In Ancient Persia, it didn’t pay to be a thief. In most other societies, especially in modern times, being convicted of theft doesn’t even warrant a mandatory prison sentence. Instead, thieves are given lenient ‘suspended’ prison sentences or forced to perform community service. Things were a little different in Persia, to say the least.
If you were caught stealing, a horrific death awaited you. First of all, you would be brought to a spot where trees were close together. Next, the executioners would tie the tops of two of the trees as close together as possible. Then, the convict’s legs were tied to the tops of the trees, one leg per tree. Finally, the executioners cut the cord.
One can only imagine the gruesome spectacle as the trees sprang apart at incredible speeds. They would shoot upright, and the victim was still tied to them; their body would be torn in half due to the sheer force. Once the execution was over, witnesses would see half of the victim’s body dangling from both trees.
To say it was an effective punishment is an understatement. The Persians would leave the pieces of the victim’s corpse dangling from the trees as a deterrent to other prospective thieves. Whenever possible, they would try to find trees as close to the scene of the robbery as possible.
In the 6th century BC, it was common for Persia and neighboring nations to torture rebels by cutting off their nose and ears. However, King Darius I took things a few steps further when there was a rebellion against him in the early years of his reign. He became king in September 522 BC, but within a couple of months, there were rebellions against him throughout the Achaemenid Empire. Darius managed to quell the uprisings within a year and in his own words, he executed ‘eight lying kings’ and left detailed accounts of the rebellions in the famous Behistun Inscription.
One of his rivals, Nidintu-Bel of Babylon, was impaled along with 49 of his followers. However, this was a mild punishment compared to what Darius did to some of the others. For example, a rebel leader named Cicantakhma was sent to the king. According to Darius: “I cut off both his nose and ears and put out one eye, he was kept bound by my palace entrance and all the people saw him.” Eventually, Darius impaled Cicantakhma at Arbela.
Ancient sources point out that Darius made sure the brutal torture was on full display. Everyone who walked by his castle at Persepolis saw the mutilated bodies of the rebels. The lieutenants of the so-called liar kings were decapitated, and their heads were hung from the top of Persepolis’ citadel. The rebel leaders were jeered and beaten by passersby for weeks before they were eventually allowed to die.
After defeating the rebels, Darius ordered copies of the Behistun Inscription to be sent to every country in the Achaemenid Empire. It was designed to let everyone know that Darius was the undisputed Great King and that anyone who challenged his authority would meet the same grisly fate as the rebels. His warning was not heeded as there were other rebellions during his long reign; including the Ionian Revolt of 499 – 493 BC.
In ancient Persia, some rulers believed an enemy deserved to die more than once and did everything in their power to prolong the suffering of victims. They believed that for someone to truly die, they needed to have three deaths and all of them had to be brutal. Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, and in one story, his wife ordered the brutal execution of a eunuch.
It is not known how the eunuch angered her nor could I find out whether it was Cyrus’ first wife Cassandane, or his second wife Amitis, who ordered the triple death of the eunuch. According to the story, the eunuch’s eyes were pulled out of his head, but he was allowed to remain alive. Next, he was flayed alive but once more, the queen would not let him die, and he was nursed back to health. Finally, he was crucified.
There are differing accounts of the triple death in ancient Persia. In some cases, the victim was ‘only’ tortured several times in a row before being allowed to die. However, when the crime was deemed serious enough, the repercussions were horrendous. When Cyrus the Younger was killed in 401 BC, Mithridates made the mistake of boasting about his role in the event and was executed via Scaphism as I mentioned earlier.
This wasn’t the only brutal death suffered by an individual involved in the death of Cyrus. According to Plutarch, a Carian apparently struck the king behind the knee with a dart, which caused Cyrus to fall, hit his head and ultimately die. The Carian also boasted of his role in the king’s death and Parysatis, Cyrus’ mother, made sure he suffered for his sins. He was placed on a wheel in the sun for 10 days. After that, his eyes were gouged out, and finally, molten brass was poured into his ears.
While it was normal for regular citizens of Persia to suffer brutal torture for crimes, it appears as if the Royal Family was virtually immune from punishment. In fact, if a member of the royal household committed a capital crime, it was usually their subordinates who paid the price.
Artaxerxes II was King of Persia from 404 – 358 BC. He was the son of Darius II and Parysatis. The king had a problem; his mother hated his wife, Stateira, and the feeling was mutual. While they remained civil in public, they apparently plotted against one another so often that the king had to intercede and prevent them from murder. He even ensured that when they ate together, their food had to be cut in half and shared so they couldn’t poison one another.
Alas, his attempts failed as Parysatis poisoned one side of a knife and ensured her servant cut the meat with the poisoned half on Stateira’s side. When the queen died, Artaxerxes refused to execute his mother and had her exiled instead. Not only did he allow her back into the court, but he also had his mother’s servants tortured until they confessed their crimes. Parysatis’ maid, Gigis, was executed and the meat cutter, Melantas, suffered a harsher fate still. The servant’s head was smashed in with a rock.
When Parysatis returned to court, she wasted little time in indulging in her sadistic streak. She ordered the deaths of perceived enemies of the crown; one was flayed alive while another was buried alive. Artaxerxes ended up with a large number of wives; some estimates say 350 or thereabouts, and he had at least 115 sons.