Weird History

Weirdly Gruesome Ancient Deaths That Wouldn't Happen Today 

Mike Rothschild
Updated March 23, 2020 827.9k views 18 items

Death in the ancient world was rarely a dignified prospect. While this was certainly true for ordinary people, kings and religious leaders died horribly as well - often from illnesses brought on by excessive eating and drinking. Sometimes, they were just murdered, either by their own people or their enemies.

Many of the weird deaths of the ancient world, such as the Roman emperor forced to drink molten gold or the gruesome executions used by the Vikings, are the stuff of legends. Little proof exists that these actually took place or that they were anywhere near as bizarre as the stories say. But if these killings truly were even half as disgusting as the legends, a lot of really powerful ancient people perished in really bad ways.

Here are some of the strangest and most brutal deaths that befell leaders of the ancient world.

Senebkay, The Pharaoh Chopped Up With Axes
Senebkay, The Pharaoh Ch... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Weirdly Gruesome Ancient Deaths That Wouldn't Happen Today
Photo: Khruner/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Likely living between 1650 and 1550 BCE in Egypt, King Senebkay suffered a vicious end. His tomb was found in 2014, and when his body was analyzed, his skeleton was found to have 18 wounds on the skull, back, and elsewhere.

It's likely that he was attacked while on horseback, then hacked with an ax (or many axes) when he hit the ground.

Emperor Galba's Head Was Used As A Soccer Ball
Emperor Galba's Head Was... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Weirdly Gruesome Ancient Deaths That Wouldn't Happen Today
Photo: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Taking the throne of the Roman Empire during a period of extreme strife (he passed in 69 CE, known as the "year of the four emperors"), Galba reigned for just seven months, during which he became unpopular with citizens and soldiers. 

According to Plutarch, in January of that year, Galba was beheaded by rebellious troops, who brought the head to the camp of his foes. It was mocked and kicked around.

Sicilian Tyrant Phalaris Was Roasted Alive In His Own Bronze Bull
Sicilian Tyrant Phalaris... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Weirdly Gruesome Ancient Deaths That Wouldn't Happen Today
Photo:  Pierre Woeiriot/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the most tyrannical leaders of the ancient world, Phalaris ruled the small kingdom of Acragas (now in Sicily) with not just an iron fist, but a bronze bull. He would lock his foes in a giant bronze statue of a bull, then set a fire underneath it, roasting the poor souls alive and listening to their screams.

Phalaris was finally overthrown and said to have been burned in the same bull where he tormented his victims. He passed around 554 BCE.

Sigurd The Mighty Was Killed By A Severed Head
Sigurd The Mighty Was Ki... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Weirdly Gruesome Ancient Deaths That Wouldn't Happen Today
Photo:  Peter Nicolai Arbo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sigurd the Mighty was the second Viking Earl of Orkney and led the Viking conquest of what is now northern Scotland. Bizarrely, he was killed by the severed head of one of his enemies, Máel Brigte, who he had slain in arranged combat. The pair agreed to meet for combat, each with 40 men. But Sigurd showed up with twice that many and slaughtered the Scots.

Eager to make the Scottish leader an example, Sigurd strapped Máel Brigte's head to his saddle as a trophy of conquest. But as he rode, Máel Brigte's distinctive buck teeth grazed against Sigurd's leg (or in some legends, bit him), opening up a wound. The gash became infected with pestilence from the head, and Sigurd perished of blood poisoning.