Scaphism derives its name from the Greek term ‘skaphe’ meaning ‘anything scooped out“, a reference to the hollow in which the unfortunate victim was trapped while they suffered their fate. This hollow trap was formed from two boats stuck together, hence the other name for Scaphism- ‘The Boats”. Scaphism originated in Persia, but was known by a Greek name because the earliest and most detailed account of the practice is that of Plutarch in his “Life of Artaxerxes.”
The victim was Mithridates, a young soldier in the army of King Artaxerxes II. Artaxerxes brother, Cyrus the younger, had challenged his claim to the throne. The matter was decided between the two brothers at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, when a dart by Mithridates killed Cyrus. Artaxerxes richly rewarded the young soldier but he had a condition: everyone must think it was he, Artaxerxes who had killed his brother as in this way, he could consolidate his power. Mithridates agreed- but then could not help boasting that he had actually killed Cyrus. Artaxerxes punished his treachery by sentencing him to death by scaphism.
Plutarch describes how “two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other” were acquired, and Mithridates was placed inside with his head, hands, and feet outside the boat. The executioner then offered him food and “if he refuse[d]s to eat it, they force[d] him to do it by pricking his eyes.” Once this was done, Mithridates was drenched in milk and honey, which was poured “not only into his mouth, but all over his face.” He was then kept with “his face continually turned towards the sun,” so that “it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it.”
Mithridates was left in the boats to die. He continued to be fed. Meanwhile, his wooden shell began to fill with “what those that eat and drink must needs do.” By now, the sweet, sticky coating on his body plus the excrement collecting in the boats was attracting more insects. They began to feed upon him and reproduce “out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement,” When the top boat was taken off once Mithridates was dead, Plutarch described how “they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.”