Means of Torture in the Ancient and Medieval World

Torture has taken many forms throughout history. Its usage has been justified by heavenly mandate as well as its aid to the court of law (Einolf, Tortureum). In major societies, your risk for torture was directly tied to your citizenship status. In the Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire, citizens were only tortured if convicted of treason. During the late empire, the social classes, honestores (first-class citizens) and humiliores (second-class) had differing levels of susceptibility. Honestores were subject to the same standards as before– tortured for treason only– while humiliores were often tortured during criminal proceedings. In ancient Greece, citizens were safe from state-sponsored torture but slaves and other non-citizens were at risk for any number of reasons. In fact, in criminal trials, torture would give legitimacy to testaments from slaves as it was commonly held that torture would reliably extract the truth from the questioned. Without being tortured, the statements from slaves would be inadmissible, so torture was, in this sense, necessary. (Einolf 107).

Aside from treason, torture could be used as punishment for those seen as heretic. Early Roman pagans might torture and kill Christians after a natural disaster in order to quell their gods, while state officials might punish Christians for not worshiping the emperor (Einolf 107). In the case of medieval Europe, accusations of witchcraft might also warrant torture. Interestingly, the modern idea of medieval torture dungeons is often exaggerated. Devices such as the “Pear of Anguish” and the “Iron Maiden” have long been dismissed by experts but are still sensationalized in media– whether it be movies, television, or tabloid lists (Konieczny 1-2). These devices are products of the 18th and 19th centuries, not medieval times. Medieval torture was less imaginative than the modern world commonly believes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1139 describes a variety of straightforward torture used by the Norman invaders of England:

They hanged them by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung fires on their feet; they put knotted strings about their heads, and writhed them so that it went to the brain … Some they put in a chest that was short, and narrow, and shallow, and put sharp stones therein, and pressed the man therein, so that they broke all his limbs … I neither can nor may tell all the wounds or all the tortures which they inflicted on wretched men in this land. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1139


Pear of Anguish – By Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, Germany – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Iron Maiden – By Lestat (Jan Mehlich) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Perhaps one of the most iconic means of torture was crucifixion. Though it was used as early as the 6th century BCE in Persia, death by crucifixion was most notable in the Roman world prior to the 4th century CE (Retief, et al).


Alexamenos graffito – Estimated 3rd century Roman graffiti mocking a Christian depicted as worshiping a crucified donkey – Public Domain,

Through this method, victims were shamed and left to die for all to see. Other notable– and verifiably legitimate– devices are “The Rack” and the “Brazen Bull,” both used in ancient Greece (Konieczny 4). The Rack was device in which a victim could be bound to and stretched at their limbs to the point of tearing. The Brazen Bull was a hollowed bronze bull in which a victim could be placed inside. Once locked inside, a fire was lit underneath, effectively roasting the victim. In later iterations, a series of tubes within the bull could serve the dual purpose of providing the victim with fresh air while also transferring the breaths and screams into the sounds of an infuriated bull, to the spectacle of onlookers.


The Rack as displayed in the Tower of London – By David Bjorgen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

brazen bull

Depiction of the Brazen Bull’s inventor, Perillos, being forced into his own device – By Pierre Woeiriot – Unknown, Public Domain,

Other means of torture included exposure and “scaphism.” Exposure was an effective and no-frills way to punish medieval wrongdoers. Victims could either be exposed– while naked– to freezing weather and doused in water, or to a blazing sun and doused with boiling water or oil. Another option was simply imprisoning the victim in a pillory or gibbet and leaving them exposed to whatever Mother Nature had to offer, as well as the mocking stares from their neighbors.


A pillory (left) and gibbet (right) – L A Vidler, G S Bagley, G Mayhew and Jo Kirkham

Scaphism, or “The Boats,” was a Persian practice best described the Greek biographer Plutarch:

“The king decreed that Mithridates should be put to death in boats; which execution is after the following manner: Taking two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other, they lay down in one of them the malefactor that suffers, upon his back; then, covering it with the other, and so setting them together that the head, hands, and feet of him are left outside, and the rest of his body lies shut up within, they offer him food, and if he refuse to eat it, they force him to do it by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, they drench him with a mixture of milk and honey, pouring it not only into his mouth, but all over his face. They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun; and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it. And as within the boats he does what those that eat and drink must needs do, creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed. When the man is manifestly dead, the uppermost boat being taken off, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon and, as it were, growing to his inwards. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.” Plutarch, The Life of Artaxerxes


For my project, I built a miniature Brazen Bull. I constructed it out of popsicle sticks and aluminum foil. I used hot glue to bind materials together and a small balloon to form a “face” around. I built the “door” to the inside of the bull on the top, though sources point to the opening being located on the side.

After building the frame and covering it in layers of foil (the best I can do as a substitute for bronze), I lit a miniature fire (matchsticks, bits of wood, and paper inside an empty chicken can) and placed it underneath the bull. The fire quickly enshrouded the sides of the bull, though the bull itself did not catch fire. After removing the fire, I opened the bull and was able to feel the stifling heat inside. Considering that the actual Brazen Bull was made out of bronze, you can imagine the intense heat that the victim would suffer, both by direct conduction from the metal and the heated air inside. When it was used, it was sure to be a public spectacle. The combination of the imagery and the sounds that the enclosed victim would make would have made this torture device an overall theatrical experience for onlookers.

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“Alexamenos Graffito.” Wikipedia. November 11, 2018. Accessed December 13, 2018.

De La Sierra, Joaquin. “Medieval Torture.” Medievality. November 9, 2008. Accessed December 4, 2018.

Einolf, Christopher J. “The Fall and Rise of Torture: A Comparative and Historical Analysis.” Sociological Theory 25, no. 2 (2007): 101-21.

“History of Torture.” Tortureum. 2015. Accessed December 4, 2018.

Konieczny, Peter. “Why Medieval Torture Devices Are Not Medieval.” Archeologie Huis. March 20, 2016. Accessed December 7, 2018.

Plutarch. “Life of Artaxerxes.” Translated by John Dryden. Accessed December 12, 2018.

Retief, F. P., and L. Cilliers. “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. December 2003. Accessed December 07, 2018.

“Scaphism.” Omics International. 2014. Accessed December 10, 2018.

translated by James Ingram. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Champaign, Ill. : Boulder, Colo. :Project Gutenberg ; NetLibrary, 19901999.

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