Standing up for what you believe in isn’t always easy. The early Christians are a prime example of this. They faced centuries of persecution at the hands of various Roman rulers. These early Christians faced the most heinous deaths imaginable at the hands of their persecutors. Those who would rather face death than deny their faith were given a name: martyrs. Many of these early martyrs were canonized and made saints. Over the centuries, tales of their sacrifice spread across the Christian world, serving as inspiration for countless followers. Here are some of the worst deaths suffered by these martyrs.
1. Saint Bartholomew the Apostle: Flayed Alive
According to the Bible, Jesus had twelve apostles . The apostles enjoyed close relationships with Jesus, as not only his friends but also his most loyal followers. As it turns out, being friends with the boss isn’t always a good idea. Of the twelve apostles only one, John, made it to old age. All the others were executed. Of the other eleven, Bartholomew drew the short straw and suffered the worst death.
Historically, not much is known about Bartholomew. As an apostle, it was his job to spread the word of Christ, but it’s unclear where he did so. Some ancient sources say he preached in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Turkey. Others say he started by heading to India but ended up in Armenia.
It is the accounts that send him to Armenia that we are interested in today. It is said that while in Armenia he converted its king, Polymius, to Christianity. This did not go down well with other local leaders, including the king’s brother, Astyages. Astyages had Bartholomew summoned to his court where he demanded Bartholomew make a sacrifice to the pagan gods.
Bartholomew refused, and in doing so made himself a martyr. The court executioners were ordered to seize the apostle and skin him alive, slowly. As he was being skinned alive, it is said Bartholomew continued to proclaim his faith in God. This so annoyed Astyages that he had the apostle beheaded just to shut him up, cutting the torture short.
It is unclear how accurate this story is. Historically, the flaying of Bartholomew wasn’t mentioned until around 600 AD. Other versions of the story have him beheaded, crucified, or put in a bag full of sand and thrown into the sea. The flaying story is the most popular, however. Bartholomew is the saint of butchers, leatherworkers, and tanners, showing that someone at the Vatican had a dark sense of humor.
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement depicts Bartholomew holding the knife of his martyrdom as well as his flayed skin, circa 1535 ( Public Domain )
2. Saint Antipas of Pergamum: Cooked Alive
As mentioned above, John was the only apostle to make it to old age. That doesn’t mean those who followed him were so lucky. Antipas was one of John’s followers. He was made the bishop of Pergamum (modern-day northwestern Turkey) during the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD). Among other things, Nero is famous for organizing the Roman government’s first concerted effort to wipe out the Christians.
The pagan priests of Pergamum were upset that they were losing followers to Antipas. They demanded that he stop preaching about Christ and make a sacrifice to their idols. Just like Bartholomew, he refused.
According to tradition, the priests swept him up and dragged him to their temple where they had a large copper bull that was used for sacrifices. They placed Antipas inside it and cooked him alive. Throughout his ordeal, it is said Antipas prayed loudly, asking that his god forgive his tormentors.
Fresco of the one of the early Christian martyrs, Saint Antipas of Pergamum, who was cooked alive ( Public Domain )
3. Saint Cassian of Imola: Butchered by his Young Students
Cassian is one of the less famous martyrs on this list. Today, he is only really revered near his old hometown in Italy. This is a shame because he faced one of the worst and most poignant deaths of any martyr.
During the fourth century AD, Cassian was the bishop of Brescia, Italy. During this time, Julian the Apostate was emperor. He was baptized into Christianity but ultimately turned against his faith. When Julian began persecuting Christians within his empire, Cassian was forced to abandon his position and flee to his hometown of Imola.
Once back home, he opened a school for boys where he taught reading and writing. For a while, it was safe, and it seemed like he might be allowed to live out the rest of his days peacefully. Sadly, it was not to be. Julian’s rage soon reached Imola. It was ordered that the residents make sacrifices to pagan idols to prove they were not Christians.
Of course, Cassian refused. He was soon denounced as a Christian and brought before the local governor. Evidently, the governor was a twisted man. After discovering Cassian was a schoolteacher he ordered that Cassian be made a “present to his students”.
Soldiers stripped the martyr naked and bound his hands behind his back. Depending on the source, Cassian was then mobbed by anywhere between 100 and 200 of his students. Eager to prove their loyalty to the empire, the young boys used everything at their disposal to murder their former teacher. Some sources say Cassian was stoned, beaten with school boards and wax tablets, and stabbed with styluses and other sharp utensils. Other sources say the children simply ripped him limb from limb with their bare hands. All sources agree that his death took a long time to come and that he died in agony.
The Martyrdom of Cassian, painting by Paul Troger circa 1751 ( Public Domain )
4. Saint Agnes: An Innocent Child Banished to a Brothel
Over the centuries, some of the tales of the deaths of martyrs contain more legend than fact. Saint Agnes is one of those saints. Despite this, it is clear that her suffering was indeed real.
Saint Agnes is remembered today as the virgin martyr of Rome, and she is one of the more popular saints among Catholics. Her story begins during her early teenage years. According to ancient texts, she was a beautiful girl whose beauty caused her to be in high demand. Various pagan Roman families wanted to marry her off to one of their sons.
Agnes was having none of it. She had pledged her chastity to God and was determined to stay a virgin. As a result of this vow, she turned away many, many suitors. Unfortunately, one of these was the son of a local governor. The governor was outraged to hear that his son had been rejected and ordered Agnes to be forced to work in a brothel. She was only 12 or 13 years old.
Life in a Roman brothel was famously hard. A slave prostitute like Agnes enjoyed no protection and had no rights. It was an awful fate for anyone, but unimaginable for a pious, innocent minor. Thankfully, according to legend, Agnes had a literal guardian angel looking down on her.
When Agnes was stripped naked, her hair magically grew to cover her nudity. Any potential customer who dared so much as look at the young virgin was struck blind. Unsurprisingly, this displeased the vindictive governor. He ordered that she be burnt at the stake, but he was once again thwarted by the angel. The flames simply parted around her. In the end, depending on the source, the governor either had her beheaded or stabbed in the throat. This it seems was the limit of the angel’s power, and Agnes died.
While the more fantastical elements of the tale have likely been exaggerated, there was likely a young girl called Agnes who was tortured before her death for the crime of daring to turn down a governor’s son. While the legendary Agnes was protected by a kindly angel, it is likely the real Agnes suffered a much worse death, being repeatedly raped before being murdered. Today she is the patron saint of young girls and sexual assault victims.
One of the female Christian martyrs, St. Agnes’s hair grew to cover her nakedness as she was dragged through the streets. Those that tried to rape her were struck blind. Photo of graphite pencil drawings by Johann Overbeck, 1850 ( Public Domain )
5. Saint Eulalia: Dissected and Boiled Alive
Saint Agnes isn’t the only teenage girl to be made a martyr. During the Great Persecution (the last and most severe Roman persecution of Christians (from 303-313 AD), Eulalia was a young 12 to 14-year-old girl who lived near Merida, Spain.
During that time, the governor of Gaul, Calpurnius (or Dacian depending on the version) visited Merida for the sole purpose of persecuting the region’s Christians. Eulalia, upon hearing of the governor’s arrival, decided to sneak out of her parent’s home and head for the city. Why? She wanted to become a martyr.
Upon arriving in Merida, Eulalia headed straight for the governor’s tribunal. She bravely stood up and denounced the Roman Empire, mocking their pagan gods. Calpurnius had her seized but was reluctant, because of her tender age, to have her killed outright. He offered that if she made an offering to his gods, she would be spared. Eulalia kicked over the idol and stamped on the offering instead.
This act of teenage rebellion earned her one of the worst deaths imaginable. Two executioners were brought in. They tore at her limbs and used cutting hooks and claws to open up deep cuts in her sides that showed her ribs. These wounds were then covered in boiling oil, and her sides and breasts were burnt with torches. It is said Eulalia did not make a sound throughout her torture, except to bless the Lord and give her thanks.
The crucifixion of Saint Eulalia of Barcelona, who demanded to become a martyr. Relief at the Cathedral of Barcelona, created by Pedro Villar, 1564 ( Public Domain )
Calpurnius finished her off by having her burned alive. It is said that upon her death, a white dove flew from her mouth, which was widely believed to be her soul rising to heaven. A winter snowstorm suddenly appeared and covered her body, keeping it safe and fresh until her burial three days later.
Saint Eulalia was another young girl who became one of the early Christian martyrs. ( Public Domain )
6. Saint Margaret Clitherow: Squashed to Death
It would be unfair to blame all the martyred deaths on the Romans. One would think that after centuries of being persecuted, and after years of venerating martyrs, Christians would know better. But it turns out that Christians are just as good at persecuting each other as the Romans were.
Margaret was born in Middleton, England in 1555 to Protestant parents. In 1571, she married a wealthy butcher by the name of John Clitherow, and they had two children together. Things were going fine until she met the wife of Dr. Thomas Vavasour, a prominent Catholic in York, who converted her to Catholicism.
This was a problem because England was bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants during this period. Queen Elizabeth I had brought in the Religious Settlement in an attempt to end all this turmoil. In part, it sought to do this by promoting the Church of England and separating England as much as possible from the Catholic Church. Simply put, it was a bad time to be a Catholic in England.
Unfortunately for Margaret, her husband wasn’t just a butcher. He was also responsible for reporting Catholic worshippers to the Elizabethan authorities, including his wife. For her first misdemeanor, Margaret was simply fined. When she failed to attend church, she was imprisoned. First in 1577, and then twice more at York Castle.
Margaret’s imprisonment only strengthened her conviction. Catholics had begun hiding priests in their homes, often disguising them as schoolmasters or tutors for their children. Margaret decided to do just this and began harboring runaway Catholic priests in her residence. She was soon caught.
Harboring priests was not just a criminal offense, but an offense that carried the death penalty. She was brought in front of a jury for trial but refused to take part, stating as she had done nothing wrong, she needed no trial. The judge agreed a trial wasn’t necessary, and she was automatically sentenced to death.
On March 25th, 1586, Margaret was taken to the toll-booth of Ouse Bridge. She was stretched out on the ground with a sharp rock placed so that it dug into her back. A door laden with heavy weights was then rested upon her, and she was crushed to death. Within 15 minutes, nearly every bone in her body was broken, and she was dead.
Margaret’s fate was so awful that it appears even Queen Elizabeth I condemned it. She wrote a letter to the people of York stating that Margaret should have been spared her grisly fate on account of her gender. She became Saint Margaret when she was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
One of the later Christian martyrs, Saint Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death in 1586 for harboring Catholic priests. Stained glass window from the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Altoona, PA. (Lawrence OP / CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
Of course, it isn’t just Christianity, most religions have their equivalent of martyrs, people who stood up for what they believed in, and died doing so. There isn’t a religion on the planet that hasn’t faced persecution at some point or another.
What’s surprising is that this hasn’t stopped them from continuing to persecute each other. Eventually, the persecuted become the persecutors. Even today, in the 21st century, religious minorities are persecuted every day, and those who refuse to bow to tyranny are all too often martyred.
Top Image: There are many Christian martyrs, whose deaths were often evilly innovative. Shown: The central panel of the altarpiece of St. Sebastian. Source: Public Domain
By Robbie Mitchell