9 Ancient Torture Devices and Horrible Ways to Die

Throughout human history, acts of cruelty against our fellow man have been all too common.

While modern civilized society has come to reject such barbarism, studying the brutal devices and methods used in ancient times serves as an sobering reminder of how inhumanity can manifest when rule of law and basic compassion are absent.

ancient torture devices
ancient torture devices

For those seeking to understand humanity’s dark past or researchers exploring the psychology behind torture, reviewing the ingenious yet disturbing contraptions invented to inflict maximum pain provide valuable historical context.

However, these subjects can make for difficult reading.With that in mind, this article aims to educate while avoiding gratuitous descriptions of suffering.

9 Brutal Ways to Die by Torture in the Ancient World

Over 9 parts, we will explore some of the most infamous torture devices employed in antiquity, from the simple yet excruciating rack device of medieval Europe to the imaginative and fiery Brazen Bull of ancient Greece.

Through lightly edited primary source quotations and references to archaeological findings, the article strives for accuracy while maintaining readability for general audiences.

Each method is placed in its appropriate historic and cultural setting to avoid accusations while still conveying the horrors themselves.

Ranking well in search engines could expose more people to these sobering lessons from the past.

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If sharing greater understanding of humanity’s capacity for both good and evil, some may find cause to strengthen compassion in today’s world.

For scholars, historians, and any with open yet steady minds, what follows provides a fact-checked survey of antiquity’s most remarkable – and regrettably innovative – means devised to destroy fellow man.

Let us reflect on how far we have, with effort, come since those days and must still strive to be.

1. The Rack

The Rack
The Rack

Perhaps one of the most infamous and long-lasting torture devices, the rack originated in Medieval Europe during the Renaissance of brutality that accompanied the 11th-16th century rise of feudalism.

At its core, the rack was a deceptively simple yet exquisitely cruel mechanism – a long wooden table with ropes affixed to each end used to slowly dislocate all of a victim’s major joints.

How it worked was as follows. First, the helpless prisoner would be stripped bare and laid upon the rack, their wrists and ankles tied fast to those ropes.

Then, by means of a system of tackle and windlasses, often turned by sheer strength alone, interrogators could start to pull the ropes taut.

As tension grew unbearable, the ropes would begin parting flesh from bone, wrenching shoulders, elbows, hips and knees from their natural positions.

Ligaments and muscles tore with progressively wetter snaps. All while the victim howled, begged, and eventually lost themselves to madness or the sweet release of unconsciousness – unless the torturers relent and allow setting of at least some bones.

Historical records point to the rack seeing frequent use for centuries wherever feudal lords ruled with impunity. Its purpose, simply, was to extract confessions – true or false mattered not.

And none suffered its torments quite so publicly as Herostratus in 356 BC, a little-known Greek man who chose destruction of one of the Seven Wonders as his gambit to attain immortality through infamy.

Under rack’s excruciating persuasion, Herostratus confessed to burning the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

Though death ended his pain, his name was forbidden utterance in perpetuity – a penalty perhaps as or more harrowing than the rack’s agonies.

As one of history’s earliest documented “killers for fame,” Herostratus’ grim tale remains a timeless caution against man’s baser instincts.

The rack disappeared along with feudalism, yet its terrifying effects linger in our minds today as a symbol of torture’s inhuman capacity to destroy the body whilethe breaking spirit remains trapped, watching; a grim reminder of history’s dark underbelly when law and ethics broke down.

Truly, some devices deserve never being refined or remembered at all.

2. Keelhauling


One of the cruelest methods ever devised at sea was keelhauling, a torturous form of execution favored by pirates, privateers and navies worldwide during humanity’s darkest naval ages.

The etymology of the word itself, “keel hauling”, hints at the barbarity – it referred to the act of dragging a condemned man underwater from one side of a ship to the other, beneath the keel.

Historians trace the earliest documented references to keelhauling back to 700 BCE maritime codes, but it remained a gruesome reality of life upon the waves for over two millennia.

The procedure was brutally efficient – the victim would be stripped, tied to a rope looped beneath the vessel, and tossed overboard.

Then, as the ship sailed on at full speed, he was hauled under the hull by the momentum. Any attempt to surface brought only a savage collision with the sharp, barnacle-encrusted timber far below the waterline.

His broken body, stubborn in its mortal struggle for air, was dragged the full length of the hull amid torrents of blood.

More often than not, the target emerged minus limbs, viscera or life itself. If somehow still conscious, drowning or blood loss swiftly ended their misery.

Those fortunate enough to survive were left with horrific wounds and a lingering death from infection in the surf – a warning to all who witnessed such “justice”.

The Dutch navy employed keelhauling most zealously into the 17th century, using it as a lurid public spectacle to impress upon moral failing seamen the wages of disobedience.

Even in this more “civilized” modern age, some survivors testified keelhauling continued as recently as the late 19th century in less regulated waters.

A reminder that where law and accountability break down, man’s inhumanity to man knows few boundaries.

Of all history’s dire naval fates, few instill such an visceral sense of horror as that endured by keelhauling victims.

Even in description, the mind recoils from contemplating their impossible agony and struggle against the crushing tide. It stands as one of the cruelest abominations ever charted upon humanity’s darkest waters.

3. Drinking Molten Gold

drinking molten gold
drinking molten gold

One of the most fabulously gruesome methods of administering fatal tortures involved the rare but excruciating practice of forcing victims to consume molten precious metals.

While gold was favored for its symbolism, silver and even lead were also employed in rareYet unfortunately well-documented instances.

With a melting point above 1945 degrees Fahrenheit, solid gold becomes a cesiously viscous liquid capable of inflicting burns beyond imagining.

Ancient accounts describe the targeted politician or criminal victim being cast to the ground, their mouth clamped open and a rock-filled ladle of melted gold poured down their throat.

Precisely what killed them soonest – choking, internal incineration, or shock – remains a subject of debate among historians.

But what is clear is the intent to utterly destroy body and dignity alike through golden fire and torment.

Roman records describe just such a grisly fate befalling the general Manius Aquillius in 89 BCE, forever etching the method into infamy.

Centuries later, the legends surrounding another high-profile victim, Crassus the wealthiest man in Rome, burn just as brightly.

While accounts of him drinking gold after Parthian capture may be embellished, the symbolism of having one’s insatiable thirst for riches and power literally consumed them suggests this torture’s psychological as much as physical devastation.

That such a fantastical and repugnant act could be rooted even somewhat in truth reveals just how far humanity has, at its worst, strayed from compassion.

Though thankfully lost to history, drinking gold stands as a horrific reminder of creativity man reserves for visiting pain upon his own, when decency is lost to barbarism and vengeance. Some fantasies, at least, are best left unrealized.

4. Flayings


One of the earliest and longest-practiced forms of ritualistic torture involved the gruesome act known as flaying – removing the entire skin of a living victim through careful incisions and peeling.

While anatomically possible to survive temporarily without skin, flaying intended to prolong pain and humiliation prior to the inevitable onset of shock and infection.

Historical accounts from sources as far-ranging as the Assyrian Rassam Cylinder in 700 BCE to the Aztec god Xipe Totec describe this abomination in disturbing detail.

The lucky victims seemingly died before regaining consciousness, while others might linger for days feeling each nerve ending blaze white-hot.

More unfortunates still were kept alive through medical care to maximize torment, with skin slowly sliced away section by section to leave raw muscle and fat twitching in the open air.

All to satisfy baser urges for vengeance, obedience or dark gods’ hungers through proxy suffering.

That such atrocities could become normalized, even celebrated practices suggests the depths of depravity human social systems allowed before modern understandings of dignity and rights.

Medically, full flayings push the limits of what skinless anatomy can withstand without prompt death – a grisly testament to history’s less ethical experimenters.

Mercifully, as societies developed kinder ethical codes, flaying disappeared from mainstream punishment.

Yet its nightmarish implications linger profoundly as perhaps torture’s most vivid and visceral symbol of humanity’s capacity for inflicting pain when decency offers no restraint.

Another grim relic hopefully never revived in our continuing evolution away from barbarism.

5. The Roman Candle

the roman candle
the roman candle

While today the term brings to mind colorful firework displays, the original “Roman Candle” derives its name from one of antiquity’s more inventive tortures – the gruesome fate devised by the infamous Roman emperor Nero for his Christian victims.

As the famous historian Tacitus recorded in his Annals, Nero went to extreme lengths to find new methods of destroying his religious enemies.

Clothing some in animal skins, Nero had his victims mauled by wild beasts in orchestrated spectacles.

Others were crucified or hacked apart, their lingering deaths used to entertain Imperial gardens. But perhaps Nero’s most terrifying innovation involved wrapping Christians in tar-coated rags, lighting them ablaze, and using their screaming, flailing bodies as human torches to illumine nocturnal parties and festivities across Rome.

According to Tacitus, these wretched “lights” provided nightly illumination as they were consumed alive by paranoid ambition’s fires.

Later scholars speculated victims may have been affixed to poles to prolong flaming agony – a level of sadism even Caligula balked at.

While historical accuracy is debated, the concept of transforming martyrs into laughingstocks through their very immolation serves as a hellish allegory for power’s capacity to corrupt absolutely.

Mercifully, no solid evidence suggests Nero’s brand of “entertainment” caught on more broadly. Yet its horrific premise looms large as a symbol of the depraved excesses one man’s madness and divinity complex could visit upon thousands through simple whim.

In remembrance of those first Roman Candle victims, it’s perhaps fitting their names now light more constructive discourse on humanity’s eternal struggle between its better angels and inner demons.

6. The Brazen Bull

the brazen bull
the brazen bull

Of all antiquity’s inventive instruments of execution, perhaps none captures the macabre imagination quite like the infamous Brazen Bull –

a legendary torture device said to have been crafted in ancient Greece as a gruesome means to roast criminals alive while amplifying their death throes into uncanny bellows.

While no archaeological evidence proves its actual use, the bull attained mythical status through Greek historians’ lurid descriptions.

The device was supposedly a life-sized hollow bull crafted from bronze sheets with vents along its flank and throat. Condemned prisoners were locked inside its cavernous form as a fire was lit beneath to slowly broil them alive.

As flesh sizzled and victims’ screams grew hoarse from agony, the vents ingeniously channeled and modulated soundwaves to transform their every shriek and wail into what seemed an almost natural bull’s annoyed lowing.

Spectators must have looked on in some morbid mix of horror, fascination and dark humor as the bull’s ‘moos’ grew louder with each new bout of flames.

Legend credits the bull’s invention to a craftsman named Perilaus hoping to win favor with the infamous tyrant Phalaris through shock and awe.

Alas, exposure to true cruelty soured even Phalaris’ tastes, and he had Perilaus test his own macabre design as punishment for exceeding basic human decency’s bounds, so thoroughly had systematic torture warped perception of both.

While its actual use remains unproven, the Brazen Bull’s gruesome renown endures as a disturbing allegory for sadism normalized, imagination perverted by desire for control over life and autonomy of others.

A grim lesson in civilization’s necessity and the monsters unrestrained “innovation” can spawn when law and compassion run dry.

7. Impalings


One of humanity’s cruelest methods of ritual execution and torture involved the ghastly practice known as impalement – a form of live skewering employed across a wide span of ancient cultures globally.

The victim, stripped naked and restrained upon the ground, would suffer a sharpened stake driven either through the abdomen or perineum before being hoisted skyward to die an agonizing, lingering demise.

Historical records point to impalement seeing use as early as the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylon, where it served as a common means of punishing disobedient women.

Later, conquerors from Egypt and Assyria to Romania popularized it for relative efficiency and its gruesome psychological impact. Some sources describe impaled Romansoldiers arrayed around city walls as a monstrous warning.

Surviving impalement against formidable oaken stakes was near impossible, yet some accounts describe victims enduring for days suspended aloft in stages of shock, blood loss and infection.

Excruciating pain was further compounded by erosion of bodily dignity and religious implications of desecration as internal organs spilled uncontained.

Mercifully, with advancements in ethical codes and higher regard for human life, impalement disappeared from mainstream practice over subsequent eras.

Its disturbing legacy however echoes through millennia as a symbol of unfettered authority’s willingness to inflict torment beyond mortal limits upon dissidents and enemies.

A sobering lesson in civilization’s responsibility to curb destructive instincts through just laws and compassion.

8. Crucifixion


One of the most infamous forms of capital punishment devised by ancient Roman authorities was crucifixion – the excruciating practice of nailing or tying condemned prisoners to wooden crosses until death’s slow onset from exposure and exhaustion.

While Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion remains its most famous execution, historians trace crucifixion’s use as early as the 7th century BCE in locations like ancient Egypt and Persia adopted by imperial Rome.

The agony began as four soldiers stripped victims nude, then laid them supine as legion medics rammed 7-inch spikes through wrists and ankles to affix them to the crossbeam and upright pole.

Once hoisted skyward, the full weight of the body strained helpless against the wounds. As days passed untended under the hot sun, dehydration, fever and ravaging insects induced madness.

Through muscle tears and circulatory collapse, even breathing became a herculean effort battering the lungs against the wooden rack. Slower deaths sometimes spanned a full week until final release in delirium or heart implosion.

The crucified were intentionally positioned along trafficked roads as a didactic warning to others. Though outlawed by Constantine, its barbarism persists in certain nations today over two millennia since Rome.

While immortalized in poetry, art and Scripture, the scourged remains nailed to crude timbers should remind us crucifixion’s terrible reality.

A dreadful condemnation none deserve, it represents law and retribution perverted without pity.

Reflecting on such horrors, one hopes humanity’s journey proves one away from, not toward, such inhumanity’s wastelands when fear and division hold sway.

9. Gladiatorial Games

Gladiatorial Games
Gladiatorial Games

While largely remembered today as sports entertainment, the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome were frequently a stage for ritual human sacrifice and execution on a scale unmatched in history.

Originating around 264 BCE as modest funeral competitions, the games metastasized into a national obsession fueling a vast industry that supplied amphitheaters with a steady supply of disposable “entertainers.”

Most were prisoners of war, condemned criminals or purchased slaves with little training. Paired in lopsided contests against heavily armed gladiators, wild animals or elaborate automatons, survival was unlikely by design.

From dawn til dusk across over 400 days of games annually, an unrelenting stream of untrained souls perished in circuses to sate crowds baying for blood and terror.

Between hunts and executions, more “respectable” bouts also featured though odds overwhelmingly favored rich gladiators who could afford full protective armor, high quality weapons and professional training.

Legally, gladiators possessed no rights and were commonly sexually exploited, abused and summarily killed by their ludus owners on a whim. Though some like Spartacus achieved brief fame, most met grisly ends before packed coliseums’ tens of thousands.

Only with Christianity’s rise and the regional economic fallouts of invasions did the savage industry contract.

Yet its towering death tolls, institutionalized cruelty and impacts on wider Roman social culture endure as a sobering case study of civilizations spiraling from sports to human depravity given empty “pleasures” and leaders with gods’ delusions of control over others’ lives.

Read Also: The 15 Oldest Ancient Civilizations In The World


In surveying some of humanity’s most inventive yet ghastly implements and practices of torture from antiquity, common threads emerge that continue instructing our present age.

Whether rationalized for punishment, entertainment or cruel displays of authority, the widespread institutionalization of agony against fellow humans becomes possible only where respect for life and dignity have ceased to guide civil order.

Looking back upon such dire episodes, one sees clearly how easily even advanced cultures can slip into barbarism absent lawful protections of basic rights and constraints upon power’s infinite capacities for corruption.

While ancient environments hardly justify their actions, these periods stand as well-preserved warnings of the monsters unchecked “innovation” risks unleashing from our inner demons.

Mercifully, through abolition of feudal systems, enlightened philosophy and moral progress and inalienable codes of ethics, most such grisly fates have rightly been consigned to history’s dust.

Yet their ghostly afterlives still echo lessons for any age – reminders that civilization depends on constant nurturing of our shared humanity above all divisions, through vigilance defending even society’s most vulnerable from predatory cruelties.

For in allowing suffering of our fellow souls, even if deemed enemies or lessers, we invite darkness and diminish our own fragile place in this universal community.

The road ahead remains long, but by continuing education in compassion – not reprehension – of those departed eras, may we walk ever closer to justice without vengeance, order reconciled with liberty, and an enlightened balance keeping at bay demons time revealed yet progress lets us choose to