Getting a confession is never easy, and putting someone to death leaves room for lots of creativity. The following grisly torture methods and executions of the ancient world were designed to humiliate and dehumanize victims in their final moments. Although many of these methods have become known as medieval torture devices, likely due to associations with the Spanish Inquisition, their origins reach back to antiquity. No matter their era, these horrific devices were used to maim and kill untold victims. Which do you think is the most brutal?
Origin: Ancient Greece
This punishment was reserved for sailors. The offending seaman would be tied to a rope looped underneath the vessel and then thrown overboard into the sea, where he would be dragged underneath one side of the ship to the other. Death could occur from drowning or as a result of repeatedly hitting the bottom of the boat, which was often covered in razor-sharp barnacles.
2. Live Burial
Origin: Ancient Rome
Vestal Virgins—priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth—were regarded as paramount to the security of Rome. Among other duties, these women took an oath of chastity and worked to ensure that the sacred fire never went out. However, if an individual violated her oath of celibacy, she risked being buried alive as punishment.
There was an entire ritual awaiting the victim, in which she would be carried on a litter throughout the city until they reached the Campus Sceleratus, or "Evil Field". An underground chamber awaited her there. Live burial has been practiced in other societies with less pomp and circumstance, such as the Holy Roman Empire, where it was considered an appropriate punishment for rape and other crimes.
Origin: Imperial China
Lingchi, also known as death by a thousand cuts, dates back to the 10th century. It was used as punishment for offenses like high treason or particularly heinous murders, such as the killing of one’s parents or mass murder. This painful method involved methodically slicing away at the victim’s body until death. The cuts were thought to increase in intensity over time, building from small incisions to limb amputation.
4. Poena cullei
Origin: Ancient Rome
The Latin phrase “poena cullei” translates to “penalty of the sack”. Even with that hint, you probably couldn’t dream up this bizarre torture method. The victim—typically someone found guilty of patricide—was sewn up in a leather sack, with an assortment of live animals for company: the most famous combination being a dog, a snake, a monkey, and a chicken or rooster. The sack was then tossed into a body of water. The victim would either drown or die from injuries resulting from close proximity to the panicking animals.
5. Elephant Trampling
Origin: Ancient South Asia
Execution by elephant was a common torture method in South and Southeast Asia, dating back to ancient times. It involved crushing the unfortunate victim by an elephant specifically trained for that purpose. The experience could vary widely. Some victims were mercifully released and allowed to repent after only minor injuries, while others endured brutal torture until the elephant delivered the fatal blow by stepping on their head.
6. The Rack
The victim’s ankles would be strapped to one end of this device, and his wrists to another. A mechanism was then cranked during the interrogation process, stretching the victim’s limbs. Bones and ligaments made startling sounds as the victim’s joints were dislocated until he either confessed or was torn apart.
7. Judas Cradle
Origin: Ancient Rome
Widely used during the Middle Ages in order to obtain confessions, the Judas Cradle was feared throughout Europe. A victim was strapped into restraints and lowered upon a chair with a pyramid-shaped seat. With each insertion the point of the “chair” slowly tore at the anus or vagina, often inducing septic shock or death by impalement.
8. Brazen Bull
Origin: Ancient Greece
The closest thing to hell on earth may very well be the Brazen Bull. Cast in bronze to look exactly like a bull, the structure was complete with a door on the bull’s abdomen through which a victim was forced. Once inside, the door was locked, and the statue was heated like a hot pot on the stove until the person cooked to death.
9. Heretic's Fork
Origin: Medieval Spain
Used to elicit confessions during the Spanish Inquisition, the heretic’s fork was even engraved with the Latin abiuro (“I recant”). Bi-pronged on both ends, the simple device was wedged painfully between the breastbone and the throat. The victim was unable to talk or fall asleep, and delirium usually led to a confession.
10. Choke Pear
Origin: Unknown (first mention in France)
This device, also called the pear of anguish, was reserved for women, homosexuals, and liars. Shaped like a ripe fruit, the Choke Pear was of intimate design—literally. Once inserted into the vagina, anus, or mouth, the device (which had four sharp metal “leaves”) was cranked open. The leaves expanded wider and wider, mutilating the victim.
11. Rat Torture
Origin: Unknown (possibly Britain)
Although there were numerous approaches to rat torture, the most common was to start with a restrained victim. A rat was set atop his body and covered by a container. Heat was then applied and the rat would desperately start clawing for a way out—and the only way was through the body. The rat would dig and dig, slowly burrowing into the person until death.
Origin: Various pre-Roman cultures
Although today a symbol of the world’s largest religion (Christianity), crucifixion was once a brutal form of humiliating death. The victim was nailed to a cross or pole—often in public—and left to hang bleeding from his wounds until sepsis, starvation, or exposure finally set in. Death sometimes took over a week to arrive. Scarily enough, crucifixion is still used today (albeit infrequently) by ISIS, and in places like Burma and Saudi Arabia.
Origin: Ancient Persia
Death by being eaten alive—literally. The victim was placed in a hollow tree trunk or boat and force-fed a mixture of milk and honey until he developed diarrhea. After that, he was unclothed and covered in more milk and honey. He was then left to sit in his own waste as insects came to feast on him. Death usually came from dehydration, septic shock, or gangrene.
14. Saw Torture
Origin: Various part of the the ancient world
Everyone from the Persians to the Imperial Chinese practiced some form of death by sawing. Often the victim was hung upside down (thereby increasing blood flow to the head) and a large saw was placed between his legs. The executioners would slowly cut the person’s body in half, drawing out the process in order to make death as painful as possible.