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Brazen Bull: The Ancient Greek torture device considered to be one of the most gruesome creations of all time

Alex A

The dark corners of history are filled with gruesome torture techniques that would make you very grateful for living in our “civilized” modern world. From crucifixion to the iron maiden, each of these is more disgusting and petrifying than the last. However, one the most complex sadistic forms of torture can be traced back to Ancient Greece, and the tyrant Phalaris.

Drawing of a brazen bull by Hans Burgkmair

Phalaris, the despot of Acragas (modern Agrigento in Sicily),  was a heartless, sadistic tyrant renowned for his imprudent cruelty; his alleged atrocities include “devouring”  infants. One day, Perillos of Athens told Phalaris of his newest invention, a torture and execution device that would strike fear into the hearts of his enemies: The Brazen Bull.

Phalaris condemning the sculptor Perillos to the bronze bull

Ancient Greeks perceived the bull as a symbol of absolute power, this explains why creatures like the “Minotaur” are so common in Greek Mythology. Some Greeks believed in a bull-headed god called “Moloch”  who demanded human sacrifice. The Brazen Bull could have its inspiration rooted in this ancient, brutal form of bull worship.

18th-century depiction of the Moloch idol

The Brazen Bull was a device with a simple concept but a downright diabolical execution. Made entirely from bronze,  it was the same shape and size as an actual bull, and housed a hollow chamber in its body. The poor person set to be executed by the bull was locked inside of this chamber, then a fire pit was set under it, heating the  belly of the beast until the victim inside roasted to death.

the-brazen-bull Photo Credit
The brazen bull Photo Credit

“A countryman of my own, one Perilaus [another rendering of Perillos], an admirable artist, but a man of evil disposition, had so far mistaken my character as to think that he could win my regard by the invention of a new form of torture; the love of torture, he thought, was my ruling passion… He opened the back of the animal, and continued: “When you are minded to punish anyone, shut him up in this receptacle, apply these pipes to the nostrils of the bull, and order a fire to be kindled beneath. The occupant will shriek and roar in unremitting agony; and his cries will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings. Your victim will be punished, and you will enjoy the music.”

 Works of Lucian, Vol. II: Phalaris: I

As if  the Brazen Bull wasn’t brutal enough, it was designed to channel the victim’s screams through a series of pipes and out of a set of holes on the bulls face. This gruesome acoustic apparatus transformed the desperate screams so that they sounded like a bull’s angry bellowing.

An idealized execution with the brazen bull of Pergamon

Reportedly, Perillos told Phalaris “His screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings.” Appalled by these words, the tyrant ordered the acoustic system to be tested on the creator himself and pushed Perillos inside the bull. The doomed craftsman was locked inside and the fire was set, and soon Phalaris could hear the sound of his screams. Before Perillos could die, the tyrant opened the locked door and took him away. Perillos thought that he would be rewarded for his evil invention, but instead, Phalaris threw the unfortunate craftsmen from the top of a hill.

Unknown 16th century painter

In an ironic twist, is said that the tyrant Phalaris himself died in the Brazen Bull when he was overthrown by Telemachus, the ancestor of Theron.