history 13 Ways Authoritative Figures Publicly Displayed Bodies to Scare People

Christopher Myers
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Subjugatin' ain't easy. You can't just show up and expect everyone to give you their stuff and obey what you say. People ask inconvenient questions like, "who the heck are you?" and "from whence do you derive your authority?" If your reply, "The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king" doesn't work, it is time to resort to violence.

History is full of brutal subjugation techniques. The tools of psychological terror range from heinous torture to nauseating violence and dismembered corpses. What really seems to do the trick, however, are public spaces festooned with human remains. Nothing enables tyrannical oppression like the public display of dead bodies. When peasants see a dead guy with his eyes gouged out hanging from the castle walls, they're generally too busy pissing themselves to think about rebellion.

Nothing Says "Obey Me" Like a Head on a Spike

Nothing Says "Obey Me"... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 13 Ways Authoritative Figures Publicly Displayed Bodies to Scare People
Photo: Rex Whistler/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

There is a long tradition in many societies of putting heads on spikes as acts of intimidation. It just feels natural, implying, "look at this guy. You don't want to end up like him."

The English were probably best at the practice, and took it to a whole new level. London Bridge showcased the severed heads of traitors and enemies of the state for centuries. At one point, there were 30 heads above the Stone Gateway, displayed simultaneously. Some notable heads include those of William Wallace, Thomas More, and Bishop John Fisher.

Of particular interest is how Oliver Cromwell's head (which has its own Wikipedia page, just fyi) ended up on the bridge. Upon his death in 1658, Cromwell, who was once head of state of England, Ireland, and Scotland, was buried like royalty at Westminster Abbey. A year later, though, his son was overthrown, and King Charles II returned from exile to reestablish the monarchy.

Suddenly, many of the people who Cromwell really pissed off were back in power. They took the opportunity to exhume his corpse, cut off his head, and stick it on a spike over London Bridge. This must have pleased more than a few Irish ("Cromwellian conquest of Ireland" is also a Wikipedia page). The message was sent: Don't mess with the monarchy.

King Edward Longshanks Had "Traitors" Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

King Edward I (yes, the guy from Braveheart) invented this method of execution because he didn't want anyone to get in the way of his conquest of Great Britain. He first used it on the formerly independent Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, and later on William Wallace (Mel Gibson from Braveheart). Because Longshanks declared treason a triple crime (against God, man, and the king), it required a triple execution.

First, the condemned was chained, prostrate, to a glorified fence post, and drawn through the streets by horses, so loving townsfolk could stone and mock him. When the The Man had enough of that, the victim was hung by a rope, and his sensitive parts were removed, i.e. emasculation (if you haven't figured it out, they cut his d*ck and nuts off).  

That humiliation complete, the condemned was cut down for a primitive version of vivisection; his stomach was cut open and his entrails removed and burnt. Then, the executioner cut open his chest and removed his (ideally) still-beating heart, holding it up to the crowd. Of course, that wasn't enough, so the condemned was then decapitated and quartered (cut into pieces).

Oh, and this was still practiced as an official execution method in England as late as the 18th century. Suddenly, the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment makes a lot of sense. After all, the guys who wrote it were considered traitors to the crown.

The Romans Crucified Just About Anyone Who Pissed Them Off

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Photo: John Warner Barbewr and John Fleetwood/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Jesus Christ wasn't the only guy to get the business end of the crucifixion stick. Crucifixion was a common, horrifically brutal, subjugation technique of the Romans. The process was severe; the condemned was beaten with varying degrees of severity, then forced to carry the heavy cross or post to the execution spot.

Upon arriving at the execution site, the condemned was strung up at one of numerous angles, including upside down, sideways, and Jesus style. Nails were driven through the palms at a nerve, to cause the most pain. This induced involutnariy palm clenching. Some evidence suggests feet were nailed to the sides, not the front, of the cross, through the ankles. Then the condemned was left to die a slow, agonizing death as the lungs filled with fluid in full view of the public.

Today, ISIS is apparently taking a page from this book and crucifying people. Though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights believes the victims are executed before crucified, the message is still pretty straightforward: "Obey."

Vlad the Impaler Really Earned His Nickname

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Good old Vlad III of 15th century Romania was brutal enough to inspire the character Dracula. In fact, the name Dracula comes from Vlad's father's position in the crusading "Order of the Dragon" (Dracul). Dracula means "Son of Dracul."  Vlad III spent some time fighting the Muslim Ottoman Empire and some time fighting Christian forces as an ally to the Ottomans, and in both cases, he was crazy about murdering people.

Vlad consolidated his rule and struck fear into enemies and subjects by impaling people. Fields of them, in fact. Rows of stakes were planted vertically, and victims lowered onto them. Usually, the spike entered the rear and exited the mouth (ass to mouth?), but many other angles of impalement were also used. Stakes were oiled and not too sharp, so as to to prevent sudden death from shock. Once impaled, victims were left to die a slow and agonizing death, after which they rotted among their fellow impaled corpses.

Also worth pointing out - in the image above, Vlad is straight up just having a meal at a nicely set table next to his field of impaled victims, while an underling chops up corpses right in front of him. It's probably not historically accurate, but it raises more questions than it answers. 

Christopher Columbus Paraded the Body Parts of Natives Through the Streets

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Photo: Bartolomé de las Casas/Wikipedia Commons/Public Domain

Christopher Columbus was a total dick. His rule over Hispaniola, the island containing modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was best described as tyrannical. After the first expedition, he left 39 men behind. When he returned with 1,200 more men, he found the original 39 dead (most likely from being dicks to the natives). So, Columbus went medieval on the natives. His men engaged in beheading contests, cut natives in half to test the sharpness of their swords, and practiced wanton rape.

The penalty native slaves endured for not keeping up with Columbus's gold mining quotas was having their hands cut off and hung about their necks as they bled to death. Some 10,000 died in this manner, and a total of 250,000 natives are believed to have been killed during a two-year period.

Even in a time period known for brutality, Columbus's actions were seen as atrocious (or at the very least ineffective management); he was sent back to Spain in chains. And was then pardoned.

The Assyrians Were Just Crazy About Flaying People Alive

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

If you can imagine an entire civilization as insanely sadistic as Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones, you will come close to how the ancient Assyrians behaved. The civilization existed from around 1400 to 609 BC, in current day northern Iraq and southern Turkey, and these guys make ISIS look like choir boys. Their entire society was based firmly in war; they believed they had to lay waste to their neighbors and build elaborate structures with the plunder to appease the gods.

Of course, when you're constantly obsessed with conquest, it's important to try to make enemies surrender immediately, rather than engage in long and costly sieges. As it turns out, avoiding being flayed alive was a powerful motivator. Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal explained the scene of one conquered city that refused to surrender:

"I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile … I flayed many right through my land [and] draped their skins over the walls."

Yeah, that's going to be a big old nope.

The Ancient Chinese Invented Death by 1,000 Cuts

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Photo: Le Monde Illustré/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The ancient Chinese invented some pretty brutal methods of public execution, the worst of which was lingchi. Known also as "death by 1,000 cuts," lingchi began with tying the condemned to a post. The condemned then had pieces of his body cut off, one small bit at a time. After a good bit of this (in the neighborhood of 1,000 cuts), he was stabbed through the heart.

The execution didn't end there, though. The condemned's head, arms, and legs were also removed. Basically, the entire body was hacked to pieces in a public square. Sometimes the punishment would bear the further penalty of having the head displayed in the square for ridicule, in case someone didn't get the memo.

The Scythians Drank from the Skulls of Their Enemies

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Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/flickr/No known copyright restrictions

The Scythians were a civilization of warlike nomads in the Eurasian steppes between 900 and 100B.C. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Scythians turned the skulls of their enemies into drinking cups. He writes:

The skulls of their enemies, not indeed of all, but of those whom they most detest, they treat as follows. Having sawn off the portion below the eyebrows, and cleaned out the inside, they cover the outside with leather. When a man is poor, this is all that he does; but if he is rich, he also lines the inside with gold: in either case, the skull is used as a drinking-cup. They do the same with the skulls of their own kith and kin if they have been at feud with them, and have vanquished them in the presence of the king. When strangers whom they deem of any account come to visit them, these skulls are handed round, and the host tells how that these were his relations who made war upon him, and how that he got the better of them; all this being looked upon as proof of bravery.

That's certainly one way of doing things.