In the 21st century, there is often a lamentation about the perceived leniency of sentences handed out to criminals. Even murderers can receive a fairly light sentence in comparison to the severity of the crime. There were no such issues in the ancient world where criminals were punished brutally. The ancient Persians were believers in justice; they seldom executed anyone for a first offense unless it was a crime such as treason. However, if you were condemned to death in Persia, chances were, it would be a long, drawn-out and painful affair. The Persians utilized some dreadful methods of execution; here are 8 of the worst.
1 – The Skin Chair
In the modern era, if someone in the public eye is actually convicted of bribery, there’s a fair chance he/she will escape prison let alone any extreme form of punishment. They should be grateful they didn’t live in ancient Persia, or else they would suffer the gruesome fate of Sisamnes, a Persian judge caught taking a bribe and delivering an unjust verdict.
Unfortunately for Sisamnes, King Cambyses II of Persia from 530 BC- 522 BC, son of Cyrus the Great, wanted to make an example of the corrupt judge to ensure his successor would not make the same mistake. In Ancient Persian society, honesty was a virtue and considered to be a trait of the utmost importance. Indeed, getting caught in a lie was a crime punishable by death.
First of all, Sisamnes was arrested and flayed alive. The rather graphic paintings by Gerard David in 1498, entitled ‘The Judgment of Cambyses,’ portray the judge’s grisly end. He is tied to a table, and the skin is removed from his body by a team of expert flayers while Cambyses II looks on. Historians are unsure whether Sisamnes was flayed alive or whether his throat was cut before the macabre spectacle.
In any case, the executioners flayed off every inch of the judge’s skin and had them turned into strips of leather. The next step was to sew them together to make a chair made from the judge’s skin. From that point onwards, anyone appointed to Sisamnes’ position had to sit on the chair as a reminder of what would happen if they accepted bribes. To cap things off, Sisamnes’ replacement was none other than his son Otanes.
Valerian was the Emperor of Rome from 253-260 AD who suffered the indignity of being captured by his enemies. When the Romans were defeated by the Sassanids at the Battle of Edessa in 260 AD, Valerian was captured and held prisoner. If he thought things were bad, the nightmare was only beginning as the former emperor was subjected to the ultimate humiliation during his period in captivity.
The Sassanid leader, Shapur I, reputedly used Valerian as a footstool to help him mount his horse. It is not known how long the ex-emperor suffered this treatment but eventually, he offered his captor a huge ransom in exchange for his freedom. There are differing accounts as to what happened next and indeed, the date of Valerian’s death. Some sources suggest he was executed soon after Edessa while others assert that he lived until 264 AD.
In one version of the story, Shapur used Valerian as his personal slave and would parade him in front of his army; the Roman was shackled hand and foot and treated like an animal. When Valerian offered money for his freedom, Shapur mocked the measly offering and poured molten gold down his enemy’s throat. Shapur then had the former Roman Emperor skinned and stuffed with straw with his dead body placed on display in a Persian temple.
The entire story of Valerian’s demise was written by Lactantius, and it is possible that he embellished or even lied about what happened. Perhaps the Romans used the story as propaganda to depict the Persians as savages. Modern historians dispute Lactantius’ version of events, and some suggest that Valerian was treated well by his captors and was allowed to live in a small Persian city for the rest of his life.
In Ancient Persia, suffocating someone with ashes was regarded as one of the worst punishments. As such, it was reserved for those who had committed the foulest deeds. If you were found guilty of offenses against the Gods or high treason, a small mountain of ashes was your tomb.
The Persians even had a special 75-foot hollow tower built for the specific purpose of carrying out this horrific punishment; it contained nothing but ashes and wheels. The victim was thrown into the ashes, and the wheels constantly turned while the person was still alive to ensure the ashes whirled around. Eventually, the individual died from suffocation as he continually inhaled the ash.
There was nothing quick about the punishment either. As the accused was thrown from such a height, it was normal for them to break a few bones upon landing. As they writhed around in agony, the executioners turned the wheels to ensure the convict couldn’t escape inhaling the ashes.
There are numerous accounts of the punishment being used in ancient times. A man named Sogdianus was supposedly the first to die in this manner in 423 BC. He was found guilty of murdering his half-brother, Xerxes II. Another one of Sogdianus’ half-brothers, Ochus, who later became Darius II, carried out the sentence after promising Sogdianus that he wouldn’t die by the sword. Later on, Darius II killed his brother Arsites in the same manner, this time as punishment for rebellion.
In 162 BC, a Jewish High Priest at Jerusalem, Menelaus, died in this gruesome way. He was sentenced by Lysias, a regent of Antiochus V, on charges of rebellion. According to a story in the Bible, Menelaus’ family was not allowed to bury his remains. The story concluded by saying the punishment was exactly was he deserved.
Also known as ‘the boats,’ Scaphism was one of the most horrific forms of execution imaginable and was only ordered by the king when he hated someone. The first step was to strip the intended victim naked and placed inside either a hollowed-out tree or two boats. The person’s head, feet, and arms would stick out and be exposed to the sun. Next, the victim was force-fed honey and milk until he had diarrhea and filled the trunk with his own filth.
This was just the start of the ordeal. The torturers rubbed honey over the exposed parts of the victim to ensure insects would fly over and nestle on the victim’s body. Bugs ate away at the flesh and wasps would arrive and viciously sting the person over and over again. Sadly, there was no respite for the victim as the torturers would do their utmost to keep him alive as long as possible by continuing their force-feeding process.
At this point, the victim would be thrown into a stagnant pond, still in their prison, and after a few days, their mind would start to deteriorate. Eventually, delirium set in and when death finally came, it was normally due to septic shock as they were eaten from the inside out.
According to Plutarch, one of the victims of Scaphism, a Persian soldier called Mithridates, suffered in his wooden prison for a total of 17 days. He was involved in the death of Cyrus the Younger (although he did not kill him) and paid a heavy price. After the death of the victim, the Persians would open the wooden trunk; one can only imagine the terrible stench. Incidentally, Native Americans used a similar form of torture, but they did not force-feed their victims. As a result, the captured individual died from starvation after a few days.
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.