Whip: noun, an instrument consisting
usually of a handle and lash forming a
flexible rod that is used for whipping
(Merriam Webster). The whip evolved
from a humble spiny branch to a
meticulously crafted leather work of art,
thanks to the Romans. Used for torture
and displays of strength, the ferula,
scutica, and flagrum (also called flagellum)
were all specialized for physical
punishment and known as the standard
The ferula, literally rod, was the most
basic of the three, just a short leather strap.
Then, there was the moderate whip, the
scutica, made from twisted parchment
thongs. Finally, the flagrum, the most
wicked whip was a ghastly melding of
lashes and sharp metal points or bone
shards. All three were short whips.
However, despite how deadly these whips
could be, none were used to kill.
Flagrum were also known as scorpia
because the effect of its blows was similar
to being bitten by a scorpion. A strike
would deal permanent damage, leaving
wicked scars. The most well-known
flagrum of today is the cat-o-nine-tails, a
whip made of nine leather lashes each
boasting its own cutting weight at the ends
crafted from various metal balls and bone
shards. To use it, one needed to possess
considerable strength, extensive skill, and
a showman’s flair.
Technically, no Roman citizen could be
tortured or whipped unless found guilty of
treason. However, Romans found many
Alicia Luo, Sycamore
excuses to whip people. Some tutors
even beat their students when they
couldn’t answer questions correctly.
Punishment by whip was also divided
into three levels: fustigatio, flagellatio,
and verberatio. Fustigatio was for minor
offences, a mild beating followed by a
warning. Flagellatio, where we get the
word “flagellation,” was for criminal acts,
and involved more severe beatings.
Verberatio, the highest degree of beating,
was commonly a prelude to crucifiction.
By law, flogging had to precede an
execution though women, senators, and
soldiers who weren’t deserters were
exempt. Lictors would tie up stripped
men to a post and, usually in pairs, whip
from the back to legs. Full force strikes
tore through skin, painstakingly making
their way to skeletal muscles
transforming them into bleeding,
quivering chunks of flesh. Pain and
blood loss led to shock, so many people
fainted before their executions, and
victims were often taunted. There was
also a law that stated that people could
not be given more than 40 lashes though
it often was not followed.
Whips, according to Martial, also
made great Saturnalia gifts. So, whether
by beautiful, decorative rarely used
whips or simple, cruel and effective
whips giving out punishment in the
names of discipline and justice, Romans
enhanced a legacy of whips and
whipping that continues to today.