The most horrendous conditions in human life have been created by other humans. We maim, torture, and humiliate individuals to penalize them for their actions with callous indifference to their suffering, or in some cases, with the intent to cause as much pain as possible.
The purpose of punishment is arguable: some believe human beings punish criminals to reduce crime through deterrence or maybe to rehabilitate offenders. Some think it's to rid criminals from society in efforts to protect the public, but undoubtedly there have been punishments intended to cause pain to the condemned.
There are cases, both ancient and modern, of men and women burned, drowned, and torn apart all with the intention of punishing them for their real and, in some cases, suspected crimes in the most painful manner.
Many today think removing a person's skin from their body is a medieval European form of punishment and torture due to popular culture depictions, most notably in Game of Thrones, but it was rarely ever used in medieval Europe. According to medieval historian Dr. Larissa Tracy, there is only one verifiable case of flaying between the 11th Century to the 16th Century: a Venetian commander Marcoantonio Bragadin was flayed by the Ottoman Turks after surrendering at the siege of Cyprus in 1571 CE.
Flaying was most prevalent in the Assyrian Empire from the 14th Century BCE until 610 BCE. The Assyrians were known for their military strength. By the 9th Century BCE, Assyria dominated northern Mesopotamia. After defeating their enemies in combat, the Assyrians punished anyone who opposed them by destroying their cities and flaying the nobility. King Ashurnasirpal recorded his victory over one city that resisted his conquest:
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.
Flaying was not only used to punish those who opposed the Assyrians but also to instill fear in anyone who considered to do the same.
Originally attributed to the ancient Persians, this alleged form of punishment was used on only the worst criminals. Presented as a common form of Persian execution in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, scaphism, also known as the boats, firstly required the victim to be laid flat in a boat. Another boat with holes to allow the victim’s head, hands, and feet to protrude was then laid over. The executioners forced the victim to drink a mixture of honey and milk, and covered the victim’s exposed body parts with that same drink. The victim was left in the boats, and nature took its course. With nowhere else to go, the victim was forced to excrete where they lie, flies swarmed the victim, and they were left until they were completely devoured.
Plutarch specifically mentioned the execution of Mithridates, a soldier who killed the brother of Persian King Artaxerxes in the 5th Century BCE. Supposedly, Mithridates finally died after 17 days of torture.
As brutal as this method may be, it is questionable whether or not it ever existed. Mithridates’s execution is the only instance of it. The first mention of this execution was from a Greek physician to the Persian court, Ctesias, who supposedly saw Mithridates’s execution firsthand. His account, however, has been lost, furthermore, both ancient historians who have referenced him or his work claim and modern historians argue to whether his work is reliable. Plutarch’s own history of Artaxerxes and scaphism was written 400 years after the event took place, and uses Ctesias’s History as his source.
The Vestal Virgins were the priestesses to Vesta the goddess of home and hearth and held one of the most important religious roles in Rome. They acted as religious symbols of Rome as well as representations of the city and its citizenry. As such, Vestal Virgins were expected to make a lifetime commitment to the role, and the rules that come with it. The Vestals had to remain abstinent from sex their entire lives; they were expected to remain a symbol of purity, for as long as they were to remain both pure and unharmed, so will the city they signify.
The role was not taken lightly, for if any Vestal Virgin were to break her oath, she was executed as a sacrifice. Because of the symbolic and sacred aspect to the Vestals, if one broke her vow of celibacy, many perceived her as a former purity now tainted. No one wanted to be responsible for her death, and become tainted themselves, so the solution was to bury the Vestal alive and allow nature to kill her.
The Vestal was paraded around the city until she was brought to a small chamber by the Colline gate. Given only a lamp and a small amount of food, she was sealed in and left to die.
In Roman law, different forms of murder entailed different forms of punishment depending upon the severity of the murder. Parricide, killing one’s own parent or parents, sought a crueler form of punishment than other forms of homicide. When a person was convicted of the crime, they were condemned to Poena Cullei. This form of capital punishment required the condemned was whipped, before putting a wolf-skin bag over their head, and made to wear wooden-sole clogs. They were then tied in an ox-leather sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and a monkey, taken to a river or sea by black oxen, and thrown in the water to drown.
Poena Cullei was rarely used as a form of punishment. Roman biographer Suetonius wrote only those who confessed to patricide were actually sentenced to Poena Cullei. In 118 CE Emperor Hadrian allowed Poena Cullei to be substituted by “being thrown to wild beasts”, but only a century later the practice was considered obsolete.