Ancient Executions, Most Unpleasant [Part 2 of 3]

Scaphism. Even the word itself sounds foreign. The name comes from the Greek word σκάφη, skaphe, meaning “anything scooped (or hollowed) out”. This torture was used in ancient Persia, and it one of the most gruesome forms of ancient torture that I have come across. Unlike the brazen bull, there are no real depictions of this, so I will let Plutarch, a Greek historian who lived from 46 – 120 CE speak on the history and nature of this delightful procedure.

 “Accordingly he [Artaxerxes I king of Persia r. 465-424 BCE] ordered Mithridates to be put to death by the punishment of the boats (scaphae). [For the murder of Cryus the Younger] The nature of this form of death and punishment is as follows: Two boats being built of the same size and shape, in the one they lay the man destined for the torture, and putting the other atop of him, join the two together in such a way that his hands and feet are left outside, while the whole of the rest of his body (except the head) is imprisoned. They supply the man with food, and by prodding his eyes with sharp points force him to eat even against his will. But on his eating, they pour by way of drink into his mouth a mixture of milk and honey, and smear his face with the same. Also turning about the boat they so arrange it that his eyes are always facing the sun, and his head and face are covered every day with a host of flies that settle upon them. Moreover as he does inside the closed boats those things which men are bound of necessity to do after eating and drinking, the resulting corruption and putrefaction give birth to swarms of worms of diverse sorts, which penetrating inside his clothes, eat away his flesh. For when, after the man is dead, the upper boat is removed, his body is seen to be all gnawed away, and all about his inwards is found a multitude of these and the like insects, that grows denser every day. Subjected to this form of torture, Mithridates actually endured the agonizing existence to the seventeenth day, before he finally gave up the ghost.” – Plutarch Life of Artaxerxes

Gruesome indeed. Aside from another source Zonaras, Annals, there is not much difference in the two accounts. As I could find no images or others sources I would be greatly interested to hear some other cases of this, perhaps being used in the Roman period, or any ancient depictions of this execution. Do let me know in the comments below.

Tomorrow I will be looking at crucifixion, the most common misconception and its origins as a Roman form of capital punishment which was reserved for the lowest of criminals. While suicide or decapitation was considered the method of execution for the citizenry. Suicide in particular was the means of death used by many Romans so they would retain their property and it was not inherited by the state.

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