The Worst Punishment Imaginable
An execution method so brutal it has captured the imagination for thousands of years
The day is hot and muggy and everyone in attendance is sweating but the perspiration is not from the heat so much as it is from the anticipation of what they are about to witness. The scene is unfolding at the edge of a bog, a mucky patch of still water that stinks when it sits in the hot afternoon sun. There are faintly buzzing insects in the air which only makes the anticipation worse.
The spectators are told that the crime committed was truly heinous and the punishment is to be equally heinous.
Along the shore are two row boats and two large clay jars. The boats have been heavily modified. There are semicircles cut out of the hulls so when one is placed on top of the other, they create holes.
The condemned is told to lie down in the one boat. His arms and legs are tied into position and placed jutting out through the circular cutouts. Then the second boat is placed atop the first so that the person’s head, feet and arms are all protruding from the contraption but the rest of his body is covered by the boats.
The jars are opened and milk and honey are brought forth. The executioner pours the liquids into the condemned man’s mouth until he gags and tries to vomit. Then the rest is poured on his exposed skin. His face, feet, and arms are lathered in the sweet liquids.
Then the man is pushed off the shore and allowed to bob out on the bog. He will remain here until he dies, either from exposure, insect bites or from aspirating his own vomit.
Every day, the executioner will check on the victim and do their best to prolong the man’s life. He will be given water, honey and milk and be lathered again until he is dead. Whether that takes a few hours or a few days, it makes no difference.
This scene evokes a sense of horror and dread like few others. The idea of swarms of insects or crows picking your flesh clean while you are still alive is disturbing. The idea of being hopelessly trapped as you float in the hot sun surrounded by pests, nauseous and covered in sticky disgusting curdled milk and honey is truly awful.
This is the punishment of scaphism. The boats.
Artaxerxes, Cyrus and Mithridates
This punishment was, allegedly, devised by the ancient Persians as far back as 500BCE. The first person to be accused of leveraging such a horrible sentence is the Persian emperor Artaxerxes.
The poor man who was executed in this way was a Persian soldier by the name of Mithridates.
In 404BCE, there was a struggle for power in Persia following the death of Darius II. Cyrus and Artaxerxes were fighting over their father’s throne and engaged in battle at a town called Cunaxa.
During the fighting, Mithridates struck Cyrus in the head killing him. In the commotion, no one quite knew what happened but Cyrus was dead and Artaxerxes had the throne to himself.
Plutarch, whose writings is what colors nearly all of the events surrounding Artaxerxes, wrote about the death of Cyrus:
Cyrus being made elate with victory, and full of confidence and force, passed through enemy lines, crying out, and that more than once, in the Persian language, “Clear the way, villains, clear the way;” which they indeed did, throwing themselves down at his feet. But his tiara dropped off his head, and a young Persian, by name Mithridates, running by, struck a dart into one of his temples near his eye, not knowing who he was, out of which wound much blood gushed, so that Cyrus, swooning and senseless, fell off his horse. — The Life of Artaxerxes
Later that evening, after the battle, while the men were drinking and toasting their victory, a drunk Mithridates boasted that he were the one that killed Cyrus on the field. It was his blow that had felled the pretender. Naturally, he thought that this was a great deed that was to be shared. He had killed Prince Cyrus and ended the civil war.
He was horribly, horribly wrong.
Artaxerxes was furious over the death of his brother and ordered Mithridates to be killed via the boats.
Plutarch describes the execution as such:
[The king] decreed that Mithridates should be put to death in boats; which execution is after the following manner: Taking two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other, they lay down in one of them the malefactor that suffers, upon his back; then, covering it with the other, and so setting them together that the head, hands, and feet of him are left outside, and the rest of his body lies shut up within, they offer him food, and if he refuse to eat it, they force him to do it by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, 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. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired. — The Life of Artaxerxes
A horrible way to die, especially for a man who thought that he had performed a great act of heroism for the man who would ultimately sentence him to this fate. That was how things worked in the ancient world sometimes.
From The Mind of Plutarch?
All of these vivid accounts come almost exclusively from Plutarch, who lived in the 1st century CE. This is nearly five hundred years after Artaxerxes actually lived. Like many ancient documents, we are lucky to have surviving copies of Plutarch’s work but we have no idea what kind of source material he was working from, if any at all.
Plutarch was Greek and the animosity between the ancient Greeks and the ancient Persians is well documented. This has led some to believe that Plutarch fabricated this form of punishment as a way to paint the Persians as viscious monsters. In fact, all of the ancient mentions of this form of punishment come from Greek literature during Plutarch’s era.
Whether Plutarch invented this idea himself or if it was an exaggerated retelling of a similar form of punishment, it is impossible to say with any confidence at this time.
Plutarch’s writings were widespread and influential and his accounts of Artaxerxes life are still in use today, including the vivid and horrifying description of scaphism.
A Literary Fascination
From the time of Plutarch in the first century Greek speaking world all the way to my fingers today, this method of punishment is so visceral and so unimaginable that it continues to transpose itself throughout history, century after century.
In the 12th century, Joannes Zonaras, a Byzantine theologian and writer, picked up on this punishment and wrote the following description that closely follows Plutarch’s. Zonaras wrote:
Two boats are joined together one on top of the other, with holes cut in them in such a way that the victim’s head, hands, and feet only are left outside. Within these boats the man to be punished is placed lying on his back, and the boats then nailed together with bolts. Next they pour a mixture of milk and honey into the wretched man’s mouth, till he is filled to the point of nausea, smearing his face, feet, and arms with the same mixture, and so leave him exposed to the sun. This is repeated every day, the effect being that flies, wasps, and bees, attracted by the sweetness, settle on his face and all such parts of him as project outside the boats, and miserably torment and sting the wretched man. Moreover his belly, distended as it is with milk and honey, throws off liquid excrements, and these putrefying breed swarms of worms, intestinal and of all sorts. Thus the victim lying in the boats, his flesh rotting away in his own filth and devoured by worms, dies a lingering and horrible death.
The description is no less terrifying than the one written a millennia earlier.
Shakespeare also picked up on this particular method of torture and included it in his work The Winter’s Tale. The great William Shakespeare wrote:
He has a son, — who shall be flayed alive; then ‘nointed over with honey, set on the head of a wasp’s nest; then stand till he be three quarters and a dram dead; then recovered again with aqua-vitae or some other hot infusion; then, raw as he is, and in the hottest day prognostication proclaims, shall he be set against a brick wall, the sun looking with a southward eye upon him, — where he is to behold him with flies blown to death.
Whether it was actually invented and practiced as long ago as 400BCE, or indeed if it was practiced at all, is impossible to say, but our fascination with the idea of a man being picked clean by flies while he is still alive has lived on for at least two thousand years and perhaps longer. Its staying power in the minds and imagination of men is well documented.
In a time when punishments were often brutal and horrifying, this machination of torture is the most brutal and still horrifies to this very day.