The Christian poet Prudentius wrote a series of singing hymns in the death of many Christian martyrs. He called his work “Peristephanon” or “Crowns of Martyrdom”. Prudentius, connoisseur of classical Latin literature and rhetoric, attempts to integrate the pagan tradition with Christian ideas.

In the poem number XI Prudentius sings the martyrdom of Hippolytus, who suffered a death similar to mythical Hippolytus,  torn to pieces by horses. Prudentius tells us further that on his poem he is describing the paint on the tomb of Hippolytus that represents his death. It is an example of ekphrasis or description in words, verbally, of a visual work, in this case, a paint.. See .

Well, in the poem number IX also Prudentius tells the death of another martyr, Cassian of Imola,  inspired no doubt on other torture of the mythical-legendary Roman times, the death of the teacher  of Falerias at the hands of his pupils.

Cassian is a school teacher, specialized in shorthand, martyr suffering a painful death at the hands of his disciples also, punished by refusing to worship pagan gods. The horror of the description of execution binds the distaste they are just the young and tender students who pay in this way  the cares of the teacher.

And as in the case of Hippolytus, also he tells us now he describes the painting in the tomb which represents the death of the martyr, which incidentally also happened on August 13, as Hippolytus. It is therefore another example of ekphrasis.

The description of the painting is no less gruesome and baroque in this case than the poem XI on Hippolytus, certainly responding to the literary model of the time and the desire to move a devoted audience but easily impressionalbe by the detailed and prolonged suffering, that here it is imposed on the glorious death of every martyr because of their beliefs. Interestingly, Prudentius entertains in detail, we would say morbid, in describing the torment, but he does not say the attitude and how Cassianus suffer, about  sensations he tells us nothing.

I offer below the full text of the poem IX of Prudentius.

Saint Cassian therefore endures  a fanciful penalty, but curiously related to a pagan literary tradition. The Roman historian Livy describes in his Ab urbe condita (History since the founding of the city -Roma-) a mythical legendary episode in which Prudentius certainly is inspired to recreate the Martyrdom of Cassian.

Livy tells us in 5, 27, how a schoolteacher of Falisci children, simulating go to the field outside the walls, took them to the Romans, with whom they fought, offering them as a tool for achieving the surrender of the Falisci; the Romans of that time, men of honor, did not accept this offer but they  gave the teacher to the Falisci and their  sons for these   were these who will implement the deserved punishment; the Falisci, impressed by the virtue  of the Romans, immediately signed the surrender and peace.

As I said, Prudentius would have been inspired on this legendary episode from Rome. But this episode, although it is lost in the mist of the legend of the early fourth century BC, seems more credible and believable than the story of Prudentius in the IV-V century AD.

I also offer below the text of Livy.

In any case mythical pagan tradition served as repertory and model to shape some stories of Christian martyrs.

Painting of the early sixteenth century by Innocenzo Francucci

The Passion of St Cassian of Forum Cornelii.

Cornelius Sulla « established a Forum, and so the Italians call the town, after its founder's name. Here when I was journeying towards thee, Rome, the world's capital, there sprang up in my heart a hope of Christ's favour.

I was bowed to the ground before the tomb which the holy martyr Cassian honours with his consecrated body ; and while in tears I was thinking of my sins and all my life's distresses and stinging pains, I lifted my face towards heaven, and there stood confronting me a picture of the martyr painted in colours, bearing a thousand wounds, all his parts torn, and showing his skin broken with tiny pricks. Countless boys round about (a pitiful sight !) were stabbing and piercing his body with the little styles " with which they used to run over their wax tablets, writing down the droning lesson in school.

I appealed to the verger and he said : " What you are looking at, stranger, is no vain old wife's tale. The picture tells the story of what happened ; it is recorded in books and displays the honest assurance of the olden time. He had been in charge of a school for boys and sat as a teacher of reading and writing with a great throng round him, and he was skilled in putting every word in short signs and following speech quickly with swift pricks on the wax. But at times the young mob, feeling his teaching harsh and stern, were moved with anger and fear, for the teacher is ever distasteful to the youthful learner and childhood never takes kindly to training. Noav there came a cruel tempest battering the faith and pressing hard on the people devoted to the Christian glory. The governor of the flock of pupils was dragged from the midst of his class because he had scornfully refused to worship at the altars, and when the contriver of punishments asked of what profession this man of such high and unruly spirit was, they answered :

' He teaches a company of young children, giving them their first lessons in writing down words with signs invented for the purpose.' ' Take him away,' he cried, ' take him
away a prisoner, and make the children a present of the man who used to flog them. Let them make sport of him as they please, give them leave to mangle him at will, let them give their hands a holiday and dip them in their master's blood. It is a pleasant thought that the strict teacher should himself furnish sport to the pupils he has too much held down.'

" So he is stripped of his garments and his hands are tied behind his back, and all the band are there, armed with their sharp styles. All the hatred long conceived in silent resentment they each vent now, burning with gall that has at last found freedom.
Some throw their brittle tablets and break them against his face, the wood flying in fragments when it strikes his brow, the wax-covered box-wood splitting with a loud crack as it is dashed on his blood-stained cheeks, the broken slab wet and red from the blow. Others again launch at him the sharp iron pricks, the end with which by scratching strokes the wax is written upon, and the end with which the letters that have been cut are rubbed out and the roughened surface once more made into a smooth, glossy space. With the one the confessor of Christ is stabbed, with the other he is cut ; the one end enters the soft flesh, the other splits the skin. Two hundred hands together have pierced him all over his body, and from all these wounds at once the blood is dripping.

A greater torturer was the child who only pricked the surface than he who bored deep into the flesh ; for the light hitter who will not wound to the death has the skill to be cruel with only the piercing pains, but the other, the farther he strikes into the hidden vitals,
gives more relief by bringing death near. ' Be stout, I beg,' he cries, ' and outdo your years with your strength. What you lack in age let a savage spirit make up.' But the young boys from lack of vigour fail in their efforts and begin to be fatigued; the torments worsen while the tormentors grow faint.

' Why do you complain ? ' calls one ; ' you yourself as our teacher gave us this iron and put the weapon in our hands. You see we are giving you back all the thousands of characters which as we stood in tears we took down from your teaching. You cannot be angry with us for writing ; it was you who bade us never let our hand carry an idle style. We are no longer asking for what was so often refused when we were under your instruction, you stingy teacher, — a holiday from school. We like making pricks, twining scratch with scratch and linking curved strokes together. You may examine and correct our lines in long array, in case an erring hand has made any mistake. Use your authority; you have power to punish a fault,if any of your pupils has written carelessly on you.'

Such sport the boys had on their master's body, and yet the long-drawn suffering was not releasing him from his weariness. At length Christ, taking pity from heaven on his struggles, commands that the bands be loosened from his soul, undoes the irksome hindrances that detain his spirit and hold his life, and opens out its confined seat. The blood follows the open ways from its source in the veins within and leaves the heart, and through the many holes pierced in the body the pulsing warmth of life in the flesh departs.

" This, stranger, is the story you wonder to see represented in liquid colours, this is the glory of Cassian. Declare now any upright and worthy wish you have, any hope, any desire that burns in your heart. The martyr, you may be sure, hears with all favour every prayer, and fulfils those that he finds acceptable."

I obeyed, clasping the tomb and shedding tears,warming the altar with my lips, the stone with my breast. Then I reviewed all my private distresses, and murmured my desires and fears, with a prayer for the home I had left behind me in the uncertainty of fortune, and my hope, now faltering, of happiness to come. I was heard. I visited Rome, and found all things issue happily, I returned home and now proclaim the praise of Cassian.  (Translation BY H. J. THOMSON)

Sylla Forum statuit Cornelius; hoc Itali urbem
uocant ab ipso conditoris nomine.
Hic mihi, cum peterem te, rerum maxima Roma,
spes est oborta prosperum Christum fore.
Stratus humi tumulo aduoluebar, quem sacer ornat
martyr dicato Cassianus corpore.
Dum lacrimans mecum reputo mea uulnera et omnes
uitae labores ac dolorum acumina,
erexi ad caelum faciem, stetit obuia contra
fucis colorum picta imago martyris
plagas mille gerens, totos lacerata per artus,
ruptam minutis praeferens punctis cutem.
Innumeri circum pueri—miserabile uisu—
confossa paruis membra ligebant stilis,
unde pugillares soliti percurrere ceras
scholare murmur adnotantes scripserant.
Aedituus consultus ait: 'quod prospicis, hospes,
non est inanis aut anilis fabula;
historiam pictura refert, quae tradita libris
ueram uetusti temporis monstrat fidem.
Praefuerat studiis puerilibus et grege multo
saeptus magister litterarum sederat,
uerba notis breuibus conprendere cuncta peritus
raptimque punctis dicta praepetibus sequi.
Aspera nonnumquam praecepta et tristia uisa
inpube uulgus mouerant ira et metu;
doctor amarus enim discenti semper efybo
nec dulcis ulli disciplina infantiae est.
Ecce fidem quatiens tempestas saeua premebat
plebem dicatam christianae gloriae.
Extrahitur coetu e medio moderator alumni
gregis, quod aris supplicare spreuerat.
Poenarum artifici quaerenti, quod genus artis
uir nosset alto tam rebellis spiritu,
respondent: 'agmen tenerum ac puerile gubernat
fictis notare uerba signis inbuens.'
'Ducite', conclamat, 'captiuum ducite, et ultro
donetur ipsis uerberator paruulis.
Vt libet, inludant, lacerent inpune manusque
tinguant magistri feriatas sanguine;
ludum discipulis uolupe est ut praebeat ipse
doctor seuerus, quos nimis coercuit.'
Vincitur post terga manus spoliatus amictu,
adest acutis agmen armatum stilis.
Quantum quisque odii tacita conceperat ira,
effundit ardens felle tandem libero.
Coniciunt alii fragiles inque ora tabellas
frangunt, relisa fronte lignum dissilit,
buxa crepant cerata genis inpacta cruentis
rubetquc ab ictu curta et umens pagina.
Inde alii stimulos et acumina ferrea uibrant,
qua parte aratis cera sulcis scribitur,
et qua secti apices abolentur et aequoris hyrti
rursus nitescens innouatur area.
Hinc foditur Christi confessor et inde secatur,
pars uiscus intrat molle, pars scindit cutem.
Omnia membra manus pariter fixere ducente
totidemque guttae uulnerum stillant simul.
Major tortor erat, qui summa pupugerat infans,
quam qui profuuda perforarat uiscera,
ille leuis, quoniam percussor morte negata
saeuire solis scit dolorum spiculis,
hic, quanto interius uitalia condita pulsat.
plus dat medellae, dum necem prope applicat.
'Este, precor, fortes et uincite uiribus annos,
quod defit aeuo, suppleat crudelitas!'
Sed male conatus tener infirmusque laborat,
tormenta crescunt, dum fatiscit carnifex.
'Quid gemis?' exclamat quidam, 'tute ipse magister
istud dedisti ferrum et armasti manus.
Reddimus ecce tibi tam milia multa notarum,
quam stando, flendo te docente excepimus.
Non potes irasci, quod scribimus; ipse iubebas,
numquam quietum dextera ut ferret stilum.
Non petimus totiens te praeceptore negatas,
auare doctor, iam scholarum ferias.
Pangere puncta libet sulcisque intexere sulcos,
flexas catenis inpedire uirgulas.
Emendes licet inspectos longo ordine uersus,
mendosa forte si quid errauit manus,
exerce imperium, ius est tibi plectere culpam,
si quis tuorum te notauit segnius.'
Talia ludebant pueri per membra magistri
nec longa fessum poena soluebat uirum.
Tandem luctantis miseratus ab aethere Christus
iubet resolui pectoris ligamina
difficilesque moras animae ac retinacula uitae
relaxat artas et latebras expedit.
Sanguis ab interno uenarum fonte patentes
uias secutus deserit praecordia
totque foraminibus penetrati corporis exit
fibrarum anhelans ille uitalis calor.
'Haec sunt, quae liquidis expressa coloribus, hospes,
miraris, ista est Cassiani gloria.
Suggere, si quod habes iustum uel amabile uotum,
spes si qua tibi est, si quid intus aestuas!
Audit, crede, preces martyr prosperrimus omnes
ratasque reddit, quas uidet probabiles.'
Pareo: conplector tumulum, lacrimas quoque fundo,
altar tepescit ore, saxum pectore.
Tunc arcana mei percenseo cuncta laboris,
tunc, quod petebarn, quod timebam, murmuro:
et post terga domum dubia sub sorte relictam
et spem futuri forte nutantem boni.
Audior, 'urbem adeo, dextris successibus utor,
domum reuertor, Cassianum praedico.

Livy, Ab urbe condita, 5, 27

It was customary amongst the Faliscans to employ the same person as teacher and attendant of their children, and they used to intrust a number of lads at the same time to the care of one man, a practice which still obtains in Greece.  The children of the chief men, as is commonly the case, were under the tuition of one who was regarded as their foremost scholar. This man had in time of peace got into the way of leading the boys out in front of the city for play and exercise, and during the war made no change in his routine, but would draw them sometimes a shorter, sometimes a longer distance from the gate, with this and that game and story, until being farther away one day than usual, he seized the opportunity  to bring them amongst the enemy's outposts, and then into the Roman camp, to the headquarters of Camillus.  He then followed up his villainous act with an even more villainous speech, saying that he had given Falerii into the hands  of the Romans, having delivered up to them the children of those whose fathers were in power there.  On hearing this Camillus answered: “Neither the people nor the captain to whom you are come, you scoundrel, with your scoundrel's gift, is like yourself. Between us and the Faliscans is no fellowship founded on men's covenants; but the fellowship which nature has implanted in both sides is there and will abide.  There are rights of war as well as of peace, and we have learnt to use them justly no less than bravely. We bear no weapons against those tender years which find mercy even in the storming of a city, but against those who are armed themselves, who, without wrong or provocation at our hands, attacked the Roman camp at Veii.  Those people you have done your best to conquer by an unheard-of crime. I shall conquer them, as I conquered Veii, in the Roman way, by dint of courage, toil, and arms.”  He then had the fellow stripped, his hands bound behind his back, and gave him up to the boys to lead back to Falerii, providing them with rods to scourge the traitor as they drove him into town.  To behold this spectacle, there was at first a great gathering together of the people, and presently the magistrates called a meeting of the senate about the strange affair, and men underwent such a revulsion of feeling, that those who a short time before, in the fury of their hate and resentment would almost have preferred the doom of Veii to the peace of Capena, were now calling for peace, with the voice of an entire city.  The honesty of the Romans, and the justice of their general, were praised in market-place and senate-house, and, with the consent of all, envoys proceeded to Camillus in his camp, and thence, by his permission, to the Roman senate, to surrender Falerii. Being introduced into the Curia they are said to have spoken as follows: “Conscript Fathers, you and your general have won a victory over us which no one, whether God or man, could begrudge you, and we give ourselves into your hands, believing (than which nothing can be more honourable to a victor) that we shall be better off under your government than under our own laws.  The outcome of this war has afforded the human race two wholesome precedents: you have set fair-dealing in war above immediate victory; and we, challenged by your fair-dealing, have freely granted you that victory. We are under your sway; send men to receive our arms and hostages, and our city, the gates of which stand open. Neither shall you be disappointed in our fidelity nor we in your rule.” Camillus was thanked both by his enemies and by his fellow citizens. The Faliscans were commanded to pay the soldiers for that year, that the Roman People might be exempted from the war tax. Peace being granted, the Roman army was led home. (Translated by Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., Ed.)

 mos erat Faliscis eodem magistro liberorum et comite uti, simulque plures pueri, quod hodie quoque in Graecia manet, unius curae demandabantur. principum liberos, sicut fere fit, qui scientia videbatur praecellere erudiebat.  is cum in pace instituisset pueros ante urbem lusus exercendique causa producere, nihil eo more per belli tempus intermisso, modo brevioribus modo longioribus spatiis trahendo eos a porta lusu sermonibusque variatis, longius solito ubi res dedit progressus inter stationes eos hostium castraque inde Romana in praetorium ad Camillum perduxit.  ibi scelesto facinori scelestiorem sermonem addit,  Falerios se in manus Romanis tradidisse, quando eos pueros quorum parentes capita ibi rerum sint in potestatem dediderit.  quae ubi Camillus audivit, “non ad similem” inquit “tui nec populum nec imperatorem scelestus ipse cum scelesto munere venisti.  nobis cum Faliscis  quae pacto fit humano societas non est: quam ingeneravit natura utrisque est eritque. sunt et belli sicut pacis iura, iusteque ea non minus quam fortiter didicimus gerere.  arma habemus non adversus eam aetatem cui etiam captis urbibus parcitur, sed adversus armatos et ipsos, qui nec laesi nec lacessiti a nobis castra Romana ad Veios oppugnarunt.  eos tu quantum in te fuit novo scelere vicisti: ego Romanis artibus, virtute opere armis, sicut Veios vincam.”  denudatum deinde eum manibus post tergum inligatis reducendum Falerios pueris tradidit, virgasque eis quibus proditorem agerent in urbem verberantes dedit.  ad quod spectaculum concursu populi primum facto, deinde a magistratibus de re nova vocato senatu tanta mutatio animis est iniecta ut qui modo efferati odio iraque Veientium exitum paene quam Capenatium pacem mallent, apud eos pacem universa posceret civitas.  fides Romana, iustitia imperatoris in foro et curia celebrantur; consensuque omnium legati ad Camillum in castra, atque inde permissu Camilli Romam ad senatum, qui dederent Falerios proficiscuntur.  introducti ad senatum ita locuti traduntur: “patres conscripti, victoria cui nec deus nec homo quisquam invideat victi a vobis et  imperatore vestro dedimus nos vobis, rati, quo nihil victori4 pulchrius est, melius nos sub imperio vestro quam legibus nostris victuros.  eventu huius belli duo salutaria exempla prodita humano generi sunt: vos fidem in bello quam praesentem victoriam maluistis; nos fide provocati victoriam ultro detulimus.  sub dicione vestra sumus; mittite qui arma, qui obsides, qui urbem patentibus portis accipiant.  nec vos fidei nostrae nec nos imperii vestri paenitebit.” Camillo et ab hostibus et a civibus gratiae actae. Faliscis in stipendium militum eius anni, ut populus Romanus tributo vacaret, pecunia imperata. pace data exercitus Romam reductus.

Very cruel pupils

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