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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 VI



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:

“What, then, 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, who writes:

“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 Aeneid:

Et castis reolent altaria tedis
(“And the altars are fragrant with consecrated pine torches”).

So too, Cicero:

“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.”

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 him.”

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 condemned persons.

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 Fiery Brands

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 different 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, and others.



Illustrations for Chapter VI:


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



Boston Catholic Journal

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