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The Most Horrible Martyrdoms in History

Updated on July 18, 2009


 While it is indisputable that many horrible executions have happened for non-religious reasons, or in religions other than Christianity, in this article I am focusing primarily on Christian executions (martyrdoms) for two reasons. The first is that I just happen to be well-versed in Christian history. The second is that Christianity has a peculiar, dark underbelly that tends to relish its own sufferings and on occasion seek it out. The Stations of the Cross, for instance, is a meditation on the various sufferings Jesus had to endure and the devout are encouraged to imagine the sufferings in as vivid detail as conceivable. This inclination has led to Christian histories that go into ghoulish detail on the deaths of their own. Sometimes the documents conflict, sometimes one wonders how anyone could have known such details at all, sometimes the sufferings appear embellished. The reader of these martyrdoms is therefore urged to not take them uncritically. While such atrocities are sadly plausible events in the human condition, possibilities dreamed up and exacted by some people somewhere in time and space, nevertheless these possibilities may never have become actuality and what we may have here is equal part reality and imagination.

Antipas roasted alive
Antipas roasted alive

Antipas of Pergamum

Antipas is reported to have been the victim of a particular sort of oven designed especially for torture. In the form of a bull made out of brass, with a small door in the side of the abdomen, the bull had a system of pipeworks that would incense the scent of burning flesh and convert the sounds of screams into a sound roughly like that of a bull. Antipas was tossed into one of these and roasted alive.

Phocas of Pontus

Although the history is fuzzy, Phocas is said to have been Bishop of Pontus in the reign of Trajan. During Trajan's persecutions of the Christians, Phocas was captured. He was first thrown into a lime kiln. Lime kilns are designed to produce quicklime by heating limestone to degrees of at least nine-hundred degrees centigrade--the minimal heat at which the reaction takes place. Still alive after being burned in the lime kiln, Phocas was then thrown into a bath of boiling water where he died.

Bartholomew the Apostle

Bartholomew is famously represented in paintings and stained glass with a dark red body carrying a skin-colored cloth--oh dear! Yes, that is Bartholomew's skin. Crucified upside-down, Bartholomew's executioners then flayed him alive and left him to hang until he died.

Margaret Clitherow

Clitherow came relatively late in history, during the Anglican persecutions of Catholics. Having been discovered as a Catholic, she was sentenced to crushing by the court. A sharp rock was placed on Clitherow's head, over which a flat board was placed. Rocks were then gradually piled upon the board until the weight caused the sharp rock to crush Clitherow's head. Her death was relatively short, compared to others on this list, taking up to fifteen minutes.

Simon the Zealot

While accounts tend to conflict on Simon's death, the most horrible of the accounts would amount to being first crucified upside-down and then sawn in half gradually from his bottom to his head. Though it hardly consistutes an exciting narrative, it is still a pretty horrible way to go.

Blandina of Lyons

Reportedly the last of the martyrs of Lyons, Blandina suffered a peculiar combination of martyr-deaths. Like Lawrence of Brindisi, she was grilled alive. However, she survived the grilling. Her executioners then threw her burnt body to the bulls, naturally resulting in her being gored and trampled. Still living, a merciful executioner put a dagger in her back.

John de Brebeuf

 A Jesuit missionary sent to Canada, Brebeuf and his companions were captured by the savage Iroquois. They first scalped him then they began cutting off pieces of his flesh and eating it before his eyes. They then tossed boiling water over him several times and sliced his flesh with heated hatchets until he finally died.

Meanwhile, one of his companions was forced to watch. When Brebeuf was done, they turned on the companion and tortured him in a similar way for nearly a whole day, baptizing him in scalding water several times. Finally they finished him with an axe.

Woman and her Seven Sons

If you can believe it, there are actually two accounts of a woman being killed with her seven sons, so a distinction must be drawn. The first account is of Jewish martyrs under the reign of the truly mad Antiochus Epiphanes, who believed himself a deity. Taking a personal interest in these martyrs, Antiochus offered them rewards for losing their faith. Rejecting his proposals, Antiochus began to off the brothers gradually all in the same way: he had their limbs and tongue lopped off, then they were placed in a giant skillet and fried to death. One-by-one they died and finally the mother.

The second is the Christian saint Symphrosa and her seven sons. Like Phocas, this martyrdom occurred under the reign of Trajan. The story is much the same as the above. The emperor commands the group to sacrifice to the pagan deities. They refused. Then the torture starts. Symphrosa is brought to the Temple of Hercules, violently whipped and beaten, suspended by her hair for some period of time and is finally drowned by having a stone tied to her neck. Her sons, meanwhile, are tied to posts with separate ropes on each of their limbs. These ropes are attached to pulleys. The ropes are then pulled until their limbs are either dislocated or torn out. They are then stabbed to death one-by-one until the last, whose refusal apparently so angered his executioners that he was sawn in half.

Implausible as it sounds, there is even a third account of a woman and seven sons being martyred, that of a Felicitas of Rome. Historians have argued she is likely the same person as Symphrosa.

Julian the Apostate
Julian the Apostate

The Virgins of Heliopolis

A church with a set of virgins, nuns of sets, had been erected in Heliopolis by the emperor Constantine. Once Julian the Apostate took the throne, however, and he began enforcing the traditional Roman religion, he made an example of the virgins. They were stripped naked in public and paraded around. Their executioners then sliced open their bellies and stuffed the food regularly given to pigs into the guts of the women. The women were then tossed to the pigs, who tore the women apart trying to get at their food.

Mark of Arethusa

Finally, we have Mark of Arethusa. Mark was the Bishop of Arethusa during the reign of Constantine and was very aggressive in pushing Christianity, demolishing pagan temples. When Julian the Apostate began persecuting Christians, the pagans of Arethusa took revenge on Mark. He was dragged through the streets while the people prodded, hit, and stabbed him with whatever they could find. They took thin ropes and used them to sever his ears. Schoolboys were encouraged to toss him back and fourth stabbing him with their styluses (sharp instruments for writing in clay or wax). Finally they coated him in honey and hoisted him up in a basket from which he couldn't escape. They left him hanging until he had been consumed alive by wasps.

Felicitas and her seven sons
Felicitas and her seven sons


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    • myownworld profile image


      10 years ago from uk

      These were gory as hell, yet I read on with a sick fascination. It just amazes me to see the cruelty man is capable of.. esp. human torture.... and though his ways are not as openly brutal as in medieval times, yet his capacity for inflicting pain is not any lesser - despite all his apparent sophistication. Anyway, dark and grim, yet a great hub!

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      11 years ago

      Thank you, sir! I've been stalking your activity on hubpages because I find your comments so amusing. You really have the market on effusive praise totally nailed. haha


    • epigramman profile image


      11 years ago

      Gee I thought BECK had a hub space here (profile photos can be deceptive) ...there is one out there with a picture of Rasputin.....

      but man oh man you did it this time - this is such a well-researched and thought provoking hub that history(and its storytelling) has just made you a favorite son!

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      11 years ago

      Hey WKoppin,

      Not sure what 'punctual' means in this context, but I grasp the sentiment.


    • profile image


      11 years ago from Michigan

      pwah! Never ceases to amaze how creative but brutally punctual we are to each other.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      11 years ago

      Hey Lisa,

      Haha You're an odd duck. I like you already! Hope you enjoy my other hubs.


    • lisa brazeau profile image

      lisa brazeau 

      11 years ago from Canada

      fabulous!...this is exactly what I consider 'bedtime reading'. can't wait to get on with the rest of your hubs.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      11 years ago

      Thanks for commenting. Yeah, we only think we're barbaric today. Reading of these tortures is proof that civilization does make progress.


    • CMHypno profile image


      11 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Not quite bedtime reading, but a very interesting and well written Hub. You can't fault the human imagination when it comes to finding novel ways of inflicting suffering on others.


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