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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 VII

Of the Brazen Bull, Frying-pan, Pot, Caldron, Gridiron, and Bedstead; of the Chair, Helmet, and

Tunic, and other Instruments of Martyrdom of Red-Hot Iron


In the preceding chapter we had discussed some of the instruments of martyrdom by which condemned persons were burned; it only remains now to discuss the other instruments through which the same or a similar manner of torture was inflicted. We will begin first with the Brazen Bull, one of the most unimaginably cruel devices of punishment used among the ancients. The Brazen Bull, or Bronze Bull, was, in essence, a specially formed container into the which victims to be tortured were cast by an opening, or door, that was located in its side (as we see in the Acts of the Martyr St. Eustachius, as well as the Dialogue of Lucian, called Phalaris). After the door was shut, a fire was lighted about the bull, causing the victim imprisoned within it to suffer indescribable agonies, and by their screams and cries to imitate the bellowing of a bull. What is more evil still, this brazen device was so cunningly wrought to the likeness of a real bull that (as Lucian attests in the Dialogue named) movement and voice alone were lacking to persuade anyone that it was a living animal.
The inventor of this device (as Ovid tells us in the Tristia) was an Athenian, an extremely clever man named Perillus. Thinking he would be doing a great favor to Phalaris, the Tyrant of Agrigentum, as one who ever delighted in novel tortures and was accustomed to find his chief pleasure in inflicting cruel punishments, Perillus himself became its first victim. By the Despot’s order, from whom he was expecting no small reward, he was thrown himself into the bull to test the working of his own invention. And so we find that Ovid  writing the following:

Et Phalaris tauro violenti membra Perilli Torruit;
infelix imbuit auctor opus.
(“And Phalaris roasted Perillus’ limbs in the cruel bull; the ill-starred inventor was the first victim of his own handiwork”)

and to the same end, Propertius:

Et gemere in tauro, saeve Perille, tuo.
(“And to groan, cruel Perillus, in the bull you invented”).

To these passages we may also add what Valerius Maximus had to say of Perillus and his cruel device:

“Then there was that cruel inventor of the brazen bull in which men were shut up and fires kindled underneath, so that they were constrained by the long-drawn, though unseen, torment to utter resounding cries, which took on the form of mere bellowings, so that their wails of agony might not, being expressed in human voice and language, appeal to the pity of the Tyrant Phalaris. Now inasmuch as he was glad to rob the miserable victims of all hope of pity, the artist was the first to be imprisoned in the bull and deservedly to demonstrate the dreadful effects of his own device.”

More can be read of this in the Letters (Pseudo-letters) of Phalaris, in Cicero’s, Against Piso, in Pliny, in Ovid’s Tristia, and especially Lucian in the Dialogue entitled Phalaris.

But more still! Not only did Perillus become a victim of his own contrivance, but so did Phalaris himself. For the time eventually came when his great cruelty and violence could be tolerated no longer and the citizens of Agrigentum seized him, shut him up in the same bull in which he had burned others, and roasted him alive.

Ovid commemorated his fate in these lines:

Utgue ferox Phalaris, lingua prius ense resecta,
More bovis Phario clausus in aere gemas:
(“And like cruel Phalaris, the tongue first cut out with the sword and imprisoned in Egyptian brass, may you groan and bellow like a bull.”)

Valerius Maximus, however, would seem to think differently as to the mode of this Tyrant’s death, for he writes:

“By his fierce invectives against their cowardice, Zeno so roused the Agrigentines that they set on Phalaris and stoned him.”

Cicero, in his, De Officiis, appears to agree with him:

“Phalaris was renowned above all mankind for cruelty, who perished not in an ordinary revolt, but by a general uprising against him of the whole population of Agrigentum.”

Nevertheless we can reconcile the differing statements of Ovid on the one hand and of Valerius Maximus on the other, if we suppose the Tyrant was first attacked with stones, and afterwards cast into the red-hot brazen bull.

Some endured this form of punishment as a result of their profession of their Christian Faith. Indeed, so great was the rage and fury with which the Heathen assailed Christ’s faithful servants, that they once again revived the use of many types of excessively cruel, but antiquated, instruments of Martyrdom. Among the Christians who were cast into the brazen bull and there shut up within it to die were Saints Antipas, Saint Eustachius, a Roman patrician, his wife, Theopistes, and his sons Agapius and Theopistus; also St. Pelagia, virgin and martyr, all of whom (as their Acts proclaim) sprang lightly and with alacrity into the red-hot monster, and rendering fervent thanks to God; Eustachius along with wife and sons in great joy, while Pelagia, the virgin of Tarsus, sang with great gladness a Hymn of Triumph to God.

Furthermore, we read of still other Christian martyrs who were imprisoned in the brazen bull — but by the Divine grace protecting them, came out of it safely and unharmed. Among these was the soldier, St. Barbarus, and St. Heliodorus, the latter of whom is thus commemorated under December 1:

“Anniversary of the Blessed Martyr Heliodorus of Maghedo, a city of Pamphilia. Aurelian being Emperor of Rome and Aetius Governor in the city of Maghedo in Pamphilia, St.  Heliodorus for preaching of Christ in that city was brought before the Governor. When he refused to make sacrifice to idols, he was instantly hung up and thrashed; and when he felt the bitterness of the torment, he cried out, ’Lord Jesus Christ, help me.’ And at once he heard a voice from Heaven saying, ’Fear not, I am with thee.’ This voice was also heard by those who were holding the torches already lighted to burn him — these and four others present who saw Angels staying the torments, then  themselves believed in Christ, and for remonstrating with the Governor, were thrown into the sea and so also received the crown of victory.

The Governor then commanded the brazen bull to be heated and the Martyr to be cast into it; but no sooner was this done than by his prayers, the monster which had been red-hot, grew instantly cold. The Governor was all the more astonished because he heard the man singing psalms inside the brazen bull, now cold. Going to the brazen engine which, at one moment, had been shooting out sparks, and at the next turned suddenly cold again, he reviled the Saint, saying, ‘Wicked sinner! Did your magic arts prevail against the fire?’ To which the holy man made answer, ‘No! My magic arts are Christ! But give me three days’ time to think over in my heart what I must do.’

Receiving this respite, the Governor took him secretly to the Temple of the gods, and when Heliodorus had made a prayer to the true God, all the idols suddenly fell down and broke in pieces. When the Governor heard this, he was filled with fury and ordered Heliodorus to be brought before him and then hanged, and nails heated red-hot to be driven into his head.

When the Judge saw that the Martyr remained unconquered, whatever the number and diversity of torments he endured, he sent him away to the city of Atala, where, remaining constant in his profession of the Faith, he was set in a hot frying-pan, where he stood and prayed, continuing all the while unhurt.

Seeing this, all the bystanders believed in the Lord, crying, ‘A great God verily is the God of the Christians.’ When the Governor saw many people converted to believe in Heliodorus’ God, and fearing that they might rescue him from out his hands, he ordered Heliodorus to be carried back again to Maghedo, to which the guards led him praying and singing psalms. Then the Saint was questioned a second time, but only continued the more steadfast in his former confession of Jesus Christ.

The Governor then commanded his tongue to be cut out, and that he should be hung up and scourged in the space of two hours. So after putting a collar on him, they dragged him forth of the city. But the holy man signed to them with his hand, and stood still to preach; and when his sermon was ended, he was cut to pieces.”

Of the Brazen Pot as an Instrument of Martyrdom

This is mentioned both in Holy Scripture, in the Book of the Maccabees, and by Josephus in his work on the same subject, as well as in the Acts of the Saints, especially those of St. Boniface, St. Juliana, and St. Lucy. A pot was a very large vessel made of brass, into the which condemned persons were stripped and thrown, to be boiled or seethed within it.

The persecutors of the early Christians used many different sorts of vessels for the torturing of offenders, particularly Christians. They had frying-pans for lightly roasting or frying their flesh, and caldrons and pots for thoroughly boiling or seething them. These pots were nothing more nor less than ordinary kitchen pots for boiling meat withal, as we find, for instance, in Varro:

“To spin wool, and at the same time keep an eye on the pot, that the pottage be not burned;”

And by Plautus, in his Amphitryon:

Optimo jure infringatur olla cineris in caput
(“He well deserves a pot of ashes be broken over his head”)

Also, Persius in his Fourth Satire says:

Caepe et farratam, pueris plaudentibus, ollam
(“Bring out, amid the clapping of the lads, onions and the pot of pottage”)

These pots, then were simply very large vessels made of brass, in which the martyrs were boiled as a punishment at once terrible and ignominious. They were made (as we see from very ancient artifacts often dug up from the ruins of Rome) in the likeness of the pots we commonly use for cooking food, without rims, but having two handles, which were part square, part round — square from the bottom to the middle, round from the middle upwards to the brim, or else made on the model of a pair of ears. On the other two sides they had two partly hollow projections of iron facing one another, in which rings, also of iron, were fitted, to enable the tormentors to more easily lift and carry them where they would. All this will be found more plainly and particularly shown in the pot which we have had drawn from ancient examples to be seen in Figure XXII.

Different Ways in Which the Servants of God were put into the Pot

Christians sometimes were plunged into a pot head downwards; as we read in the Acts of the Martyr St. Boniface:

“The Judge in anger ordered a pot to be brought and filled with boiling pitch, and the holy martyr — St. Boniface — to be cast into it head first. So the blessed martyr of Christ, after signing the Sign of the Cross, was plunged into the pot.”

In other cases victims were thrown into the pot so tightly squeezed and doubled up that their heads were made to touch their knees. This is attested to by Josephus in the following:

“He is put by the executioners’ hands into the pot — such is the name given to this form of criminal punishment. The press being turned or revolved, his holy head is forced to his knees, and his body being thus reduced in height, the champion of the Faith was squeezed miserably into the aforesaid pot.”

We should observe here that by the press Josephus denoted some instrument for pressing or squeezing — not, however, the great press or beam by which grapes and olives are crushed and pressed, but rather a smaller device for pressing, such as fullers, paper-makers, and printers chiefly use. Thus Pliny remarks, in speaking of different kinds of paper,

“Then are they squeezed in the presses and dried in the sun, and the several sheets joined together.”

Of the Caldron

There was yet another sort of vessel used in antiquity (as the Histories of the Martyrs bear witness) for the boiling of  Christians: a very large brazen caldron which was filled with boiling oil, pitch, molten lead, or wax, into which the victims were cast. We read of this often in the Acts of the Blessed Saints, in particular those of Saints Saba and Zerio, and St. Veneranda, virgin and martyr. We hear of such a caldron again in the Book of the Maccabees (Chapter VII) and in Josephus’ History of the Wars of the Maccabees. As to its shape, this appears to omit other references, sufficiently indicated by the lines in Ovid’s Metamorphosis:

Vina dabant animos, et prima pocula pugna,
Missa volant, fragilesque cadi, curvique lebetes.
(“Wine stirs their spirit, and the fight begins with hurling flying cups and fragile jars and rounded caldrons.”)

In both these vessels were tortured great numbers of Christ’s soldiers — in pots, Saints Boniface, Juliana, Lucy, Erasmus; and in caldrons, St. Zeno, St. Veneranda virgin and martyr, Saints Saba, Marianus, Pantaleemon, Eulampius and his sister Eulampia, Zenobius and Zenobia, brothers and sisters.

Of the Frying-Pan as an Instrument of Torture

Mention is made of the frying-pan in the Second Book of the Maccabees (Chap. VII) and in many collections of the Acts of the Blessed Martyrs, such as those of St. Eleutherius the Bishop, Saints Fausta and Justina, virgins and martyrs.

The frying-pan — as the name implies and from what we find in the Histories of the Blessed Martyrs — was a wide open dish or plate, which (as we see in the Acts of the Martyrs) was filled with oil, pitch, resin or sulfur, and then placed over a fire; when it began to boil and bubble, the Christians of either sex who had persisted steadfastly and boldly in the profession of Christ’s faith were then thrown into it, to the end they would be roasted and fried like fishes cast into boiling oil. So in the Hymn of St. Romanus we find Prudentius writing as follows concerning one of the seven Maccabees brothers who was tortured in this way:

Videbat ipsos apparatus funerum
Praesens suorum, nec movebatur parens,
Laetata, quoties aut olivo stridula Sartago frixum torruisset puberem.
(“The mother was present, gazing on all the preparations for her dear one’s death and showed no sign of grief, rejoicing rather each time the pan, hissing hot above the olive wood, roasted and scorched her child.”)

As to its shape, we believe it to have been round since all vessels that we use for seething or frying, or for boiling water, are circular. Nor can it really be doubted that the vessels in use today have been modeled on the types we have found used  throughout history. One of these is to be seen to this day in the Church of St. Laurence beyond the Walls, in which that most gallant champion of Christ, St. Laurence,  baptized a soldier of the Emperor’s guard, by the name of Romanus.

Of the Manner in which Martyrs were Tortured in the Frying-Pan

Christian Martyrs were roasted in frying-pans in two different ways. Sometimes they were cast bodily into it with faces looking heavenward.  In these cases, we must conjecture that there was some proportion between the instrument of torture and the man tortured within it, and so we assume that victims of this form of torture were thrown into a frying-pan which was more an oval than one perfectly round. At other times (as we see in the Acts of St. Euphemia) they were not set bodily into the pan, but rather, limb by limb. This is expressly described in the account of the holy virgin St. Euphemia, where we read:

“Priscus the Proconsul commanded her to be divided limb from limb with knives, and the severed members to be roasted in a frying-pan ...”

Now in this case it would seem likely that the frying-pan was more of the round variety.

It must be further understood that the Blessed Martyrs, when roasting in the pan, were forced down in it by means of iron forks; for the purpose of the iron framework or gridiron and of the frying-pan seems to have been one and the same, both of them being used for burning Christians to death. So just as martyrs which were broiled on the gridiron were held down on it by the executioners with iron forks (as stated in the Acts of St. Laurence), similarly those tortured in the frying-pan may be surely assumed to have been pushed down and held within it in the same way.

Of the Gridiron and the Iron Bed

Having examined the instruments with which the Christian martyrs were boiled or fried, we now turn our attention to those means by which their flesh was broiled by their heathen tormentors. These were the gridiron and the iron bed, both of which are frequently mentioned in the various Acts of the Blessed Martyrs.

Gridirons are spoken of in the Histories of numerous Saints, such as Saints Eleutherius, Conon and Dulas, of St. Domna virgin and martyr, and of St. Laurence; iron beds also in the Acts of St. Eleutherius, as also in those of the most sainted Clement of Ancyra, Plato, and others.

As to the iron frame or gridiron, its nature is sufficiently indicated both by the name, its description in the Histories of the Saints, and by the gridiron itself upon which the most Holy Confessor of Christ, St. Laurence, was broiled, and which is religiously preserved in part at the Church of St. Laurence in Lucina, and in part at Paneperna. It was framed of three iron bars set lengthwise and a span distance one from the other, of one finger thick, two broad, and of a length suitable for its purpose, with seven or more shorter pieces of iron placed crosswise, and likewise separated a span from each other. Of these some were round, and some square; the square ones being the two which were joined to the ends of the longitudinal bars to brace together and strengthen the whole gridiron. There were likewise fixed at each corner and in the middle, supports also of iron, raising the framework a little off the ground and serving as legs.

We do not imagine that all gridirons were made with only three bars lengthwise, but only some; for we read in the Acts of St. Laurence how the Emperor commanded an iron framework of three bars to be brought for the burning of the holy man, from which it follows that such were to be found among the ancients both with three and with more bars.

Martyrs Who were Roasted on the Gridiron

The following were tortured on the gridiron, upon which, as we said, they were held down with iron forks, and so roasted upon the fire laid underneath: Saints Laurence, Dulas, Eleutherius, Conon, Dorotheus, Macedonius, Theodulus, Tatian, and Peter. The last we find commemorated on March 12th in these words:

“At Nicomedia the martyrdom of the Blessed Peter. Being Chamberlain to the Emperor Diocletian, he vigorously remonstrated with him concerning the excessive torments the Christian martyrs were made to endure. For this, he was by his master’s order, brought before him and hung up and beaten for a very long time with scourges, then rubbed with vinegar and salt, and finally broiled on a gridiron over a slow fire. Thus was he inheritor at once of St. Peter’s faith and name.”

Still other facts concerning this same holy martyr are to be found in the Acts of those most glorious soldiers of Christ, Saints Dorotheus and Gorgonius. These are now in manuscript, but we hope by God’s gift soon to edit and print them, together with numberless other Histories of Saints of either sex never before published. This task accomplished, we further propose, if life be spared us, to write careful notes upon the several Lives of the Saints thus far published, in which we shall endeavor, so far as lies in us, to distinguish what is true and certain from what is doubtful or found to be definitely untrue.

So much for the gridiron, from which another instrument called the Iron Bedstead in the Acts of the Blessed Martyrs was altogether distinct. For in the History of St. Eleutherius, Bishop and Martyr — mentioned earlier — we read how the Tyrant, who was ordering him to be tortured, directed the holy man, after he had been tormented at his command on an iron bed, to be removed from it and roasted on an iron grid — which shows beyond a doubt the iron bed to have been entirely distinct from the gridiron. To clarify this distinction, let us cite the very words of the account:

“Then Hadrian, boiling with rage, ordered the brazen bed to be brought, and commanded the man to be laid thereon and bound legs and arms to the four corners, that his tender limbs might be stretched and racked. This done, fire was set underneath. ... But when an hour had passed, the Emperor, thinking him dead, ordered the bands to be loosed. Then stretching out his hands, St. Eleutherius said to the Romans, ‘Great is the Lord of the Christians, whom those most blessed saints, Peter and Paul, preached to us; who performed many signs and wonders in this city and struck down to the earth that notorious Simon Magus, which did glorify and worship the same devils as Hadrian does.’ The Emperor then ordered the gridiron to be smeared with oil and brought in, and commanded fire to be set underneath. ...”

This is from the Acts of St. Eleutherius, from which we clearly gather that the gridiron was a different instrument of torture from the iron bed. It is further confirmed by what is written concerning the same holy man in the Roman Martyrology on April 18th, as follows:

“At Messina, anniversary of the Blessed Martyrs, St. Eleutherius, Bishop of Illyricum, and St. Anthia, his mother. Illustrious for the holiness of their life and wonder of their miracles, under Hadrian they overcame the pains of the iron red-hot bedstead, the gridiron and the frying-pan boiling with oil, pitch, and resin ...”

This once again shows that the gridiron was distinct from the iron bed  which (as we find in the Acts of the Martyrs) was made in the likeness of a real bedstead, oblong and raised somewhat from the earth in order to place fire underneath it, with a number of iron bars carried across from side to side to take the place of the usual planks, leaving a space between each.

The following are the names of the most glorious martyrs who were tortured on the iron bed: Saints Eleutherius, Clement of Ancyra, Plato, of whom we have already spoken, as well as Saints Olympiades, Maximus, Pegasius —  and many others, whose names and numbers God alone knows.

Of the Chair, Helmet, Tunic, and other Instruments of Iron Heated Red-Hot

Besides these iron frames and bedsteads, the Heathen had still other instruments for tormenting Christians, one of which was the iron chair heated red-hot. This is testified to in the Acts of Saints Paul and Juliana, by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Life he wrote of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, and likewise by the History of Saint Blase, in which we read the following:

 “Again the Judge commanded seven seats of brass to be brought in, and commanded the women, seven in number, who during the tormenting of St. Blase had collected the drops of his blood as they fell, to sit upon them, one in each. Then the seats were heated so hot that sparks flew from them as from a furnace heated to the utmost.”

 The next instrument of torture that we will discuss concerns red-hot helmets, that were also used upon the Christians. This method of torture was customary among the Heathen who often covered the heads of their victims on these occasions. We see this in the History of the martyrdom of St. Clement of Ancyra and that of St. Justus, a soldier, in which is written on July 14th:

“The day of trial of the Holy Martyr St. Justus, who was of the city of Rome, a soldier serving under the Tribune Claudius. Returning once from a victory over the Barbarians, he saw a cross appearing before him like a crystal, and heard a voice issuing from it. Instructed by it in the mystery of godly piety, upon arriving in Rome he distributed all his goods to the poor, exulting in the faith of Christ. But when this came to the ears of the Tribune, and Christ’s martyr would not deny the profession he had made, he sent him to the Governor Magnentius. Questioned by him and found to be constant in his steadfastness to the Christian faith, he was ordered to be scourged with whips of raw hide, and afterward to have his head capped with a fiery helmet, and iron balls, heated red-hot, to be put under his armpits. All these torments and others of a similar kind the Blessed Martyr bore unflinchingly, blessing God all the while, and was finally cast into a furnace, where he finally died, although his sacred body remained whole and unconsumed, not a hair of his head being burnt by the fire into which he was thrown.”

No more need be said about the fiery helmet.

We must not, however, think that the fury of the Heathen was satisfied by these many dreadful tortures inflicted on the holy martyrs, or that their cruelty was in any way diminished against Christ’s servants. Rather, by the constancy of the Martyrs’ and their refusal to disavow Christ in the face of the most grievous pain and certain death, their rage was all the more inflamed and they constantly sought new and still more painful devises yet with which to torment them with fire. To this end were the Matryrs clothed in the iron burning tunic, as we read in the case of St. Erasmus, or their temples were pierced with red-hot nails, as in the case of the martyrs, Saints Victoricus and Fulcianus; or they were burned under the armpits and sides by means of iron spikes heated to a great temperature, as with St. Taracus and his companions; or else they were made to wear shoes of red-hot brass, as is told of St. Antymus, Bishop of Nicomedia, or compelled to walk shod in iron shoes nailed on with red-hot nails. Thus we find it written on May 22 concerning the Blessed Martyr, St. Basiliscus:

“Day twenty-second, anniversary of St. Basiliscus, martyred under the Emperor Maximian, from the district of Amasea. Imprisoned on account of his profession of Christ’s faith by Agrippa the Governor, he was repeatedly shod with iron shoes nailed on with red-hot nails, and ordered to be driven along the road leading to Comana. And when on the way they had come to a certain place where dwelt a woman named Trojana, they bound the holy man, his hands tied behind his back, to a barren plane-tree, which tree the Saint, by praying to God, made green again, and caused a fountain suddenly to bubble forth from the ground. And seeing these things, the soldiers and the woman all believed in Jesus Christ. Moreover when he reached the City of Comana, and could in no way be induced to make sacrifice, he prayed to God, Who sent down fire from heaven and burned up the Temple and idol of Apollo. At this the Governor was greatly angered, and commanded the Martyr Basiliscus to be cut to pieces and cast into the river. Thus did he win the crown of martyrdom, to the praise and glory of Almighty God.”




Illustrations for Chapter VII:

Christian Martyr roasting on gridiron Christian Martyrs thrown headfirst into cauldron of molten lead or boiling oil Christian Martyrs burned in brazen bull and being dismembered Christian Martyr in iron chair while red-hot-helmet put over head

click to enlarge


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



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