ammianus, when he says, “Then are the leaden weights prepared.” If the reader would like learn more about this form of torture, he should explore the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs, St. Justus and St. Mamans.

Of the Manner in which Prisoners were Beaten in Antiquity

When prisoners were to be scourged in the days of the early Martyrs, they were first stripped of all clothing, and then whipped upon the back, stomach, or other part of the body with rods or other instruments of flagellation. The apparitors carried this out in many ways. Sometimes they would tie them to stakes set upright in the ground, or to pillars; sometimes they would stretch them on the earth, or else over sharp spikes a foot high and fixed in the ground; at other times  they suspended their victims aloft with their bodies hanging straight down, or else mounted them on another’s shoulders as boys do, and lashed their posteriors.

 Another convenient method was to fix four pegs in the ground, forcibly stretch their victims out and, binding them hand and foot to these, kindling a fire underneath them to make their torment more bitter still — all the while thrashing them unmercifully. The magistrates of the Roman people always presided at these tortures and would command their apparitors, or lictors as they were called, first to strip their victims and lay them naked either upon the ground or an instrument of torture as we find in most of the Acts of the Holy Martyrs, especially those of Saints Ananias, Secundianus, Clement of Ancyra, St. Barbara Virgin and Martyr, St. Apollinaris Bishop, among others.

Further corroboration and more certain evidence of this may be gathered from many writings of the classical authors themselves, in which we find that the judges and magistrates of the Roman people would order their officers to strip and punish criminals and to employ their rods and axes upon them as they lay naked. Thus Livy writes:

 “The Consuls command the man to be stripped, and the axes made ready. “I appeal”, cried Volero, “to the People; seeing how the Tribunes had rather see a Roman citizen beaten with rods before their eyes than themselves murdered in their beds by you. But the more furiously he shouted, the more fierce was the lictor in tearing off his clothes and stripping him naked.”

And in another place, speaking of Papirius Cursor, Livy tells us:

“He bade the lictor make ready his axe. At this command the Praenestine stood astounded, but the other only said, ’Now to it, lictor, and cut away yonder stump, which is a hindrance to the traffic.”

Also, Valerius Maximus, relating the same story, says,

“He commanded the rods to be got ready and the man to be stripped,”

Livy once more, in another book of his History, writes:

“Then Papirius was roused to fresh anger and ordered the Master of the Horse to be stripped naked, and the rods and axes to be prepared.”

So likewise Cicero, in his speech, In Verrem:

“Accordingly he commands the man to be seized and stripped naked in the open forum and bound, and the rods to be made ready.”

All these passages plainly indicate that prisoners were beaten by the lictors only after first being stripped of their clothing.

Now the fact that the Blessed Martyrs were whipped with lashes on the back, stomach, or both, or on any other parts of their bodies, is found very clearly in the Acts of the Martyrs Saints Clement of Ancyra and Ananias, mentioned above, as well as of St. Claudius and his companions.

That they were beaten in antiquity by the Heathen, after being tied up by the lictors to stakes or pillars, stretched out on the ground, over sharp spikes fixed in the earth, or else securely bound to four pegs, as described above, can also be found many, many, Acts of the Blessed Martyrs, such as those of Saints Paul and Juliana, Eulampius and Eulampia, brother and sister, Saint Anastasia, a Roman virgin and martyr, and a host of others. One may return again, in this connection, to what we had already discussed in Chapter I concerning stakes, pillars and trees, to which Christians were suspended to be tortured.

Lastly that the Holy Martyrs were beaten as boys are thrashed may be learned from Prudentius’ Hymn of St. Romanus, where Asclepiades gives orders concerning a boy Barula, whom all unwillingly and unwittingly was about to be consecrated a Blessed Martyr to Christ:

“...pusionem praecipit
Sublime tollant, et manu pulsent nates.
Mox et remota vesta, virgis verberent,
Tenerumque duris ictibus tergum secent,
Plus unde lactis quam cruoris defluat.”
(“... He bids them lift the boy aloft and beat his buttocks with their hands; then after stripping off his clothes, thrashing him with rods, and rending his tender loins with heavy blows — from which more milk may well flow than blood.”)

But it was not only boys, like Vitus and Barula, that were thrashed in the manner of juveniles, being mere lads, but others likewise older in age and of either sex — a practice used, it would appear, in order to maximize the ignominy and disgrace. Thus was St. Thomas, a most reverend Bishop, beaten — as we find written in Victor, On the Vandal War — as was also St. Afra.

Of the Officers Whose Duty it was in Antiquity to Beat Prisoners

The officers charged with the duty of beating prisoners by order of the Magistrates were called Lictors. These officers were assigned to Consuls, Proconsuls, and other Roman officials; Consul and Proconsul having twelve each, other magistrates six, and the City Praetor only two. The lictors walked before each magistrate, bearing bundles of rods tied up with an axe in the midst, and known as fasces, so that whenever ordered, they might unfasten it, and first thrashing the condemned man with their rods, afterwards strike him down with the axe.

This can be readily confirmed from many witnesses among ancient writers. To take Cicero first, he says in his great speech, In Verres:

“Six stalwart lictors stand round him, men well practiced in beating and thrashing criminals;”

And also Livy,

“Go, lictor, bind him to the stake.”

The same, too, is proven by the customary formula by which the lictor was commanded to inflict this penalty on a traitor, which was:

“Go, lictor, bind his hands; cover his head; hang him to the accursed tree.”

Thus Livy writes of the Publius Horatius in the matter of the Horatii and Curiatii:

“So the Duumviri condemned him to death; then one of them addressing Publius Horatius, said, ’I pronounce you, Publius Horatius, guilty of high treason. Go, lictor, bind his hands’;“ and a little further on, “This same man,’ he went on, ’whom you saw but now, Quirites, walking honored, triumphant and victorious, can you bear to behold standing beneath the gallows, bound and enduring lashes and torments? ’ And when the eyes of the Albans could scarce endure so hideous a spectacle, ‘Go, lictor,’ he cried, ‘bind his hands — those hands which so lately were armed and winning empire for the Roman People. Go, cover the head of the liberator of this city; hang him to the accursed tree; scourge him, either within the bounds, that is amid yonder spears and spoils of the foe, or else without, that is, amid the tombs of the Curiatii.’ ”

To complete our account, we may add further what Aulus Gellius left on record concerning lictors:

“Moreover the lictors had other duties to perform; it was their office not only to bind and beat criminals and strike them with their axe, but also to hang them, if need be; hence the words, ’Go, lictor, bind his hands, cover his head, hang him to the accursed tree.’”

In addition to this, it belonged to these same officers to clear people out of’ the road, on occasion to silence those who spoke too much, and even to strangle criminals, as Plutarch demonstrates in his Life of Cicero, writing of Lentulus:

“First the Consul removed Lentulus from the Palatium, and marched him along the Sacred Way and through the midst of the Forum. Then on leaving the Forum and arriving at the jail, he handed his prisoner over to the lictor, and ordered him to be strangled.”

Still another duty of the lictors was to visit the houses of persons wanted in Court and to strike on the doors with a rod to summon them.  But enough of lictors and their offices.

Of Other Methods by Which the Martyrs were Struck and Beaten by the Heathen

Blows to the face, buffets, and kicks were commonly inflicted on the Blessed Christian Martyrs. Their faces were bruised with stones and their jaws broken, or they themselves were overwhelmed by the stones and so done to death. These afflictions were the fate of those most glorious heralds of our Faith: Saints Marcellinus a priest, Epipodius, Aquilina, Tatiana, Felicitas, Speusippus, Eleusippus, Meleusippus, and lastly Pothenus, or Pothinus, Bishop of Lyons, whose death is described by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History:

“Likewise the Sainted Pothenus, to whom the Bishopric of Lugdunum (Lyons) had been entrusted. He had now exceeded the ninetieth year of his age, and was so exhausted with bodily weakness that he could scarcely breathe freely, so extreme was his infirmity; yet his spirit was greatly refreshed and his mind grown alert by the burning desire he had for martyrdom. So he advanced boldly to the tribunal, and although his body was nearly worn out by the decrepitude of advanced age and the tortures of disease, yet was his soul preserved intact within him to triumph gloriously in its steadfastness for Christ. Led by the soldiers to the bar, the magistrates of the city going with him, and the whole multitude of the people shouting insults at him as a Christian, he exhibited a noble testimony to the Faith. For when he was asked by the Presiding Judge who the God of the Christians was, he answered, ’If thou be worthy to know this thing, thou shalt know it.’ He was immediately and roughly dragged from court and received many blows, both from those who were standing nearby, who without respect for his years, struck and kicked him shamefully and insultingly, and likewise from others further away, who threw at him whatever each had at hand. They did so because each and all would have deemed it a great fault and an act of  personal impiety had they failed to punish him, believing that by so doing they were serving the cause of their false gods. Finally, he was cast, barely breathing, into the common jail, where two days later he died.”

Thus Eusebius writes concerning the death of St. Pothenus. A similar end was suffered by the Blessed Martyr, St. Fabius.

Of Blows, Buffets, and Slaps

These three words are held by some to be synonymous, but that this is not so is plainly shown by many tokens. Thus  in St. Matthew 26 we read:

“Then did they spit in His face and buffet Him: and some smote Him with the palms of their hands;”

And in St. Mark 14:

“And some began to spit on Him, and to cover His face, and to buffet Him ... and the officers received Him with blows of their hands;”

Likewise in St. John 18:

“ ... one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand.”

From these passages it is plainly evident that the word buffet must be understood of a slap struck with the palm or open hand, while a blow is one inflicted with the clenched fist. This is further confirmed by the poet Martial in his Epigrams:

O quam dignus eras alapis, Mariane, Latini!
(“Oh! how well deserving you were, Marianus, of Latinus’ slaps!”);

And Terence in his play, Adelphi:

Ne mora sit, si innuerim, quin pugnus contintuo in mala haereat (“Not a moment’s delay, when I give the sign; but batter his face instantly with your fist”); and a little further on in the same play:

Homini misero plus quingentos colaphos infregit mihi (“Wretch that I am, he struck me above five hundred blows with his fist”); and again:

Omnes dentes labefecit mihi;
Praeterea colaphis tuber est totum caput.
(“He loosened all my teeth; besides which my head is all swollen from his punches.”)

This distinction between fist and palm, punch and slap, is well illustrated by a remark Cicero makes in his treatise entitled The Orator:

“Doubling up his fingers and making a fist, Zeno was used to say, ‘That’s what Dialectic is like;’ then loosening his grip and opening his hand, he would add, ‘But Eloquence resembles this open hand.’”

He said, in fact, the Rhetorician or Orator was like the open hand; the Dialectician like the fist, because while the former spoke at greater length, the latter argued in a more compressed and forcible manner. Fisticuffs,  or punches, then, or blows are dealt with the clenched fist, buffets or slaps with the open palm. But if the reader wishes further information concerning this form of punishment and ignominy —  by which women in particular were punished for the Christian faith — let him read what Aulus Gellius says on the subject.

Of Martyrs Who had Their Faces Beaten with Stones, Features Bruised, or their Jaws Broken

Among Christians who were subjected to the above-named methods of martyrdom are Saints Papias, Maurus, Theodosia, Felix a priest, Apollinaris a Bishop, Felicissima virgin and martyr, beside the forty soldiers which be mentioned in the Roman Martyrology under March 9:

“At Sebaste in Armenia, anniversary of the forty sainted Cappadocian soldiers, who in the days of Licinius and under the Governorship of Agricolaus, after enduring bonds and cruel imprisonment, and after their faces had been beaten with stones, were thrown into a frozen pond, where their bodies, stiffened by the frost, were broken in sunder, and they consummated their martyrdom by the fracture of their limbs. And of these, two were of noble birth, Cyrion and Candidus by name. The pre-eminent glory of them all has been renowned in the writings of St. Basil and of others.”

Polybius, too, dealing with military punishments, relates how in antiquity soldiers were not only beaten with cudgels, but likewise stoned.

Of Martyrs Who were Stoned, and so Gave Up their Lives

Among the Saints who were stoned to death are numbered such renowned martrys as St. Stephen the Proto-martyr, St. Demetrius and his companions, Saints Cyriacus, Tranquillinus, Diocletius, and the most glorious Emerentiana and Paula, virgins and martyrs.

Of Great Stones Under which Christians were Pressed and Tormented

Moreover, the Christian servants of Our Lord were tortured by means of great stones and rocks in many different ways. Sometimes we read of their being crushed under great boulders; thus in the Acts of the Blessed Martyr St. Theopompus it is written:

“Hereupon the holy man was led forth from his prison and stretched face upward on the ground and bound fast to stakes; then a huge boulder, that eight men could scarce carry, was laid upon his stomach. But the great stone was lifted up from off him by the divine efficacy ...“

Again in the Acts of the Martyr St. Victor we find:

“Being brought out of prison after three days, with his foot he kicked over  a statue of Jupiter which was presented to him that he might offer incense to it. The offending foot was instantly cut off, and the holy man laid under a millstone, under which he was cruelly ground. Amazingly, after a little while the mill broke in pieces of itself, while yet the Martyr of the Lord was breathing faintly.”

And in the Acts of the most Blessed Martyr, St. Artemius, we read:

“Hearing these words and being filled with wrath, Julian called stonemasons to him and said, ‘Do you see that block of stone?’, pointing to one that had broken from the front of the Amphitheatre. ’Divide it for me into two halves. Then, laying the one half flat on the earth, stretch out this criminal upon it, and then let down the other half heavily upon him, so that caught between the two he may have both flesh and bones crushed out of all shape. By this means he shall learn whom he is trying to resist and what help he may expect from his God.’ No sooner said than done, the holy man was imprisoned between the two stones, and so great was the weight pressing upon his body that as his bones broke asunder, a sound of splitting and cracking was actually heard by many. All his inwards were torn to pieces and the articulations of his bones crushed while his eyes started out of their sockets. Yet, even though he was reduced to such a pitiable state, he did not neglect to sing to God’s praise; for he chanted where he lay between the stones, saying, ‘Thou hast exalted and brought me up, for Thou art my hope, and a tower of strength in the face of mine enemy; Thou hast set my feet on a rock and guided my steps aright. Receive therefore my spirit, Thou only beloved Son of God, and deliver me not up into the hands of my foes!’ Finally, after he had remained a day and a night inside the stones, the wicked Julian commanded the two blocks to be separated, thinking that he had surely perished between them and that no vestige of life was yet left him under so grievous and overwhelming a weight. To Julian’s utter amazement, no sooner was Artemius freed of the stones, than he came forth walking on his own feet — truly a miracle worthy of all wonder and admiration! A man, naked and unprotected, whose eyes had started out of his head, whose bones had been crushed and all his limbs and flesh squeezed into one mass by the weight of the stone, so that his bowels had miserably gushed out, this man — O, strange and unexampled sight — was walking and talking, and speaking words of rebuke against the tyrant, so that even he was astounded.”

Another narrative of a similar martyrdom by means of great stones is found in the History of St. Joseph in the following words,

“Then after removing the holy man to some little distance and binding his hands behind him, they dug a pit for him and buried him up to the middle. Then they set round about him the Christians they had arrested, and ordered these to pelt and assail the noble victim with stones.”

But when, among the rest, they urged the blessed and holy Isdandul to do this, she replied, ‘Never before in the world’s history was heard such a thing, that a woman should be compelled to lift her hand against holy men, as now you would have me do. It is not against your enemies you are fighting, but against us, your friends, are you taking arms, and filling with blood and carnage your native land, which was in peace and quietness.’”

They then fastened a spike to the end of a long reed and bade her prick the holy man with it. But she cried again, ’Far be it from me to do this thing. Rather would I drive it through my own heart than inflict the smallest scratch on his sainted body.’ Thus did she manifest a manly constancy, and showed herself stronger than those murderers had deemed possible.

“But now they proceeded to overwhelm the saint with such a storm of stones that his head alone remained visible, all the rest of him being buried beneath a heap of rocks. When one of the ruffians saw the head still moving, he ordered one of the lictors to take a stone as big as he could wield and throw it down on him. When this was done and his head crushed by the weight of the stone, the saint  gave up his precious soul to Christ.”

Having examined the methods of the torments of the Holy Martyrs in this fourth chapter, we proceed next, with God’s blessing, to the fifth chapter.


Christian Martyr drawn and quartered Christian Martyrs tied to stake and cudgeled Christian Martyr laid naked on iron spikes Christian Martyr crushed under large stone  

click to enlarge


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



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