Brazen bull

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

The brazen bull, also known as the bronze bull, Sicilian bull, or bull of Phalaris, was allegedly a torture and execution device designed in ancient Greece.[1] According to Diodorus Siculus, recounting the story in Bibliotheca historica, Perilaus (or Perillus) 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 hollow and made entirely out of bronze 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 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 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, Perilaus said to Phalaris: "His screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings." Perilaus 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 Perilaus himself, tricking him into getting in the bull. When Perilaus entered, he was immediately locked in and the fire was set, so that Phalaris could hear the sound of his screams. Before Perilaus could die, Phalaris opened the door and took him away. After freeing him from the bull, Phalaris is then said to have taken Perilaus 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 have been claimed 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 AD 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 AD 497.

See also[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Umberto Eco mentions the bull of Phalaris in the final chapters of his book The Name of the Rose, in reference to the death of one of the protagonists of the story.
  • Kurt Vonnegut makes a brief reference to the bull of Phalaris in his novel Breakfast of Champions, recounting the use made of it by the Roman Emperor Elagabalus.
  • The American television show 1000 Ways to Die dedicated one of its deaths precisely to the bull of Phalaris, although with inaccuracies: it is said that the bull was completely soundproofed so as not to make the screams of the prisoners who roasted inside it and that when Perillo came out he was already dead.
  • In the video game Assassin's Creed: Origins, the brazen bull is often referred to as a torture tool in use in Ancient Egypt.
  • This system of torture makes an appearance in the video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent; interaction with it is required for the continuation of the plot.
  • In the film Saw 3D, a brazen bull is used to kill the wife of the protagonist, who is revealed to have made money from books and interviews where he lies about surviving a death trap created by the infamous "Jigsaw killer".
  • In the 2011 film Immortals, King Hyperion imprisons virgins of the oracle in a brazen bull in order to extract from them the location of the Epirus Bow.
  • In the third season of the video game series Criminal Case, one of the victims is killed by being burned to death with a brazen bull.
  • In the manga series Though You May Burn to Ash, one of the characters is tortured to death with a brazen bull.
  • In the book "Library at Mount Char", the brazen bull is used as a torture device by 'Father' to teach David a lesson.


  1. ^ Diehl & Donnelly 2008, p. 37
  2. ^ Biblioteca Historica, IX, 18-19
  3. ^ Diehl & Donnelly 2008, p. 39
  4. ^ Carson, Gary (28 January 2017). "Did The Brazen Bull Actually Exist?". Ancient World Review. Archived from the original on 15 January 2018. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
  5. ^ Thompson 2008, p. 30
  6. ^ Pindar, Pythian 1
  7. ^ The Seat of Satan: Ancient Pergamum[unreliable source?]
  8. ^ "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