History of Flagellation

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The use of Flagellations known among the ancient heathens.[edit]

IT is not to be doubted, that flagellations had been invented, and were become, in early times, a common method of punishment in the Pagan world. Even before the foundation of Rome, we meet with instances which prove that it was the usual punishment inflicted on slaves. Justin, in his epitome of Trogus Pompeius, relates that the Scythians more easily overcame their rebellious slaves with scourges and whips, than with their swords. “The Scythians being returned (says Justin) from their third expedition in Asia, after having been absent eight years from their wives and children, found they now had a war to wage at home against their own slaves. For their wives, tired with such long fruitless expectation of their husbands, and concluding that they were no longer detained by war, but had been destroyed, 8 married the slaves who had been left to take care of the cattle; which latter attempted to use their masters, who returned victorious, like strangers, and hinder them, by force of arms, from entering the country. The war having been supported for a while, with success pretty nearly equal on both sides, the Scythians were advised to change their manner of carrying it on, remembering that it was not with enemies, but with their own slaves, that they had to fight; that they were to conquer by dint, not of arms, but of their right as masters; that instead of weapons, they ought to bring lashes into the field, and, setting iron aside, to supply themselves with rods, scourges, and such like instruments of slavish fear. Having approved this counsel the Scythians armed themselves as they were advised to do; and had no sooner come up with their enemies, than they exhibited on a sudden their new weapons, and thereby struck such a terror into their minds, that those who could not be conquered by arms, were subdued by the dread of the stripes, and betook themselves to flight, not like a vanquished enemy, but like fugitive slaves.”

Among the ancient Persians, the punishment of whipping was also in use: it was even frequently inflicted on the grandees of the kingdom by order of the king, as we find in Stobæus, who moreover relates in his forty-second discourse, “that when one of them had been flagellated by order of the king, it was an established custom, that he should give him thanks 9 as for an excellent favour he had received, and a token that the king remembered him.” This custom of the Persians was however in subsequent times altered; they began to set some more value on the skin of men; and we find in Plutarch’s Apothegms of Kings, “that Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes, surnamed the Longhanded, was the first who ordered that the grandees of his kingdom should no longer be exposed to the former method of punishment; but that, when they should have been guilty of some offence, instead of their backs, only their clothes should be whipped, after they had been stripped of them.”

We also find, that it was a custom in ancient times, for generals and conquerors, to flog the captives they had taken in war; and that they moreover took delight in inflicting that punishment with their own hands on the most considerable of their captives. We meet among others, with a very remarkable proof of this practice, in the tragedy of Sophocles, called Ajax Scourgebearer: in a scene of this tragedy Ajax is introduced as having the following conversation with Minerva.

MINERVA. — “What kind of severity do you prepare for that miserable man?”

AJAX. — “I propose to lash his back with a scourge till he dies.”

MINERVA. — “Nay, do not whip the poor wretch so cruelly.”

AJAX. — “Give me leave, Minerva, to gratify, on 10 this occasion my own fancy; he shall have it, I do assure you, and I prepare no other punishment for him.”


The punishment of flagellation was also much in vogue among the Romans; and it was the common chastisement which judges inflicted upon offenders, especially upon those of a servile condition. Surrounded by an apparatus of whips, scourges, and leather straps, they terrified offenders, and brought them to a sense of their duty.

Judges among the Romans, as has been just now mentioned, used a great variety of instruments for inflicting the punishment of whipping. Some consisted of a flat strap of leather, and were called Ferulæ; and to be lashed with these Ferulæ, was considered as the mildest degree of punishment. Others were made of a number of cords of twisted parchment, and were called Scuticæ. These Scuticæ were considered as being a degree higher in point of severity than the Ferulæ, but were much inferior in that respect, to that kind of scourge which was called Flagellum, and sometimes the Terrible Flagellum, which was made of thongs of ox-leather, the same as carmen used for their horses. We find in the third satire of the first book of Horace, a clear and pretty singular account of the gradation in point of severity that obtained between the above-mentioned instruments of whipping. In this satire, Horace lays down 11 the rules which he thinks a judge ought to follow in the discharge of his office; and he addresses himself, somewhat ironically, to certain persons who, adopting the principles of the Stoics, affected much severity in their opinions, and pretended that all crimes whatever being equal, ought to be punished in the same manner. “Make such a rule of conduct to yourself (says Horace) that you may always proportion the chastisement you inflict to the magnitude of the offence; and when the offender only deserves to be chastised with the whip of twisted parchment, do not expose him to the lash of the horrid leather scourge, for that you should only inflict the punishment of the flat strap on him who deserves a more severe lashing, is what I am by no means afraid of.”

The choice between those different kinds of instruments, was, as we may conclude from the above passage, left to the judge, who ordered that to be used which he was pleased to name; and the number of blows was likewise left to his discretion; which sometimes were as many as the executioner could give. “He (says Horace in one of his Odes) who has been lashed by order of the Triumvirs, till the executioner was spent.”

Besides this extensive power of whipping exercised by judges among the Romans, over persons of a servile condition over aliens, and those who were the subjects of the republic, masters were possessed of an unbounded one with regard to their slaves, over whose 12 life and death they had moreover an absolute power. Hence a great umber of instruments of flagellation, besides those above mentioned, were successively brought into use for punishing slaves. Among those were particular kinds of cords manufactured in Spain, as we learn from a passage in an Ode of Horace, the same that has just been quoted, and was addressed to one Menas, a freed-man, who had found means to acquire a great fortune, and was grown very insolent. “Thou (says Horace) whose sides are still discoloured (or burnt) with the stripes of the Spanish cords.”

A number of other instances of this practice of whipping slaves, as well as other different names of instruments used for that purpose, may be found in the ancient Latin writers, such as Plautus, Terence, Horace, Martial, &c. So prevalent had the above practice become, that slaves were frequently denominated from that particular kind of flagellation which they were most commonly made to undergo. Some were called Restiones, because they were used to be lashed with cords; others were called Bucædæ, because they were usually lashed with thongs of ox-leather; and it is in consequence of this custom, that a man is made to say in one of Plautus’ plays, “they shall be Bucædæ (that is to say, scourged with leather thongs) whether they will or no, before I content to be Restio,” or so much as beaten with cords. And Tertullian, meaning in one of his writings to express slaves in general, uses words which simply 13 signify “those who are used to be beaten, or to be discoloured with blows.”

Nay, so generally were whipping and lashing considered among the Romans, as being the lot of slaves, that a whip, or a scourge, was become among them the emblem of their condition. Of this we have an instance in the singular custom mentioned by Camerarius, which prevailed among them, of placing in the triumphal car, behind the Triumpher, a man with a whip in his hand; the meaning of which was to show, that it was no impossible thing for a man to fall from the highest pitch of glory into the most abject condition, even into that of a slave.

Suetonius also relates a fact which affords another remarkable instance of this notion of the Romans, of looking upon a whip as a characteristic mark of dominion on the one hand, and of slavery on the other. “Cicero (says Suetonius, in the life of Augustus) having accompanied Cæsar to the Capitol, relates to a few friends whom he met there, a dream which he had had the night before. It seemed to him, he said, that a graceful boy came down from heaven, suspended by a golden chain; that he stopped before the gate of the Capitol, and that Jupiter gave him a whip (flagellum.) Having afterwards seen Augustus, whom (as he was still personally unknown to several of his near relations) Cæsar had sent for and brought along with him to be present at the ceremony, he assured his friends that he 14 was the very person whose figure he had seen during his sleep.” Juvenal likewise, in one of his satires, has spoken of Augustus conformably to the above notion of the Romans. “The same (says he) who, after conquering the Romans, has subjected them to his whip.” But, besides all those instruments of flagellation used for punishing slaves, which have been mentioned above, and as if the terrible flagellum had not been of itself sufficiently so, new contrivances were used to make the latter a still more cruel weapon; and the thongs with which that kind of scourge was made, were frequently armed with nails, or small hard bones. They also would sometimes fasten to those thongs small leaden weights: hence scourges were sometimes called Astragala, as Hesychius relates, from the name of those kind of weights which the ancients used to wear hanging about their shoes. Under the tortures which those different instruments inflicted, it was no wonder that slaves should die; indeed this was a frequent case; and the cruelty, especially of mistresses towards their female slaves, grew at last to such a pitch, that a petition was made in the Council of Elvira to restrain it; and it was ordained, that if any mistress should cause her slave to be whipped with so much cruelty as that she should die, the mistress should be suspended from communion for a certain number of years. The following are the terms of the above ordinance, in the fifth canon. “If a mistress, in a fit 15 of anger and madness, shall lash her female slave, or cause her to be lashed, in such a manner that she expires before the third day, by reason of the torture she has undergone; inasmuch as it is doubtful whether it has designedly happened, the mistress shall be excommunicated for seven years; if by chance, she shall be excommunicated for five years only; though, if she fall into sickness, she may receive the communion.”


The absolute dominion possessed by masters over the persons of their slaves, led them to use a singular severity in the government of them. So frequently were flagellations the lot of the latter, that appellations and words of reproach drawn from that kind of punishment, were, as hath been above observed, commonly used to dominate them; and expressions of this kind occur in the politest writers: thus, we find in the plays of Terence, an author particularly celebrated for his politeness and strict observance of decorum, slaves frequently called by the words, Verberones, Flagriones, or others to the same effect.

As for Plautus, who had been the servant of a baker, and who was much acquainted with everything that related to slaves, and their flagellations in particular, he has filled his scenes with nicknames of slaves, drawn from this latter circumstance; and they are almost continually called in his plays, flagritribæ 16 (a verbis, flagrum and terre) plagipatidæ, ulmitribæ, &c., besides the appellations of Bucædæ and Restiones, above mentioned.

Sometimes the flagellations of slaves, or the fear they entertained of incurring them, served Plautus as incidents for the conduct of his plots; thus, in his Epidicus, a slave who is the principal character in the play, concludes upon a certain occasion, that his master has discovered his whole scheme, because he has spied him, in the morning, purchasing a new scourge at the shop in which they were sold. The same flagellations in general, have moreover been an inexhaustible fund of pleasantry for Plautus. In one place, for instance, a slave, intending to laugh at a fellow-slave, asks him how much he weighs, when he is suspended naked, by his hands, to the beam, with an hundred-weight (centupondium) tied to his feet; which was a precaution taken, as commentators inform us, in order to prevent the slave who was flagellated from kicking the man (Virgator) whose office it was to perform the operation. And in another place, Plautus, alluding to the thongs of ox-leather with which whips were commonly made, introduces a slave engaged in deep reflection on the surprising circumstance of “dead bullocks, that make incursions upon living men.”

Vivos homines mortui incursant boves!

Black and white engraving of a tonsured monk looking on at a young woman stepping out of an overskirt, with a curtained bed in the back. Behind the monk's back, his hand is seen holding a short whip.

ST. EDMUND, Bishop of Canterbury, while studying at Paris, was tormented by a very beautiful young woman : summoning her to his study, he administered such a Flagellation that her body was covered with weals.

But it was not always upon their slaves only that masters, among the Romans, inflicted the punishment 17 of flagellation: they sometimes found means to serve in the same manner the young men of free condition, who insinuated themselves into their houses, with a design to court their wives. As the most favourable disguise on such occasions, was to be dressed in slave’s clothes, because a man thus habited was enabled to get into the house, and go up and down without being noticed, rakes engaged in amorous pursuits, usually chose to make use of it; but when the husband either happened to discover them, or had had previous information of the appointment given by his faithful spouse, he feigned to mistake the man for a runaway slave, or some strange slave who had got into his house to commit theft, and treated him accordingly. Indeed the opportunity was a most favourable one for revenge; and if to this consideration we add that of the severe temper of the Romans, and the jealous disposition that has always prevailed in that country, we shall easily conclude that such an opportunity, when obtained, was seldom suffered to escape, and that many a Roman spark, caught in the above disguise, and engaged in the laudable pursuit of seducing his neighbour’s wife, has, with a centupondium to his feet, been sadly rewarded for his ingenuity. A misfortune of that kind actually befell Sallust the Historian. He was caught in a similar intercourse with Faustina, wife to Milo, and daughter of the Dictator Sylla. The husband caused him to be soundly lashed (loris bene cæsum;) nor did he release 18 him till he had made him pay a considerable sum of money. The fact is related by Suetonius, in the life of Aulus Gellius, who had extracted it from Varro. To it was very probably owing the violent part which Sallust afterwards took against Milo, while the latter was under prosecution for slaying the Tribune Clodius, and the tumult he raised on that occasion, which prevented Cicero from delivering the speech he had prepared.

An allusion is made to the above practices in one of Horace’s satires. He supposes in it, that his slave, availing himself of the opportunity of the Saturnalia, to speak his mind freely to him, gives him a lecture on the bad courses in which he thinks him engaged, and uses, among others, the following arguments.

“When you have stripped off the marks of your dignity, your equestrian ring, and your whole Roman dress, and from a man invested with the office of judge, shew yourself at once under the appearance of the slave Dama; disgraced as you are, and hiding your perfumed head under your cloak, you are not the man whom you feign to be: you are at least introduced full of terror, and your whole frame shakes through the struggles of two opposite passions. In fact, what advantage is it to you, whether you are cut to pieces with rods, or slaughtered with iron weapons?”

The above uncontrolled power of inflicting punishments on their slaves, enjoyed by masters in Rome, was at last abused by them to the greatest degree. 19 The smallest faults committed in their families by slaves, such as breaking glasses, seasoning dishes too much, or the like, exposed them to grievous punishments; and it even was no unusual thing for masters (as we may judge from the description of Trimalcion’s entertainment in the satire of Petronius) to order such of their slaves as had been guilty of faults of the above kind, to be stripped, and whipped in the presence of their guests, when they happened to entertain any at their houses.

Women in particular seemed to have abused this power of flagellation in a strange manner; which caused express provisions to be made, at different times, in order to restrain them; of which the canon above quoted is an instance. It was often sufficient, to induce the Roman ladies to cause their slaves to be whipped, that they were dissatisfied with the present state of their own charms; or, as Juvenal expresses it, that their nose displeased them: and when they happened to fancy themselves neglected by their husbands, then indeed their slaves fared badly. This latter observation of Juvenal, Dryden, in his translation of that author’s satires, has expressed by the following lines:

“For if over night the husband has been slack, Or counterfeited sleep, or turn’d his back, Next day, be sure, the servants go to wrack.”

Here follows the literal translation of the passage of Juvenal, in which he describes in a very lively manner, the havoc which an incensed woman usually 20 made on the above occasion. “If her husband has, the night before, turned his back on her, woe to her waiting woman; the dressing maids lay down their tunics; the errand slave is charged with having returned too late; the straps break on the back of some; others redden under the lash of the leather scourge, and others, of the twisted parchment.”

The wantonness of power was carried still farther by the Roman ladies, if we may credit the same Juvenal. It was a customary thing with several among them, when they proposed to have their hair dressed both with nicety and expedition, to have the dressing maid who wad charged with that care, stripped naked to the waist, ready for flagellation, in case she became guilty of any fault or mistake, in performing her task. The following is the passage in Juvenal on that subject. “For, if she has determined to be dressed more nicely than usual, and is in haste, being expected in the public gardens, the unfortunate Psechas then dresses her head, with her own hair in the utmost disorder, and her shoulders and breasts bare. Why is that ringlet too high? The leather thongs instantly punish the crime of a hair, and an ill-shaped curl.”

These abuses which masters, in Rome, made of the power they possessed over their slaves, were at last carried to such a pitch, either by making them wantonly suffer death, or torturing them in numberless different ways, that, in the beginning of the 21 reign of the Emperors, it was found necessary to restrain their license.

Under the reign of Claudius (for it is not clear whether any provision to that effect was made under Augustus) it was ordained, that masters who forsook their slaves when sick, should lose all right over them, in case they recovered; and that those who deliberately put them to death, should be banished from Rome.

Under the Emperor Adrian, the cruelties exercised by Umbricia, a Roman lady, over her female slaves, caused new laws to be made on that subject, as well as the former ones to be put in force, and Umbricia was, by a rescript of the Emperor, banished for five years.

New laws to the same ends were likewise made under the following Emperors, among which civilians make particular mention of a constitution of Antoninus Pius (Divus Pius); and in subsequent times, the church also employed its authority to prevent the like excesses, as we may see from the canon above recited (Si quæ domina, &c.) which was framed in the Council held at Elvira, a small town in Spain, that has since been destroyed. But the disorder was of such a nature as was not to be cured so long as the custom itself of slavery was allowed to subsist; and it has been remedied at last, only by the thorough abolition of an usage which was a continual insult on humanity; an advantage which (to be, once at least, 22 very serious in the course of this learned and useful work) we are indebted for, to the establishment of Christianity, whatever evils certain writers may reproach it with having occasioned.


The punishment of flagellation was thought among the ancient heathens, as we have just seen, to possess great efficacy to mend the morals of persons convicted of offences, and insure the honesty and diligence of slaves. Nor were schoolmasters behindhand either with judges or masters, in regard to whipping those persons who were subject to their authority.

Of this we have an undoubted proof in one of the epistles of Horace; and it moreover appears that he had had, when at school, the bad luck of being himself under the tuition of one who had strong inclination to inflict that kind of chastisement. “I remember (says he) that the flogging Orbilius, who when I was a boy, used to dictate to us the verses of Livius Andronicus.”

……Memini quæ plagosum mihi parvo Orbilium dictare. — Lib. II. Ep. i. v. 70.

Suetonius, in the life of Quintilian has also mentioned this practice of schoolmasters of whipping their disciples; and the severity which they used, as well as other considerations, induced him to disapprove of it entirely. The following are his expression on that subject. “With respect to whipping schoolboys, though it be an established practice, and Chrysippus is not averse to it. 23 First, it is a base and slavish treatment; and certainly if it were not for the youth of those who are made to suffer, it might be deemed an injury that might call for redress. Besides, if a disciple of such a mean disposition that he is not mended by censures, he will, like a bad slave, grow equally insensible to blows. Lastly, if masters acted as they ought, there would be no occasion for chastisement; but the negligence of teachers is now so great, that, instead of causing their disciples to do what they ought, they content themselves with punishing them for not having done it. Besides, though you may compel the obedience of a boy, by using the rod, what will you do with a young man, to whom motives of a quite different nature must be proposed? Not to add, that several dangerous accidents which are not fit to be named, may be occasioned either by the fear or the pain of attending such punishments. Indeed, if great care is not taken in choosing teachers of proper dispositions, I am ashamed to say to what degree they will sometimes abuse their power of lashing: but I shall dwell no longer on that subject, concerning which the public know already too much.”

After these dismal accounts of disciples flogged by their teachers, and of the cruel severity used by the latter, the reader will not certainly be displeased to read instances of teachers who were flogged by their disciples.

A very remarkable instance of this kind occurs in 24 the case of that schoolmaster of the town of Falerii, who is mentioned in the fifth book of the Decad of Livy. The town of Falerii being besieged by the Romans, under the command of the Dictator Camillus, a schoolmaster in that town, thinking he would be splendidly rewarded for his service, one day, led, by treachery, and under pretence of making them take a short walk out of the gates of the town, the children of the most considerable families, who had been entrusted to his care, to the Roman camp, and delivered them up to the dictator. But the latter, incensed at his perfidy, ordered him to be stripped naked, with his hands tied behind his back, and having supplied the children with rods, gave the schoolmaster up to them, to drive him back in that condition to their town.*

Another instance of the like kind is also to be met in more modern times. The tutor’s name was Sadragefillus, and his disciple was Dagobert, son of Clotaire, king of France, who reigned about the year 25 of Jesus Christ, 526. The translation is related in the following manner by Robert Gaguin, in his History of France. “Dagobert (says he) having received from his father a tutor who was to instruct him in the worldly sciences, and whom the king had made the duke of Aquitain, the young man, who did not want parts for one of his years, soon perceived that Sadragefillus (such was the pedagogue’s name) was much elated with pride on account of his newly acquired dignity, so that he began to fail in the respect he owed to him, and grew remiss in the discharge of his duty. The prince having once invited him to dine with him, and Sadragefillus having not only placed himself at the table opposite the prince, but also offered to take the cup from him as if he had been his companion, the prince ordered him to be soundly whipped with rods, and caused his beard, which he wore very long, to be cut off.” The above is also related by Tilly, scrivener of the parliament of Paris, in his chronicles of the kings of France.

In fine, to the passages above produced concerning the flagellations of children, from which we find that very great men have much differed in their opinions in regard to them, we may add, that King Solomon, that oracle of wisdom has, without reserve, declared in favour of that mode of correction. “He that spareth the rod, hateth his son; but he that loves him chastises him betimes.” The Greek philosopher, 26 Chrysippus has afterwards manifested the same opinion. And Petrarch, who may be called here a modern author, has also adopted the opinion of king Solomon; and notwithstanding Quintilian’s arguments on the subject, has sided with the ancient moralist and sage: “correct your son (says Petrarch) in his tender years, nor spare the rod: a branch when young may easily be bent at your pleasure.”

Flagellations of a religious and voluntary kind were practiced among the ancient heathens.[edit]

WE have hitherto only treated of involuntary flagellations, and such as were in all cases inflicted by force on those who suffered them. But besides flagellations of this kind, there were others of a voluntary sort among the heathens, to which those who underwent them, freely and willingly submitted, and which may indeed create our surprise in a much greater degree than the former.

Thus, at Lacedæmon, there was a celebrated festival, which was kept annually, and was named the Day of Flagellations, on account of the ceremony that was performed in it, of whipping before the altar of Diana, a number of boys, who freely submitted to 28 that painful treatment; and this festival has been mentioned by a great number of authors.

Plutarch, for instance, in his book of the customs of the Lacedæmonians, relates, that he had been an eye-witness of the reception of the solemnity we speak of. “Boys (says he) are whipped for a whole day, often to death, before the altar of Diana the Orthian; and they suffer it with cheerfulness, and even with joy: nay, they strive with each other for victory; and he who bars up the longest time, and has been able to endure the greatest number of stripes, carries the day. This solemnity is called the Content (or race) of Flagellations, and is celebrated every year.”

Cicero, in his Tusculana, has also mentioned this custom of the Lacedæmons. “Boys (says he) at Sparta, are lashed before the altar in so severe a manner, that the blood issues from their bodies. While I was there, I several times heard it said that boys had been whipped to death; none of whom ever uttered the least complaint, though lacerated by repeated lashes.” Nay more; Mozonius, in Stobæus, relates that the Spartan boys were rather pleased with these flagellating solemnities. “The sons of the Lacedæmonians make it very evident (says Mozonius) that stripes do not appear to them either shameful or hard to be borne, since they allow themselves to be whipped in public, and take a pride in it.”

The scholiast or commentator of Thucydides relates the same things of the Lacedæmonian young 29 men; and says that those among them who could bear the greatest number of lashes, acquired much glory for it. “And indeed (says he) the flagellations are performed at particular times during a certain number of days; and those who received the greatest number of stripes, are accounted the most manly.” The parents of the young men who were thus publicly whipped, were commonly present during the performance of the ceremony; and so far were they from discouraging their sons from going through it, that, as Lucian relates, they deemed it a shameful piece of cowardice in them, if they seemed to yield to the violence of the lashes, and in consequence of this notion they exhorted them to go stoutly through the whole trial. “Indeed (continues Lucian) a number of them frequently died in the conflict, thinking it was unworthy of them, so long as they continued to live, to yield to blows and bodily pain, in sight of their friends and relations.” “And to those who die upon those occasions, statues as you will see, are erected at Sparta, in the public places.”

Seneca, in his treatise upon Providence, has also mentioned those singular flagellations which took place at Lacedæmon, as well as the conduct of the Lacedæmonian fathers on those occasions. “Do not you think (says he) that the Lacedæmonians hate their children, who try their tempers by having them lashed publicly? Their very fathers exhort them firmly to bear the lashes of the whips; and entreat 30 them, when torn to pieces and half dead, still to continue to offer their wounds to other wounds.”

In fine, with so much solemnity were the flagellating ceremonies and trials we mention performed, that a priestess, as Silenus of Chios relates, constantly presided over them, holding up a small statue of the goddess in her hand while the young men were lashed; and, to crown all, priests were established to inspect the stripes and marks of the blows, and draw omens from them. “I am witness (says Lucian) that there are priests appointed to inspect the lashes and stripes.” To this it may be added, that these extraordinary ceremonies of the Lacedæmonians, which are here described, were preserved among them, notwithstanding the numerous revolutions which their republic underwent, to very late times; and Tertullian mentions them as continuing, in his days, to be regularly celebrated every year. “For (says the author) the festival of the flagellations is still in these days looked upon as a very great solemnity at Lacedæmon. Everybody knows in what temple all the young men of the best families are lashed in the presence of their relations and friends, who exhort them to bear to the last this cruel ceremony.”

Even philosophers among the Greeks, I mean particular sects of them, had adopted the practice of voluntary flagellation. Lucian relates in one of his dialogues, that there were philosophers in his time, 31 “who trained young men to endure labour, pain, and want; and who made the practice of virtue consist in these austerities. A number of them would bind themselves; others whipped themselves; and those who were the most tender, flayed their outer skin with instruments of iron made for that purpose.”

However, austerities of this kind were only practiced by particular sects of philosophers, as hath been above observed; and the generality of them were so far from adopting such practices, that a great many ridiculed them. Of this we have an instance in the book of the Life of Apollonius Tyanæus, written by Philostrates. In this book, Apollonius is said to have spoken in the following manner to Thespesion. “Flagellations are practiced before the altar of Diana Scythia, because the oracles have ordered it so; now I think that it would be folly to resist the will of the gods. If so (Thespesion answers) you show, O Apollonius, that the gods of the Greeks possess but little wisdom, since they prescribe to men who think they are free to lash themselves with whips.”

Nor was the practice of those flagellations to which the persons who underwent them willingly submitted, confined to the nations of Greece; but the same had also been adopted in other countries. It obtained among the Thracians, as we find in Artemidorus. “The young men of noble families among the Thracians (says the author) are on certain occasions cruelly lashed.” 32


Voluntary flagellations were also in use among the Egyptians. It even seems that this practice took its origin among them; and they used them as a method of atoning for their sins, and appeasing the incensed Deity. Herodotus has left us an account of the manner in which they commonly performed their flagellations, in the account he has given of the festival which they celebrated in honour of their goddess. After preparing themselves by fasting (he says) they begin to offer sacrifices, and they mutually beat each other during the time that the offerings are burning on the altar; this done, the viands which remain after the sacrifice is accomplished, are placed upon tables before those who compose the assembly.”

The same Herodotus says on another occasion, “I have already related in what manner the festival of Isis is celebrated in the city of Busiris. While the sacrifice is performing, the whole assembly, amounting to several thousands of both men and women, beat one another.” To this Herodotus adds, that “he is not allowed to mention the reason, why those beatings were performed.”

Black and white engraving of desert landscape with several figures scattered throughout, holding whips, and ropes, and brooms. The men wear togas and some of the women appear to be in the dresses of the 1700's!


Shewing the various instruments selected for Self-punishment.

Among the Syrians, we likewise find that the use of voluntary flagellations had been adopted; and their priests practiced them upon themselves with astonishing severity. Apuleius, in his Metamorphoses of the 32 Golden Ass, relates the manner in which these priests both made incisions in their own flesh, and lashed themselves voluntarily.

“In fine, they dissect their own arms with two-edged knives, which they use constantly to carry about them. In the meanwhile, one of them begins to rave and sigh, and seems to draw his breath from his very bowels. He at last feigns to fall into a kind of phrenetic fit, pretending that he is replete with the spirit of the goddess; as if the presence of the gods ought not to make man better, instead of rendering them disordered and weak. But now, behold what kind of favour the Divine Will is going to bestow upon him. He begins to vociferate, and, by purposely contrived lies, to upbraid and accuse himself in the same manner as if he ha been guilty of having entertained bad designs against the mysteries of the holy religion. He then proceeds to award a sentence of punishment against himself; and at the same time grasping his scourge, an instrument which those priests constantly wear about them, and which is made of twisted woollen cords armed with small bones, he lashes himself with repeated blows; all the while manifesting a wonderful, though affected firmness, notwithstanding the violence and number of the stripes.” From all that is above related, it is pretty evident that those Syrian priests used (or seemed to use) themselves in this cruel manner, only with a view to raise admiration in the minds of weak and 34 superstitious persons by this extraordinary affectation of superior sanctity, and thereby to cheat them out of their money. At least this is the conjecture made by Philippus Beroaldus, in his commentaries on the Metamorphoses of the Golden Ass, who says, that those priests were no better than jugglers, or rather cheats, who only aimed at catching the money of the fools who gazed at them.

Nay, the opinion of the merit of voluntary or religious flagellations, was in ancient times grown so universal that we find them to have also been practiced among the Romans, who had adopted notions on that subject of the same kind with those of the Syrians and the Egyptians, and thought that the gods were, upon particular occasions, to be appeased by using scourges and whips. An instance of this notion or practice is to be met with in the Satyricon of Petronius, in which Encolpus relates, that, being upon the sea, the people of the ship flagellated him, in order as they thought to prevent a storm. “It was resolved (he says) among the mariners, to give us each forty stripes, in order to appease the tutelar deity of the ship. No time accordingly is lost, the furious mariners set upon us with cords in their hands, and endeavour to appease the deity by the effusion of the meanest blood: as for me, I received three lashes, which I endured with Spartan magnanimity.”

But the most curious instance of religious flagellations 35 among the Romans, and indeed among all other nations, is that of the ceremony which the Romans called Lupercalia; a ceremony which was performed in honour of the god Pan, and had been contrived in Arcadia, where it was in use so early as the times of king Evander, and whence it was afterwards brought over to Italy. In this festival, a number of men used to dance naked, as Virgil informs us. “Here (says he) the dancing Salii, and naked Luperci.” And Servius, in his commentary on this verse of Virgil, explains to us who these Luperci were. “They were (he says) men, who upon particular solemnities, used to strip themselves stark naked; in this situation they ran about the streets, carrying straps of leather in their hands, with which they struck the women they met in their way. Nor did these women run away from them; on the contrary they willingly presented the palms of their hands to them, in order to receive their blows, imagining, through a superstitious notion received among the Romans, that these blows, whether applied to their hands or to their belly, had the power of rendering them fruitful, or procuring them an easy delivery.”

The same facts are also alluded to, by Juvenal, who says in his second satire, “Nor is it of any service to her, to offer the palms of her hands to a nimble Lupercus.” And the ancient scholiast on Juvenal observes on this verse, that barren women, in Rome, used to throw themselves into the way of the Luperci 36 when become furious, and were beaten by them with straps.

Other authors, besides those above, have mentioned this festival of the Lupercalia.

Among others, Festus, in his book on the Signification of Words, informs us, that the Luperci were also called Crepi, on account of the kind of noise (crepitus) which they made with their straps, when they struck the women with them; “For it is a custom among the Romans (continues the same author) for men to run about naked during the festival of the Lupercalia, and to strike all the women they met with straps.”

Prudentius, I find, has also mentioned the same festival in his Roman Martyr: “what is the meaning (says he) of this shameful ceremony? By this running about the streets, under the shape of Luperci, you show that you are persons of low condition. Would you not deem a man to be the meanest of slaves, who would run naked about the public streets, and amuse himself with striking the young women?”

All the flagellations we have above mentioned were performed in public solemnities, or with religious views of some kind or other; but there were other instances of voluntary flagellations (as we learn from the ancient authors) in which those who performed them were actuated by no such laudable motives; or, at least, had no precise intention that has been made 37 known to us. Such were the flagellatinos mentioned by St. Jerom, in his observations on the epitaph of the widow Marcella. In these observations, St. Jerom informs us, that there were men in Rome silly enough to lay their posteriors bare in the public markets, or open streets, and to suffer themselves to be lashed by a pretended conjuror. “It is no wonder (says he) that a false diviner lashes the buttocks of those blockheads in the middle of the streets, and in the market-place.”

And these conjurors not only lashed the persons who desired them to do so, but they, at other times, would also lash themselves, as we learn from Plautus, though an early writer; for those flagellations we mentioned were, it seems, an old practice among the vulgar in Rome. “Pray, is it not (says an actor in one of this author’s plays) is it not the conjuror who lashes himself?”

Another proof of the practice of those both active and passive flagellations which prevailed among the people in Rome, is also to be drawn from the above mentioned book of Festus, on the Signification of Words. Festus, explaining in that book, the signification of the word Flagratores, says, that this word signified “those who allowed themselves to be whipped for money.” And M. Dacier, a person of consummate learning in all that relates to antiquity, says in his notes on the above author, that the word flagratores, signified likewise “those who whipped 38 others,” he adds, that this was the most common acceptance of the word.

Besides the flagellations just mentioned, which perhaps were also owing to some superstitious notion or other in those persons who practiced them, we find, in ancient authors, instances of lashings and whippings performed in a way perfectly jocular, and as a kind of innocent pastime. None is more remarkable than that which is related by Lucian of the philosopher Peregrinus. This Peregrinus (Lucian observes) was a cynic philosopher of a very impudent disposition. He lived in the time of the Emperor Trajan. After having embraced the Christian religion, he returned to his former sect, and then used frequently to lash himself in public in rather an indecent manner. “Surrounded by a crowd of spectators, he handled his pudendum which he exhibited as a thing, he said, of no value. He afterwards both gave himself and received from the bystanders, lashes upon his posteriors, and performed a number of other juvenile tricks equally surprising as these.”

We also find in Suetonius another instance of sportive lashings or flappings among the ancients; and these, too, practiced upon no less a person than a Roman emperor. The emperor here alluded to was the Emperor Claudius. “When he happened” says Suetonius, “to fall asleep after his dinner, which was a customary thing with him, they threw stones of olives or of dates at him in order to awaken him; or 39 sometimes the Court buffoons would rouse him by striking him, in a jocular way, with a strap or a scourge.”

The following is an instance of voluntary flagellation among the ancients, which was not only free either from the superstition or wantonness above mentioned, but was moreover produced by rational, and, we may say, laudable motives. The instance referred to is that of the flagellations bestowed upon himself by a certain philosopher mentioned by Suidas.a The philosopher’s name was Superanus: he was a disciple of Lascaris. Though past the age of thirty years, he had taken a strong resolution of applying himself to science, and began at that time to read the works of the most famous orators. So earnest was he in his design of succeeding in those studies which he had undertaken, that “he never grudged himself either the rod or sharp lectures, in order to learn all that schoolmasters and tutors teach their pupils. He even was more than once seen, in the public baths, to inflict upon himself the severest corrections.”


  • Denudari deinde Ludi-magistrum, jussit, eumque pueris tradidit reducendum Falerios, manibus post tergum illigatis; virgas quoque eis deditas, quibus proditorem agerent in urbem verberantes.

The inhabitants of Falerii were so struck with the just conduct of the Dictator (Livy adds) that a total change of their dispositions towards the Romans was the consequence; and the senate having been assembled thereupon by the magistrates, they came to the resolution of opening their gates, and surrendering to the Romans; which was soon after effected.