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Ancient Methods of Execution

As long as nations have existed, the death penalty has been used as the ultimate punishment. Over the course of human history, the methods of execution have evolved dramatically. Today, many countries try to make death quick and relatively painless, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, it was often the exact opposite. Many rulers felt that painful and brutal executions would deter potential wrongdoers from repeating the same offenses. While this wasn’t always the outcome, it at least seemed to serve as a perverted form of entertainment, satisfying the depraved tastes of wicked rulers. Today, we’re going to discuss a handful of the most brutal and unusual ancient execution methods.

Crucifixion

Paint of Jesus crucified between the two thieves

Let’s start with perhaps the most infamous form of ancient execution— crucifixion. This method was standard throughout much of the Old World for several thousand years, but the most famous practitioners were the Ancient Romans. 

The Biblical story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion includes many details of a typical Roman execution. The ceremony would take place on top of a large hill, with the condemned person being forced to carry the cross’s beam, which could weigh over 100 lbs, to the high ground. A town’s citizenry would line the streets, heckling and following the criminal up the hill to witness their death. Once there, the cross was constructed, and the person’s hands and feet would either be nailed or tied to the structure. 

But that was just the beginning of the suffering. As if nails through the hands weren’t painful enough, executioners would sometimes break the condemned person’s legs, stab a spear into their side, or slice their torso with a knife to ensure maximum suffering before death. In some societies, the victim would be hung upside down, or the cross would be placed near the shore so that waves crashed into the body hanging from the crucifix.

Of course, despite all of these variations, the only essential component to crucifixion is a cross-shaped frame to which the criminal is bound. Other aspects simply determine the amount of suffering before the person’s demise.

The length of time required for death could range from a few hours to several days, depending on the severity of the injuries inflicted. The cause of death also varied, whether by blood loss, infection of wounds, cardiac failure, asphyxia, or other painful means. After death, bodies were often left on display until the next crucifixion, serving as a constant reminder of the consequences of disobedience. 

Crucifixion is quite rare nowadays, but it is still used sparingly in a couple of countries. Saudi Arabia seems to be the most recent government to crucify a person, though the methods are much less torturous than they once were. The cross is more commonly used to display the body of criminals who have been executed by more conventional means. Crucifixion is the only entry on this list that is still legal anywhere in the world.

Fire, Boiling, and the Brazen Bull

The brazen bull aka Sicilian bull, Torture Museum.By Dimitris Kamaras, is licensed under CC-BY

Fire has played a leading role in executions, probably since cavemen discovered it all those years ago. But as painful as it must be to be burned alive, it just doesn’t feel that creative. The typical burning at the stake lacks the flair of other methods, but ancient civilizations did their best to incorporate fire in more complex fashions.

A typical example is boiling alive. This method traditionally involved lowering the criminal into a boiling vat of water, oil, or even molten lead, where they were killed with slow, agonizing pain. The molten liquids would burn through layers of skin, which would dissolve in thin air. Sometimes the condemned were placed in the liquid before it was heated to prolong the mental agony as they felt their death sentence slowly warming.

Despite the common use of boiling across many civilizations, it has always been used for very specific types of criminals. In Ancient Rome, the Emperor Nero preferred only to use it to execute Christians. About a millennium later, in the Holy Roman Empire, boiling was reserved exclusively for coin forgers. Meanwhile, King Henry VIII used it only for criminals who commit murder with poison.

While boiling was a prevalent form of execution, the most elaborate fire-based method was used in Ancient Greece. It was called the Brazen Bull. The Brazen Bull was built by a man named Perillos for the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris. Phalaris sought a more effective method of capital punishment, so Perillos constructed a bronze, life-size bull with a hollow interior and a wide door on its torso. The criminal would be placed inside, and a fire was lit beneath the bull’s stomach, creating an oven-like space that would slowly extinguish the person’s life.

An acoustic device attached to the contraption would filter the dying man’s screams into the sound of a bull’s call. In a cruel twist of fate, the wicked tyrant Phalaris condemned the bull’s creator, Perillos, to die inside his own invention.

Flaying

Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Gioacchino Assereto, 1630 AD, oil on canvas, illustrate flaying execution.

Game of Thrones fans will recognize this brutal means of torture and execution as the symbol of House Bolton. Flaying is the act of skinning a person alive until they die of blood loss or shock. This graphic method was remarkably common for such a violent and time-consuming procedure.

Flaying seems to have been first used in the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 900 BC and continued across numerous civilizations for over 2,500 years. Over time, the techniques became more precise and brutal. The Neo-Assyrians would remove the skin by essentially shaving it with the edge of a sharp blade, but this seemed not to satisfy the depraved desires of future regimes. It became a mark of an excellent flayer to remove the skin intact.

Ancient Chinese emperors would have executioners start by slicing the skin from the face and working downward. On the other hand, the medieval Europeans would begin at the other end, using razor-sharp knives to make incisions around the feet and up the legs and torso. The process became a favorite subject of European artists, who depicted the practice in countless paintings.

Most victims of this method died somewhat quickly of blood loss and shock. However, an expert flayer would work slowly and meticulously, limiting blood loss and potentially keeping the flayed person alive for days.

Impalement

Impalement ilustration

Though simple in practice, impalement was a uniquely graphic method of capital punishment. For the weak-stomached, we suggest plugging your ears for the next few moments. Impalement involved shoving a spear or sharpened stick into the victim’s anus, then hoisting up the criminal so that gravity slowly pulled their body further onto the sharpened barb. This point would slowly rip through the victim’s internal organs, eventually protruding through the neck or head.

Impaling was not only gruesome and excruciating, but, like many of these methods, it was meant to humiliate the perpetrator by emasculating them first. The impaled were left in public for weeks until the body sunk all the way down to the ground. 

The Babylonians were the first impalers in history, as the famed King Hammurabi ruled that a woman who killed her husband should die this way. The method was used well into the 20th century in some prisoner of war camps during both world wars. Impaling would become heavily associated with eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, as countless brutal wars led rulers to this grotesque form of punishment. 

Of course, the most notorious practitioner was the Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler, who was so dark and evil that he inspired Dracula. The wicked ruler preferred using a flat-ended stick so that the impaled person wouldn’t die of blood loss. Instead, their death was even slower and perhaps more painful than usual.

Rats

Perhaps the favorite method of screenwriters, rats were often used in a handful of different execution methods. The rats were most commonly placed in some sort of bucket or bowl, with the open end set against the criminals’ stomach, chest, or behind. Then, a lump of hot coal or a flame of some sort was placed on the closed end so that the only way for the rats to escape the heat was to eat through the person’s body. 

Rats have the most powerful jaws and teeth of any rodents, and their bites can quickly eat through a human stomach. Besides the pain of having their flesh torn apart by rodent teeth, the victim would also feel the rodent dig through their internal organs, writhing around inside of them as they died from blood loss or damage to vital organs.

Augusto Pinochet.By Ministerio de Relaciones
Exteriores de Chile.is licensed under CC-BY

Death by rat was especially prevalent in England during the Tudor period, though it’s unclear when the method was first used. However, unlike most examples here, rat-based torture and execution have been used as recently as the 1980s, at least. It was a favorite method of Latin American military governments throughout much of the 20th century, and it sometimes took on more graphic qualities.

In Chile, General Pinochet took things to the next level by reportedly placing rats in a tube that was then inserted up the victim’s rectum, so that the rats literally had to eat their way from the inside out. According to urban legend, the Chilean leader would sometimes use the same method but with poisonous spiders. It’s unclear whether inserting them into the body would actually work as effectively, but we’d prefer not to imagine it.

Scaphism

Last but definitely not least is the Ancient Persian method called scaphism. Commonly referred to as “the boats” in ancient texts, this method began by stripping the criminal naked and placing them in some sort of tight wooden space— sometimes a hollowed-out log or a boat with beams running across the person’s body. The hands and feet were bound, and the person was force-fed obscene amounts of honey and milk until they were forced to defecate and vomit all over themselves. Then, their body was covered in honey, and the ship was pushed out into a stagnant pool of water, like a pond or a swamp. 

The scent of sugar and human waste would attract all sorts of insects, who would then begin feasting on the spoils. Before long, the crawlers would start eating the victim’s body, climbing into orifices, and even laying eggs inside them. If the victim survived long enough, they were fed more milk and honey to continue calling back the insects. Often covered in ants from head to toe, the victim suffered the pain of being eaten from the inside and having tiny creatures crawling over every inch of skin.

As one particularly gruesome ancient text put it, “they succumbed to tortured madness, experiencing the agonizing, nightmare crawl of thousands of insects on their skin, burrowing into their eyes and ears and nose, filling their mouths, while worms and parasites bred in the filth at the bottom of the boat and squirmed up into their bowels.”

The victim would eventually die of infection, though, according to the Greek historian Plutarch, one particularly resilient man took more than two weeks to die. Thankfully, this horror film method didn’t seem to ever catch on outside Persia, and it died off with the Persian empire.

The Evolution of Execution

Execution has come a long way over the years, and for good reason. While these brutal tactics were meant to scare other criminals from committing similar crimes, the often desperate nature of pre-modern and ancient life meant that crime tended to carry on no matter how public and brutal the punishment was. In fact, criminologists and philosophers have often found that the opposite effect is perhaps even more true. A society that normalizes the visible and public mutilation of their own people, even those who have committed heinous crimes, creates a decivilizing process, where violence and chaos reign supreme.

Execution still continues in dozens of countries throughout the world, but, thankfully, except for crucifixion, none have been publicly used in decades. 

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