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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 V

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 claws.

And Prudentius in his Hymn of St. Romanus speaks of:

Costas bisulcis execandas ungulus
(“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 criminals.

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, says:

“ ... 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 his martyrdom.”

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 wretched runaway,”

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 writes,

“ ... 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 necessitas,
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 lead.”)

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 that:

“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 his Hymns:

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 sewers.

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 V:

Iron claws, currycombs and hooks used on Christian Martyrs Christian Martyrs being torn by iron hooks and shears

click to enlarge


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



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