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.
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.
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 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.
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.