Which ancient form of execution would you least prefer?

filed under:
Image credit: 

Having touched briefly upon the lamentable scouring-to-death of Bibiana, patron saint of hangover cures, we promised to elaborate further on this method of execution, and famous folk who have endured it. Unfortunately, there weren't all that many famous people to be found: besides Jesus, who was scourged (but not to death) by Pilate, other scourgees include little-known martyrs like Jeremiah of Cordoba, executed in 851 by the Islamic rulers of his Spanish town for denouncing Muhammad in public. (Not exactly a household name, Jeremiah of Cordoba.) So we thought we'd expand our survey to include celebrity victims of keelhauling and drawing and quartering, and then promptly got sidetracked by the sheer multitude of elaborate, creative and horrible methods of execution thought up by our venerable forefathers (and mothers). Which got us to thinking: which would be the worst? Tell us what you think:

"¢ Being scourged. For those of you who missed the memo, scourging is like whipping with a nasty twist: the whip has between three and nine ends (or "flays"), which often have nasty things like metal spikes sewn into them. (For you etymology geeks, "scourge" comes from the Italian scoriada, ultimately from the Latin: excoriare = "to flay" and corium = "skin".)
"¢ Being buried alive. A punishment exacted by Romans upon Vestal Virgins who had broken their vows. They were tossed into tombs with a tiny bit of bread and water, to give the goddess Vesta a better opportunity to save them, if she wanted to.
Keelhauling. Given that this is uttered in nearly every sentence bespoke by movie pirates, precious few realize how nasty a punishment it really is. This is the least ancient of the tortures covered here -- the Dutch navy officially sanctioned it in 1560 and banned it in 1853. Naughty sailors were tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side, and dragged under the ship's keel. As the hull was often covered in barnacles, you can imagine it wasn't a pleasant ride.

More unpleasantness after the jump ...

"¢ In the Netherlands, evisceration was considered apt punishment for criminals guilty of regicide, and consisted of removal of the vital organs through the abdomen. The English, on the other hand, didn't stop at mere disembowelment; for those unfortunates convicted of treason in the commonwealth, this was only the beginning -- then you lost your head, and the rest of you was cut into four pieces -- popularly known as "drawing and quartering."
Death by a thousand cuts, which is pretty much exactly as it sounds, and was popular in China from as early as the Song Dynasty (905-1279) until the turn of the twentieth century. It was abolished in 1905 after it became a Western symbol of the brutality of the Chinese penal system (and something of a PR problem).
"¢ The brazen bull. We swear, we're not making this up; only the ancient Greeks could have devised a torture so diabolical. Metalworkers fashioned a hollowed-out, brass statue of a bull, just large enough to fit a person -- er, victim -- inside. Once occupied, a fire was lit underneath, slow-roasting the tenant into oblivion. Inside the bull's head was a complex system of tubes and stops which converted the prisoner's screams into sounds like the bellowing of an infuriated ox. (I think this one gets my vote!)
"¢ Another Roman favorite: being rolled downhill in a spiked barrel.
Snake pit! Naughty folk were thrown in during the (apparently torture-happy) Song Dynasty in China (905-ish) and the Europeans also used it now and again, for instance in dealing with captured Viking warlord Ragnar Lodbrok in 865.
"¢ This Persian method of execution takes the prize for weird: scaphism involves force-feeding the convicted, then leaving them tied up in the sun for the bugs to get 'em. It's not the bugs that kill you, however, so much as the gangrene and septic shock that their presence in your system invites, as well as old friends dehydration and starvation. On second thought, maybe this one gets my vote -- it can take weeks to finally kick it.

There are lots more nasty ways to be capitally punished out there -- but these are our (least) favorite. Next time, we'll delve into the realm of fiction: our top ways to be killed in a horror movie.

More from mental_floss...

October 26, 2006 - 8:07am
webby
submit to reddit