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The Judgement of Camyses depicts a man being flayed alive

13 of the most brutal execution methods from the ancient world

Here we look at 13 of the most macabre methods for dispatching people in antiquity.

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

Most painful deaths in history

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 13 of the most macabre methods for dispatching people in antiquity.

1. The brazen bull

An etching of Perilaus being forced into the brazen bull
Perilaus being forced into the brazen bull

Arguably the most famous figure of Ancient Greece is the Athenian Socrates, 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 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, 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 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.

9. Dismemberment by trees

One of the reasons the army of Ancient Rome was so successful was because it was highly disciplined – and the Romans believed that soldiers had to learn discipline the hard way. In fact, the punishments used by Romans within their own military were some of the most savage legal penalties in the ancient world.

One such brutal mode of martial discipline was put forward by the emperor Aurelian, who ruled in the 3rd century. Aurelian stipulated that Roman soldiers who were guilty of having affairs with other men’s wives were to be dismembered by tree branches.

The condemned man would be tied upside down by their feet to two young tree branches which had been forced downwards and bound together, creating incredible tension. When the trees were cut, the unfortunate fellow would be torn apart. The rebel leader Procopius was executed in this manner in AD 366.

This method of execution was also sometimes used in Ancient Persia, including in the 4th century BC. A 19th-century British diplomat in Persia reported that it was still being used there in 1808.

10. Dropping onto rocks

A popular form of execution in the classical world was chucking offenders from a height, typically from a cliff, where the community would see them paint the hard ground below red.

This legal lobbing from heights was used in Ancient Greece, but the Ancient Romans’ use of it from the famous Tarpeian Rock is more well-known today. Convicts guilty of crimes like murder and sedition would be launched from the Rock, which sent them down the side of the Capitoline Hill in Rome to death 25 metres below.

The Tarpeian Rock was used for public executions in Rome from the time of the Roman kings, over 2,500 years ago, to the 1st century AD. Surprisingly, considering the many different brutal methods of execution used by the Ancient Romans over the centuries, the Romans considered this as one of the worst ways to go, because they attached so much shame to it.

In the ancient city of Lyctus in Crete, the authorities used throwing from a height as a form of execution – but not before the convict had endured 20 days of a peculiar kind of public torture. The offender would first be locked into a public pillory outside the town hall. For nearly three weeks they would have to stand here, totally naked and covered in honey and milk. This was, according to one contemporary source, ‘so that he may be dinner for bees and flies’. Then, following this, the unlucky prisoner would be ‘pushed off a cliff, wrapping him in a woman’s robe’.

11. Burning in a Wicker Man 

The famous 1973 horror film The Wicker Man features a scene in which a large wooden figure of a man is set on fire, ritually burning alive the victim inside of it. Some sources claim this mode of execution was used by the Ancient Celts. The archaeological evidence that the Druids performed human sacrifice is weak, but it is mentioned in ancient sources.

Famous Roman general Julius Caesar wrote that the Druids killed people by building a huge wooden figure out of wood. Caesar, writing in the 1st century BC, praised the Druids as ‘men of learning’ but was no doubt appalled by their violence.

In Caesar’s own words, the Druids built ‘figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames’. These burnings were done as human sacrifice, Caesar said, and the preferred victims were criminals. Whenever they’d run out of criminals, though, innocent people would take their place.

12. Clubbing

No, not the sort of clubbing that involves drinking and dancing in the early hours of the morning, but rather clubbing as a form of execution. This deadly Roman punishment, known as fustuarium, was a penalty for cowardice. Troops who had deserted their posts or run away in battle would be beaten to death with blunt instruments by members of their unit. This harsh form of military discipline could be used for a range of other offences by soldiers, too, including lying and stealing.

Fustuarium likely occurred after a successful battle, but with one individual soldier reported as having run away during the fighting. After a Roman failure, however, a whole cohort (nearly 500 men) might have been forced to take the blame. In these cases, several examples of which are recorded in the ancient sources, a far more severe punishment than fustuarium was employed – decimatio. This involved the battle commander dividing a cohort of soldiers into 10 and then asking each group to draw lots. The soldier in each group who drew the shortest straw, regardless of how he’d behaved in the battle or his status, would then be clubbed to death by the other nine.

A famous example of the use of decimatio is in 72 BC during the war against the slave rebellion led by Spartacus. The Roman commander, Crassus, punished some of his troops who had broken ranks and scarpered in the heat of battle. Plutarch says Crassus executed 50 of his men, but another source puts the number at 4,000.

13. Family extermination

For centuries in Ancient China, there was a fate worse than death – this was an extremely harsh punishment known in Chinese as miezu, a practice going back over 3,000 years. This brutal sanction was reserved for those found guilty of treason, which could have been as simple as upsetting the king.

Miezu, sometimes known as the ‘nine kinship exterminations’, involved not just executing the individual traitor, but also their extended family. The total condemned included the guilty person’s immediate family such as parents, children, and siblings, but also uncles, aunts, cousins, and even their in-laws. The method of execution used on these unfortunates was typically death by ‘slow-slicing’.

In 338 BC, an official named Shang Yang got on the wrong side of the king of Qin and was sentenced to be executed along with his whole family. Shang Yang was dismembered and beheaded.

Even as late as the 18th century there were cases of familial execution being used against rebels and traitors, and it was not officially repealed by the Chinese government until 1905.