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

The Persian Empire was actually a series of empires, ruled by a string of imperial dynasties for nearly two and a half millennia beginning six hundred years before the Common Era. It was centered in modern day Iran. Five separate dynasties ruled the lands occupied by the Persians beginning with the Achaemenid dynasty led by Cyrus the Great, who conquered the ancient lands of the Babylonians, Lydians and Medians. At its height, it ruled over much of the ancient Middle East. It was the first Persian Empire, and it lasted until the lands were conquered by Alexander the Great. Its ceremonial capital was the opulent city of Persepolis, and its laws were enacted and enforced by multiple state governments.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
A woodcut of Cyrus the Great of Persia, from about 1480. Wikimedia

The first Persian Empire and its subsequent dynasties which restored it generally did not condone slavery, other than prisoners of war, unusual for the time and the region, and also liberated the Jewish people from their Babylonian exile. It and its followers made substantial contributions to art, the sciences, and according to a 5th-century observation by Herodotus taught their young to follow strict honesty in their dealings with others. Herodotus wrote that the most disgraceful act capable of being committed was to lie, and lying in the Persian realms was often a capital crime, punishable by death. Lying was just one of many capital crimes, and execution was performed in manners which included great suffering preceding death, often for many days.

Here is a list of crimes and punishment in the five individual dynasties which comprised the Persian Empire.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
In this depiction, a hostage with his feet to the fire is about to undergo impalement. Wikimedia

1. The ancient Persian word for punishment meant to question

In a society where lying was regarded as a crime for which the miscreant uttering falsehoods could be put to death, punishment was equated with interrogation. Thus torture was a means of both extracting truthful information and a process leading to death. The Persians created numerous means of torturing those convicted of crimes and those suspected of them, in ghastly and gruesome methods. Lying was but one of many capital crimes, and there were severe penalties for all of them. There were also penalties for lesser crimes, which left the criminal convicted of them marked in a manner through which he was easily identifiable.

Thieves and strong-armed robbers were liable to have their hands amputated. Feet were amputated for several crimes, and those convicted of following liars had their ears cut off. Some were blinded with needles which were used to pierce their eyes. Not only robbers but beggars were subject to having their hands cut off by order of local magistrates. They were also subject to whipping, called striping, with each blow of the whip counting as one stripe. Punishments of up to ten thousand stripes were ordered, indicating that they had to be carried out over a period of many days as no human could survive so many blows at one punishment, nor could one individual deal them out.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
A corrupt judge undergoes the punishment of being flayed alive in this late fifteenth-century painting. Wikimedia

2. Some criminals were executed by being flayed alive

It was not unusual under the first Persian dynasty to have criminals executed after they had first endured several other tortures. For some capital crimes the subject was first blinded, then striped, and finally executed by being flayed alive. The living victim was sometimes killed by removing the skin in strips, which prolonged the execution and obviously created agonizing pain as each strip was removed. In other cases, the entire skin was removed in a single piece. In both instances, death usually occurred as a result of heart failure, according to modern analysis. In some executions, only a few strips of skin were removed and the victim was left to die of hypothermia or the resulting infections of the wounds.

Flaying was not new to the Persians, it was practiced by both the Babylonians and the Assyrians prior to their conquest. During the first Persian empire of the Achaemenid dynasty, it was recorded by magistrates in all four of the states which comprised the far-flung realm. In one case, a judge was executed (for accepting bribes) by flaying, with the skin used to upholster a chair which was assigned to the judge who succeeded him at the bench, who happened to be the executed judge’s son. Thus the succeeding judge had a daily reminder of the fate which befell his father, and a warning of what would happen to him should succumb to the temptation of profitable but illegal dealings within his office.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
The Old Testament book of 2 Maccabees describes the execution of a Jewish High Priest in the Persian tower of ash. Wikimedia

3. Ashes to ashes had a different meaning to the Persians

The Persians used ashes to execute criminals, in more than one manner but equaling appalling to modern sensibilities. One method forced the convict to stand in a room which was filled with several feet of ash covering the floor until exhaustion forced to collapse. Over the course of often several days, the victim would inhale ash into the lungs, eventually causing suffocation. The victim was denied food and water, and as often died of thirst as from suffocating from the ashes. The second form of execution by ashes is described in the bible (2 Maccabees) as well as recorded by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus during the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

The second method consisted of a tower which was partially filled with ash, into which the victim was dropped. Paddles submerged in the ash were connected with wheels outside of the tower, which were rotated by executioners from outside of the tower. The paddles stirred the ash into the air, forcing the victim to breathe them in, gradually causing death by suffocation or heart failure. The method of execution was used to kill Menelaus, the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, circa 162 BCE. Execution by ashes was usually reserved for those guilty of fomenting rebellion against the state or its appointed officers, as was the case of Menelaus.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
Scaphism – also known as the boats – allowed nature to slowly kill the victim. YouTube

4. The Persians used milk and honey as a means of execution over many days

In the Christian bible, the Promised Land is described as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus) which has been interpreted as referring to the fertility of the land to which the Israelites would be led. For the ancient Persians, milk and honey were used in a much different manner. A convict sentenced to death by that manner was force-fed a mixture of milk and honey and then placed in a vat or boat, with a second vat or boat covering his torso, with the head and limbs exposed. These were then slathered with the same mixture of milk and honey and the vessel was then floated into a pond or other body of stagnant water.

The ingested milk and honey caused diarrhea, which in turn led to dehydration, while the exposed limbs and face attracted flies and other pests. The victim would be slowly eaten alive by the biting insects, which also bred maggots in the flesh, and the body actually entered into the early stages of decomposition before death arrived to end the victim’s suffering. The presence of urine and excrement in which the victim lay added to the skin’s vulnerability to attack from parasites which the victim was helpless to resist. Today the process is called scaphism. Although reported by some contemporaneous sources, modern scholars have expressed doubt that the manner of execution was actually used, which if it did cause death from septic shock.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
An illustration from a 1904 edition of the works of Herodotus, largely discounted by modern scholars. Wikimedia

5. The Persians may have used burial of living persons as a means of execution

Burying victims alive, head down in the ground, was reported by Herodotus as having occurred during Xerxes campaign in Greece. Persian magi ordered the internment of nine Greek boys and nine Greek girls in the town of Thrace. The executions were evidently for religious purposes rather than the punishment of crimes. Herodotus also reported similar executions of a dozen Persian noblemen by the order of King Cambyses. In his account of the execution, Herodotus cites that it was ordered for no apparent reason at all, and is an indication of the king’s reported insanity, which was supported by other anecdotal references.

Herodotus also reported the act of execution by burying the victims alive as a religious ceremony ordered by queens, including Queen Amestris, the consort of Xerxes. Amestris ordered the burial of fourteen children of Persian nobility buried head down while still alive as a sign of her gratitude for the gods of the earth granting her a long life. Other than the reports of Herodotus there is no supporting documentation of burying the living as a form of execution for either criminal justice or religious ceremonial purposes. Whether the events recorded by Herodotus actually took place – he provided no sources – is disputed by scholars, despite widespread claims of their authenticity.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
According to legend, the Roman Emperor Valerian was used as a footstool by Persia’s Shapur I. Wikimedia

6. Molten metal was used as a device for punishment

Queen Parysatis was said to have poured molten metal into the ears and on the eyes of those convicted of lying. Molten metal was stressed in ancient Zoroastrian texts as a means of determining the purity of an individual’s soul, with it being placed on the body of those pure of heart and causing no discomfort, though those guilty of lying and following the lies of others would find it detrimental to their health. The story of the use of molten metal by Queen Parysatis is almost certainly apocryphal, though many believe that the Persians used molten metal – including gold – as a means of punishing criminals within the empire.

The myth that the Persians poured molten metals into the body cavities of victims likely began with the story of the Roman Emperor Valerian, who was captured by the Persian King Shapur I, who used the Roman as a personal servant. After several months of captivity Shapur allegedly killed his Roman counterpart by pouring melted gold down his throat, and then had the body stuffed and displayed. The myth of execution by gold was created by Roman authors hostile to the Persians. In fact, Valerian was held for a time along with his soldiers to assist in various engineering projects near the city of Bishapur where they helped erect Caesar’s Dam. When the dam was completed they were released.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
British diplomat and author James Morier provided many illustrations of his journey through Persia, but none of the killing trees he described in magazine articles. Wikimedia

7. Using trees to kill convicted thieves is often reported as a Persian practice

First reported by a British magazine, but with little beyond anecdotes to confirm it, was the practice of the Persians using trees to execute thieves. The magazine, the British Register Volume 34, reported that all such executions were ordered by the Persian king, who never pardoned thieves. In truth under Persian law, thieves were usually punished by maiming them, cutting off the offending hands. According to the British Register, thieves were executed by pulling the trunks of two trees towards each other and then securing them with ropes. A convicted thief was then tied with one arm and leg secured to either tree.

The ropes securing the trees to each other were then abruptly cut and the trees snapped back to their natural position, which as they did split the unfortunate thief in two. The halves of the body were left to hang in the trees, which were usually situated along the roads of the empire, and thus served as effective deterrents to those who may otherwise consider robbing travelers along the road. There is little evidence of the Persians actually using this method of execution and deterrence other than long repetition of the tale which originated with British diplomat James Morier, who reported its use in the British Register in 1808 after traveling to meet with the Persian king.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
A magistrate points to the killing ground beyond in this circa 1895 illustration. Wikimedia

8. Stoning was a common form of execution in Ancient Persia

Stoning is an ancient form of execution frequently mentioned in numerous texts (and still practiced today), including both Old and New Testaments, the works of Josephus, Herodotus, and others of antiquity. In the biblical descriptions, the victim is killed by being pelted with thrown stones. In Persia, heavy stones were used in other ways to execute victims, both as part of interrogation and as execution after conviction of a crime. In one method, heavy stones were placed on the victim’s torso, with additional weight added over a period of time, until the pressure was too great for the muscles of the body to resist and the breath was literally squeezed out of the victim (a similar procedure was used in colonial America against those suspected of witchcraft).

Another method was the simple bashing in of heads using heavy stones, a manner of execution reserved to the lowest levels of society. Servants and the poor were most likely to be executed by stoning, and the servants of nobles could be executed for the crimes of their masters as well as any indiscretions of their own. Because many of the nobility were related either through blood or marriage, prosecuting them for crimes often risked the hostility of other family members. In such cases, the servants became the victims of Persian justice, which extended even into the family of the king in more than one circumstance.

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire
Woodcut of Darius I, from the fifteenth century, when the Persians were regarded by western Europe as barbarians. Wikimedia

9. Rebellious subjects were often gradually executed by the populace

Under Darius and other rulers of the Persian Empire rebellious subjects were first marked so that they could be clearly identified and then placed in a position where they would endure public humiliation and pain as they gradually died. They were marked by slicing off their nose, or ears, or both. Some were also blinded. They were then led through the streets of the city in which they resided and chained to the gates which marked the entrance of the residence of the magistrate or other government official which held sway over the city. Some serious offenders were sent to the king, where they endured the same fate. Chained to the gates they were tormented, literally to death.

Subjects loyal to the king were expected to express that loyalty by adding to the torments suffered by the chained prisoners, physically and emotionally. Often this meant giving the prisoners food and water since nourishment would lengthen their period of suffering for their crimes. Then the same member of the public who offered water would add to the suffering with kicks, or slicing the skin, or beating them with fists or sticks. The torment was allowed to continue until the victims finally gave up and died, there was seldom a pardon offered to those chained to the gates, and how long they suffered was up to them. Some of those seen to be near death were released, nursed back to health, and then the process would begin all over again.

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:

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“Ancient Persia”. Matt Waters. 2014

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“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