Human torture has been prevalent since Ancient times. In fact, throughout history people have used torture as a method of interrogation and extracting information, as punishment for crimes and a tool for social justice, and even just to satisfy one’s sadistic urges. Probably the most disturbing fact about torture is not simply that it exists, but that people have introduced various forms of creativity, perversion and spectacle to it throughout history.
In this article, we pit 2 of the most gruesome and storeyed forms of torture and execution from history against each other – The Brazen Bull versus Impalement! The two methods are compared using various metrics, each of which is marked out of 10. Let’s see which torture method comes out on top!
The brazen bull, or Sicilian bull, was a torture and execution device designed in ancient Greece during the 6th century BC. Perillos of Athens invented and proposed it to Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, Sicily, as a new means of executing criminals.
A solid piece of brass was cast with a door on the side that could be opened and latched. The victim would be placed inside the bull and a fire set underneath it until the metal became literally yellow as it was heated. The victim would then be slowly roasted to death, all the while screaming in agonizing pain. The bull was purposely designed to amplify these screams and make them sound like the bellowing of a bull. When the bull was reopened, the victim’s scorched bones shone like jewels and were made into bracelets.
The Romans were also reputed to have used this torture device to kill some Christians, notably Saint Eustace, who, according to Christian tradition, was roasted in a brazen bull with his wife and children by Emperor Hadrian. The same happened to Saint Antipas, Bishop of Pergamon during the persecutions of Emperor Domitian.
Impalement, as a method of execution and also torture, is the penetration of a person by an object such as a stake, pole, spear, or hook, often by complete or partial perforation of the torso. References to impalement in Babylonia and the Neo-Assyrian Empire are found as early as the 18th century BC. Within the Ottoman Empire, this form of execution continued into the 20th century.
However, the most infamous practitioner of impalement was undoubtedly Vlad III or Vlad Dracula, the prince of Wallachia. Though he employed several methods of torture and tyranny throughout his reign, he was mostly associated for his liberal use of impalement. This gave rise to his popular nickname, Vlad the Impaler. Under his rule, the method of impalement reached arguably its peak of cruelty.
Typically, the victim was forced to sit on a sharp and thick pole. When the pole was then raised upright, the victim was left to slide down the pole with their own weight. It could take the victim 3 days to die using this method and it has been said that Vlad once did this to 20,000 people while enjoying a meal.
As an example of how Vlad became iconic for all horrors unimaginable, some pamphlets from 1521 pour out putative incidents like this one:
He let children be roasted; those, their mothers were forced to eat. And (he) cut off the breasts of women; those, their husbands were forced to eat. After that, he had them all impaled
Torture, by its very definition, is something cruel. The ability to cause extensive pain and agony is obviously an essential component of a great torture technique. And clearly both our contenders score highly in that regard.
The Brazen Bull literally roasted people to death. The executioner could control the intensity of the fire to prolong the misery of the one inside the bull. There wasn’t much room to manoeuvre inside the bull, and all the person could do inside was scream – scream as his(or her) skin burnt away, scream as he felt himself melt away in the excruciating heat. And all the while those screams were audible from the outside as the grunts of a bull. The natural human reflex on touching something hot is to immediately pull away. Unfortunately, there was no such space inside the bull, and the victim just had to endure through it till he was literally roast meat.
Impalement, on the other hand was a more long drawn, agonizing experience. It was definitely not as dramatic as the Brazen Bull. But no one could question the results. There were various types of impalement, depending on the impaling object and whether the impalement was longitudinal or transversal. The results also varied accordingly, and the victims could die within a couple of minutes or stay alive for over 3 days.
Vlad specialized in making his victims suffer, and was described as a man of unheard of cruelty. Imagine having to slide down a stake for multiple days on end, with nothing you could do, while your inner organs get slowly punctured, one by one. Vlad also ordered that women be impaled together with their suckling babies on the same stake. The babies fought for their lives at their mother’s breasts until they died. Then he had the women’s breasts cut off and put the babies inside headfirst; thus he had them impaled together.
Brazen Bull – 8
Impalement – 9
We wouldn’t be discussing these torture techniques if they were just your mundane everyday torture methods. A lot of people put a lot of thought into developing the perfect torture and execution method.
And this round has to go to the Brazen Bull. Phalaris commanded that the bull be designed in such a way that its smoke rose in spicy clouds of incense. Perillos designed the head of the bull using a complex system of tubes and stops so that the prisoner’s screams were converted into sounds like the bellowing of an infuriated bull. Perillos said to Phalaris: “His screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings.” That’s some of the purest evil genius right there. Unfortunately for Perillos, he was the first person Phalaris tested the bull on.
Impalement, on the other hand, was a common method of execution for centuries. Vlad just took it to the next level. He typically used a form of longitudinal impalement along the frontal or dorsal region that prolonged the victim’s misery up to several days.
Brazen Bull – 9
Impalement – 6
In ancient times, torture and execution was often a form of public spectacle. Entire populaces of towns would show up to witness an execution by torture in the public square. They often added their own little touch by throwing rocks or stones at the condemned.
So a great torture technique should provide a great spectacle. And the Brazen Bull was all about the spectacle. It gets a perfect 10 in this department. A perfectly crafted bronze bull, a system of tubes and pipes converting the victims screams into the bellowing of a bull, the victim’s scorched bones shining like jewels and actually being converted into jewellery – you just can’t beat the show being put on here.
Impalement had its own spectacle. In Ancient times, miscreants were often executed publicly by impalement by a hook or spear. Vlad’s stakes provided a more frightening spectacle and did serve its purpose of dissuading further crime or attacks against the state.
Brazen Bull – 10
Impalement – 7
One of the important motives behind the torturous methods of execution was to discourage future crimes and rebellions. It was used to send a message. And few people across history have sent this message better than Vlad.
The Brazen Bull has historically been linked to the ceremonial sacrifices of children. Later, it was widely used in the persecution of Christian saints. It’s safe to say that no one fancied being put inside the bull, though.
However, Vlad’s tales of cruelty are at a different scale altogether. Stories about his cruelty began spreading during his lifetime, and according to most historians, they helped improve the public order and strengthen the Central Government in Wallachia. It is reported that in 1462, Mehmet II’s invading army of Turks turned back to Constantinople after encountering thousands of impaled corpses along the Danube River.
Vlad has been widely described as “a bloodthirsty madman”, “a man of unheard of cruelty”, “a demented psychopath, a sadist, a gruesome murderer, a masochist” and “a mischievous tyrant”. Most people believe he was also the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Brazen Bull – 6
Impalement – 9
Brazen Bull – 33 out of 40
Impalement – 31 out of 40
Looks like the Brazen Bull just edges our face-off between the two legendary Ancient torture techniques.