Capital punishment has always been cause for debate. Should the state be allowed to murder its citizens? In the modern age, only forty of the 163 countries still have some form of the death penalty, including China, India, The entirety of the Middle East, and of course the United States. But by no means does the modicum of death meted out by the modern state even remotely close to some ancient methods of execution. Although one can assume that the way we execute prisoners today are “humane”, hanging, firing squad, electric chair, lethal injection, these all pale in comparison to the three forms of execution I will be looking at these three bizarre and unique forms of execution, namely the brazen bull, scaphism, and crucifixion.
The first of these that I will be talking about is the brazen bull. This method of death was first used by the tyrant Phalaris of Acragas in Sicily c. 570-554 BCE. The creator of the invention was Perillos of Athens. This invention was a large bronze cast bull, hollow on the inside with a door. The condemned were bound and shut inside the bull and a fire lit underneath. The mouth of the brazen bull was left open and the escaping steam and screams were meant to sound like an angry bull.
Fast forward to the persecution of Christians, it is reported that some saints of the church met their end by this particularly nasty form of execution. Makes being fed to the lions seems like a cake walk. There were three saints mentioned to have been killed by this. Saint Antipas in 92 CE by the Emperor Domition, Saint Eustace in 118 CE by Emperor Hadrian, and a woman by the name of Pelagia of Tarsus in 287 CE by Emperor Diocletian. However, the Catholic Church discounts the martyrdom of Saint Eustace according to the Martyologium Romanum (ISB 8-820-97210-7).
I think that the three reported cases of its use to kill Christians (and possibly Jews) could in fact, aside from the obvious death, be a theological attack. Although scholars in the early 20th century have linked it to the golden calf from Exodus, and then summarily dismissed the idea, I think they should no be so hasty. The imagery of a Christian being sacrificed within a large bull, the golden calf grown into adulthood is striking. Perhaps these emperors had a sick sense of humor and made this connection, or maybe not.
To take a brief look at the account of Pelagia’s death, here is an excerpt from the martyrdom of Pelagia of Tarsus.
Diocletian sentenced Pelagia to be burned in a red-hot bronze bull. Not permitting the executioners to touch her body, the holy martyr signed herself with the Sign of the Cross, and went into the brazen bull and her flesh melted like myrrh, filling the whole city with fragrance. St Pelagia’s bones remained unharmed and were removed by the pagans to a place outside the city. Four lions then came out of the wilderness and sat around the bones letting neither bird nor wild beast get at them. The lions protected the relics of the saint until Bishop Linus came to that place. He gathered them up and buried them with honor. Later, a church was built over her holy relics.
This account if full of typical imagery of a Christian martyrology. Her courage and stalwart faith the hallmark of any proper martyr. Most important is the mention of the whole city being filled with fragrance, some accounts specify the scent of myrrh, which is a motif I am currently exploring in other documents of this period. The cooperation of lions also has a storied history such as in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 11:6 or in the story of Daniel in the lion den. On a final note, it would be interesting to so some forensic archeology and exhume the bones of this martyr for signs of her death.
Tomorrow I will be discussing the insanity that is scaphism.