Brazen bull

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Perillos being forced into the brazen bull that he built for Phalaris.

The brazen bull, bronze bull, or Sicilian bull, was allegedly 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 said to be made entirely out of bronze, hollow, with a door in one side.[3] According to legends the brazen bull was designed 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 inside the device, and a fire was set under it, heating the metal until the person inside was roasted to death. Some modern scholars question if the brazen bull ever really existed, attributing reports of the fearsome invention to early propaganda.[4]

Creation of the brazen bull for Phalaris[edit]

The brazen bull (left) depicted on an old engraving

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. Phalaris is said to have commanded that the bull be designed in such a way that its smoke rose in spicy clouds of incense.[citation needed] According to legend, when the bull was reopened after a body was charred, the victim's scorched bones then "shone like jewels and were made into bracelets."[5]

Stories allege after finishing construction on the execution device, Perillos said to Phalaris: "His screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings." Perillos believed he would receive a reward for his invention. Instead, Phalaris, who was disgusted by these words, ordered its horn sound system to be tested by Perillos himself, tricking him into getting in the bull. 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. After freeing him from the bull, Phalaris is then said to have taken Perillos to the top of a hill and thrown him off, killing him. Phalaris himself is claimed to have been killed in the brazen bull when he was overthrown by Telemachus, the ancestor of Theron.[citation needed]

Pindar, who lived less than a century afterwards, expressly associates this instrument of torture with the name of the tyrant Phalaris.[6]

Roman persecution of Christians[edit]

The Romans were reputed to have used this torture device to kill 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.[7] The device is claimed to have still been 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.[citation needed]

The Catholic Church discounts the story of Saint Eustace's martyrdom as "completely false".[8]

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 executed in a brazen bull.

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 media[edit]

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

The 2011 film Red Riding Hood features a nearly identical device, albeit in the form of an elephant.

The 2010 movie Saw 3D shows a woman dying in a device similar to a brazen bull.

The 2010 video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent features a brazen bull previously used as a torture device.

In the third season of 1000 Ways To Die features a skit (titled "My Big Fat Greek Death") on the story of Perillos of Athens becoming the first victim of his invention.

The 2014 movie A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence features a torture device similar to a brazen bull used to kill many people at once.

See also[edit]


  • 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