The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World

The ancient world was a dangerous place, filled with bloody battles, despotic rulers, and perilous wild animals. It was also a time of discovery, when philosophers and scientists were still learning how the world worked through trial and error - and some of those errors were deadly.

Here is a list of some of the weirdest deaths in ancient Greece, Rome, and the rest of the classical world. There are gruesome punishments, like being forced to drink molten gold, and absurd accidents, like an eagle accidentally killing one of the world's greatest playwrights. In some cases, these weird deaths were the result of bad luck, and in others, bad judgment, like the king who gave himself mercury poisoning trying to live forever, or the philosopher who leapt into a volcano to prove he was a god.

From being crushed by an elephant to smothered by clothes, many notable figures of the ancient world died in very strange ways - and in some cases, bizarre things continued to happen to their body parts after they died, too. While all of these stories have been recorded, they were written by contemporaries and biographers who may have exaggerated the depictions for different reasons. Though some may be apocryphal, read on for a list of the strangest deaths of the classical world.

  • Aeschylus: Killed By A Falling Tortoise
    Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia

    Called the Father of Tragedy, Aeschylus is widely considered to be one of history's greatest playwrights. According to the writer Valerius Maximus, in 458 BCE, the playwright was killed when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on him.

    Later, Pliny suggested that Aeschylus was remaining outdoors at the time of his death because he'd received a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object and he was afraid to go inside.

    • Age: Dec. at 69 (524 BC-455 BC)
    • Birthplace: Eleusis, Greece
  • Mithridates was a young Persian soldier in the army of King Artaxerxes II. According to Plutarch, in 401 BCE, Mithridates killed Artaxerxes's rival, his brother Cyrus, in a freak accident.

    Of course, Artaxerxes took credit for slaying the mighty Cyrus himself, so when Mithridates got drunk and told everyone the real story, the enraged king sentenced him to death by scaphism.

    What is scaphism? The Greek historian Plutarch explained that the prisoner was trapped between two hollow logs or row boats, then:

    they drench him with a mixture of milk and honey, pouring it not only into his mouth, but all over his face. They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun; and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it. And as within the boats he does what those that eat and drink must needs do, creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed. When the man is manifestly dead, the uppermost boat being taken off, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon and, as it were, growing to his inwards. 

    Mithridates survived for 17 days, covered in milk, honey, and his own feces, before dying from a combination of dehydration, starvation, and septic shock.

  • Milo of Croton: Stuck In A Tree, Devoured By Wolves
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Milo of Croton was a 6th-century BCE wrestler famous for his feats of strength. It was said he consumed 20 pounds of meat, 20 pounds of bread, and 18 pints of wine a day, and several sources suggest that he owed his success in wrestling to eating the gizzard stones of roosters. A legend states that Milo grew so strong by carrying a newborn calf on his shoulders when he was a child, and then repeating this act daily as the calf grew into a full-sized bull.

    Sadly, Milo's great strength would be his undoing. According to the historians Strabo and Pausanias, Milo was walking in the forest when he came across a tree trunk that had been split in two. He inserted his hands into the crack to prove he could tear the tree in half, but his hands become stuck and while he was trapped there, he was devoured by a pack of wolves.

    • Birthplace: Crotone, Italy
  • Marcus Licinius Crassus: Drank A Goblet Of Molten Gold
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman general and politician who is considered one of the wealthiest men in all of human history. He crushed the slave revolt led by Spartacus, and was a member of the First Triumvirate alongside his ally Julius Caesar and his rival Pompey. He was also notorious for a number of crimes, from shady real estate swindles to arson to corrupting a vestal virgin.

    After losing to the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, Crassus was forced to drink a goblet of molten gold, symbolizing his great wealth. (Another more probable, if less exciting, version recounts that the molten gold was poured into his mouth after he'd already died.)

    But that wasn't the end of Crassus's indignities. According to Plutarch, after Crassus died, he was beheaded and his head was used as a prop in a production of the Euripides's play The Bacchae, where an actor held up the head and made it sing a song.

    • Age: Dec. at 62 (114 BC-52 BC)
    • Birthplace: Roman Republic