The Bull by Stuart Yeates.

Brazen Bull: Gruesome Ancient Greek Torture Device Turned Screams into ‘Music’

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The Brazen Bull (known also as the ‘Bull of Phalaris’, the ‘Bronze Bull’ or the ‘Sicilian Bull’) was a type of ancient torture and execution device from ancient Greece. The story of the Brazen Bull is connected with Phalaris, the tyrant of Acragas (known today as Agrigento, on the southern coast of Sicily), and Perillos (sometimes spelt as Perilaüs), an Attic bronze-worker. The Brazen Bull was an extremely cruel instrument, and its story is a renowned example of an invention that caused the death of its inventor.

Meet the Maker

The story of the Brazen Bull seems to have been well-known in the ancient world, as it has been mentioned by writers such as Lucian of Samosata, Pindar, “and countless besides them”. One version of the story can be found in Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History . According to this ancient historian, the Brazen Bull was invented by a man by the name of Perillos, who was a “well-known Attic worker in bronze”. Diodorus indicates that Perillos brought the Brazen Bull to Phalaris as a gift. Phalaris was known in the ancient world for his cruelty, and perhaps the bronze-worker was hoping for a reward from the tyrant for his ingenuity.

Torture in the Torso

As its name suggests, the Brazen Bull was a bronze object in the shape of a bull. This metallic animal was hollow on the inside, and had a door on the side of its body, through which a person could be placed in the beast. Once the victim was shut in the Brazen Bull, a fire would be lit under its belly. This would heat the device, turning it into an oven, and roasting the victim within it. The most gruesome aspect of this device, however, is that it doubles as a sort of musical device for the ‘entertainment’ of the onlookers.

An engraving showing Perillos being forced into the Brazen Bull.

An engraving showing Perillos being forced into the Brazen Bull. ( Public Domain )

As the heated metal seared the victim’s flesh, he or she would be screaming in agony. These screams were channelled into “small sounding pipes in the nostrils” of the bull, which resulted in a bellowing sound being emitted from the device. In Diodorus’ account, Perillos is claimed to have said to the tyrant “his cries of pain will give you pleasure as they come through the pipes in the nostrils.”

A Bully Gets Burned

Diodorus provides a somewhat less cruel portrayal of Phalaris. In fact, the tyrant is depicted as a just ruler punishing a wicked man. Diodorus mentions that “When Phalaris learned of this scheme, he was filled with loathing of the man”, and decided to let Perillos have a taste of his own medicine. Therefore, he requested the inventor to demonstrate to him how the brazen bull was to work. Thinking that he was to give the tyrant an example of how the pipes would sound, Perillos crept into the Brazen Bull. Once he was in the device, Phalaris had the opening shut, and started a fire under it. Perillos did not die in his invention, however, as he was taken out half-dead, and thrown off a cliff. This was done in order that his “death might not pollute the work of bronze”.

Plate decoration depicting Phalaris burning Perilaus in a brazen bull, 1550-1570

Plate decoration depicting Phalaris burning Perilaus in a brazen bull, 1550-1570 ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Fate of the Brazen Bull

Diodorus also tells his readers about the eventual fate of the Brazen Bull. At some point of time, the instrument was taken to Carthage. When that city fell to the Romans under Scipio Aemilianus in 147 BC, envoys from Sicily were shown the spoils of war, and were told to “pick out whatever things had in times past been carried off from their particular cities to Carthage, and to take them home to Sicily”. One of these was the Brazen Bull. It is unknown as to what finally happened to the Brazen Bull. Some Christian saints are claimed to have been killed in the Brazen Bull, though these stories have been dismissed as false by the Catholic Church.

Top image: The Bull by Stuart Yeates. Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren

References:

Blinderman, I., 2013. Discover the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Torture Machine That Doubled as a Musical Instrument. [Online]
Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2013/11/brazen-bull.html

Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History [Online]
[Oldfather, C. H. (trans.), 1933-1957. Diodorus Siculus’ The Library of History .]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/home.html

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