Ouch! 8 of the most brutal execution methods from the ancient world

In The Judgement of Cambyses painted by Gerard David in 1498 depicts the story of the Persian Judge Sisamnes who was flayed alive for his corruption | Wikimedia | Public Domain

As the old saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. What about skinning a human? It turns out that in the ancient world there were quite a few ways to execute condemned men and women (skinning being one of them). Here we look at 8 of the most macabre methods for dispatching people in antiquity.

1. The Brazen Bull

Arguably the most famous figure of Ancient Greece is the Athenian Socrates (470-399 BC), executed in old age by being commanded to drink hemlock. This method of indirect execution was typical of the capital punishment dished out to Athenian citizens. They could be banished into a wilderness to die of exposure or thrown into a chasm to die of their injuries. (Although slaves tended to be beaten to death with clubs).

One Greek ruler is alleged to have used something far more sinister, however. In the sixth century BC, Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas in Sicily, was presented with a device made by the Attic sculptor Perillos. This was known as ‘the brazen bull’. Made entirely of bronze and the size of a real bull, the condemned was placed inside the hollow bull via a small door at the back. A great fire would be lit underneath, and the unfortunate fellow inside would be slowly roasted alive. The brazen bull had a system of pipes inside which converted the screams of the burning victim into ‘mooing’ from the bull’s mouth.

Even the notoriously cruel tyrant Phalaris was shocked by the device and thought it appropriate to test the bull by throwing its inventor inside.

Phalaris also allegedly met his own end in the bronze barbie.

2. Death by molten metal

In Ancient Israel, Mosaic law defined 36 crimes as punishable by death. Those guilty of incest and adultery with the married daughter of a member of the priesthood were executed by burning – but not by being burnt from the outside.

First, the guilty individual would be strangled with a rope by two witnesses integral to the case. It was a soft rope as it was considered humane not to cause additional suffering with coarse material. When the strangulation caused the condemned to gasp for air, molten lead was poured down his throat.

3. Poena Cullei

Today, ‘getting the sack’ means you are expecting your P45, but two thousand years ago in Ancient Rome talk of getting ‘the sack’ might have meant the grisly capital punishment poena cullei (‘penalty of the sack’).

The punishment consisted of the accursed individual being flogged or beaten before being sewn into a large sack and thrown into the river or the sea. But they would not be alone in the sack. With them might be a snake, a chicken, an ape, and a dog.

4. Flaying

Flaying involves removing the skin of the victim, usually by making incisions with a knife to the legs, buttocks, and torso, and then removing the skin as intact as possible. Flaying a person alive has been employed as a method of execution in different parts of the world for many centuries, including in Ancient Rome, medieval England, and the Ottoman Empire.

The kings of the Assyrian Empire of 911-609 BC were fond of flaying their enemies, especially rebel leaders. The practice was evidently a source of pride for the empire, representing the subjugation of an enemy. The Rassam cylinder is a contemporary record of 7th-century BC king Ashurbanipal’s military deeds. In one section it says:

‘Their corpses they hung on stakes, they stripped off their skins and covered the city wall with them.’

5. The Waist Chop

Li Si (280-208 BC) was a leading figure of early Imperial China. A writer, politician, and philosopher, he eventually got on the wrong side of powerful political aide Zhao Gao (d. 207 BC), who had him executed according to the ancient ‘Five Pains’.

First Li Si’s nose was cut off, then his foot, then his hand, then he was emasculated (his penis and testicles were removed), then finally he was cut in half at the waist. Gao also had Li Si’s entire extended family executed, to the third degree, in line with the ancient Chinese practice of ‘collective prosecution’.

The ‘waist chop’ involved an executioner using a very large, bladed instrument to slice the wretched prisoner into two at the waist, missing the vital organs and so causing a slow, painful death.

The ‘waist chop’ was not formally abolished in China until the 18th century.

6. An eye for an eye

In the time of the First Babylonian Empire (c. 1894 BC – c. 1595 BC) in modern-day Iraq, the emphasis was on balance. The principle of talio – the law of retaliation - was central.

If you knocked someone’s teeth out, your teeth would be knocked out. Perjurers would lose their tongues and rapists castrated. It did not apply equally to everyone, though. A free man assaulting or even murdering a slave would normally only be fined.

This style of punishment extended to the death penalty, too. Someone caught looting a housefire would be executed there and then by being thrown into the burning building! Burglars too would be hanged at the place they had burgled.

Negligence could also be punishable by death. Builders were put to death if one of their constructions collapsed and killed someone. The inequality of slaves before the law was evidenced here too. Line 218 of the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi specifies that if a surgeon kills a slave through malpractice, he need only ‘restore’, i.e., replace, the slave.

7. Crucifixion

Ancient Rome was a brutal place, and justice was class-based. If for example, you were a slave on trial, only evidence obtained under torture could be accepted by the court, and the torture was often undertaken in court too!

Crucifixion was normally reserved for slaves and humiliores (second-class Roman citizens), though there were cases of upper-class Romans being crucified.

The hapless crucifixee typically would be stripped naked, then scourged and beaten and then forced to carry a large wooden cross to his place of execution.

They would next be nailed on to the cross through the hands and feet. Soldiers or bystanders would stab, beat, or humiliate the victim.

Being crucified upside down was considered a mercy as death arrived sooner. The actual cause of death varied case by case. It could be anything from septic shock from the open wounds or - when the prisoner grew exhausted and could no longer support their weight and breathe properly - asphyxiation.

All of this would be done in as public a fashion as possible.

Crucifixion was abolished throughout the Roman Empire in 337.

8. The Boats

Mithridates (d. 401 BC) was a soldier who lived and fought during the First Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. Mithridates, drunk at a royal banquet, betrayed the confidence of King Artaxerxes II. The king, embarrassed and infuriated, ordered the most infamous punishment of the ancient world – scaphism, or ‘the boats’.

According to Plutarch (46-119), writing hundreds of years later, the punishment began with the condemned being taken to a body of water and placed inside a boat. Another identical boat was then sealed on top of it to make a sort of shell, with the man’s arms, legs, and head sticking out of the sides.

He would then be force-fed honey and milk, covering his face and arms and legs with it too. After a time in the direct sun, his face and limbs would become completely covered with flies. Suffering diarrhoea in the boat, vermin would feed on the excrement and then also start to enter the man’s body and feed on that and devour him inside and out.

Mithridates apparently lasted 17 days in ‘the boats’ before dying.

A savage and merciless use of the death penalty was continued not just throughout antiquity and the middle ages but into the modern era too. The ‘Bloody Code’ system enacted in England in 1723 made over 200 offences punishable death, including damaging a fishpond, cutting down an ornamental shrub, and having a sooty face on a road at night. France last guillotined someone in 1977.

Today, the death penalty is retained by 56 countries of the world, though only 18 countries carried out executions in 2020.

Written by:

by James Brigden