Look at the world today and the punishments for capital crimes. Although the death penalty still exists, execution methods a lot reasonable now than they were centuries ago. Modern death penalties are quite tame when compared to the horrible torture and executions done in ancient times, the Middle Ages, and even as recent as the 17th century. Here are the five most painful execution methods of history. They are cruel, unusual, and serve as a reminder to the human race of what we we’ve done to our fellow man. Note; viewer discretion is advised.

Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered

This feared execution method was first used against the most serious criminals in England during the 13th century, reserved for those who have committed high treason. Being hung, drawn, and quartered is considered one of the most defining examples of the term “cruel and unusual punishment.”1

drawn and quartered

As explained in British Criminal Law2, first the prisoner is dragged on wooden frame to the site of his execution (drawn). Then he is hung repeatedly by the neck until almost dead and is released before the final moment – this is meant to act as pre-emptive torture. The executioner will then strap the naked prisoner down onto a rack (usually to a public audience) and perform the most gruesome part of the method. He is castrated and disemboweled on the spot, and his respective body organs (genitalia, entrails, and others) are set aflame in front of his very eyes. He would still be alive at that point and will be decapitated. His body parts would then be cut up in four pieces to be gibbeted (put on public display) in different parts of the country to deter future treason.

Notable men who have been executed this way were William Wallace3 (featured in the movie Braveheart) and Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes, who was arrested for the infamous Gunpowder Plot4, cheated the executioners by jumping off during the hanging step, causing his neck to break and kill him, effectively avoiding the rest of the execution. His accomplice, however, tried to do the same but his rope broke. He wasn’t so lucky. The method was used for centuries and wasn’t abolished until 1870.


Crucifixion was an ancient method of execution used by the Persians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Macedonians, and Romans in differing procedures and variations of the structure of the cross. To this day the crucifix5, the wooden cross, remains one of the most important symbols of Christianity.

The condemned were usually those who have committed the worst crimes, but in many cases, it was used against slaves and prisoners of war to instill fear and deter enemy armies. Typically, the man would have his skin torn from an initial flagellation (severe whipping) and was forced to drag the 300 pound cross6 to his site of execution. The victim’s hands are outstretched and nailed to the cross, either through the palms or wrists (differing ways existed).7 Sometimes the heels of the feet are were also nailed, which would have caused tremendous pain.8 The victims are then left to die on the cross, exposed to the blistering heat of the sun. Death usually occurred from sepsis, hypovolemic shock, dehydration, or from the pain itself. Asphyxiation9 also occurs since the victim isn’t able to draw air into his lungs due to the difficulty of inhaling, and he would have to draw support with his outstretched arms (or use his nailed feet), leading to increasing exhaustion. The process of death is very slow and painful, sometimes lasting for days.


Famous victims of this execution method include Jesus Christ and Saint Peter. 6,000 followers of Spartacus during their rebellion against the Roman Republic were also crucified to make sure such treason wouldn’t happen again.10

Brazen Bull

The Brazen Bull was an ancient Greek torture and execution device, invented by Perillos of Athens11 (and proposed to Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, Sicily). The device was made completely out of brass and in the shape of a bull. It was hollow and had a door opening into it from the side. While it doesn’t sound intimidating, the special function of the bull would strike fear into the hearts of anyone during that time.

Brazen Bull

How would you die to the Brazen Bull? First you were locked inside and a fire was set under the bull, causing the metal to heat up to the point where it became yellow hot. With no way to escape, you’re left to slowly roast inside the device. This is much more grisly than being burnt at the stake, since the agony is extended significantly longer. In addition to that, the head of the ox was built with a system of tubes and stops so when you screamed, the sounds would be manipulated to sound like an angry bull – hence the name. Your screams of agony would be amplified as you roasted and the smoke would rise in “spicy clouds of incense.” Not a pleasant way to go.


One of the most despicable human acts in history is impalement. That is, the process of piercing someone with a long sharp stake. Penetration could be from many different sides but in this particular method, the stake was inserted through the rectum, vagina, or through the mouth12. There are many different forms of impalement, as it was used in Asia and Europe throughout the Middle Ages.


Public torture and rape usually came before the actual execution. The victim would be tied up and a cut was made between the rectum and genitals, where a sharp pole with a blunt end was driven through. The blunt end ensured the damage to the body wouldn’t cause death too quickly by pushing important organs to the side. The other end of the stake came out of the upper half of the body, typically out of the sternum. A person can live for as many as three days as he is hoisted up in the air, suspended to die slowly in agony. This method was so ruthless that it was rarely used even during those times.

Vlad III the Impaler was very fascinated by this method of execution. In fact, he was known to have had several thousands of people impaled at the same time in the same spot (in different incidences)13, most notably prisoners of war.


Scaphism (also known as The Boats)14 has a reputation of being unheard of, especially next to some of the other methods mentioned above. Humiliating and grisly, scaphism was performed in many different ways. Although it was an ancient Persian method of execution, the actual name is Greek in origin (meaning “scooped out”).15

The process went like this. First you were stripped naked and tied inside a back-to-back pair of rowing boats. Sometimes a hollowed out tree trunk is used. You are tied down in such a way that you have no way of escaping. You are then force-fed milk and honey to the point where you develop extreme diarrhea, causing an accumulation of feces inside the boat where you are trapped. Your executioners will then proceed to rub honey on your body to attract even more insects, such as stinging bees. Hands, head, and feet will protrude out of the boat, for attracting hungry insects. Typically, you would be left to the burning sun or forced to float on a stagnant pond of water.


The pain would have been unimaginable, especially due to insects breeding within your own gangrenous flesh (including laying of eggs) as you succumbed to physical and psychological pain, diarrhea, delirium, nausea, dehydration, starvation, septic shock, and so on. Sometimes the force-feeding would be repeated to make sure you don’t die too soon, prolonging the suffering. It should be noted that one cannot usually die from the mass of insect bites and stings alone. Asphyxia can sometimes occur if the insects (such as ants) swarm enough to enter your body through the ears, mouth, and nose, and enter the lungs. The ‘feeding’ can take place from the ‘inside out.’ That should leave a bit of imagination to the degree of pain you might feel if you undergo scaphism. Imagine feeling the prickling of every single bite and sting of those insects as you are left to rot in a pool of your own increasing mass of feces.

The torture and resulting death may last for days and was humiliating. Plutarch once wrote how Mithridates survived for a full 17 days before dying, as punishment for killing Cyrus the Younger.16


[1] In Wilkerson v. Utah (1878, pertaining to methods of capital punishment), the United States Supreme Court commented that drawing and quartering, public dissecting, burning alive and disemboweling would constitute cruel and unusual punishment while determining that death by firing squad was as legitimate as the common method of that time, hanging

[2] Richard Burn (1836), The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, Volume III (Criminal Law) of V volumes. T. Cadell. p. 928

[3] Brown, Chris. William Wallace. The True Story of Braveheart. Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2005. ISBN 0-7524-3432-2

[4] Antonia Fraser, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, Anchor, 1997. ISBN 0-385-47190-4[5] Online Etymology Dictionary, “Crucify”: Online Etymology Dictionary

[6] Dr. Richard P. Butcher, “Crucifixion in the Ancient World” Crucifixion in the Ancient World

[7] Liddell and Scott on χείρ. Cf. The Science of the Crucifixion

[8] David W. Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian perceptions of crucifixion (Mohr Siebeck, 2008), p. 86-89

[9] Retief FP and Cilliers L.,The History and Pathology of Crucifixion, The history and pathology of crucifixion

[10] Horace White, Appian • The Civil Wars – Book I (English translation; 1913)

[11] Joaquin de la Sierra, The Brazen Bull: Medieval Times and Castles, http://www.medievality.com/brazen-bull.html[12] Aiolos. “Turkish Culture: The Art of Impalement.” e-grammes.gr, 7 April 2006.

[13] DRACULA: between myth and reality. by Adrian Axinte. Stanford University.

[14] Scaphism, VisWiki, http://www.viswiki.com/en/Scaphism

[15] Definition of Scaphism, Die.net, http://dictionary.die.net/scaphism

[16] Artaxerxes, Plutarch, (75)