Weird History

The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World 

Notable Famous Deaths
Updated October 3, 2018 16k votes 4.4k voters 1.4M views 14 items

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 is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World
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

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Mithridates: Covered In Milk And Honey, Consumed By Insects
Mithridates is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World
Photo:  WerbeFabrik/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

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.

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Hypatia: Skinned Alive By Seashells
Hypatia is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World
Photo: Metaweb (FB)/Public domain

Hypatia of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, and the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria. In her time, she was widely respected and was later elevated as a feminist progenitor. Unfortunately, Hypatia lived at a time when the Roman governor Orestes was feuding with the Christian bishop Cyril of Alexandria.

Rumors spread that Hypatia was encouraging Orestes in his persecution of the city's Christians and Jews. An angry mob of Christians kidnapped her and carried her off to a church, where they stripped off her clothes and tore off her flesh with sharp oyster shells and beat her with tiles.

(An alternate account of her death by the Christian John of Nikiû admits that a mob of Christians kidnapped Hypatia, tore off her clothes, and dragged her to death, but shows considerably less sympathy for the "pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the perfect through her enchantments.")

Age: Dec. at 65 (350-415)

Birthplace: Alexandria, Egypt

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Heraclitus: Buried In Manure, Eaten By Dogs
Heraclitus is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World
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The sixth-century BCE philosopher Heraclitus was a bitter misanthrope who derided Hesiod and Pythagorus as ignorant, and said that Homer deserved to be beaten. He hated his fellow Ephesians so much that he finally quit society entirely. According to the biographer Diogenes Laërtius, "Finally, he became a hater of his kind and wandered the mountains... making his diet of grass and herbs."

Perhaps Heraclitus was so irritable because he suffered from dropsy, a painful swelling of the limbs. In an attempt to cure his dropsy, Heraclitus is said to have buried himself in cow manure, hoping that the damp humors that plagued him would be drawn out by the warmth of the manure.

In some versions of this story, the philosopher suffocated in the heat of the manure. However, according to the historian Neathes of Cyzicus, after covering himself in manure, Heraclitus was devoured by hungry dogs.

Age: Dec. at 60 (534 BC-474 BC)

Birthplace: Ephesus, Turkey

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