Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria, did not likeke Jews. They were a stubborn people, always seeking independence, and during Antiochus' recent Egyptian campaign the Jews had openly expressed the hope that he would be killed. When he returned to Palestine, Antiochus decided to stamp out Judaism. He had a statue of Jupiter erected in the Holy of Holies ("The Abomination of Desolation"), turned the temple into a brothel, and forbade circumcision. When two mothers had their newly born baby boys circumcised in defiance of the law, Antiochus ordered the babies killed, their dead bodies hung around their mothers' necks, and the mothers thrown from Jerusalem's city wall. Anyone observing the Sabbath was burned alive and the Jews were forced to take part in the Bacchanalian orgies.
This display of firmness did not have the desired effect. Instead of being cowed, the Jews rose in revolt under their great leader, Judas Maccabaeus (the Hammer). Antiochus was determined to prove that the Jewish spirit could be broken. He decided to begin his demonstration with a mother and her seven sons whom he had captured.
"All I am asking you to do is eat a piece of pork to show the absurdity of these old dietary laws," Antiochus said reasonably. "I've had pork stuffed down the throats of several rabbis and they explained this didn't violate their code as it was done against their will. Very well, you are also doing it under compulsion and your God will understand. If you agree, I will give you high positions. If not — "
Antiochus waved his hand and his torturers brought out a collection of racks, wheels, manacles, and faggots. To show that he was serious, Antiochus first had an elderly scribe named Eleazar tortured. Eleazar was flogged and then burned upside down on a St. Andrews' cross while the executioners poured boiling oil down his nose. "See what you have to expect," the King pointed out. "If you won't yield for your own good, do so for your mother's sake. Imagine her emotions on watching all her children being slowly tortured to death before her eyes."
The eldest boy called out, "Why pretend that you're interested in what happens to us? Hurry up and get it over with. Death is better than listening to your hypocrisy."
"You'll have reason to regret that little speech," the king said grimly. "Executioners, do your work."
The executioners stripped the eldest son and then scourged him until they were exhausted. The three official types of scourges used by the Romans during this period (2nd century B.C.) were a flat leather strap called the ferula, for mild offenses; the scutica made of twisted strips of parchment designed to lacerate the flesh, for more serious crimes; and the death-dealing flagellum, a type of bullwhip.
Whatever type of scourge Antiochus' executioners used, they could not break the boy's spirit, so he was stretched on the wheel. This was an early form of the rack. The wheel was mounted vertically to the ground. The prisoner was placed with his back against the rim, his hands were tied to spokes above his head, and his feet were secured to stakes driven into the ground. The wheel was then turned slowly, stretching the man as it revolved.
The young Maccabee shouted, "Do your worst, tyrant. Watch how a Jew can die!" When all his joints had been dislocated, Antiochus ordered his limbs cut off and his still living trunk to be cooked in a large saucepan over a fire. The smell of his frying flesh filled the air, but the other brothers cheered him until he died.
The next oldest boy was then brought forth. The executioners tore off bits of his flesh with pincers. When this torture produced no result, they skinned first his face, than his head, and finally his body down to the knees so that his entrails were exposed.
It was now the third son's turn. He was brought before Antiochus who asked him to recant. The boy retorted, "Do you not know that I am the son of the same parents as my two brothers?" He was tied on the "engine" and his hands and legs broken. The exact design of this "engine" is not known, but it probably corresponds to the Greek "wooden horse". The horse was a cylindrical framework mounted on four legs. With the victim stretched on the framework and his arms and legs extended, the bones could easily be splintered by blows with an iron bar. It may, however, have been simply a large ball around which the condemned man was tied.
The boy still refused to eat the pork, so the executioners skinned his fingers one by one and then skinned his whole body. Since he was still alive, they then stretched him on the wheel. At last, seeing that he was dying, they disemboweled him.
Antiochus then asked the fourth brother if he had seen enough or did he want to be burned alive. The boy retorted, "Your fire isn't hot enough to break me, monster." In a rage, Antiochus ordered his tongue torn out. The Maccabee stuck it out in defiance to make the executioners work more simple. Afterwards, they tied the boy to the engine and tore him to pieces with iron hooks before roasting him.
The fifth brother came forward of his own volition remarking, "I look forward to taking part in a rite that means your eternal damnation. No matter what you do, we suffer only briefly. You will burn in hell for all time." He was put on the wheel and all his joints were dislocated. Then he was burned at the stake until only his skeleton remained chained to the post.
There remained two more of the brothers. The bones of the first were broken on the engine and then he was spread-eagled on a grid over a slow fire. The executioners heated their spears in the fire and stuck them into his belly until his entrails cooked. After that he was put in a giant cauldron and boiled.
The last remaining brother was the youngest of the family, little more than a child. Antiochus begged him, "Don't destroy all your family — leave your mother one son." The boy seemed tempted. "Remove my fetters," he begged. At this show of weakness, Antiochus hastily ordered the executioners to strike off the boy's manacles. At once the boy threw himself into the boiling cauldron and perished with his brother.
The boys' mother had watched the death of her sons without flinching. Several times Antiochus had begged her to plead with the young men to recant but she refused. "They would be worthless indeed if an old man like Eleazar could endure torture without breaking and they could not," she told the king. Throughout the torture she had encouraged the boys to stand fast, crying, "Never give in! God will save our people and avenge your deaths!"
Antiochus now had the mother flogged and her breasts torn off. When she refused to abandon her faith, he decreed that she was to be burned alive. The executioner prepared the fire and the mother walked into the flames of her own volition.*
* The death of the seven Maccabee brothers is told in II Maccabees, Chapter 7, and also in Flavius Josephus' On the Martyrdom of the Maccabees, Chapter 8. I have largely used Josephus' description which is more detailed. The two accounts disagree on some minor details.
We have learned a great deal about the science of torture since Antiochus' time. No modern torturer — not even the comparatively clumsy Inquisitors of the Middle Ages — would have used techniques calculated to cause the death of the victim within an hour or so. Nor would any experienced torturer have allowed the brothers to watch the death of the heroic Eleazar, knowing well that after such an exhibition of courage the young Maccabees would be enormously strengthened in their resolve. But as John Swain points out in his excellent book, Pleasures of the Torture Chamber, Antiochus' greatest mistake was in torturing one boy after another while allowing the others to shout encouragement to him. Each member of the family should have been tortured separately out of sight and hearing of the others, starting with the youngest as the one most likely to break.
In his introduction to Father Antonio Gallonio's Torture of the Christian Martyrs (1591), A. R. Allinson says (writing in 1903), "It is sometimes said that torturing quite as barbarous would take place again today if it were possible. I honestly and absolutely disbelieve in the possibility of this. Men have changed. The old tigerish instinct has been conjured and subdued. The thought of pain and cruelty is abhorrent to all who live in the great centers of Christianity."
Mr. Allinson was completely wrong. The use of torture is a crucial issue in the world today, and the techniques employed have become highly developed. In North Africa, paratroopers tortured Algerian rebels using the devices developed by the Spanish Inquisition plus electricity. During the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the rebellion in Angola, both sides developed remarkably effective torture techniques, far superior to anything employed by Antiochus. In Latin America, such men as Commissioner Lombilla, Chief of the Special Section of Police in Argentina under Juan Peron, understood how to employ torture not only to inflict pain but also to undermine the prisoner's reason. In the German concentration camps, the prisoners were submitted to systematic tortures not only for disciplinary reasons but also to study their reaction to pain. After the Communist take-over in Tibet, an international commission was appointed to interview the refugees. They described elaborate methods of tortures involving thousands of victims. But it was the development of "brainwashing" techniques by Russian scientists that lifted modern torture methods to such a degree of refinement that they became a matter of major concern to military planners and opened a whole new field to psychological warfare experts.