18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire

Larry Holzwarth - December 24, 2018

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
The tyrant Polycrates crucified by the Persians, circa 522 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art

10. The Persians practiced crucifixion as a means of execution

Crucifixion as a means of execution in the ancient world was practiced by many peoples, most famously the Romans. It was seldom that a victim was nailed to a cross, instead the victim was usually bound to a cross beam and suspended, causing a long, slow, and excruciating death, as the weight of the body caused eventual suffocation. Often the victims of crucifixion in Persia had both hands attached to the upright pole, rather than being spread out on a crossbeam. Death by crucifixion was particularly painful (the word excruciating is derived from Latin for out of the cross) as well as humiliating, and a victim could be suspended for several days before death ended his misery.

Often the Persians allowed the humiliation to go on after death by leaving the body of the victim suspended from the pole or cross, to corrupt publicly as it was ravaged by decomposition and the attacks of animals and weather. The Persians, as well as the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Assyrians, Israelites, Carthaginians, Romans, and others all practiced crucifixion as a means of death for particularly despised crimes. In Persia, the bodies of criminals and rebels executed in other ways were sometimes crucified rather than buried or burned. The bodies of some were publicly displayed, such as Polycrates of Samos, who was executed and then his body displayed by crucifixion until nature disposed of it in time.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
The Persians not only wanted to end the life of criminals on earth, but from the afterlife as well. Wikimedia

11. The Persians tried to execute criminals more than once

Persian mythology included descriptions of the afterlife which were vivid and exact, including a description of the end of the world, one of the earliest mythological systems to do so. In it, the journey to heaven was described as being forced to cross a bridge. Souls of the good encountered a wide and comfortable bridge, those who lived lives of trespass encountered a narrow bridge, an edge of a razor-sharp blade from which the wicked would tumble into hell below. Persian executions were sometimes calculated to ensure that the wicked not only died a terrible death on earth, but was ensured to die another death in the afterlife, denied eternal peace.

Persian gods and legends took care of death in the afterlife. On earth, the Persians took steps to ensure some of their victims were brought to the very point of death before the torture they were enduring ceased and the victim was brought back to health, or at least allowed to gain enough strength that the torture would be allowed to continue for some time. This meant a certain level of skills were required of Persian executioners, and if an executioner was so unfortunate as to have his victim die too soon in the eyes of the magistrate who ordered the execution he could well find himself subject to tortures and death himself.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
Carving of Jewish prisoners being impaled by Persian captors. Wikimedia

12. Impalement was a method of Persian torture and execution

Impaling a criminal upon a sharp stake was a method of execution practiced by the Persians, as well as most of the ancient world, several western European nations well into the 16th century and in some cases beyond. When the Persian King Darius conquered Babylon he impaled more than 3,000 prisoners, an act reported by Herodotus, and confirmed in records of Darius himself. The Bible is confused over whether Haman, a Persian minister, was impaled or hanged along with his ten sons. Different translations and revisions contribute to the confusion, but the use of impalement by the Persians as a manner of execution is well-documented.

Numerous crimes could lead to execution by impalement, including cheating customers at business deals (regarded as theft through lying, which made it a capital offense) and other seemingly trivial crimes. The manner of impalement was a matter of choice of which there were several. One of the considerations when selecting the manner of impalement was how long the accusers and judge wanted the miscreant to suffer before allowing him to die. All manners of impalement were conducted publicly, adding the emotional pain of humiliation to the considerable physical agony as the victim awaited death, which sometimes eluded him for two days or more.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
Modern sensibilities wonder how impalement could be survived for more than seconds, but many victims lived for hours and even days. Wikimedia

13. Longitudinal impalement was favored for longer torments

A miscreant sentenced to longitudinal impalement was placed face down on a slab, and the executioners opened a gash in his body near the anus, which was immediately covered with a greasy paste to staunch the flow of blood and assist in the next step. The pale was then inserted in the wound and driven towards the head, with executioners holding the body in place as the pale was driven home through the blows of a heavy mallet. The executioners usually stopped the insertion before the tip of the stake reached the heart. The stake was in diameter described as being as big as the arm of a man. Despite the agony of the insertion, the true pain of impalement was yet to begin.

The pale was then raised upright, and precautions were taken to ensure that the victim’s weight did not force the stake deeper into the body, killing him too soon. Stays were used to hold the victim in the right position and to support the stake, which was sometimes placed in a gibbet similar to those used in hangings. The presence of the stays prevented the victim from struggling too much against his pain, and the use of the grease ensured that not much blood was lost. If the victim did not die quickly, occasionally a magistrate would have mercy, and order his position shifted so that the tip of the pale emerged through the chest, allowing the victim to die quickly. Others merely left them to eventually die.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
Transverse impalement usually ensured a quick death and was considered merciful by the Persians. Wikimedia

14. Transversal impalement was used to ensure a quicker death

Transversal impalement, in which the stake or pale was driven through the body from front to back (or vice versa) could be used to cause near immediate death or a longer, tormented death, depending upon where in the torso the stake was inserted. The victims of transversal impalement usually died quickly, causing the method to be considered by Persian society a more humane method of inflicting capital punishment. Other methods of impalement have been attributed to the Persians, such as suspending victims from meat hooks, but there is little documented evidence of their doing so. The methods of impalement which they did use were gruesome enough that they don’t need embellishment.

A third method of impalement attributed to the Persians was anal impalement, in which the stake was not sharpened to a point but was deliberately left rounded. In this method, the pole was inserted far enough so that the victim was able to stand on his toes after he was stayed with ropes to prevent him from sliding further down the pale and thus dying too quickly. Depending on long the victim suffered on the pale, the stays could be released, allowing him to end his own life by thrusting downwards. Those executed by anal impalement suffered longer than those impaled by the other methods. Impalement in general lost favor as a means of capital punishment when the Persians adopted crucifixion.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
Persian law was administered through ecclesiastical, criminal, and family courts. Wikimedia

15. The Persian legal system was extensive and protected the rights of the accused

The government of Ancient Persia included a parliamentary body which ensured that the rights of the free people of the empire were not infringed upon by despotic acts of the king (though many of the kings attempted to abuse their power throughout the history of the five dynasties). Those accused of crimes were brought before judges and magistrates, who reviewed the charges, assured that the police had not exceeded their powers in making arrests, and considered the evidence brought by the accuser as well as the defense of the accused. Testimony was under oath, and given the Persian attitude towards lying, the act of perjury was harshly punished. The Persians even had bail for some pending cases, set by the magistrates.

Defendants had the right to counsel, though at their own expense, and were allowed to be absent if their attorney was present in cases where corporal or capital punishment was not indicated. In addition to the criminal courts, there were ecclesiastical courts dealing with religious and family matters and the military operated its own courts with jurisdiction over its members. Despite the clear brutality of the various punishments practiced by the Persians, often a party found guilty of minor transgressions of the law was merely fined, or sentenced to jail for a short time. Persian law reached into the home, with clear definitions of the obligations and responsibilities of all family members towards each other and to Persian society.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
A map of the travels of Herodotus, whose historical works have long been discounted by modern scholars. Wikimedia

16. Was Persian cruelty as bad as believed by many?

Much of what was repeated as being historical fact about ancient Persia over the centuries since the demise of the empire came from sources which in the later twentieth century became more and more discounted by scholars. This is particularly true of the tales of some of the tortures described here and elsewhere. They were first described in the west in Greek, by the writer Herodotus, and by a writer named Ctesias, who is often repeated in Herodotus. Ctesias published the history of Persia in 23 volumes, which was entitled Persica. The gruesome punishments inflicted by the Persians are first described in detail within the volumes.

Persica was written for Greek eyes and is a comparison of what Ctesias considered a despotic and barbaric system to the orderliness and progress of the Greek city-states, Athens in particular. Many of his accounts did not match other records, such as the cuneiform records of the Assyrians. A Syrian satirist named Lucian referred to Ctesias’ work as “mendacious history” in his famous satire of sensationalist writers who create false records A True Story. A more modern writer in 1984 referred to Ctesias’ inaccuracy and called the equally questionable work of Herodotus a “model of reliability” in comparison. There is no question that barbarous cruelty was part of ancient life, but some tales could well be exaggerated, and many modern scholars believe that they were.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
The use of whips on men, women, children, and animals was common throughout the Persian Empire and the ancient world. Wikimedia

17. Striping or whipping as a punishment

The magistrates finding a subject before them guilty of a crime had several options available as forms of corporal punishment, including maiming, blinding, deafening (by penetrating the eardrums), and whipping at the stake, which the Persians called striping. In this, they were no different from virtually all other cultures around the world. The practice of whipping miscreants continued in the west well into the eighteenth century, and the number of blows allowed by the magistrates was in many cases staggering, literally and figuratively. In the 18th century Royal Navy, 1,000 lashes were not unheard of, through flogging through the fleet.

Five hundred or one thousand stripes was the usual Persian sentence, which could be had for beating a dog or otherwise abusing an animal (stealing a dog could be subject to capital punishment in some cases). As has been seen, the punishments were not carried out all at once, a period of recovery was allowed in between bouts of the punishment being inflicted. The wealthy and members of noble families were allowed to send their servants to receive their punishment, thus sparing their own backs as well as the idle time while recovering from the lashings. Similar punishments were still allowed in the British Royal Navy as late as 1879 before they were abolished.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
In the Christmas myth, the visit of the Magi – one of whom was Persian – led to Herod ordering the slaughter of Jewish boys younger than the age of two. Wikimedia

18. The Persians were no worse than the rest of the ancient world

Although the methods of execution ascribed to the Persians are gruesome and in some cases nearly unbelievably so, in their ingenuity dedicated to inflicting maximum suffering they are in no way unique. The ancient Greeks, though they did not record their tortures, nonetheless practiced violence, though most often against fellow Greeks. The bible is filled with stories of whole cities destroyed, their populations put to the sword, their leaders killed in various ways. The New Testament contains the story of King Herod ordering the killing of all male Jewish infants under the age of two. The ancient world was a brutal one.

The Romans used crucifixion, beheading, stoning, people torn apart by wild animals before a cheering audience, drowning, and many other means of applying judicial punishment on the people foolish enough to get on the wrong side of the law. In colonial America, the Spanish and English settlers encountered ritual torture and cannibalism among the natives. The English settlers used whipping and pressing to death with heavy stones as two means of enforcing the law. The barbarous practices of the Persians, those that are true and those which are the creations of fertile but prejudiced minds, are not as far removed from modern man as most would like to think.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Birth of the Persian Empire: The Idea of Iran”. Curtis Sarkhosh, Sarah Stewart. 2005

“Ancient Persia”. Matt Waters. 2014

“Ancient Persian Punishments Beyond Your Worst Nightmares”. Mark Oliver. JUNE 28, 2017

“Peoples of the Ancient World: The Persians”. Maria Brosius. 2006

“Some Notes on Valerius Maximus”. John Briscoe. 1993

“The Scary Caterpillar”. Jeffrey Lockwood, The New York Times. April 18, 2009

“On the Malice of Herodotus”. Plutarch. Online

“Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire”. Touraj Daryaee. 2009

Iran: Death By Stoning, A Grotesque And Unacceptable Penalty. Amnesty International. 15 January 2008

“History of Darius the Great”. Jacob Abott. 1850

“The history and pathology of crucifixion”. F.P. Retief, L. Cilliers, South African Medical Journal. December, 2003

“Persian Myths”. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. 1993

“Ancient Siege Warfare”. Paul Bentley Kern. 1999

“My Wanderings in Persia”. T. S. Anderson. 1880. Baha’i Library Online

“Impalement in Ancient Egypt”. Ahmad Abo, Research Gate. June, 2010. Online

“The Laws of the Ancient Persians”. Fars Times. Online

“Ctesias and the Importance of his writings revisited”. Eran Almagor, ELECTRUM, Volume 19. 2012

“Flogging”. Joseph W. Bean. 2000

“The Worst Ways to Die: Torture Practices of the Ancient World”. Matthias Schulz, Spiegel Online. May 15, 2009