10 Most Brutal Execution Methods of Ancient Civilization

Alka Sharma
Alka Sharma
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History, October 26, 2010
  • Hold your breath. You are about to witness some very severe historical penalties. Though our ancient cultures were said to be very civilized, there is evidence of their having used a wide variety of hideous torture methods throughout history to end the lives of criminals and traitors.

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  • 10. Death by Boiling

    Can you imagine boiling someone alive in large pot? Though not common, this was an unusually cruel method of execution. There is plenty of evidence that it was practiced throughout human history. Archeologists have found human bones in cooking pots and hearths in China which were found to be around 500,000 years old.

    In England in the 1500s this was the legal method of punishment. The victim was immersed in boiling water, oil or tar until dead. Imagine the fear the prisoner felt when they were taken to this deadly big pot to suffer their horrible fate.

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  • 9. Crucifixion

    Crucifixion was among the most gruesome and painful of ancient execution methods and was practiced from about the 6th century BC until the 4th century AD, mainly among the Seleucids, Carthaginians, Persians and Romans. The condemned person was tied (or nailed) to a large wooden cross and left to hang till dead. Their dead body was then left on display as a warning. Sometimes, the victim was ordered to carry their own crossbeam – which weighed about 75-125 pounds (35-60 kg) – on their shoulders to the place of execution. Not only this, but to humiliate them, they were ordered to be hung up naked.

    There is evidence of a practice much like crucifixion having taken place during World War I and II. A punishment known as ‘Field Punishment Number One’ was very similar – although it involved the victim being flogged rather than executed. In the British Army, especially during World War I, soldiers were punished for crimes such as refusal of orders and disobedience.

    Nowadays, versions of crucifixion are practiced as a devotional ceremony in some part of New Mexico and the Philippines. Though the church greatly discourages this practice, followers of Jesus still imitate the suffering of Christ by being ‘crucified’ for a limited time on Good Friday. It has been seen in the town of Iztapalapa, just outside Mexico City, and also in San Pedro Cutud, during the ‘Passion Week Celebration’ of 2007.

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  • 8. Flaying

    In this author’s opinion, this was the most uncivilized method of torture and punishment practiced during the Middle Ages. Brutal to the bone, it involved removing the skin from the body of a still living prisoner.

    Flaying was an ancient practice, inflicted on criminals, captured soldiers and ‘witches’ around a thousand years ago in places such as the Middle East and Africa. The victim was flayed alive as part of a public execution, after which the skin was nailed to the wall as a warning, so that others would heed the lesson and never ever dare to defy the law.

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  • 7. Disembowelment

    Disembowelment was among the most severe forms of punishments ever heard of or seen. This method was used to punish thieves and those accused of adultery. Some or all the vital organs were removed one by one from the body, mainly from the abdomen. Sources say it was practiced in England, the Netherlands, Belgium and in Japan.

    In Japan, it was a ritualized suicide method for Samurai, referred as “seppuku”, in which two cuts across the abdomen were made. In another version, a fine cut was made in the victim’s gut, leaving him to catch an infection.

    Also, in later medieval times, the torture was performed using small starving animals such as mice, which led to the victim’s death. Imagine the agonizing pain the prisoner must have felt when their 6-meter-long intestines were slowly eaten by the starving mice.

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  • 6. Breaking Wheel

    The breaking wheel, also known as the ‘Catherine wheel’, was a medieval execution device. It was used during the Middle Ages and was still in use in the 19th century. It originated in Ancient Greece and from there spread through other countries such as France, Russia, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Sweden.

    A wooden wheel was used to stretch the victim out, with their limbs extended along its many spokes. Then a hammer or a large iron bar was applied to the limb through the gap to break all its bones. This process was repeated with every limb, leaving the victim alive but in pieces.

    Sometimes the executioner was ordered to strike on the stomach and chest, a practice known as the ‘blow of mercy’. The number of blows was specified in the court sentence. If mercy was shown, after two to three blows the victim was strangled. In severe cases, the victim would be cudgeled ‘bottom-up’ starting with the legs, while those who had committed lesser offenses were beaten ‘top-down’ starting with the throat. When the execution was complete, the criminal’s head was often placed on a spike for exhibition and the shattered limbs were left for birds to eat. Imagine the pain and suffering involved in this cruel execution method.

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  • 5. Impalement

    We all know about piercing the nose, ear or naval as a beautification procedure – but what about being pierced with a long stake? This was among the most revolting of punishments ever imagined and practiced by humans. It was a favorite of the Romans, Chinese, Greeks and the Turks. It was also practiced in Asia and in Europe during the Middle Ages.

    Though rarely practiced, impalement was truly horrifying. The victim was pierced through the rectum, through the vagina, through the side or even through the mouth, causing deep bleeding and painful wounds. They were then dropped into their own grave. The victim endured a long period of continued suffering before their death. Sometimes, before execution, the victim was asked to dig their own grave too. What suffering the victim had to endure with the stake penetrating their groin during those agonizing hours (or days) before death.

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  • 4. Crushing

    This forceful execution method was used in the common law legal system. It has an extensive history, with several varying methods used through time. One of them was ‘Crushing by Elephants’, which was used throughout south and south-east Asia for over 4,000 years. Sources say it was also used by Romans as well as by the Nguyen Dynasty in Vietnam.

    In another method, the victim was pressed with extremely large and heavy stones laid upon their chest, causing suffocation and then death. Though these forms of execution are no longer sanctioned by any governing body, the fact remains that it was incredibly unkind to let someone die, crushed or suffocated beneath rocks or the strong legs of a giant creature.

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  • 3. Death by Burning

    We may love to eat roasted potatoes, roasted chicken and roasted beets – but what about a roasted human? Many of us cannot even imagine seeing a human burning alive. So imagine the cruelty of this wild and evil execution procedure. In days gone by, some criminals were burned alive for whatever heinous act they committed.

    The progress of the fire would burn the calves, thighs, hands, stomach, breasts and upper chest before reaching the face. It was extremely painful, although sometimes the person died from carbon monoxide poisoning before the fire even touched their calves. Pitch was also applied to the prisoner’s body, which helped the fire to burn quicker and make the process faster.

    There is evidence of enemies being burned alive in Rome, in Akragas in Sicily, in England, and in some part of North America too. Among the best known individuals executed by this brutal method were St. Joan of Arc (1431), Patrick Hamilton (1528), Thomas Cranmer (1556) and the Old Believer leader Avvakum (1682).

    The most recent record is of ‘Jesse Washington’, whose execution is internationally remembered as ‘The Waco Horror’. Washington was found guilty of raping and murdering a white woman and was only 17 when he was tortured and burned alive in front of a cheering crowd of 16,000. What could be a more brutish and wild punishment than this?

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  • 2. Sawing

    You can grasp what this execution procedure was about by its name. It involved hanging the helpless condemned person upside down and then slicing them down the middle, starting at the groin. It was a gross procedure to say the least… Bleeding severely but still alive and conscious – the thought alone is enough to make you throw up. As the condemned was hanged upside down, their brain received enough blood supply, so they remained alive in spite of the pain and severe bleeding. This method was used in Europe, under the Roman Empire and also in some parts of Asia. According to some religious histories, the prophet Isaiah was executed in this manner. The illustration here shows the painful death of a delinquent.

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  • 1. Slow Slicing

    Another vicious punishment method involved slicing the prisoner very slowly. Around 900 AD it was a common execution method in China, until its abolition. There it was known as ‘Ling Chi’, which means ‘The Lingering Death’ or ‘Death By a Thousand Cuts’. The idea behind the method was to humiliate the victim with a slow and painful execution and then for the punishment to continue even after after death.

    The condemned person was killed using a knife. Methodically, over an extended period of time, parts of the body were removed. This was a public execution method used to threaten people. Sometimes opium was also administered to prevent fainting or as an act of mercy. Because of the severity of the punishment, it could not last longer than 15 to 20 minutes.

    So friends, which method did you like the most? The full list is quite long and includes other horrible methods such as decapitation, shooting, necklacing and hanging. Since there seems to be no end to the list of diabolical methods, this author’s opinion is: “Aargh…..!! They are all equally uncivilized and gruesome!”

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15

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