Brutal Ancients: The Most Gruesome Deaths of the Ancient World

Ryan Ashenhurst

In the modern world, brutality still exists and deaths can be gruesome, be it falling into a wood chipper or expiring from boredom during an iOS update. But the ancient world is littered with some terrible examples, from a famous wrestler being eaten by wolves to a goblet of molten gold being fed to a wealthy Roman General following defeat.

Here are six brutal and somewhat weird deaths from the ancient world.

6. Philosopher Knievel Jumps into Volcano

Imagine being an intellect of such arrogance that you believe jumping into an active volcano might prove your God-status to your peers and not in fact scald you into a pool of goop? Empedocles was such a man, an established fifth-century bc philosopher and scientist who also claimed to possess qualities of magic.

These claims of supernatural ability included weather manipulation and age reversal. They did not include surviving contact with molten lava, but Empedocles just had to do it didn’t he? He just had to show his peers and the ancient world that he was a superior being, so like a toga-wearing sociopath, he took his place on the rim of the Mount Etna volcano and dived in. His peers believed him and many years after Empodocles’ death, claimed he had in fact vanished into a higher realm of existence.

As a side note, another series of ITV’s “Splash!” needs to be commissioned with volcano diving in mind. Aquatic Ken doll and professional diver Tom Daly could easily convince some C-class Celebrities that beneath the lava, a career revival is waiting for them. They could call it “Incinerate!”

5. Famous Wrestler eaten by wolves

Milo of Croton may sound like something you’d find in an alt-right Caesar salad, but he was in fact a famous 6th Century BC wrestler famed for his incredible strength. His modern equivalent is without a doubt Andre the Giant, who, like Milo, enjoyed a sesh.

Milo reportedly would drink eighteen pints of wine a day along with twenty pounds of meat and bread. That sort of intake would have made him quite a big bloke and strong enough to carry a calf around on his shoulders each day for training, another reported quirk.

But Milo’s strength was his eventual downfall. According to the historians Strabo and Pausanias, Milo was in a forest one day and came across a tree trunk that had been vertically split in half. Seeing this as an opportunity to display his strength by pulling the trunk out of the ground, Milo put his big meaty hand into the crevice and unfortunately got himself stuck. Then, outta nowhere, a pack of wolves and John Cena turned up and ate the helpless Milo alive. Given Milo’s daily intake of meat and wine, this may also be the first case of wild animals enjoying beef bourguignon.

4. Literary genius killed by sky tortoise

We’ve all been there. Minding our own business, casually walking around a city when suddenly, a shelled being falls from the sky and narrowly misses our faces. Statistics show that if you’ve significantly contributed to the literary world, the risks of death by tortoise are much higher.

Aeschylus, hailed as the king of tragedy, was a playwright from the fifth century BC. He is the first writer whose plays still survive to this day, pre-dating the works of Sophocles and Euripides. He founded the genre of tragedy and his cause of death was ironically tragic too. He was killed when an eagle mistook his bald, glimmering head as a rock.

The eagle was carrying a tortoise, hoping to use the drop method as a means of breaking the shell and getting its beak into that soft, reptilian goodness. In dropping the tortoise (who we feel sorry for the most in this story. Its day is already off to a bad start being carried off to be eaten, but it is then used as a murder weapon to kill a literary great), Aeschylus was killed immediately by the impact.

3. Emperor Corpse

Qin Shi Haung, First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Overseer of the construction of the Great Wall of China, Founder of the Terracotta Army, Commissioner of the National highway system, assassination attempt Survivor, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons and First of his Name, didn’t die in a particularly gruesome fashion, but what happened after his death was stinking awful.

Qin Shi Haung was another ancient figure of power who converges with the ethereal and supernatural. It’s as if there is a correlation between a sociopathic desire for absolute power and a belief in surpassing the human psyche. They’re much of the same thing if you think about it.

The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty was obsessed with seeking the Elixir of Life and wanted the immortality that it would bring to him and his Empire. He ordered thousands of men and women onto ships, to travel to far lands and seek the Elixir. Some historians believe that it was those tasked with finding the Elixir who were the first to colonize Japan, by accident.

During this time of searching, Qin Shi Haung’s court physicians must have been fed up and rushed to find a solution. They convinced the Emperor that by ingesting pills of Mercury, he would live forever. The pills obviously poisoned him and he died.

What happened next was born from fear and desperation. He ingested the Mercury pills whilst conducting a tour of eastern China. The Prime Minister of China, Li Si, was afraid that announcing the Emperor’s death would cause a nation-wide uprising, therefore decided that they would carry on the tour as if nothing had happened. He ordered that carts full of rotten fish should travel alongside the Emperor’s cart to mask the smell of his rotting corpse. Whenever a meeting was requested of the Emperor, his suitors were advised to write to him instead. This ordeal went on for two whole months and Qin Shi Haung’s body was left to fester until they reached the capitol.

2. Molten Gold Beverage

Marcus Licinius Crassus remains as one of the wealthiest men in all of human history. Was he a human orator that doubled as a search engine? Nope. Did he create “Slatebook”, a primitive social media feed that used the power of chalk rather than the internet? Nope. In Ancient Rome, battlefield success equated big bucks, and there was no better than General Crassus, until he was defeated by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC.

The Parthians method of execution was brutal and disturbingly poetic. As a symbol of his wealth, they opted to force him to drink a goblet of molten gold. They then beheaded him his burnt, expensive head was used as a prop in a production of the Euripides play “The Bacchae” In which an actor would operate Crassus’ molten head and make it sing a song. Dissatisfied with this, the Parthians then found a Roman prisoner who resembled Crassus, dressed him as a woman and paraded him around in public.

Blood Eagle – Used by Vikings: Cutting the skin of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim’s back.

Scaphism – Used by Persians: The condemned was placed in between two boats, force fed a mixture of honey and milk, and left floating in a stagnant pond. The victim would then suffer from severe diarrhea, which would attract insects that would burrow, nest, and feed on the victim.

Quartered by Horses – Used in Medieval England and Imperial China: Arms and legs tied to four separate horses, that then sprint off in diametrically opposed directions. 

Keelhauled – Used first in Ancient Greece: Condemned is tied to a rope looped beneath the hull of a ship and is dragged around the loop and lacerated by barnacles beneath the ship. Most drowned.

1. Insect Feast

Mithridates was a Persian soldier who didn’t keep his mouth shut. A common foot soldier in King Artaxerxes’ army who was able to kill his King’s rival in battle. The Ancient King claimed he had killed the leader of the opposing army so he could propagate himself to heroism. According to the records of historian Plutarch, Mithridates got drunk one night and revealed the truth that he had in fact killed the King’s rival. Enraged to hear that his soldier had falsified his claim, King Artaxerxes sentenced Mithridates to death by Scaphism.

He was coated in honey and milk and forced to constantly face the sun so that the sweet mixture would dry on him. Left in the open, rodents and insects would treat the victim like a buffet and eat him alive. Mithridates allegedly survived for seventeen days in this torturous condition before succumbing to dehydration and septic shock.

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