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 Romans' 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."


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