Discover the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Torture Machine That Doubled as a Musical Instrument

History is replete with brutally imaginative torture and execution techniques. The list of cruelties includes crucifixion, where victims were left to die on the cross; the rack, where torturers would place the victim on a wooden frame to be slowly pulled apart; and hanging, drawing, and quartering—the official English punishment for high treason from 1351 to 1870—where men would be drawn by horse to their place of execution, hung until near-death, and then emasculated and disemboweled before being decapitated and cut into quarters. The most intricately sadistic form of torture, however, originated with the Greek tyrant Phalaris.

Phalaris, the despot of Acragas (now Agragento, in Siciliy), was infamous for his callousness and reputedly “devoured” suckling infants. The video above describes how Phalaris, keeping to his character, asked the craftsman Perilaus to construct a bronze bull for the execution of criminals. The bull housed a hollow chamber where victims were deposited through a trapdoor. A fire was kindled beneath the bull, turning the statue into an oven.

As Phalaris supposedly admitted himself, the most savage aspect of this brazen monstrosity was its musical nature:

A countryman of my own, one Perilaus, 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 any one, 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.”

It is doubtful that the tyrant so known for his barbarism would cringe at this novelty; nevertheless, Phalaris claims to have been sickened by Perilaus’ cleverness:

‘His words revolted me. I loathed the thought of such ingenious cruelty, and resolved to punish the artificer in kind. “If this is anything more than an empty boast, Perilaus,” I said to him, “if your art can really produce this effect, get inside yourself, and pretend to roar; and we will see whether the pipes will make such music as you describe.” He consented; and when he was inside I closed the aperture, and ordered a fire to be kindled. “Receive,” I cried, “the due reward of your wondrous art: let the music-master be the first to play.”

Upon hearing Perilaus’ shrieks, the content tyrant removed the craftsman from bull, and then threw him off of a cliff. “Mistaken my character,” indeed.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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by | Permalink | Comments (23) |

  • Brindusa-Katalin Poenaru

    Human kind never ceases to …horrify me.

  • darthadv

    I believe this was briefly featured in the movie Immortals…

  • Rich

    So which is correct about Perilaus’ demise? The video’s account or the article?

  • MaxFiction

    That’s one of the best stories I’ve heard in some time!

  • Tuomas Parsio

    I just read Lucian’s version to which the article refers. Compared with it, the video is quite inaccurate: Perilaus left the bull alive, only to be thrown down from a cliff. Again according to Lucian, the reason for this was not, as the article suggests, Phalaris’ contentment, but his desire not to pollute the bull! There may of course be other “ancient texts” reporting on the issue, I don’t know about that.

  • Alexov

    Human KIND?? Human-most-UNkind, it seems to me… It is beyond disgusting, even the hang-draw-and-quartering.

  • Joshua Barnett

    hehe amnesia

  • Ponderouspadre

    Man’s inhumanity toward man knows no bounds.

  • dirkva

    I think the writers of this script and article need to look up “musical instrument” in an encyclopedia. It takes more than a noise-maker to qualify as a musical instrument.

  • RLM357

    Das ich dein furst BBQ. Ja? Now how do we get the vitals out for der delicatessen? Who’s got the Sauce? As to the musical element…. This falls flat.

  • RLM357

    Just ask a Muslim!

  • RLM357

    This is a lot of Bull! Hmmmm….who has bigger Brass Bulls?

  • Larry Garfield

    A similar device, although I believe shaped like an elephant, was used in “Red Riding Hood” with Gary Oldman. Good movie, very unpleasant treatment.

  • MsSgt3

    Uhuh…just WATCH a moose limb!!!

  • Just_me_and_God

    I thought this story was going to be about the invention of the accordion! ;-D

  • Epipla

    where did the greeks find the ocean?? i think you mean to the medditerranean sea…

  • Rich Fraser

    RLM, please note that everything the Muslims learned about savagery they learned from the Christians during the Crusades. Go read about it, I dare you.

  • bodica

    And they say Germans have no sense of humor!

  • bodica

    What utter nonsense, Fraser. Absolute pishtosh.

  • TokenGimp

    When I read the story title the first song that immediately came to mind was ” The Sounds Of Silence”. a musical instrument as torture tool for me was an accordion when I had to take lessons.n

  • Hilda McCabe

    The video is in Dutch Not in German!

  • Hilda McCabe

    To this day, Religion has caused more people to die than anything else. We need to abolish all religions, then we will have a healthier and kinder World.

  • rrfjfhrf ehfnbvncujektf

    Without religion, humanity would fall apart. There would be nothing to believe in, nothing to have faith in.