Greetings, readers. I’d like to welcome you to the Museum Macabre; a repository for the vilest men of history, the cruelest tortures and bloodiest executions; a Temple of Unreason, a Cabinet of Curiosities filled with the relics of the worst of humankind. Here you will find the tools of the Inquisition, the sadistic deeds of the Greek Tyrants and the Emperors of Rome, the punishments meted out and the crimes they were reserved for. I am the Curator of the Museum; I’ll be your guide to the grotesque and your educator in evil.
First up, we have the Brazen Bull of Phalaris, a most diabolical instrument of excution…and possibly of slow-cooked barbeque.
Acragas (modern day Agrigento), on the southern coast of Sicily. Approximately 570 BCE (Before the Common Era; few historians use “Before Christ” and “Anno Domino”), a man named Phalaris is entrusted with building a Temple of Zeus in Acragas. He uses this trust to be named despot of Acragas. Under his rule, Acragas prospered; Phalaris improved the city’s water supply, strengthened its fortifications and funded a municipal beautification program. The city of Himera on the northern coast of the island voted him supreme ruler, and according to some accounts he was named supreme ruler of the island of Sicily.
If you might suspect, reading this, that he was a just and fair ruler, well…Phalaris was renowned for his excessive cruelty, with some accounts stating that Phalaris’ favorite snack was newborn babies. This is suspect, because histories at the time were written not for strict truthfulness, but as moral instruction and travelogues of foreign lands. Herodotus, for example, wrote of the Greco-Persian wars…but he also wrote of dog-sized ants living in the far regions of the Persian Empire.
At some point during his reign, Phalaris was approached by Perillos of Athens with a proposal of a new means of executing criminals — a large sculpture of a bull, cast on hollow bronze, with a door on the side. Into this door prisoners would be stuffed, the door being closed behind them. At this point, under Phalaris’ watchful eye, servants would kindle a fire under the bull. The bronze would be heated until it glowed “yellow-hot,” roasting the condemned alive.
Fairly gruesome, yes? This isn’t the half of it. Perillos was an ingenious sort; the mouth of the bull was open, allowing the venting of steam from the roasting flesh within, as well as offering a means of making a visually-unexciting method of execution more “fun” for Phalaris; an elaborate series of tubes and stops inside the neck of the bull modulated the screams of the condemned within; by the time the sound emerged from the bull’s throat, it sounded more like the bellowing of an enormous bull then the agonies of a dying man.
Perillos had misjudged Phalaris in this, however; reportedly, upon being told of this feature, Phalaris was so disgusted that he had Perillos put in the bull as it’s first test. Perillos was not allowed to roast to death; he was taken from the bull prematurely, and thrown off a hill.
While some might be inclined to dismiss the brazen bull as a legend, a propaganda piece intended to discredit Phalaris. However, the Greek lyric poet Pindar, writing a century later, expressly linked Phalaris with the brazen bull, and in 406 when Carthage invaded and conquered Sicily, a brazen bull is listed amongst the plunder. Roman tactical genius Scipio Africanus is reported to have taken the brazen bull from Carthage in 200 BCE and returned it to Acragas; however, it’s more likely that Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, returned the bull to Acragas in 146 BCE after the final destruction of Carthage and the end of the Third Punic War.
As such, the Romans were familiar with the brazen bull; during the prosecutions of Emperor Domitian, Saint Antipas, Bishop of Pergamum was roasted alive in such a device; becoming the first martyr from Asia Minor in 96 CE. Saint Eustace, along with his wife and children, were martyred by the Emperor Hadrian in 118 CE in a bull, and in 287 CE Pelagia of Tarsus was burned to death in one by Emperor Diocletian.
More recently, the brazen bull has been adapted to horror films; one such device appeared in the climax of SAW 3D, and one in the shape of an elephant appeared in 2011’s RED RIDING HOOD.
And that, I believe, covers the Brazen Bull of Phalaris; as you exit, do take note of the Gift Shop on your left — we have Brazen Bull meat smokers, perfect for your next garden party, available for sale at a very reasonable price, and all proceeds do go to supporting the upkeep of the Museum Macabre. Come again soon, won’t you?