9 Ancient Torture Devices and Horrible Ways to Die

Throughout history, humans have shown a rather unfortunate knack for devising cruel and painful ways to torture one another. To better understand how we can avoid similar horrors in the present, it’s important to look back at these gruesome methods from the past.

You might be familiar with some torture devices, either from real-life accounts or their portrayal in movies. However, others may seem too disturbing even to believe they were used. But rest assured, ancient history is filled with these twisted inventions.

These torture methods served various purposes, such as extracting information from prisoners or ensuring that death was as painful and humiliating as possible. In this article, we’ll dive into nine such devices as grim reminders of humanity’s darker side. So, buckle up for a journey through time as we explore these chilling relics of bygone eras.

1. The Rack

The Rack, a torture device dating back to the medieval period, involved tying the victim’s hands and feet to ropes on either side of a long table.

Then, using wheels on either end, the ropes would be tightened until the body was stretched. Joints would soon dislocate, with tendons and ligaments tearing.

This horrific torture was often used to garner confessions, with the most famous example being that of Herostratus. In 356 BC, in ancient Greece, it was under torture of the Rack that Herostratus admitted to burning down the Temple of Artemis, one of the ancient wonders of the world.

His punishment was death, but as he claimed to have set fire to become famous, the court also ordered that anyone mentioning his name be put to death.

2. Keelhauling

Keelhauling, a torturous execution method, was used by ancient pirates and seafaring civilizations.

They would tie a man by a long rope to a ship’s mast and then weigh down his ankles with metal chains or anchors. They would throw the victim overboard and let him be dragged under the ship, smashing his body against its keel (bottom).

This method is mentioned as far back as the 700 BCE Rhodian Maritime Code (Lex Rhodia), and images have been found of it on Greek vases. However, most examples known in history are from the European Renaissance, around the 15th to 17th centuries.

The Dutch navy would use this as a “show” punishment to discourage others and consider it for use when floggings were insufficient. Keelhauling may have continued into the late nineteenth century and is now best known for its mention in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1883.

3. Drinking Molten Gold

Gold has a melting point of 1945 degrees Fahrenheit, and one of the more barbaric methods of killing a person would be to pour liquid gold down their throat. Determining what would kill the person first is difficult – choking on the gold or burning the brain stem is difficult.

In 89 BCE, Roman politician and general Manius Aquillius met his end in this gruesome manner, executed by Mithridates VI, the leader of Pontus. This act became so famous for its brutality that it was later claimed to be used against Crassus in 53 BCE.

Marcus Licinius Crassus, once known as “the richest man in Rome,” was allegedly subjected to this torture by the Parthians to mock his “thirst for wealth.” While other stories say this was done after his death, most agree that his head was removed and paraded by his enemies. It may have even been presented during a performance of Euripides’ play, The Bacchae.

4. Flayings

Flaying is the simple but terrifying process of slowly removing the skin from a victim with the intent to do no further damage to their body. As it is medically possible for a careful surgeon to remove most of a human’s skin and have them survive a period with little other intervention, this has been seen as one of the most horrifying ways to kill someone slowly.

Unfortunately, flaying has been a popular torture for millennia. The Rassam cylinder, a cylindrical history of a Neo-Assyrian king, describes flayings from the seventh century BCE, and according to Herodotus, the corrupt judge Sisamnes was flayed for having accepted a bribe. 

From Mesopotamia to South American tribes, flaying has been a universal form of torture and punishment and even appears in myths as actions the gods would do to each other. In fact, the Aztec god, Xipe Totec, was said to have been given sacrifices of flayed soldiers after successful battles.

5. The Roman Candle

Today’s “Roman Candles” might be a type of firework, but their name comes from a horrific torture devised by emperor Nero to kill and humiliate Christians.

According to Tacitus, in his Annals, Nero found many ways to kill the Christians. They were “covered with the skins of beasts, torn by dogs and perished, nailed to crosses, doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired.”

Later European scholars had taken this final statement to mean they were set alight as human torches for his parties. While this image has been used in artworks many times, it is of some consolation to note that there is no evidence such barbaric actions have occurred at any other time in history.

6. The Brazen Bull

According to Christian tradition, several early saints were killed in a devilish device called “the brazen bull.” This giant metal casket would broil men inside it, with vents that would turn their screams into the sound of a bull and for steam to rise from its “nostrils.”

No archeological evidence has been found of such a device. However, in the first century BCE text, Bibliotheca Historica,  Diodorus Siculus recorded how he believed the device came to be. 

Perilaus, a sculptor, created the bull as a present to “Phalaris the Tyrant” to gain favor. But such a torture device was too much for even Phalaris. He convinced the sculptor to enter the bull for a demonstration before locking the bull and starting a fire.

Before Perilaus died, however, the tyrant pulled him from the device “so that the man’s death might not pollute the work of bronze.” He then tossed the half-dead artist off a cliff and kept the device for his use.

7. Impalings

Impalement uses a pole or stake to pierce through a person while still alive so that they would die slowly and unable to move. Accounts from 18th century Bavaria include impalings where victims survived over six days before eventually dying from their wounds.

Impaling is an ancient form of torture, however. The Code of Hammurabi, widely considered to be the first recorded law, includes the punishment of impaling for any woman who kills her husband for another man.

Enemy soldiers in Ancient Egypt and Greece would be impaled on stakes outside of a city’s borders as a warning to others, and there are even Assyrian reliefs depicting how those gruesome impalings would look.

Impaling remained a common torture well into modern times, with examples of its use being recorded during the Armenian genocide.

8. Crucifixion

Crucifixion involved a person being tied or nailed to a post or cross and left to die hanging. The person could die from starvation, loss of blood from their wounds, or suffocating due to how they were nailed.

If a person could come down soon enough from such a punishment, as was recorded by Josephus, however, they could survive.

While the most famous crucifixion in history is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the punishment had been recorded as early as six hundred years before. Crucifixion was a uniquely Middle-eastern and European punishment and only appeared elsewhere in the world after the introduction of Christianity.

Crucifixion, as well as crucifixion post-execution, is still considered a legal punishment in some countries today.

9. The Gladiatorial Games

A form of ancient torture unique to the Roman empire was gladiatorial games. While some gladiators were given a chance to fight honorably, even to the extent of being trained in schools and paid fortunes, most were simply slaves put in an arena, naked, to be fed to wild animals.

The use of wild animals as torture existed in some way before, often through the simple punishment of exile into the wilderness.

However, this punishment was particularly harrowing as it was done in front of crowds of thousands. Sometimes, the victims would be forced to wear costumes as lions and boars mauled them.

Other torture involving animals included being eaten alive by rats and intentionally bitten by snakes. Sadly, using animals as torture devices continues to this day, with lions replaced by rabid dogs.

Conclusion

While some tortures like crucifixion and the rack have become well-known and etched in our collective memory, many other ancient devices and methods have faded into the realm of mythology and obscurity, never to be used again.

It’s important to note that some of these ancient tortures may have been exaggerated or possibly never occurred at all, but they remain a testament to the darker side of human history.

Regrettably, many of these cruel methods persist in the modern era, with human rights organizations tirelessly working to have nations ban the use of such instruments of torture as a form of punishment.

As we reflect on these chilling historical accounts, let us also strive to prevent the perpetuation of such atrocities in the present and the future.

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