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The Worst Forms of Torture and Death in Ancient Greece

Brazen bull
Replica of the brazen bull torture device, one of the worst ways to die in ancient Greece. Credit: Dimitris Kamaras / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Ancient Greece is often lauded for its contributions to the arts, sciences, and culture, but the ancient Greek world could also be incredibly violent, with some truly horrible ways to die inflicted upon its inhabitants.

Justice could be harsh in ancient Greece. Criminals – or sometimes political opponents, for that matter – could face torture and execution for their actions.

The ancient Greeks could be incredibly inventive when devising ways to execute criminals and they devised some intricate contraptions to do so, but they could be equally crude, sometimes preferring to fling a criminal off a cliff, for example.

The Brazen bull

The Brazen bull was quite possibly the most fiendishly inventive torture device invented in ancient Greece and posed an agonizing death to its victims. The device was supposedly designed by Perilaus of Athens who proposed it to Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, a Greek colony in Sicily.

Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, described the brazen bull as a large bronze statue in the shape of a bull. The condemned person would be placed inside the hollow statue, and a fire would be lit beneath it.

As the fire burned, the metal of the bull would heat up, gradually turning it into a furnace. The victim trapped inside would experience extreme heat and suffocation as the temperature rose. The design of the bull included pipes and openings that allowed the sound of the victim’s screams to pass through, creating an eerie and terrifying effect.


This form of execution, most closely associated with the death of Jesus, was rarely practiced in ancient Greece, but there is at least one mention in the historical texts of the Greeks condemning someone to this slow and excruciating death.

According to the Greek writer Herodotus in his Histories (ix.120–122), there is an account of the execution of a Persian general by the Athenians around 479 BC. The Persians had burned Athens just a year before in 480 BC so the harsh punishment may have reflected the intense anger of the Athenians.

In any case, Herodotus wrote that “They nailed him to a plank and hung him up … this Artayctes who suffered death by crucifixion.”

The rack

The rack was a torture device consisting of a rectangular frame with a roller at each end. The victim’s limbs were stretched and tied to the rollers. By turning the rollers, the body was subjected to increasing tension, causing extreme pain and potential dislocation or dismemberment of joints.

The exact origins of the rack are unclear but some of the earliest mentions of its use were in ancient Greece. The rack was often used as a torture method to extract a confession, with the execution itself coming from another method. Nevertheless, victims could perish on the rack, and for those who did not, it was likely a far more painful precursor to the method of actual execution.

The most infamous case of the rack’s use in ancient Greece was associated with Herostratus, an arsonist who set fire to the second Temple of Artemis in Ephesus in 356 BC. He was tortured on the rack to extract a confession and subsequently executed.

Being flung from a precipice

In ancient Greece, another method of execution was the act of throwing a criminal over a precipice. This practice was not limited to Athens but was also prevalent in other regions like Sparta, Delphi, Corinth, and potentially Thessaly.

The execution would involve pushing the convict over a high and steep cliff, where they would fall into a deep trench known as Varathron in Athens, Kaeadas in Sparta, and Korakes in Thessaly. This particular form of execution was typically reserved for individuals who were convicted of religious or political crimes.

The denial of burial rights further added to the humiliation and disgrace brought upon the criminal, as they would be left unburied, their remains exposed and vulnerable to the elements.

References to this method of execution are not found after 406 BC. The Athenians appear to have dug a new trench in the 4th century, but this was probably designed to receive convicts who were executed by other means.

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