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T. II, Vol. 1

Article by E. Saglio in

Daremberg & Saglio,
Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines,
Librairie Hachette et Cie., Paris, 1877‑1919.

translation and © William P. Thayer

EQUULEUS or ECULEUS 1. The rack, an instrument of torture used to punish slaves or to extract confessions from them when they were questioned.​1 It was later made a torture even for freemen;​2 the equuleus is frequently mentioned in the accounts of the persecutions of Christians.3

We have no description of it whatever; we can only form an idea of it from the expressions used in the ancient texts. It was no doubt at first an apparatus made of pieces of wood assembled at an angle like a sawhorse, and thus somewhat like a horse in shape: or such is what its name seems to indicate (equuleus, a little horse, a colt)​4 and it can be added that the rack in this form continued as a means of punishment or torture up to modern times: the subject was made to straddle the sharp angle of the upper beam, or even made to sit on an actual spike, with weights attached to their feet and hands, in order to increase the natural pressure of the body.​5 It is not, however, to the rack thus built that most of the terms apply which are found in the ancient sources.

From what they state it may be inferred that the equuleus was, at least under the Empire,​6 an upright post (stipes, lignum)​7 from which the subject was hung,​8 their hands bound behind their back;​9 it must therefore be assumed that their raised arms went over a crossbar (patibulum) set at the top of the gallows, similar to the one onto which were attached the hands of those condemned to crucifixion [crux]. Their arms and legs were tightly bound by ropes (funes, fidiculae)​10 stretched by ratchets and turn-handles,​11 that pulled them in opposite directions until the bones were dislocated and cracked apart.12

The Author's Notes:

1 Cic. pro rege Deiot. I.3; pro Milone, XXI.57; Quintil. Decl. XIX.12: "Quaestio . . . qualis vernilibus corporibus adhibetur"; cf. Ib. XVIII.11.

2 Cod. Theod. VIII.1.4, De numerariis; IX.16.6, De maleficiis.

3 See the numerous examples collected by Gallonius, De martyr. cruciatibus; Ruinart, Acta martyr. sincera, and M. Le Blant, Les actes des martyrs, Supplém. aux Acta sincera, in Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr., 1883.

4 This is the meaning with which it is used by Pomponius (ap. Nonium, p4; 105 Mercier; 4 and 188 Quicherat), in a passage which was wrongly brought into the discussion.

5 See the engravings added to the end of Magius' dissertation in Sallengre's Thesaurus, II, p1232, depicting this torture, as undergone at Mirandola, in northern Italy, in the 17c. One of these engravings was borrowed by Rich, Dict. of Rom. and Gr. Ant., s.v. Equuleus.

6 It seems not to have been unknown to the Greeks. See Val. Max. III.3 [Tormentum].

7 Prudent. Peristeph. X.114; Paulin. Aq. Vit. S. Martini, 2; St. Jerome, Epist. ad Innoc. 49; in Valerius Maximus' account, III.3, the gallows do not yet seem to be raised high.

8 Prudent. loc. cit. 189; see the loci collected by M. Le Blant, op. cit. p162.

9 Euseb. Eccl. Hist. VIII.10; Prud. Perist. V.109 and X.491; St. Jerome, loc. cit.

10 Quintil. loc. cit.; Seneca, de Ira III.3; Val. Max. loc. cit.; Ruinart, Acta, 517; Adon. XIII Januar; St. Jerome, loc. cit.

11 Trocleis, Ruinart, loc. cit.; μαγγάνοις, Euseb. loc. cit.

12 Prud. loc. cit., V.100; Seneca, Ep. 67; Quintil. loc. cit.; Sil. Ital. I.177; Paulin. Aq. V.263; Le Blant, loc. cit.

Bibliography: Galloni, De martyrum cruciatibus, c. III, Rome, 1591 and 1594, Paris, 1659; Oct. Ferrari, Electa, I.5; Magius, De equuleo, Hanov. 1608 and Amst. 1664, and in Sallengre's Thesaurus, t. II, p1200; Pitiscus, Lexic. antiquit. roman. s.v. Equuleus; Ward, in Philosophical Transactions, XXXVI, London (1729‑1730), p231 ff.

Thayer's Note: I find a 1691 edition of Magius De equuleo online at Archive.Org.

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