Brazen bull

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For the film, see The Brazen Bull.
Perillos being forced into the brazen bull that he built for Phalaris.

The brazen bull, bronze bull, or Sicilian bull, was a torture and execution device designed in ancient Greece.[1] According to Diodorus Siculus, recounting the story in Bibliotheca historica, Perillos of Athens invented and proposed it to Phalaris, the tyrant of Akragas, Sicily, as a new means of executing criminals.[2] The bull was made entirely of bronze, hollow, with a door in one side.[3] The bull was in the form and size of an actual bull and had an acoustic apparatus that converted screams into the sound of a bull. The condemned were locked in the device, and a fire was set under it, heating the metal until the person inside roasted to death.

Reign of Phalaris[edit]

The brazen bull (left) depicted on an old engraving

Phalaris commanded that the bull be designed in such a way that its smoke rose in spicy clouds of incense.[citation needed] The head of the bull was designed with a complex system of tubes and stops so that the prisoner's screams were converted into sounds like the bellowing of an infuriated bull. According to legend, when the bull was reopened, the victim's scorched bones "shone like jewels and were made into bracelets."[4]

Perillos said to Phalaris: "[His screams] will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings." Disgusted by these words, Phalaris ordered its horn sound system to be tested on Perillos himself. When Perillos entered, he was immediately locked in, and the fire was set, so that Phalaris could hear the sound of his screams. Before Perillos could die, Phalaris opened the door and took him away. Perillos believed he would receive a reward for his invention; instead, after freeing him from the bull, Phalaris threw him from the top of a hill, killing him. Phalaris himself is said to have been killed in the brazen bull when he was overthrown by Telemachus, the ancestor of Theron.[citation needed]

Possible link to Carthaginian Sacrifice[edit]

Biblical scholars link the design of the Brazen Bull to statues of Moloch (often noted as a misnomer for Chronus or Ba'al) in which infants were sacrificed alive within a bronze, calf-headed statue of the deity by being placed on the hands of the statue and sliding down into the bronze furnace.[5] The noises of the child's screams were often drowned out by drumming and dancing, since the sacrificial altars did not have the pipes system that the Brazen Bull had (see Tophet). The practices of the city of Tophet are also cited by scholars to be the inspiration for the Brazen Bull because of Akragas' Carthaginian roots.[6]

The story of the bull cannot be dismissed as pure invention. Pindar, who lived less than a century afterwards, expressly associates this instrument of torture with the name of the tyrant.[7]

Saint Antipas being roasted alive in a Brazen bull at Pergamon.

Roman persecution of Jews and Christians[edit]

The Romans were reputed to have used this torture device to kill some Jews,[citation needed] as well as some Christians, notably Saint Eustace, who, according to Christian tradition, was roasted in a brazen bull with his wife and children by Emperor Hadrian. The same happened to Saint Antipas, Bishop of Pergamon during the persecutions of Emperor Domitian and the first martyr in Asia Minor, who was roasted to death in a brazen bull in AD 92.[8] The device was still in use two centuries later, when another Christian, Pelagia of Tarsus, is said to have been burned in one in 287 by the Emperor Diocletian.

The Catholic Church discounts the story of Saint Eustace's martyrdom as "completely false".[9]

Francesco Ferdinandi, The Martyrdom of St. Eustace. Behind the main altar at the Church of Sant'Eustachio, Rome, this painting follows the narrative in the Golden Legend: For refusing to sacrifice to the gods, Saint Eustace and his wife and sons are to be enclosed in a Brazen bull which will be heated until they die.

Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse[edit]

According to the Chronica caesaraugustana, Burdunellus, a Roman usurper, was roasted in a brazen bull by the king Alaric II in 497.

In film[edit]

The 2011 film Immortals shows three maidens of an oracle being tortured in a brazen bull.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Diehl & Donnelly 2008, p. 37
  2. ^ Biblioteca Historica, IX, 18-19
  3. ^ Diehl & Donnelly 2008, p. 39
  4. ^ Thompson 2008, p. 30
  5. ^ Rundin, John S. (Fall 2004). "Pozo Moro, child sacrifice, and the Greek legendary tradition". Journal of Biblical Literature (Society of Biblical Literature) 123 (3): 425+. doi:10.2307/3268041. Retrieved October 25, 2013. 
  6. ^ Bohak, Gideon (January 2000). "Classica Et Rabbinica I: the Bull of Phalaris and the Tophet". Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman period (BRILL) 31 (1): 203–216. doi:10.1163/157006300X00107. Retrieved October 25, 2013. 
  7. ^ Pindar, Pythian 1
  8. ^ The Seat of Satan: Ancient Pergamum
  9. ^ "Martyrologium Romanum" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)
  • Diehl, Daniel; Donnelly, Mark P. (2008), The Big Book of Pain: Punishment and Torture Through History, The History Press, ISBN 978-0-7509-4583-7 
  • Thompson, Irene (2008), The A to Z of Punishment and Torture: From Amputations to Zero Tolerance, Book Guild Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84624-203-8 

External links[edit]

Media related to Bronze Bull at Wikimedia Commons