[BACK]     [Blueprint]     [NEXT]

From History of Flagellation Among Different Nations. New York: Medical Publishing Co., 1930: pp. 27-39.


Black and white engraving of a man with bare upper torso tied to a grating, with a sailor to the side holding a whip.


CHAP. II — Flagellations of a religious and
voluntary kind were practiced among
the ancient heathens.

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.”



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.”


a  Until the last century, Suidas was considered to be an author of a Byzantine encyclopedia. Thanks to the work of modern scholars, that is no longer considered to be the case. See the Suda On Line project for details.

[BACK]     [Blueprint]     [NEXT]