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:

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

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Comments (28)
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  • 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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