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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