Both historical accounts and unverified legends regarding the deaths of Christian martyrs in the religion’s early days are surprisingly gory. This makes a certain kind of sick sense, regardless of the veracity of the stories: even the story of the death of the archetypal martyr, Jesus Christ, is awfully brutal. So it’s easy to believe that either (1) the Romans really did get this, um, pre-medieval on these early Christians, or (2) some of the stories about the ways saints died were exaggerated to “mark out a spiritual height to be admired but not necessarily emulated,” to quote Paula Fredrickson of Boston University. Both explanations hold water.
Not all of the circulating stories associated with the men, women, and children who later became saints, after all, are considered to be 100% true by the Catholic Church. (There’s a reason “hagiography” took on a second, pejorative, meaning.) Some of the ways saints were martyred or things they were venerated for are obviously just legends (St. George slaying a dragon, for example). Other torture methods and imaginative means of execution, however, are right in line with historical accounts. Read on for some of the gnarliest ways that the saints may – or may not – have been killed.
St. Lawrence Was Roasted Alive Over Hot Coals
Lawrence was a deacon charged with accounting for the Church’s material wealth, all of which he distributed to the poor. According to Saint Ambrose of Milan, when the Roman government demanded Lawrence produce “the treasures of the Church,” he showed them the poor he had supported instead.
In retaliation, the Roman prefect seized Lawrence and put his body on a giant gridiron (a metal grate used for cooking), roasting him alive over hot coals. After suffering calmly and gracefully, Ambrose claims, Lawrence joked to his persecutors, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”
Modern historians dispute this story, saying it was more likely Lawrence was beheaded – but nonetheless, St. Lawrence remains the patron saint of cooks to this day.
St. Antipas Was Baked in a Bronze Bull
Antipas, the Bishop of Pergamum, was roasted alive in a brazen bull, a method of torture devised in ancient Sicily. Prisoners were placed inside a large, hollow, bronze statue of a bull set over a fire, roasting the person inside. A system of tubes and pipes converted the sound of the person’s screams into the bellows of a bull.
The same fate also befell several other Christian martyrs, including Saint Eustace and his wife and children, and later, Pelagia of Tarsus (though the Catholic Church disputes the story of Saint Eustace).
According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the inventor of the brazen bull, Perillos of Athens, was the first person to be roasted inside it. Perillos presented the bull to Phalaris, a Sicilian tyrant, boasting of its elegant design. About the sound system, he said, “[The prisoner’s] screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings.”
Phalaris then commanded Perillos be put into the bull so he could hear the sounds he made. Perillos did not die inside the bull, however; instead, he was taken out and then thrown off a hill.
In 554 BC, a group of revolutionaries killed Phalaris himself in the same brazen bull.
St. Aphian Was Beaten, Roasted, Then Thrown Into the Sea
St. Aphian was only 18, according to his legend, when he was killed for reproaching a pagan magistrate that was offering up a sacrifice. He had recently become a Christian while away at school, against his parent’s wishes, who resisted Aphian’s efforts at conversion.
The guards in the city of Caesarea Maritima quickly arrested Aphian for disturbing the sacrifice. They tortured him and threw him in a dungeon. The next day, the magistrate beat him with clubs, tore his skin with iron claws, and slowly burned him over a fire – but kept him alive.
After suffering for three days, Aphian was finally killed when he was thrown into the sea with stones tied to his feet. Legend has it that the city was simultaneously struck by an earthquake that spit his body back onto the shore.
St. Eulalia Rolled Down a Hill in a Barrel Filled with Knives
No much is known about the life of 13-year-old St. Eulalia, but the legend of her death is pretty brutal. The story goes that the Romans put her through thirteen tortures, one for each year of her life, for refusing to recant her Christianity.
Of the 13, we know about three. In what became known as “St. Eulalia’s Descent,” Eulalia was placed into a barrel full of either knives or broken glass and then rolled down the street. Her breasts were also sliced off either before or after being crucified on an X-shaped cross.
What actually killed Eulalia, according to her legend, is decapitation. After her head rolled to the ground, a dove supposedly flew out of her neck hole.
St. Sebastian Was Shot Full of Arrows, Then Beaten with Clubs
Legend has it that St. Sebastian survived being tied to a tree and shot full of arrows only to later be clubbed to death. The Roman emperor Diocletian ordered the hit after he discovered that Sebastian was a Christian. The brutal execution method was surprisingly unsuccessful, considering Sebastian was “as full of arrows as an urchin.”
After he was nursed back to health, Sebastian got to stick it to Diocletian one final time, surprising him in a staircase. The emperor was astonished that the future saint was still alive, so he ordered that Sebastian be beaten to death with cudgels, to make sure he was really, really dead.
Sebastian’s body was tossed into a sewer, but a lady named Lucina, legend has it, recovered it and gave it a proper burial after Sebastian appeared to her in a vision. Sebastian is now considered to be the patron saint of soldiers, the plague-stricken, archers (!), and athletes.
St. Euphemia Was Fed First to Lions, Then to a Bear
Christian legend says that St. Euphemia refused to take part in pagan sacrifices in Chalcedon (near modern-day Istanbul), choosing instead to hide, with dozens of other Christians, in a house and worship God. The governor, Priscus, was not happy at all with this plan.
Euphemia, the youngest of the group, was tortured for days in an effort to break her spirit. The locals tried it first, to no avail. She was then handed over to the Emperor Diocletian, who had his people try more brutal tactics, including a breaking wheel.
Since nothing could break her, Euphemia was fed to lions in the arena. Or at least she was supposed to be fed to them: legend says the big cats just licked her wounds instead. The emperor had to turn an unsympathetic bear loose on her to finally get the job done.
St. Romanus Had His Tongue Cut Out
St. Romanus was almost burned to death, but Emperor Galerius decided it would be better to cut his tongue out and strangle him to death. Romanus was known as a fervent preacher, so cutting his tongue out was likely a symbolic gesture on the part of the emperor.
Another account says that Romanus couldn’t get burned at the stake because rain kept putting out the fire. The governor, in this account, cut out his tongue because he wouldn’t stop glorifying Christ and dissing pagan deities.
Romanus’s faith was supposedly so strong that he continued to preach even without his tongue. Since the rain kept extinguishing any attempt to burn him alive, the frustrated governor decided just to hang him instead.
St. Lucy Had Her Eyes Gouged Out
St. Lucy wanted to give all of her money away to the poor, but her sick mother, unaware of her desire and worried about Lucy’s future, arranged for her to marry a pagan man, not knowing of her daughter’s Christian faith. St. Agatha came to Lucy one night in a dream, promising her that her mother would be cured because of her faith.
Legend says that Lucy’s mother was indeed cured. Lucy famously convinced her mother to give away the family’s money to the poor by telling her that “whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.” When Lucy’s betrothed learned about her plans to give away the patrimony, he denounced her.
The news of Lucy’s Christian charity spread to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse, who ordered Lucy to burn a sacrifice for the emperor. Lucy refused, so Paschasius forced her to be defiled in a brothel before trying unsuccessfully to light her on fire (the wood would not burn). She was finally felled by a sword, but not before getting her eyes gouged out. Some accounts say she cut her own eyes out to disgust a suitor that wouldn’t stop admiring them.
St. Philomena Was Whipped, Nearly Drowned, Shot Full of Arrows, Then Decapitated
In 1833, Neapolitan nun Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù claimed she learned about the life of St. Philomenain a vision. Gesù says Philomena was a Greek princess who, along with her parents the king and queen, had converted to Christianity. Emperor Diocletian threatened war on the family and their subjects, but fell in love with Philomena and asked her to be his wife.
When Philomena refused, the emperor went nuts: first he whipped her, but ceased when angels cured her. He tried to drown her by attaching an anchor to her, but the angels cut the rope. He tried to fill her full of arrows, St. Sebastian-style, but (you guessed it) the angels healed her wounds and sent some of the arrows flying back at the archers.
Fed up with Philomena and her guardian angels, Emperor Diocletian just had her decapitated. No word on why the angels didn’t keep that from happening.
St. Castulus Was Buried Alive
St. Castulus, according to tradition, converted a lot of people to Christianity, which surely didn’t sit well with his boss, Emperor Diocletian. Castulus worked as the Emperor’s valet and used his access to conduct religious services inside the palace for Christian converts.
Castulus brought his converts to Pope Saint Caius to be baptized and even sheltered Christians in his home. He was betrayed by an apostate named Torquatus, who turned him in to an official in Rome.
Castulus was executed – after a round or two of torture – by being buried alive in a sand pit outside of the city.