Saturday 30 September 2023

Scaphism or Death by Boats

Scaphism- Greek for boat

The ancients were very adept at concocting particularly unwholesome means of dispatch for their malcontents and criminals. Crucifixion, a form of torture associated with the Romans, was actually devised elsewhere. Centuries before the Roman Empire, the Persians and Carthaginians were perfecting this method of extreme torture. Indeed, crucifixion was a very efficient way of extracting pain for an extended period of time. First off, the nails were not placed through the hand but through the wrists next to the radial nerve. During the act, the crucified individual had to continually raise his body, placing pressure on the wrists and nerves, causing searing pain. Levitation/elevation was a necessary recourse in order to relieve the constraining pressure upon the chest due to the slumped posture hinting at asphyxiation. However, once the body was raised and the victim caught a breath, the pain due to the nail impingement upon the radial nerve would cause collapse. Thereafter, the dreadful cycle would continue anew. Merciful death would intervene once the prisoner became exhausted, as suffocation would ensue. For a fit young man, the agony could last several days. The Carthaginians were well-versed and adept at this form of torture and would often crucify their own generals if they lost a battle.

Terrible as crucifixion was, there existed a form of punishment allegedly practiced by the ancient Persians that made crucifixion seem like a bad day in Tipton.

I suspect you had to be a very naughty boy indeed to suffer the horror that is scaphism. First, you would be secured to a small boat. The prisoner was then force-fed milk and honey, and then honey would be lathered liberally upon the wretches' naked body. 

A second boat would be secured over the first with openings allowing for the exposure of the head, feet, and arms. The boat would then be pushed out into a lake to bake under the hot Iranian sun. The diet of milk and honey would quickly induce diarrhoea, and the prisoner would be left to wallow in their own filth. The local flies and other insects would be attracted to the floating morass and feast upon the sweet/sweat fetid goodness, and thereafter lay eggs akimbo, possibly with aplomb. Soon maggots would issue forth to feast upon the prisoner's marinated flesh. It is impossible to imagine a worse horror than being slowly eaten alive by a host of god's goodly creatures. 

What follows is an account of scaphism as performed on a gentleman named Mithridates for the slaying of the king's (Artaxerxes II) brother Cyrus the Younger (c400 BC).

'[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 lie 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.'

— PlutarchLife of Artaxerxes[

Just a point of interest before continuing with the theme: Plutarch was clearly a conventionally educated man of his time and no doubt Aristotelian in his thinking. This should be of no surprise. Aristotle had a profound and baleful influence on intellectual thought for nearly 2,000 years. Few would criticise this great man until the coming of the 'Scientific Enlightenment'. Interestingly, almost all that he taught was in error, except for his work on the syllogism. Thus, Aristotle informed those who could read, at least, that flies did not beget flies. Flies spontaneously became manifest from corruption. Surely Aristotle was not an experimental scientist. Tis such a shame that a man of such a great and manifest intellect should have neglected the enormous power of simple induction.

Did the barbarous Persians actually perform this horrendous form of execution, or was it the conjuring of an overactive imagination of the Greek biographer? Sadly, we will never know for sure, as Plutarch's account is the only independent source we have for the practice. Plutarch was writing 450 years after the reign of Artaxerxes, and it is likely that he was relying on a now lost source called 'Persika' written by another Greek, aptly named, Ktesias, in the 5th century BC. Ktesias was not a credible historian. In fact, from his writings, it can be discerned that Ktesias was as mad as a 'bucket of frogs in vinegar'. He had the misfortune of being endowed with the art of 'over elaboration'. Thus, apparently, from the same pen, we hear of lands where folk have dog's heads. Others have the sad affliction of being bereft of bonce and eyes that are strategically positioned upon the torso.......

Serious historians are the happiest when they have access to multiple independent sources describing a supposed historical event. That said, just because someone has the gift of writing absolute bollocks doesn't mean that they always write absolute bollocks. Sometimes, perhaps, true verity drips from their pen like a drippy thing. Nuff said.

A Denizen of Tipton No Less


  1. Anyone who despises philosophy (esp. epistemology), assuming that it has nothing to do with everyday life, can also despise the sun, assuming that the moon shines at night and during the day it uses to be bright in anyway

  2. But at least they give you 17 days.