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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 III

Of the Wooden Horse as an Instrument of Martyrdom; and Other Sorts of Bonds

That the Wooden Horse was used as an instrument of torture is alluded to both by Cicero in the Pro Deiotaro, the Pro Milone, and the Philippics, and by other ancient writers such as Valerius Maximus, Quintilian, Seneca, and Ammianus Marcellinus. We also encounter numerous references to it in the different Histories and Acts of the Martyrs, especially those of St. Crescentianus, Sts. Dorothy, Agatha, and Eulalia, Virgins and Martyrs, Sts. Felix and Fortunatus, Sts. Alexander and Bassus, Bishops and Martyrs — not to mention countless others of either sex. In addition to these writers and the Lives of Saints, we find mention of the Wooden Horse made by St. Cyprian, in his Epistle to Donatus and elsewhere, by St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Eusebius, Isidore, and others — as well as by Prudentius, repeatedly, in his Hymns.

All these agree that the Horse was an ancient instrument of torture that was used for forcing the truth from suspected or guilty persons. Cicero, for example, in his Pro Deiotaro, writes:

“By the custom of our ancestors a slave may bring no charge against his master, even under examination by torture, when pain can force the truth from the most unwilling witness. Yet such was the duress brought to bear on this slave that the man whom he could not so much as name when on the horse, he openly accused once set free.“ And again, “To elicit facts, the horse is the proper place; to discuss points of law, the Court.”

The same may be gathered from what Ammianus Marcellinus says:

“Though he stood bent double under the wooden horse, yet he persisted in a stubborn and uncompromising denial.”

Apart from being used as a means of extricating the truth from those accused of crimes, the wooden horse, we find, was equally used as a means for torturing men and cruelly racking them to the end of punishment — as was plainly the case with the Christian martyrs. Accordingly we find frequent mention made of this instrument in the Histories in such recurring phrases as, “he was tortured on the horse”, “suspended on the horse”, “hoisted on to the horse”, “put on the horse”, etc.

With regard to the use of the wooden horse as an instrument of torture, the various writers are all agreed — but not so concerning its precise description and exact form. For some have declared in so many words that it was a red-hot plate of metal; others a sort of rack by means of which a man was suspended with hands tied above his head and with heavy weights attached to both feet.

Others again, Sigonius among them, and many religious authors who have followed him, hold it to have been a sort of wooden framework provided with pulleys and adapted, alternately, for stretching and relaxing, and intended for torturing people and compelling them to tell the truth about some circumstance:

“Now the nature of this torture,“ he says, “was as follows. After binding the arms and legs of the person to be tortured to this frame by means of small thongs known as fiddle strings, they then extended the framework and set it upright, so that the victim found himself suspended upon it, as on a cross. This done, they proceeded in the first place to force apart all the joints and articulations of his limbs; then the placed red-hot plates close to his body, and last of all tore his sides with two-pronged iron hooks ...”

On the contrary, others maintain that it was merely a wooden contrivance fashioned something like a horse (as we will explain further on), having two channeled wheels, or pulleys, fixed at either end in hollows made to receive them, and capable of being revolved upon their pins or axles. Over these, ropes were led in such a way that accused persons could be fastened to them, and so tortured through being racked and stretched.

These, then, are the various opinions held by different writers concerning the Wooden Horse. Given this diversity of opinion, we can only arrive at a genuine understanding of the actual nature of this device if the evidence is very carefully considered. Upon examining the first of these opinions, we find it the least compelling . For how can we suppose the “horse” itself to have been a red-hot plate, when we read in almost any History of the Martyrs, as well as in the works of other ancient authors, of men being first hoisted on the horse and once there, then being burned with red-hot plates.

The second and third opinions concerning the nature and construction of this device, can also be conclusively discredited. How possibly can the facts that our predecessors have presented in their writings about the wooden horse be made to accord with these conjectures? They cannot. Indeed, we will now demonstrate that the last quoted opinion alone authentically accords with the facts. This view may be restated for the sake of clarity as such:

The “horse” in antiquity was an engine of wood fashioned to resemble a real horse, having two small, channeled wheels, or pulleys, situated at both ends which were hollowed out to receive them. Over the axles of these wheels or pulleys, ropes were led, and the wheels revolved, by which means the person tied to them was racked and stretched in various directions.

To understand this more clearly, let us examine how the ancients constructed this device we call the wooden horse. To begin with, they prepared a straight beam of wood of a convenient length and breadth; into the two ends of this, which they had previously hollowed out somewhat, they attached small channeled wheels that turned upon axles. In order to raise the entire device above the ground, they used four other pieces of timber, shorter and thinner than the first, which they then fastened with iron nails near the four corners, and so constructed a mechanical device standing on four legs and somewhat resembling a real horse.

Once completed, the victim to be tortured was placed upon its back and had his two legs forcibly drawn apart. The tormentors then took ropes, one binding the tied the man’s feet, and the other his hands after they had twisted the latter behind him. Next, leading these ropes over the small wheels or pulleys and carrying them to a small device much like a winch or windlass (we conjecture) that was attached to the “horse’s legs, they wound the ropes around it and turning it round, drew the bonds taut in such a way that the man, tied with his back to the horse’s back and his face looking skywards, was then stretched along with them. Thus they would continue turning the winch, drawing the ropes tighter and tighter, until every limb was strained and every joint dislocated.”

Eventually they would either leave him in this condition, or else at a sign from the Judge relax the ropes and let him drop and hang bent under the horse’s belly, to increase his pain. Then the Judge, sufficiently assured that the pain inflicted would induce the truth that would either convict or acquit the prisoner, would proceed to question and cross-question him rigorously of his complicity in the matter in question. However, if the victim was still resolute in holding out and defied the magistrate’s expectations, he would then order hot plates to be brought, or iron claws, hooks and the like, to inflict greater pain still, in the hope of yet eliciting the truth.

So much, then, for the shape, construction, and purposes of the wooden horse. It is only left now to confirm the explanation we have given in each and every particular by other considerations and the evidence provided by ancient authors.

In the first place, that this device made from wood was made in the likeness of a real horse is clear from the very name given it: “the horse” (equuleus) [literally, “little horse“ in Latin]. Moreover, to this day many sorts of benches and other articles of furniture that are raised up from the ground on four legs are called “horses.” Again, the language employed by many ancient writers shows clearly that in speaking of prisoners being set on the wooden instrument, they had in their mind the mounting of actual, live horses. Thus Cicero, in the Tusculan Orations, [actually, Cicero’s “Disputations”]

“They mount the wooden horse,“ “Trying to get on the horse’s back.”

So again the poet Pomponius writes:

“And when I had leapt” (a word properly used of anyone mounting a horse) “on the back of the pulley horse, I was tortured full-trot,” — (after mounting the horse with the channeled wheels, I was tortured at a great pace, that is to say, by means of the ropes and pulleys provided for that purpose.)

 So, too, we routinely read in descriptions of the Blessed Martyrs’ sufferings — particularly in that of Saints Abundius and Abundantius — that the Christians were hoisted on the horse to be tortured. It is perfectly plain, then, that the horse was a device of wood made in the likeness of a horse, and nothing else whatever.

Lastly, this view would seem to be strongly corroborated by St. Jerome in his, Epistle to the Innocents, and Seneca, of whom the former writes that persons tortured on the wooden horse kept their eyes turned heavenwards, the latter that they lay extended full length on it. Thus St. Jerome says:

 “Although his body was stretched upon the horse, his eyes — the only part of him the tormentor could not bind — gazed up to heaven;”

And Seneca:

“You actually try to persuade us it makes no matter whether a man be full of joy or be lying on the horse.”

If therefore, as it is  said here, prisoners lay on the wooden horse and looked up to heaven, it is more likely this instrument was constructed like a horse than otherwise.

Again, the fact that the horse was fitted with little channeled wheels, or pulleys, may be concluded from the verses of the ancient poet Pomponius previously quoted, as appears to be the case from the facts and explanations we have given above.

That victims were hoisted up on the horse, with their arms twisted behind their back and their legs bound to the instrument with cords, which themselves were led over small devices that were essentially pulleys, and so stretched and torn asunder — this, I repeat, may be proved from many and various passages, particularly in Eusebius’ History where he says:

“For in the first place some were suspended with hands tied behind them to the wood, and by means of certain engines all their limbs stretched and strained apart ...”

Further, that this is to be understood of the wooden horse, is indicated in the passage which immediately follows:

“Next, at the magistrates’ command were they terribly racked in their whole body by the tormentors, and not only their sides, as is commonly done with murderers, but their stomach also, as well as their shins and knees were beaten with iron scourges or claws.”

Moreover the evidence can be yet further corroborated by another passage from St. Jerome’s Epistle to the Innocents, where he writes:

“But indeed the woman was stronger than her sex, and although the horse was racking her body, while her hands, stained with the filth of the prison, were bound with cords behind her, yet with her eyes ...”

This can also be further adduced from Prudentius’ Hymn on the Martyrdom of St. Vincent, in which the Tyrant addresses the tormentors:

Vinctum retortis brachiis
Sursum et deorsum extendite,
Compago donec ossium
Divulsa membratim crepet.

(“Go bind the man with arms twisted behind the back, and rack him up and down, until the framework of his bones crack, as he is torn limb from limb.”)

And again from the account of St. Romanus, where the indomitable Martyr speaks from the horse’s back:

Miserum putatis. quod retortis pendeo
Extensus ulnis, pod revelluntur pedes.
Compago nervis quod sonat crepantibus.

(“You deem me unhappy, because I hang stretched here with elbows twisted behind me, because my legs are drawn asunder and all my frame cracks as the sinews are racked.”)

From all these passages it plainly follows, in our opinion, that prisoners were bound hand and foot with cords, the hands being twisted behind the back, and by the revolution of certain small contrivances through which the ropes passed, were racked limb by limb and and torn apart.

That the horse was provided with devices of the nature of pulleys, may be further corroborated from what Vitruvius the architect says in his works [De Architectura libri decem] when treating of the use of pulleys and other instruments for hauling, such as the capstan and windlass. He lays it down that a running rope after being led over a pulley must, if weights are to be lifted or shifted, be carried eventually to some engine of the windlass kind.

The fact that victims lay stretched full length on the horse with face turned upward, while the ropes were being pulled taut, is shown vividly by the passages quoted from St. Jerome and Seneca; but there is one other point that should be noted (as we are advised in the Epistle of St. Jerome), to wit, that in order to further increase the torment, the executioners sometimes fastened the hair of women undergoing the punishment of the horse to its wooden frame.  Little wonder that this intensified the pain, for when the ropes were slackened by the tormentors, and the victims fell under the horse’s belly (as we will soon see from the account of Ammianus Marcellinus) with bodies hanging bent in a curve, the hair was bound to be strained and dragged out of the scalp, to the extreme torment of the woman.

That victims fell underneath the instrument with bodies hanging bent when the tightened ropes were slackened, is attested to, among other authors, by Ammianus Marcellinus, who writes:

 “He delivered up many innocent persons to the tormentors, and put them to hang with bodies bent underneath the horse,“ and again (as already quoted), “Although he remained with his body bent underneath the horse, he still persisted in a stubborn and uncompromising denial.”

 Now in these passages, and particularly the latter, did the author mean to imply that the ropes were slackened in order to increase the pain, or was it done to the end of diminishing and relieving it? The first is our own opinion, whereas the second is maintained by Sigonius and his followers. Sigonius holds that the ancients relaxed the ropes by which the bodies of prisoners were stretched on the horse, for the purpose of relieving the pain. Accordingly he writes:

“Even as the horse, or rather the strings upon it were drawn tight in order to increase pain, so were these relaxed again to relieve it ...”

To substantiate this practice, he quotes the following from Valerius Maximus:

“When Zeno was being tortured by Nearchus the Tyrant, he [Zeno] declared that there was something of benefit for the other [the Tyrant] to hear privately; then when the horse was slackened, he caught the tyrant’s ear between his teeth and bit it off;”

And again in another place,

“Hieronymus the Tyrant exhausted the efforts of the tormentors, which were of no avail; for he broke the scourges, loosened the cords, relaxed the horse and put out the red-hot plates, before he could compel the other to reveal his confederates in tyrannicide.”

Another point is to be noted. This slackening of the ropes clearly implies what we had stated at the beginning of the chapter concerning the wooden horse: that it was raised somewhat from the ground in all parts. It follows, then, that Prudentius, in his Hymn on the Martyrdom of St. Romanus, represents that soldier of Christ crying out from the horse as from the top of an elevated structure:

Audite cuncti: clamo longe, ac praedico,
Emito vocem de catasta celsior

(“Hear all men: I cry aloud and proclaim my tidings, I utter my voice, lifted high on this scaffold.”)

Fidiculae — What did Those in Antiquity Understand by the Word

Sigonius, in a passage quoted above, states that in his opinion these were the thongs or bands by which the prisoner’s limbs were bound to the wooden horse, and that to speak of criminals as being tortured with the fidiculae is the same thing as saying they were attached by these thongs to the horse, and afterwards all the joints of their bones stretched and dragged apart to their extreme agony. However, there are too many considerations that convince us beyond a doubt that the scholars who hold this view are mistaken.

St. Isidore, for example, declares in no uncertain terms that fidiculae were not thongs at all, but rather iron claws or hooks by which those condemned to torture were lacerated. This agrees with what Prudentius says in his Hymn of St. Romanus the Martyr, where he speaks of fidiculae as if they were types of  claws or hooks. These are the words, Prudentius tells us, spoken by Asclepias the Judge:

Vertat ictum carnifex
In os loquentis inque maxillas manuum,
Sulcosque actuos, et fidiculas transferat,
Verbositatis ut rumpatur locus.

(“Let the executioner aim a blow at the speaker’s lips, and strike his jaws with sharp cuts and iron claws, to the end that the place from which the words come may be destroyed.”)

That by fidiculae here Asclepias meant claws, is made clear by the verses the author immediately subjoins:

Implet jubentis dicta lictor improbus
Charaxat ambas ungulis scribentibus
Genas, cruentis et secat faciem rotis:
Hirsuta barbrissolvitur carptim cutis,
Et mentum adusque vultus omnis scinditur.

(“The cruel lictor [the bodyguard of a Roman magistrate] obeys the Judge’s orders; he marks both his cheeks with the writing of the iron claws, and ploughs his face with bloodstained wheels. The skin and the beard that roughens it are flayed away in patches, the chin and all the features are lacerated.”)

On the other hand, the historian Suetonius in De Vita Caesarum seems to contradict this view in a passage where the fidiculae are spoken of, apparently, as quite a different form of punishment:

“He had devised yet another method of torture; after treacherously inducing his victims to drink long and heavily, he would suddenly have their privates tied up, so that they suffered agonies both from the constriction of the strings (fidiculae) and the distension of their bladders by the accumulated urine.”

But without disputing Suetonius’s authority, it may be conceded that what he describes here is something altogether different from what is recorded as to fidiculae in the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs and the other authorities quoted.

However, with regard to what we said above concerning other kinds of tortures in which prisoners were stretched on the wooden horse and tormented, it should be noted that our ancestors often stretched a person on the horse, and then by means of fidiculae or iron claws tore at his limbs, or else burned them with red-hot plates of metal, or the like. This is to be found recorded in several collections of Acts of the Blessed Martyrs, and particularly in St. Cyprian’s Epistle to Donatus, where he writes:

 “The spear was there, and the sword, and the executioner standing ready, the iron claw that mangles and scrapes the sides, the horse that stretches the limbs, and the fire that burns — many kinds of torments for one poor human body!”

And again in another place:

“But soon the hard-hearted Judge’s cruelty was roused anew, and the victim, already worn out with pain, was again torn by the lash, beaten by the cudgels, racked on the horse, lacerated by the iron claw and scorched by the flames.”

So too St. Augustine writes in his Epistle to Marcellinus:

 “When, I ask, did you drag forth confession of such heinous crimes, not by the horse that stretches the limbs, nor the iron claws that mangle or the flames that burn, but by mere blows of the lash?”

 Likewise Cicero, In Verrem:

“But what when fire and red-hot plates and the rest of the torturer’s contrivances were brought in?“ and in the Philippics: “Call up before your eyes bonds and lashes, the horse, the executioner, and grim Samarius the torturer.”

Similarly Seneca:

“And all his apparatus of cruelty must be paid back to him, his horses and his iron claws, his fetters and crosses, his stakes and fires, and the hook that drags the mangled corpse from the arena.“

Also Ammianus Marcellinus:

“The horses were stretched ready, and the executioner was fitting his hooks and preparing his instruments of torture.“

It only remains to quote a few verses from the Hymns of Prudentius illustrating the same point. From the Hymn of St. Vincent, Martyr:

Extorque si potes, fidem
Tormenta, carcer, ungulae,
Stridensque flammis lamina,
Atque ipsa poenarum ultima
Mors Chistianis ludus est.
(“Rob me of my faith, if you can. Tortures, prison, iron claws, the red-hot plate crackling with flames, and death itself, the last of punishments, all are but sport to Christian men.”)

And a little further on in the same:

Ridebat haec miles Dei,
Manus cruentas increpans
Quod fixa non profondius
Intraret artus ungula
( “All this God’s champion made mock of, clapping his bleeding hands, laughing because the hook that pierced his flesh ate not more deeply in.”)

Likewise from the Hymn of St. Romanus, the Martyr:

Amor coronae poenae praevenit trucem
Lictoris artem, sponte nudas offerens
Costas bisulcis excecandas ungulis.
(“Love of the crown of martyrdom forestalls the savage skill of the torturer, [the martyr] willingly offering naked flanks to be lacerated by the two-pronged hooks.“)

And again in the same:

Non ungularum tanta vis latus fodit
Mucrone, quanta dira pulsat pleuris:
Nec sic inusta laminis ardet cutis,
Ut febris atro fele venas exedit.

 “Not so sharp do the iron claws tear the side with their keen points, as pleurisy does when it makes its dread attack; not so hot the fiery plates burn and scorch the skin, as fever and black bile when they consume the veins.”)

From all these passages, therefore, it very clearly appears that the view we have adopted concerning the “horse” is, in fact, the correct one; that is to say, that it was a mechanical device constructed of wood wrought in the likeness of a real horse — and not as Sigonius mistakes it, as being merely a sort of scaffold or platform. For, if it were the latter, how could the poet Pomponius, cited above, have spoken of prisoners leaping on the horse, and Cicero have used words of the same implication? Or how could Ammianus Marcellinus have described men being racked on the horse, and then when the ropes by which they were bound were slackened, immediately falling underneath it with the body hanging bent in a curve and not extended straight?

We must now look into Sigonius’ reasons and clarify our refutation of them. His first point is that Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History), when mentioning the horse, implies that it was some sort of scaffold or platform of wood that was generally used to raise something aloft. His words are:

“But when these cruel and tyrannical forms of torture, by reason of the Saints’ holy patience, which was confirmed by Christ’s merits, seemed to have been applied and inflicted in vain, the devil devised new contrivances against them. For this reason they were thrown into dungeons, and lay miserably in places dark and gloomy and full of every horror, while sometimes their feet were fixed in heavy stocks and stretched wide apart, even as far as the fifth hole.”

This shows the horse, Sigonius adds, to have been a wooden platform, on which the bodies of criminals were stretched. Other passages he relies on are from Sozomen’s History, where, speaking of Busiris, a Christian from the Galatian town of Ancyra who was crucified for the Faith at Myros, a city of Phrygia, under the Emperor Julian the Apostate, he writes:

“So when they had brought him to the beam of torment, he ordered this to be raised aloft,“ and again, “From among the Christians which had been cast into prison he selected first a young man named Theodore, and bound him to the stake on which punishments were usually inflicted, where he was mangled with iron claws for a long time.”

Similarly Prudentius — not to quote a second time the verses from his Hymn on the martyrdom of St. Romanus, where he makes that Saint speak of uttering his voice from on high on the scaffold — says of a martyr:

“Scindunt utrumque milites teterrim
Mucrone bisulco pensilis latus viri.”
(“The savage soldiers cut open with a two-edged sword either side of the man as he hung there.”)

These are the main citations to which Sigonius and those who are in agreement with him appeal, and which we now must refute. It is clear to us that Sigonius has confused the wooden horse on the one hand, with the wooden platform or scaffold upon which criminals were set to be tortured on the other; and also with the heavy fetters or stocks in which jailed prisoners had their legs fixed and stretched asunder to the fourth or fifth hole, and so kept in constant pain.

Moreover it may be noted that this word platform has yet another meaning, signifying sometimes, though less properly, a device like a long and large set of stocks in which slaves were kept shackled when exposed for sale. It is also used on occasions to mean the frame or gridiron upon which St. Lawrence and other martyrs died. So Prudentius, in his Hymn on St. Lawrence, sings:

Postquam vapor diutius
Decoxit exustum latus,
Ultro et catasta Judicem
Compellat affatu brevi:
Converte partem corporis,
Satis crematus jugiter.
(“When the heat had long been scorching and roasting the one side, accosting the Judge from the frame — that is from the iron gridiron — the Martyr said shortly and briefly: Turn my body now over the other side; this one is burned enough and to spare.”)

But it is obvious that the true and general meaning of the word platform or scaffold pertained to a raised place upon which people were lifted up so that their tortures might be better seen by those present, and that Sigonius’ understanding of the word horse, confused the two things, considering them the same.

One word more concerning the sort of shackles or stocks into which prisoners were set in jail with their legs parted to the fourth or fifth hole, and so kept for periods of prolonged torment. Clearly this instrument can in no way be considered the same as the wooden horse, as has been maintained, for various reasons. First, because by the operation of the former, the bodies of men were made broader, whereas by the latter, as we find stated by Seneca, longer. Secondly, it is plain that the former punishment was only used in the jail (as we shall soon see when we come to bonds and fetters), while the latter, on the contrary, and as countless Acts of the Blessed Martyrs bear witness, was used outside the prison walls, and most generally in the public places of cities. Thirdly, on the horse not only were the legs of the victim racked and stretched prior to mangling by the iron claws, but the entire body. In the stocks, on the other hand, the legs alone were drawn asunder. All this suffices to show that shackles or stocks were something entirely different from the wooden horse.

Of Many Different Ways by which the Bodies of the Prisoners were Racked and Stretched

It had long been the practice of the ancients to rack and stretch the bodies of accused persons in several ways: by means of the horse, by pulleys, or by hanging them up with heavy weights attached to the feet — and by other methods as well, such as mangling with claws and iron combs and similar instruments, or by burning them with red-hot plates. These tortures were effected in different ways as well, either by hoisting the victims on the wooden horse, or suspending them in any of the different ways described in Chapter I, where we found that they were tied to stakes, trees, or pillars.

Of How People were Bound to the Wooden Horse, and how they were Suspended as from an Elevated Beam; also the True Significance of Being Hanged on the Horse

Again and again we read in accounts of the passions of the Blessed Martyrs words of the following sort: “The Martyr was hanged on a horse”— by which many assumed (as we had mentioned above) that the horse was not framed to resemble a real horse, but was, in fact, something different. When we carefully examine the works of ancient authors, however, we find that this word “hanged” also signified simply being raised or lifted up to any place. To speak, then, of a Martyr’s being hanged on the horse is the same thing as saying that he was simply lifted up upon it. Hence it is that in reading the Histories of the Saints who have won the Crown of Martyrdom, we find the Judge or Emperor who is ordering someone to be tortured on the horse using words such as these: “Let the man be hoisted on the horse, and there racked.” For example, in the Acts of the most Blessed Saints Abundius, Priest, and Abundantius, Deacon, we read the following: “Then Diocletian commanded them to be hoisted on the horse and tortured for a long time; and when they were being so tortured ...”  To be hanged on the horse, then, means nothing more nor less than simply to be lifted up and placed upon it.

This is also confirmed in the Histories of Sts. Regina and Marguerite, Virgins and Martyrs, for at the beginning we find written, “Marguerite was hanged on the horse“, while a little further on it is added, “After many days the people again came together and she was brought before the Judge, and scorning to make sacrifice to idols, she was again hoisted on the horse ...”

This is not to say that on occasion the martyrs actually hanged suspended from the horse to which they were bound, for when the ropes by which they were tied were slackened, they would fall underneath the horse’s belly with bodies bent in a curve, as we mentioned earlier. Thus they did not hang straight down from the instrument, as persons hanged usually do, but with their bodies bent underneath it — something amply referred to by Ammianus Marcellinus in many passages that we have already quoted.

Of Stretching or Extending the Wooden Horse

Mention is sometimes found in Ammianus and other writers of the horse being stretched and again relaxed. This of course is to be understood not of the engine itself, but of the ropes by which the victim to be tortured was bound to it, inasmuch as when these ropes were drawn tight or slackened, the horse itself appeared in a way to be extended and again relaxed.

Why the Wooden Horse was Called a Post, and in Other Places a Cross

The material of the wooden horse (as already stated) was formed of an oblong post or beam of timber, supported on four other pieces or legs. This is referred to by St. Jerome, Epistle to the Innocents, in these words: “Her hair was fastened to the post, and her whole body bound to the horse; then a fire was brought near her feet, and at the same moment the executioner tore both her sides ...”  In the same way Prudentius speaks of the horse simply as the accursed post in his Hymn of St. Romanus the Martyr, where he says:

Incensus his Asclepiades jusserat
Eviscerandum corpru equulleo eminus
Pendere, et uncis ungulisque crescere.
(“Angered by the words, Asclepiades had ordered his body to hang aloft in order to be mangled on the horse, and to endure the hooks and iron claws.”)

And a few lines further down:

Jubet amoveri noxialem stipitem
Plebeia clara poena ne damnet virum.
(“He commands the accursed post to be removed, to save the noble victim from so plebeian a doom.”)

Neither is this the only other name given the wooden horse, for we find it also called mala mansio, or “bad quarters.” [Literally, a bad, or evil, dwelling or place] Again, it is sometimes spoken of as a cross; thus in the Acts of St. Dorothy, Virgin and Martyr, among the holy days of the month of February, we find written, concerning a certain Theophilus who was tortured on the wooden horse, “Now behold! I am a Christian; for have I not been hanged upon the cross” — that is to say the wooden horse. For this same horse has a certain likeness to the cross.

It is no wonder it was so called, for in the first place we read of other sorts of instruments of torture also being called crosses; and secondly, because the bodies of those tortured upon them would be stretched out like those of persons crucified; and finally, because the wooden posts which represented the horse’s legs, besides being nailed to the main timber, were also joined to one another and connected by cross pieces, although they were wide apart nearer the ground, and inasmuch as they did, each pair of posts formed, as it were, the two arms of a cross.

One more quotation should suffice this topic. Sozomen, speaking of a Christian named Busiris, writes:

 “So taking him to the public place where the wooden horse was, he ordered him to be hanged up aloft upon it. Whereupon Busiris, lifting his hands to his head, stripped bare his own sides, and addressing the Governor, said there was no call for the lictors to take needless pains in lifting him up on to the horse and then again removing him to the ground ...”

This passage further corroborates our earlier explanation as to what the wooden horse really was, and that is to say, a mechanical device [constructed of wood, elevated on four legs, with ropes, pulleys, and a winch] made in the likeness of a live horse, upon which the Martyrs were lifted up to be tortured, and not a mere platform or scaffold.

Of the Stocks and Different other Methods of Biding Prisoners Securely

We have already made a distinction between the wooden horse and the stocks in which Martyrs were kept in torment with their legs forced apart to the fourth or fifth hole. we must now endeavor to make a distinction between different types of bonds that were used by the ancients, namely the stocks, thongs, chains, shackles, fetters, manacles, neck collars, and the jail. Plautus enumerates these in his play, the Asinaria:

Advorsum stimulos, laminas, crucesque, compedesque, Nervos, catenas, carceres, numellas, pedicas, boias. (“Against scourges and red-hot plates, against the cross and the stocks, against thongs, chains, prisons, shackles, fetters, and neck collars.”)

Of the Stocks

By “stocks” we understand  a device made of wood, into which the legs of prisoners and criminals were placed to be constrained, constricted, and confined. Both Plautus and Terence, among ancient writers, make mention of this device:

Plautus in the Captivi, says:

Ubi ponderosas crassas capiat compedes
(“When he is set in the heavy ponderous stocks”)

Terence makes mention of it in the Phormio:

Molendum usqe in pistrino, vapulandum habendae compedes (“We must grind for ever in the mill, and be beat, and endure the stocks”).

Horace again mentions something about it in his Epodes:

Ibericis peruste funibus latus
Et crura dura compede.
(“You whose side is chafed with Iberian bonds, and your legs galled by the rough timbers of the stocks.”)

And again in the Epistles:

... Argentum tollas licet, in manicis et
Compedibus salvo te sub custode tenebo.
(“Yes! You may take the money, but I will keep you manacled and in the stocks under a hard taskmaster.”)

It was in these sort of stocks that the Blessed Martyrs were cruelly tormented; for (as we see in the passages quoted above) after scourging and scarifying with iron claws, their legs were stretched and forcibly drawn apart even to the fourth or fifth hole of this instrument. Of this Prudentius speaks in one of his Hymns:

In hoc barathrum conjicit
Truculentus hostis martyrem,
Lignoque plantas inserit,
Divaricatis cruribus.
(“Into this dungeon the truculent tyrant threw the martyr, and, forcing his legs apart, inserted his feet in the stocks.”)

It also seems clear from what Eusebius says that when so set in the stocks, they were necessarily compelled to lie flat on their backs on a wooden board. He writes:

“Some, moreover, after scourging, were set in the stocks and their legs forced one from the other as far as four holes apart, in such a way that they were necessarily compelled to lie on their back on the wood, although they could not do so without great difficulty, since their entire bodies were covered with fresh wounds inflicted by the lash.“

The Shackles

These too are mentioned in the lines just quoted from the Asinaria of Plautus; and are described this way by Nonius:

“The shackle is a species of wooden contrivance formerly employed for torturing criminals by the ancients, the victim’s neck and feet being both inserted therein ...”

That is to say, it was a wooden instrument with round holes, into which the feet and neck of prisoners were inserted, and fixed there in such a way that they could not withdraw them again.

Our own belief, however, is that by the word shackle the ancients actually signified several different sorts of bonds. We are led to this conclusion by the words of  Sextus Pompeius, who speaks of shackles in these terms:

“The shackle is a sort of bond or fastening wherewith four-footed beasts are secured; it is made of a thong or a strip of raw ox-hide, as a general rule.”

This so clearly differs from Nonius’ account, that, unless we are prepared to maintain that one or both were mistaken, we must conclude the same word to have been applied with two different meanings.

Of Thongs

These are mentioned by Plautus in the Captivi:

Nam noctu nervo vinctus custodibitur.
(“For at night-time he shall be kept guarded and bound with a thong”)

And in the Curculio:

Atque ita te nervo torquebo, ibidem ut catapultae solent (“And I will wrench your limbs with a thong, even as the catapults are used to do“); and in other passages as well. Likewise St. Cyprian, in his  Epistles to Clergy and People, says, speaking of Celerinus: “For nineteen days he was shut up in prison, bound with thongs and iron bands ...”

But Sextus Pompeius adds something more to his description of the thong, saying, “We likewise give this name to an iron fetter for the feet, though Plautus speaks of it as used also for the neck.”

From the various sources of information that we have gathered, then, the following definition seems most suitable: “A thong is a species of bond used for securing the feet or neck.“ Hence the saying of Cato recorded by Aulus Gellius: “Thieves guilty of private thefts pass their days in confinement by thong and fetters, public robbers in purple and gold.”

Of Fetters

Fetters were nooses by which the feet of prisoners or criminals were secured, and called so because they confine the feet, just as manacles, or handcuffs, are so called because they imprison the hands.

Of Manacles

Manacles are bands for the hands; as the Psalm [149.8] declares: “For binding their kings in fetters and their princes in bands of iron.”

Plautus again in his Mostellaria writes:

Ut cum extemplo vocem
Continuo exiliatis, manicas celeriter connectite
(“So that the moment I call, you may instantly spring forth; then quickly fasten the manacles together.”)

And in the Captivi:

Injicite huic actutum manicas mastigiae
(“Go, put manacles instantly on this scoundrel here”).

Also Virgil in the Second Aeneid, tells us that:

Ipse viro primus manicas, atque arcta levari
Vincla jubet Priamus
(“King Priam himself is the first to bid release the man from his manacles and constraining bonds.”)

And this is not to mention a number of other authors, whom, for the sake of brevity, we must refrain from quoting.

The English heretics at this present moment (1591) are vigorously engaged in pursuing a course of cruelly afflicting Catholics by means of iron manacles, or handcuffs as they call them.

Using this sort of instrument, a man is hung up and tortured, his two hands being put through an iron ring toothed inside, and violently squeezed. Indeed, so fierce and intense is the pain that unless the back is allowed to lean somewhat against a wall and the tips of the toes to touch the floor, the man will fall helplessly into a dead faint. If you wish to learn more of these atrocities, read Father Sanders’ Work on the Anglican Schism, in which the author calls this kind of torture the iron gauntlets. And now to proceed to other instruments of torture.

Of Neck Collars

These may be described as follows: Neck-collars were a sort of neck-band for condemned criminals, made either of wood or iron, which enclosed their necks firmly, much as the yoke upon oxen.

But there were other sorts of neck-collars as well, differing from those just described, and yet of the same nature, and generally also called collars, which Nonius thus defines as follows: “The collar is any sort of bond whereby the neck is constrained.” So in Lucilius we find, “That with manacles, leash, and collar, I may fetch home the fugitive.” Indeed these neck-collars, as is plainly shown in the Acts of St. Balbina and of Pope Alexander, were largely employed among men of earlier days for binding and making fast the necks of prisoners and criminals. So we read:

 “Soon, kissing the neck-collars of the most glorious Martyr, Pope Alexander, that Blessed Martyr of Christ, St. Balbina, heard these words pronounced: ’Cease, daughter, to salute these collars, and go seek instead the bonds of my master, St. Peter...’”

Hence it would seem these last were something of the same nature; and indeed when the bonds are examined, which are preserved to this day in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula at Rome, by which that Holy Apostle of Christ was bound, they will be found to include a round iron collar for the securing of the Martyr’s neck.

Of Chains

A chain is an iron bond by which slaves or prisoners are made fast to hinder their escaping. Thus Livy the Historian, writing of the first years after the foundation of Rome:

 “Turnus, awaking from sleep, found himself surrounded by guards. His slaves were seized, who for love of their master were preparing to resist, swords being produced from all corners of the refuge. There could be no longer any doubt, and Turnus was loaded with chains.”

Also Cicero, In Verrem, writes that, “The miscreant orders chains to be bound upon unfortunate and innocent men” — apart from other writers who make similar references.

Moreover we read again and again in the Acts of the Saints that in the days of persecution the Christians were bound with iron chains. We find reference to this, among others, in the History of St. Anastasia, a Roman Martyr, Saint Febronia, Virgin and Martyr, St. Chrysanthus, and many other Saints and Martyrs of either sex.

What is more, if anyone wishes to learn more about the manner in which prisoners were bound with chains in antiquity, he can still find such representations to this day carved and cut on the Arch of the Emperor Constantine. There he will see a number of captives so confined.

Of Prisons or Jails

A prison or jail is a place wherein criminals are kept guarded, and to which they are confined against their own free will. The first prison at Rome was built by King Ancus Martius [circa 640-616 BC], as Livy tells us:

“Likewise the pit or dungeon of the Quirites [the citizens of Rome at large]—  no insignificant structure as viewed from the more level ground —  is the work of King Ancus. The state having largely increased in prosperity, and, as was to be expected with so numerous a population, the distinctions of right and wrong being grown confused and crimes of fraud and stealth becoming frequent, a jail was built to deter the increasing lawlessness, in the midmost of the city, looking over the forum itself.”

There were two different methods of guarding prisoners among the ancients, to wit, the public jail and the private house. Confined to the latter were persons accused prior to their confession or conviction. This was spoken of as free custody, when persons were entrusted to the custody of magistrates at their own house, or to that of private noblemen. Thus Livy, speaking of the Judge of the Bacchanalia, writes:

“The Consul begs his father-in-law to clear a part of his house, that Hispala might be lodged there ...“ Then, a few lines further on, “The Consuls ordered the Curule Aediles [minor patrician magistrates] to seek out all his priests, arrest them, and keep them for future examination in free confinement.”

The same thing again is implied in what Sallust says, writing of the Catilinarian conspiracy:

“The Senate decreed that the Magistracy be abolished, and Lentulus and the rest of the confederates be kept in free custody. Accordingly Lentulus was delivered over to Publius Lentulus Spinther, who was Aedile at the time, Cethegus to Quintus Cornificius.”

These passages clearly confirm what we say, to wit, that accused persons, prior to the confession of their crimes, had been entrusted by the ancients to what was known as free custody, whereas after confession or conviction they were cast into the common jail. This is corroborated by writers on Roman Law, such as Venuleus, who says:

“An accused person who has confessed, pending the pronouncement of his sentence, must be cast into the public prison;”

And Scaevola:

“An accused person who had confessed was, merely on the strength of his confession, thrown into prison.”

Christ’s faithful followers, then, in times of persecution, were not only shut up in the Tullianum and the Mamertine prisons, but were also often detained under military guard at the houses of private individuals. Evidence of this can be found in the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs, especially by those of Saints Stephen and Alexander, Roman Pontiffs.

Of Other Sorts of Bonds

Among these may be included leashes or lashes, that were employed to bind prisoners. Hence the name lashers, often mentioned in Plautus, was applied to those whose duty it was to bind or to beat with lashes any of their fellow-slaves at the direction of their masters. The same title was also often given to the lictors and magistrates’ officers who attended them when on duty in their provinces, and who bore the fasces before them.

Of the Wooden Horse, or Rack, used by the Heretics upon Catholics; of their Imprisonments and Different Types of Tortures by which Prisoners were Afflicted

The Heretics of this present time (1591) in England (as Sanders’ Origin and Progress of the Anglican Schism, his Theatre of Heretic Cruelties, and a work entitled On the Anglican Persecution, amply testify) have tortured a number of priests, including Fathers Campion, a Religious of the Society of Jesus, Sherwin, Briant, Janson, Bosgrave, and others, to the tearing apart of all their limbs, and nearly to death itself, by means of an instrument called by themselves the wooden horse, or the rack.

 This sort of torture, as we have already seen, involves stretching a man out on his back and binding his hands and feet joint by joint, after which the ropes are gradually drawn taut through the use of pulleys or wheels until all his limbs are eventually dislocated. This agonizing and monstrous torment is used by the Heretics of our own day upon Catholics whom they have cast into prison, which we find described in the book, A Trophy of the English Church.

They also continue to  use other methods for torturing these prisoners, sometimes driving iron pricks and long needles under their finger-nails, or (as is related of a priest in the work quoted just above) tying them feet uppermost to wooden posts and leaving them situated in this way until they are suffocated by the stench of their own excrements. At other times they enclose them in an instrument of iron which squeezes a man together, making him round like a ball, and will leave him confined in this way for hours at a time. Others are forcibly dragged from prison and violently brought  before assemblies of heretic ministers, while still others are bound in pairs together with chains (see again Sanders, (Anglican Schism and Theatre of Cruelties), and marched from one foul and stinking dungeon to another yet more stinking and horrible still. Concerning these imprisonments of Catholics in England, simply consult the work cited above, On the Anglican Persecution.


Illustration for Chapter III:

Christian Martyr on Wooden Horse

click to enlarge



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


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