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Whipping on a post

Flagellation is the act of whipping (Latin flagellum, "whip") the human body. Specialised implements for it include rods, switches and the cat-o-nine-tails. Typically, whipping is performed on unwilling subjects as a punishment; however, flagellation can also be submitted to willingly, or performed on oneself, in religious or sadomasochistic contexts.

Disciplinary use and torture

Example of hodood punishment in Iran: This women was given 50 lashes for violating sharia.

Flogging is an approximate synonym that was probably derived from flagellum in the British navy, where flogging was a common disciplinary measure that became associated with a seaman's manly disregard for pain.

Flagellation probably originated in the Near East but quickly spread throughout the ancient world. In Sparta, young men were flogged as a test of their masculinity. The Jews limited flagellation to forty strokes, and in practice delivered forty strokes minus one, so as to avoid any possibility of breaking this law due to a miscount. Additionally they would have a doctor monitor the punishment, who would stop it if it became too much for the person to safely bear.

In the Roman Empire, flagellation was often used as a prelude to crucifixion, and in this context is sometimes referred to as scourging. Whips with small pieces of metal or bone at the tips were commonly used. Such a device could easily cause disfigurement and serious trauma, such as ripping pieces of flesh from the body or loss of an eye. In addition to causing severe pain, the victim would be made to approach a state of hypovolemic shock due to loss of blood. The Romans reserved this torture for non-citizens, as stated in the lex Porcia and lex Sempronia, dating from 195 and 123 BC. The poet Horace refers to the horribile flagellum (horrible whip) in his Satires, calling for the end of its use. Typically, the one to be punished was stripped naked and bound to a low pillar so that he could bend over it, or chained to an upright pillar as to be stretched out. Two lictors (some reports indicate scourgings with four or six lictors) alternated blows from the bare shoulders down the body to the soles of the feet. There was no limit to the number of blows inflicted— this was left to the lictors to decide, though they were normally not supposed to kill the victim. Nonetheless, Livy, Suetonius and Josephus report cases of flagellation where victims died while still bound to the post. Flagellation was referred to as "half death" by some authors and apparently, many died shortly thereafter. Cicero reports in In Verrem, "pro mortuo sublatus brevi postea mortuus" ("taken away for a dead man, shortly thereafter he was dead"). Often the victim was turned over to allow flagellation on the chest, though this proceeded with more caution, as the possibility of inflicting a fatal blow was much greater.

While flagellation and other forms of corporal punishment are now forbidden in most Western countries, flagellation is still a common form of punishment around the world, particularly in Islamic countries. Medically supervised caning is also still used as a punishment for some categories of crime in Singapore and Malaysia [1].

Australian penal colonies

While common in the British Army and British Royal Navy as a means of discipline, flagellation also featured prominently in the British penal colonies in early colonial Australia. Given that convicts in Australia were already "imprisoned", punishments for offences committed in the colonies could not usually result in imprisonment and thus usually consisted of corporal punishment such as hard labour or flagellation. Unlike Roman times, British law explicitly forbade the combination of corporal and capital punishment; thus, a convict was either flogged or hanged but never both.

Flagellation took place either with a single whip or more notoriously, with the cat o' nine tails. Typically, the offender's upper half was bared and he was suspended by the hands beneath a tripod of wooden beams (known as 'the triangle'), while either one or two floggers administered the prescribed number of strokes. During the flogging, a doctor or other medical worker was consulted at regular intervals as to the condition of the prisoner - if the offender had fainted from blood loss or suffered extreme skin and flesh loss from the back, the punishment was usually suspended until such time that the offender had sufficiently healed. Once healed, the remainder of the required strokes were administered. Punishment was usually limited to 20, 50 or 100 strokes at one flogging, though records exist of prisoners in Australian penal colonies such as Norfolk Island or Port Arthur receiving more than 3,000 strokes over a number of months or years.

Due to its prevalence, flagellation featured prominently in the culture of early colonial Australia. It was often a mark of pride for a flogged former convict to "show his stripes" (expose his flagellation scars) as an "iron man", or to hide them at all costs if an emancipated convict was attempting to rebuild some semblance of a normal life in society. Children in the Australian colonies were often observed playing "flogging games" where a doll or another child would pretend to be "strung from the triangles" and whipped.

(See also: History of Australia).



Treatment of slaves - scars from flagellation

Until the post-Enlightenment period, many societies had a class of slaves, that is, people who were considered chattels rather than autonomous citizens. There were sometimes multiple classes of these, for example slaves versus serfs, but often people in one or some of these classes were legally the property of their owners and could be punished at will. Throughout history, whipping endured as the most common form of punishment.

Although almost limitless physical cruelty to slaves was generally allowed in the Roman tradition, some domestic slaves were treated 'paternally', either as individuals or because it was a matter of good sense to not unnecessarily damage a productive slave. Slaves were often a valuable investment before the advent of motorized machines and were sometimes materially better off than the free poor who had nobody responsible for their care. By contrast, periods in which prices of slaves were low, for example during the expansion of the Roman Empire, were also periods in which slaves were probably treated more cruelly.

Although the Reformation and Enlightenment would in time render slavery unacceptable in Europe, the American slave trade remained, and flagellation featured prominently. Particularly amongst black slaves from Africa in the Americas, flagellation was the customary method (among other methods of torture) to enforce discipline and obedience.

(See also: Unfree labour).

Association with religion

Flagellants. From a fifteenth century woodcut.

An Iranian teenager facing public flogging in Iran, for violating Islamic Sharia law.


The Flagellation refers in a Christian context to the Flagellation of Christ, an episode in Jesus' physical degradation by leading to the Crucifixion. The practice of mortification of the flesh for religious purposes was utilized in the Christian Flagellant movements of the 13th century.


Judaism does not have a history of, or practice of, flagellation.


Shia Muslims perform self-flagellation to mourn the death of Hussain during Muharram. They usually beat their chests with their hands. The practice is common across Shiites in the Middle East and Asia.

QuickCut: Self flagellation

Flagellation (or flogging) is also used as a form of punishment in some countries. The most well-known of these countries is Saudi Arabia. In this modern Islamic state, flogging is used to punish the crimes of: fornication (sex outside of marriage), drinking alcohol, taking drugs and defamation of Islam.

Ecstatics and Mystics

Because practices such as starvation, sleep denial and flagellation are known to induce altered states, flagellation may be used by religious ecstatics and mystics as part of ritualistic practices or ceremonies to achieve unusual states of mind.

Erotic use

Three floggers used for BDSM play

In the sexual sub-culture of BDSM, "flagellation" involves beating the submissive partner and is a form of impact play. Such a flogging is not always delivered with forceful blows; sometimes it is done with very soft blows, repeated a great many times so as to make the skin sensitive. Thus, the softest impact will eventually feel very intense. Flogging for erotic thrill, typically with implements such as floggers, whips, paddles, or canes, has been called the "English vice". See also paraphilia.

The flogger used in this context has a large number of soft broad thongs made of suede, leather, or comprable materials. Its impact is felt as an impact ("thud") leaving a stinging sensation. Used with light or medium intensity, it can almost act as a form of massage. Used intensely or for longer periods, it becomes painful. Flogging with this implement, usually on the shoulder blades, behind, or other fatty areas of the body, can leave bruising but does not cut or permanently mark the skin.

References and further reading

See also

External links

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