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The Worst Ways to Die:
Torture Practices of the Ancient World

By Matthew Schulz via

Was the cradle of civilization also the birthplace of atrocity? Historians have been researching the most extreme forms of torture in the ancient world. Among other things, they have found that, back then, “sitting in the tub” was actually a pretty nasty way to kick the bucket.

In total, Julius Caesar reckoned that he had 1,192,000 enemies killed during his reign. Meanwhile the Emperor Tiberius would have young men’s urethras laced shut before force-feeding them wine. And, under Caligula, it became customary to saw noblemen in half.

It sounds bad — but were these the cruelest of them all? Would they qualify for the barbarity top 10?

A new book, “Extreme Formen von Gewalt in Bild und Text des Altertums” (Extreme Violence in the Visuals and Texts of Antiquity) by Martin Zimmerman, a professor of ancient history in Munich, looks at current research into the kinds of violence that inspired “loathing, dread, horror and disgust.”

Its conclusion? In the ancient Far East, where there were large states peopled by many different ethnicities, leaders demonstrated their might by inventing ingenious new tortures and agonizing methods of execution — as a way to keep the population obedient.


Grisly Ends

The judges of ancient Babylon were particularly enthusiastic. The cutting off of feet, lips and noses, blinding, gutting and the tearing out of the heart were all standard punishments in this corner of the ancient world.

But the Assyrians seem to have been the masters of brutality. They were also extremely verbose about the grisly ends they wreaked upon their enemies. “I will hack up the flesh and then carry it with me, to show off in other countries,” exulted Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king who reigned from 668 to 627 BC. And his heir liked to cut open the bellies of his opponents “as though they were young rams.”


“The king was the deadliest,” explains Andreas Fuchs, a specialist in the study of the Assyrians. “It was he alone who decided what would happen to the victims. The ability to make those decisions was the very essence of personal, royal power.”

Shock and awe at such punishments permeated every dealing one had with the ruler. For example: “A message from the king to the Governor of Kaleh: 700 bales of straw. On the first of the month, at the very latest. One day late and you’re dead.”

Provincial governors who did not co-operate could reckon with the most horrible of deaths.

Flaying involved the delinquent official being staked to a peg and having the skin on his back torn off. Staking involved the executioner hammering a stake through the victim’s lubricated anus. The goal was to place the rounded, wooden stake so carefully that it only just pushed the internal organs aside. Many victims lived for days skewered like this.


A Hefty Kick

Most of the time these bloody and brutal pieces of theater were played out on the home turf of the conquered enemy. Artists immortalized the gruesome sights, the terrifying pictures serving as educational material.

The city-states of ancient Greece, meanwhile, tended to keep their torture local, in the frequent battles they fought among themselves. They rarely conquered outside peoples, perhaps a reason that violent visual propaganda isn’t often found on ancient Greek monuments.

In ancient Greece the blood flowed elsewhere. In Homer’s Iliad alone, 318 bloody duels are described with anatomical precision: teeth fly around, eyes leak and brain matter sprays. And the reality was hardly more appetizing. The tyrant Periander of Corinth gave his pregnant wife such a hefty kick that she died. His colleague Phalaris had a hollow bronze oven made in the shape of a bull — in which he could roast his enemies alive.


In ancient Rome, rulers not only relied on crucifixions. Those on death row were likewise often sentenced to execution ad bestias. That is, they would be ripped apart by wild animals in the Colosseum. These were displays of political power — but with added entertainment value.

Researchers have also exposed the generally mild-mannered Persian Empire. Two Persian practices are often mentioned that had always puzzled researchers. Now, together with experts in forensic medicine from Cologne, the Basel-based historian Bruno Jacobs has managed to solve that mystery.

The sentence, “throw them into the ashes” meant that the candidate would have to stand for days in a room filled with ash. At some stage the person would collapse from fatigue, at which point they would breathe the ash in. Even if they managed to pick themselves up, their lungs would fill up with grey flakes sooner or later, resulting in slow suffocation.

An 18th-century drawing of a public execution by saw in ancient Persia. Torture inspired "loathing, dread, horror and disgust" in a ruler's subjects.

An 18th-century drawing of a public execution by saw in ancient Persia. Torture inspired “loathing, dread, horror and disgust” in a ruler’s subjects.

The Tub

And the punishment of “sitting in the tub” saw the convicted person placed in a wooden tub with only their head sticking out. The executioner would then paint the victim’s face with milk and honey. Flies would begin to swarm around the victim’s nose and eyelids. The victim was also fed regularly and fairly soon, they would virtually be swimming in their own excrement.

At which stage maggots and worms would devour their body. One victim apparently survived for 17 days — he decayed alive.

As distant and heinous as these punishments may seem to us today, the issue of state-sanctioned torture to achieve political goals is still a current one. “Physical violence is a universal in all cultures,” the new history book concludes. “Whether we will ever see any improvement is hard to say, considering mankind’s history to date.”


Written By

Meghan MacRae grew up in Vancouver, Canada, but spent many years living in the remote woods. Living in the shadow of grizzly bears, cougars and the other predators of the wilderness taught her about the dark side of nature, and taught her to accept her place in nature's order as their prey. She is co-founder of CVLT Nation.



  1. Steve Jones

    June 19, 2015 at 10:35 am

    And this is why we need Jesus…js

    • Luke Skytalker

      July 26, 2017 at 2:48 am

      Hahaha have you never heared about the Spanish inquisition?

  2. Eric Prater

    July 30, 2014 at 9:51 am

    I know a lot of people who should be in line for that!

  3. Iordache Mihai

    July 30, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Andrei Andrei

  4. Etienne Il Babaw

    July 29, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Such practices need to be returned. I would practice them on my neighbours, my enemies and even their bastard children!

  5. Kent Daniels

    July 29, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Keep these great essays coming. Splendid reading. I often walk away appropriately horrified when it comes to human-kind.

  6. Kage Clark

    July 29, 2014 at 7:58 am


  7. Daniel Grinds

    July 29, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Lol at people saying work and tv are worse. Your cushy life is not hard, stop crying.

  8. Matthew Arīmanius

    July 29, 2014 at 7:10 am

    Sitting in the tub was also known as “Scaphism” which was an ancient Persian torture, also known as “the boats”. It was similar in the sense that bugs would eat them alive.

  9. Kenneth McGrath

    July 29, 2014 at 6:39 am

    Now, it’s worse… when you think about it: Death by Reality Television.

  10. Stuart Doig

    July 29, 2014 at 5:58 am

    Good article.

  11. Jonathan Williams

    July 29, 2014 at 5:14 am

    Lemmy Best Hector Haughey

  12. Joseph Oliver

    July 29, 2014 at 5:11 am

    He looks so clam

  13. Luna Salazar

    July 29, 2014 at 4:56 am

    John Zandler

  14. Massimiliano Mazzei

    July 29, 2014 at 4:42 am

    It’s better than Paracetamol

  15. Bruno Gomes

    July 29, 2014 at 3:51 am


  16. Fabiana Tico

    July 29, 2014 at 3:51 am

    Bruno Gomes

  17. Italo Albertini

    July 29, 2014 at 2:00 am

    Sei un satanista Finotti? ?

  18. Marco Luigi Longana

    July 29, 2014 at 1:42 am

    Man, do you understand “cazzeggiare”? write the bloody Thesis!!!
    You have your own torture, don’t think about others!! 😉 😛

  19. Marco MC Meccoli

    July 29, 2014 at 1:36 am

    L’umanità per l’85% ha sempre fatto schifo ..

  20. Roberto Enigmaregis Dramis

    July 29, 2014 at 1:19 am


  21. Valerio Pnet

    July 29, 2014 at 1:18 am

    Roberto Enigmaregis Dramis

  22. Alessandro Automageddon

    July 29, 2014 at 12:47 am

    Still nothing as bad as working 9 to 5.30 for most of your life…

  23. Andreas Großmann

    July 29, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Man Ja

  24. Eric M. Jones

    July 29, 2014 at 12:33 am

    Death of a thousand cuts…now that’s some shit….

  25. Levon Clay

    July 29, 2014 at 12:32 am

    GG Allin??

  26. Aprille Marie

    July 29, 2014 at 12:26 am

    Thnx now I know what to do

  27. Uïs Amèrtå

    July 29, 2014 at 12:20 am


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