Scaphism, the Horrible Torture Boat of Ancient Persia


Criminals sentenced to death by scaphism would endure weeks of torture thanks to little more than milk and honey, a pair of boats – and swarms of hungry vermin.

theteaoftime/InstagramVictims of scaphism, as interpreted today.

Based on the Greek word “skáphē” which translates to “bowl” or “grave”, scaphism remains one of the most gruesome methods of execution ever devised by mankind.

Humans have dreamed up a variety of gruesome and inspired ways to kill each other for millennia. From medieval methods of execution to today’s botched executions, every historical period has used the tools at hand to cruelly extinguish those it deems unworthy.

The Persian Empire arguably surpassed them all, however, when it created scaphism around 500 BCE. This ancient method of execution was also known as “boating” because the victims were put in two logs or hollowed-out boats before their suffering even begins.

With their heads and limbs protruding and their bodies trapped inside, the victim was force-fed milk and honey. Their uncontrollable diarrhea filled the boats as the executioners poured honey on the victim’s face – and the vermin arrived not only to feast on the prisoners, but also to enter their bodies to eat them fatally from within.

The history of scaphism

It is important to note that no tangible evidence of scaphism exists. But also, after more than two millennia, any human remains or evidence of torture would have long since been destroyed. As it stands, the first historical mention of scaphism is found in the works of the Greco-Roman philosopher Plutarch.

Statue of Plutarch and portrait of Artaxerxes

Left: Wikimedia Commons; Right: DeAgostini/Getty ImagesThe first historical mention of scaphism was found in Plutarch (left) The life of Artaxerxes (right).

Plutarch himself had seen such an execution after a soldier named Mithridates killed Cyrus the Younger, the brother of King Artaxerxes II. While Mithridates had stopped Cyrus from overthrowing the king, and Artaxerxes was grateful, Artaxerxes asked him to keep it a secret – and to tell others that it was he who killed Cyrus.

Mithridates would forget this alliance and boast drunkenly of having killed Cyrus himself at a banquet. When King Artaxerxes II heard of it, he condemned him to die by scaphism for his treachery and demanded that he slowly perish. In the end, Mithridates endured 17 days of scaphism before he died.

Plutarch wrote that the king “decreed that Mithridates should be put to death in boats; whose execution is as follows: Taking two boats exactly framed to fit together and respond to each other, they lay in one of them the malefactor who is suffering, on his back.

“Then, covering him with the other, and placing them together so that his head, hands, and feet were left outside, and the rest of his body enclosed within, they offer food, and if he refuses to eat, they force him to do so by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, they drink him a mixture of milk and honey.

King Artaxerxes II and the victims of scaphism

Left: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Right: Emory UniversityKing Artaxerxes II (left) and the impending victims of scaphism (right).

Plutarch detailed how this mixture was also poured on the face of the victim who blistered in the sun as the days-long torture continued. Initially, only the flies would be attracted to the victim. However, as the prisoner defecated in the closed vessels and vomited, vermin emerged to crawl inside their orifices.

“When the man is evidently dead, the uppermost boat being removed, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of those noxious creatures feeding and, as it were, pushing up into his interior,” Plutarch wrote. “Thus Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, finally expired.”

Death by ‘the boats’

Joannes Zonaras detailed the horrors of scaphism in the 12th century. While Zonaras was content to base these observations on those of Plutarch, the Byzantine chronicler opined that the ancient Persians “surpassed all other barbarians in the horrible cruelty of their punishments” which followed.

Zonaras also explained that the boats were firmly nailed down together to ensure there was no escape. “Then they pour a mixture of milk and honey into the mouth of the wretch, until he is filled to the point of nausea, coating his face, feet and arms with the same mixture, and leave him thus exposed to the sun,” he said. wrote.

Cyrus the Younger Being Surrounded

Wikimedia CommonsAn 1842 painting depicting the final moments of Cyrus the Younger.

“This is repeated daily, the effect being that flies, wasps and bees, attracted by the sweetness, land on his face and… torment and sting the wretch. Moreover, her belly, distended as it is with milk and honey, throws up liquid excrement, and those putrefying swarms of intestinal worms of all sorts.

Although it apparently couldn’t get any worse, the executioners reportedly poured extra heaps of milk and honey over the prisoner’s soft tissues, namely their genitals and anuses. Small insects would then flock to these areas to feed, and even worse, infect the wounds with bacteria.

These infected sores would invariably begin to leak pus and stimulate the arrival of maggots which would also breed inside their bodies while causing even more disease. This is when vermin such as rats would arrive to gnaw the dying victim and fight their way inside.

Was the scaphism real?

True believers are convinced that scaphism was a real method of execution that emerged in ancient Persia, but claim that it was nevertheless only used on the most brazen of criminals, ranging from crown traitors to murderers. ruthless. Ultimately, however, not everyone is so convinced.

Elaborate drawing of the victim of scaphism

heavy hand/InstagramThe interpreted consequences of a scaphism.

Many scholars have since suggested that the practice was entirely fabricated. After all, the first historical mention of this horrific act appeared centuries after the supposed execution of Mithridates. Moreover, this story happens to have been witnessed by a philosopher who traded in engaging prose.

For skeptics, scaphism was almost certainly a literary invention of dishonest but creative ancient Greeks. However, Artaxerxes II, Mithridates and Cyrus the Younger were real historical figures. Moreover, equally macabre methods of execution such as scaphism will accumulate in the centuries to come.

In that sense, it is certainly plausible that these executions were real – and countless prisoners died among the most gruesome deaths in human history.


After discovering scaphism, read Israeli cannabis rituals from the 8th century BC. Next, take a look at 30 ancient demons from a Persian demonology book.

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