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 the 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. Read on for a list of the strangest deaths of the classical world.
Mithridates: Covered in Milk and Honey, Consumed by Insects
Mithridates was a young Persian soldier in the army of King Artaxerxes II. According to Plutarch, in 401 BC, 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? Plutarch explains that a prisoner is 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.
Mithridates was a Persian of high rank, and son-in-law of the king Darius III, who was slain by Alexander the Great with his own hand, at the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC, when he plunged his lance through Mithridates' face. ...more on Wikipedia
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 BC, 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.
Aeschylus was an ancient Greek tragedian. He is also the first whose plays still survive; the others are Sophocles and Euripides. He is often described as the father of tragedy: critics and scholars' knowledge of the genre begins with his work, and understanding of earlier tragedies is largely based on inferences from his surviving plays. According to Aristotle, he expanded the number of characters in plays to allow conflict among them whereas characters previously had interacted only with the chorus. Only seven of his estimated seventy to ninety plays have survived, and there is a longstanding debate regarding his authorship of one of these plays, Prometheus Bound. Fragments of some other ...more on Wikipedia
Age: Died at 69 (524 BC-455 BC)
Birthplace: Eleusis, Greece
#97 on The Best Writers of All Time
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 icon.
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 sea shells, potsherds, and roof 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 prefect through her enchantments.")
Hypatia was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in Egypt, then a part of the Byzantine Empire. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. According to contemporary sources, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent figures in Alexandria: the governor Orestes and the Bishop of Alexandria. ...more on Wikipedia
Age: Died at 65 (350-415)
Birthplace: Alexandria, Egypt
Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, ruling over all of a newly unified China from 220 to 210 BC. During his short reign, he established China as an empire, constructed the Great Wall of China, built a national highway system, and commissioned the Terracotta Army - all while surviving three assassination attempts.
As he aged, Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with finding the "elixir of life" that would grant him immortality. He launched increasingly outlandish schemes to find this elixir, including sending ships filled with hundreds of young men and women off in search of a 1,000-year-old magician on a mystical island. None of these people ever returned. (Legend has it those unwilling explorers were the first to colonize Japan.)
Finally, Qin Shi Huang died ingesting mercury pills that his court physicians had assured him would make him live forever.
But what happened after his death is even more bizarre. Qin Shi Huang had died while on a tour of eastern China. The prime minister, Li Si, feared that news of the emperor's death would trigger an uprising before he and the rest of the now-deceased emperor's entourage could get back to the capital. So he conspired to continue their trip without telling anyone the emperor was dead - for two months.
Li Si ordered that two carts full of rotten fish ride on either side of the emperor's cart, to hide the smell of his decomposing corpse. He also had the dead emperor's clothes changed daily, brought the emperor food and water, and when someone requested a meeting with Qin Shi Huang, insisted they exchange written messages instead. His plan worked, and the emperor's corpse finished its trip to the capital safely.
Qin Shi Huang, personal name Ying Zheng, was the King of the state of Qin who conquered all other Warring States and united China in 221 BC. Rather than maintain the title of king borne by the Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty from 220 to 210 BC. The title emperor would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia. During his reign, his generals greatly expanded the size of the Chinese state: campaigns south of Chu permanently added the Yue lands of Hunan and Guangdong to the Chinese cultural orbit; campaigns in Central Asia conquered the Ordos Loop from the nomad Xiongnu, although eventually causing their confederation under Modu ...more on Wikipedia
Age: Died at 49 (258 BC-209 BC)
Birthplace: Handan, China