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Was the Brazen Bull Actually Used?

Instruments of torture are frequently associated with medieval times. Their use during the Middle Ages is well-documented in history. 

The medieval times weren’t the only era of the past when gruesome methods of interrogation or execution were implemented, though. Ancient civilizations were guilty of doing it too.

Replica creation of the brazen bull on display at a museum. Photo via Flickr.

Methods of torture and the equipment used to inflict excruciating pain on the victims vary from country to country around the world. 

The inventiveness that was used in creating body-crushing caskets, racks for stretching someone until their bones cracked, or devices for tearing out a tongue is mindblowing. 

There is one torture device that was used first by the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans that surpasses even the previously mentioned ones for grossness. 

It’s an instrument so evil that it would have left even the most hardened medieval torturer lost for words if they’d known about it. That instrument of torture is the brazen bull.

What Was The Brazen Bull?

The brazen bull was a hollow, life-sized statue of a bull. The statue was made from bronze and had an opening on one side. Bronze is a metal alloy that was commonly used in ancient times for multiple purposes. 

Bronze may well have been chosen as the metal for the statue as it has a high melting point and can withstand temperatures up to around 900ºC, which is considerably more than human flesh can.

When the torture began, the victim would be forced to enter into the stomach of the bronze bull through the side opening and then be enclosed inside. 

A fire would be lit under the bull, and the occupant would subsequently be roasted in the intense heat.

Who Invented The Brazen Bull?

According to the scribes of Ancient Greek history, the brazen bull was a method of torture invented by an Athenian who went by the name of Perilaus.

Perilaus was interested in currying favour with a brutal Greek despot, Phalaris, who was, at that time, making a takeover bid on the island of Sicily. 

Perilaus invented the brazen bull to impress Phalaris and to provide him with a new way of disposing of his enemies. One unusual feature Perilaus reputedly added to his torture instrument was located in its head. 

He was said to have included some sort of pipe system that would turn the screams of the roasting victim into a sound similar to that of a bellowing bull. It was part of his heinous invention that would, eventually, not work out too well for him. 

Who Was Phalaris?

Throughout history, Ancient Greece has been renowned for its highly educated philosophers, such as Socrates, and its infamous military leaders, like Alexander the Great. 

Phalaris wasn’t either. Phalaris was, for want of a better word, a barbarian who bullied his way into a position of power on the island of Sicily.

His life goal was to be the governor of the island, and he had no qualms about committing whatever atrocity was necessary to fulfill his ambition. He succeeded.

An old depiction of Phalaris executing Perilaus via Jupiterimages.

True to the nature of despots, Phalaris wasn’t impressed with what Perilaus presented him. He didn’t believe it would bellow like a bull and wanted to see it in action. 

The doubting Phalaris had Perilaus put inside the bull and fires lit beneath him to see if the invention worked. 

There are no written accounts of whether the bull actually bellowed with Perilaus’s screams as he started to bake or not. The testimonies written by scribes of the day told that Phalaris removed Perilaus from the brazen bull before he perished and then pushed him over a cliff.

Phalaris continued his campaign to conquer Sicily and be the sole ruler of the island until he was overthrown by another tyrant who was equally cruel as he was. If the historical accounts are correct, Phalaris was burnt to death in the brazen bull by the new conqueror, Telemachus.

Who Died In The Brazen Bull?

After Perilaus and Phalaris, further mentions of anyone being burned to death in the brazen bull are scant until a few centuries later when the Romans began to use the device to sacrifice followers of the new religion, Christianity.

Although not sainted at the time, the biographies of several well-known saints state they perished at the hands of Roman emperors by an instrument of torture known as the brazen bull. 

Two examples are:-

St Antipas – Antipas of Pergamum was executed by the Roman emperor Nero for conducting exorcisms.

St Eustace – Eustachious was a Roman soldier executed by the emperor Hadrian for converting to Christianity and no longer believing in pagan gods.

Was The Brazen Bull A Myth Or A Reality?

No archeological digs to date have uncovered any evidence of an instrument of torture like the brazen bull. 

Many historians believe the accounts of the brazen bull to be a part of mythical storytelling, making it legendary over time. 

A colored depiction of the brazen bull.

That may be so, but the existence of the brazen bull as a form of torture has been written about by multiple poets and scholars of both Ancient Greece and Rome. And they continued to write about it for centuries. 

Their accounts of everything else are pretty much taken verbatim, so maybe the brazen bull did exist after all, but thankfully, it no longer does. 


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