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 Agri­gen­to, in Sici­ly), 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ancient Greek Pun­ish­ments: The Retro Video Game

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Hear Homer’s Ili­ad Read in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: From Ancient Greece to Roco­co (A Free Online Course)

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Comments (28)
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  • Brindusa-Katalin Poenaru says:

    Human kind nev­er ceas­es to …hor­ri­fy me.

    • Alexov says:

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

  • darthadv says:

    I believe this was briefly fea­tured in the movie Immor­tals…

    • Larry Garfield says:

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

  • Rich says:

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

    • Tuomas Parsio says:

      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.

  • MaxFiction says:

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

  • Joshua Barnett says:

    hehe amne­sia

  • Ponderouspadre says:

    Man’s inhu­man­i­ty toward man knows no bounds.

  • dirkva says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

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

  • Just_me_and_God says:

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

  • Epipla says:

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

  • TokenGimp says:

    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

  • midwest says:

    What com­plete non­sense. What about Hitler, Stal­in, Pol Pot? You wish to believe that reli­gion is evil but you over­look his­tor­i­cal facts.

  • omgslapslapslap says:

    very true

  • Saeed says:

    It was­n’t Mus­lims who burnt Jews in ovens, it was­n’t Mus­lims who dropped atom­ic bombs, it was­n’t Mus­lims who almost wiped out native Amer­i­cans, etc etc etc, fun­ny how white chris­tians deem them­selves free of any crime when theirs is the most blood soaked in his­to­ry

  • chalee says:


  • Beric Stairheim says:

    Oh boy how many times has that line been thrown out? It should come with an oblig­a­tory (APPLAUSE). what a false state­ment. I would wager that its either child­birth or dis­ease that take that dis­tinc­tion. The sum of Human his­to­ry is much linger than youre por­tray­ing it. Maybe you were a bot that was pro­grammed to push that anti-faith agen­da? War does have objec­tives. Reli­gious war does have worldy objec­tives that are nei­ther mean­ing­less nor to be dis­count­ed flip­pant­ly. Your agen­da shows and over­whelms your argu­ment. Most of the time reli­gious con­flict can be said to be the prod­uct of more imme­di­ate tem­po­ral con­cerns, but then also has a cos­mic frame­work just as our dai­ly lives are under­pinned by the same. I ask you is it more out­ra­geous to fight, no, to KILL for Gods name than to kill for a world­ly, change­able social agen­da? Even if the Cru­sades had a base finan­cial objec­tive, does this make it mean­ing­less to those sec­ond sons of France and Ger­many and Eng­land who par­tic­i­pat­ed?

  • Roman says:

    Sure let’s form a tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment that forces us all to belive in…well noth­ing accord­ing to you.

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