People often dream of living in the past. But history lovers note it wasn’t all as romantic as it might seem. The past was often a brutal, violent place, where the slightest legal or social infraction could result in a painful and gruesome death. Over the last few hundred years, most Western nations have done away with capital punishment altogether. But in the past, the goal was often to inflict as much pain as possible upon the person being executed.

There were a variety of reasons for this; some of them political, some of them religious, some of them for purposes of intimidation. Whatever the reasons, the execution methods of the past sure were grisly. Read on to discover history’s most gruesome methods of execution.


Scaphism (also known as “the boats”) was an ancient Persian method of execution, whereby the condemned was fastened to the interior of a small rowboat or hollowed-out tree trunk. Only the victim’s arms, legs, and head protruded from the boat, which was then set adrift in a swamp.

The victim was force fed milk and honey until they developed severe diarrhea. More honey was slathered all over the victim’s body, with particular emphasis on the eyes, ears, and mouth.

The honey attracted insects, which would breed in the victim’s feces and eventually, inside their gangrenous skin. Death followed days or weeks of dehydration, starvation, and delirium.

Execution by Elephant

Death by elephant was a common method of execution in Southern and Southeastern Asia, although Western powers like Rome and Carthage occasionally employed it as well.

Death either came swiftly or slowly, depending on the severity of your crime. The trained elephant would either crush your head, bringing about instantaneous death, or crush all of your limbs, one by one.

Walking the Plank

This method of execution is so steeped in pirate lore, many assume it must be fictional. There are, however, many documented incidents of pirates and mutineers tying a victim’s hands and forcing them to walk off a plank and plunge into the waters below.

There were much easier ways of disposing of an unwanted prisoner, so the practice is thought to have been reserved for special occasions—a sadistic sideshow for bored sailors.


In Ancient Rome, huge crowds gathered in amphitheaters to witness brutally inhumane executions and fights to the death as a form of entertainment.

The Bestiarii were one of the favorite events at these gatherings. Prisoners would be rounded up and sent to the center of the arena. Wild beasts like lions and tigers would be released and provoked into a frenzy by their handlers. The animals would remain in the arena until they had mauled and killed every last prisoner.

It’s important to note that some entered the arena voluntarily for money or recognition, but these fighters were given weapons and armor and fought purely for the entertainment of the crowd, while criminals or political prisoners were forced into the arena naked and with little chance to defend themselves.

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