Eaten Alive (Scaphism) – Worst Punishments In History of Mankind


In terms of justice, the ancient Persian Empire
could be said to have been harsh, but fair. The criminal code included the principal of
“lex talionis”, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, misdemeanors usually warranted
fines, you might be branded for slander, and for the worst crimes you would get the death
penalty. On occasions there was a two strikes rule,
meaning someone wouldn’t be executed for their first offense. So, there you are in ancient Persia, two strikes
down. You are wondering how the death penalty will
be metered out. Will it be suffocation by ashes perhaps, or
maybe having molten gold poured down your throat as what might have happened to the
Roman emperor Valerian. It’s hard to say which would be worse, but
today we think have a Persian punishment that was the most brutal of them all. While the ancient Persians did have strict
laws pertaining to matters of justice, as we said, that didn’t at times stop them
from being tremendously brutal. We’ll give you a few more examples before
we get to possibly the worst punishment of them all. Take for example the death of a Persian judge
called Sisamnes. It’s said that he was corrupt and King Cambyses
II of Persia who ruled from 530 BC to 522 BC wanted to make an example out of him as
a warning to others who might think about corrupting the courts. It’s said the judge was flayed from head
to toe and then his skin was used to make a chair. As the tale goes, anyone appointed from then
on as a judge would have to spend some time sitting in that chair so they would know what
would happen if they were corrupt. You can see this horrific spectacle in the
paintings “The Arrest of Sisamnes” and “Flaying of Sisamnes.” Then there’s the story of Cyrus the Great. It’s written that his wife became quite
unhappy with one of her eunuchs. So unhappy in fact, that she ordered that
he be killed three times. This is called The Triple Death. It’s said first his eyes were pulled from
his head, but then he was nursed back to health. His second death was being flayed, but again
he was nursed so he wouldn’t die. We imagine he couldn’t have been completely
flayed as that resulted in certain death. When he was better he was then crucified and
the job was done. We should say, however, that there are many
versions of this tale. We’ll stick with this one for now. So, with these two executions in mind, could
there really be anything worse? Well, now we have to look at the story of
a man called Mithridates. He was a young Persian soldier who was put
to death in 401BC. It’s said this man accidentally killed Cyrus
the Younger, the rebel who was intending to kill his older brother Arsaces so he could
inherit the throne. Thousands of men were behind Cyrus and this
culminated in the Battle of Cunaxa. Cyrus’ army got the upper hand after charging
Artaxerxes’ army, all was going well, the throne was in his sights. Cyrus then went to attack his brother’s
personal bodyguard and then…oops…out of nowhere a javelin just hit him and killed
him on the spot. This was a huge setback for the rebels and
they all retreated. Their future king was dead, it was over. We know this because the story was recorded
by the Greek biographer Plutarch in his essay the “Life of Artaxerxes.” Another Greek writer called Ctesias told Plutarch
of the fate of the man that accidentally killed Cyrus with that javelin. As you know, his name was Mithridates. It’s understandable perhaps that some people
were perhaps a bit miffed with Mithridates. Only the severest of punishments would do,
and that’s where scaphism comes in. This is how Plutarch describes this very unusual
kind of death penalty. We will paraphrase as his language is a bit
dated now. So, two boats of equal size were put on top
of each other and nailed together. It kind of made a floating coffin. Holes were made in the boats so that the prisoner
could be fastened in the them but with his hands, feet and head sticking out. So far so good. He was floating, his head was protruding,
he was getting rather hot. He was left there with the hot sun shining
on his face. His body was baking hot inside the floating
tomb. They then force fed Mithridates milk and honey,
and in good size portions, too. They also covered his face with the stuff. Soon his honey-covered face was covered with
flies that were feasting on him and the honey. He was then force fed more and more until
his belly was distended and he had produced quite the pile of excrement. At this point, as Plutarch said, “creeping
things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement.” These things entered Mithridates’ bowels,
while his flesh was slowly being eaten too from the outside. This slow devouring by insects and vermin
it’s said lasted 17 days. At that point, poor, young Mithridates with
the bad javelin shot was eaten alive. There was another description of this by a
12th-century Byzantine chronicler called Joannes Zonaras. It’s really the same story, but he embellished
the tale somewhat. This is the conclusion, word for word in translation: “Flies, wasps, and bees, attracted by the
sweetness, settle on his face and all such parts of him as project outside the boats,
and miserably torment and sting the wretched man. Moreover his belly, distended as it is with
milk and honey, throws off liquid excrements, and these putrefying breed swarms of worms,
intestinal and of all sorts. Thus the victim lying in the boats, his flesh
rotting away in his own filth and devoured by worms, dies a lingering and horrible death.” But is that it, just one case of scaphism
throughout history? Well, it seems like the one case everyone
talks about is the one we just described, although most sources call scaphism an ancient
form of punishment as if it happened time and again. We did find an excerpt from a book called
“The History of Christian Martyrdom.” In that book it’s written that a bishop
called Marcus in 363 AD destroyed a pagan temple and then erected a church. This didn’t go down well with Roman emperor
Julian the Apostate. It’s written that as punishment he took
Marcus and hung him up in a basket and left him there to be feasted on by insects. But this seems like a case of dying in the
hot sun rather than hardcore scaphism. There’s actually quite the debate about
scaphism on the Wiki Talk page, with some editors questioning the veracity of Plutarch
and asking for other sources. Plutarch did indeed write that account of
scaphism, but some historians believe he may have done so to demonize the Persians and
make his own culture look better. We will never know exactly what happened to
Mithridates, but right now that’s the prevailing story. Perhaps he was the only man ever to get the
full dose of scaphism, or maybe old Plutarch was an ancient publisher of fake news. So, did we find the worst punishment of all
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