Scaphism: The Gruesome Ancient Persian Torture Method


Scaphism, also known as “the boats,” was a horrifying and elaborate method of execution employed by the ancient Persians. This brutal form of punishment involved trapping a victim within a pair of narrow, hollowed-out boats, where they would be exposed to a nightmarish cycle of decay and consumption. The term “scaphism” is derived from the Greek word “skaphe,” meaning boat.

Historical Context

Scaphism was first recorded by the Greek historian Plutarch, who chronicled its use in the execution of the Persian nobleman Mithridates in his Biographies (“Parallel Lives”). Mithridates had been sentenced to die in this manner for killing Cyrus the Younger. According to Plutarch’s account of the events, he survived 17 days before dying.

The method was purportedly employed by Persian king Artaxerxes II (reigned 404–358 BCE) as a punishment for high-profile offenders, especially those involved in political or military treason.

It is believed that Plutarch’s account of Scaphism came from Ctesias, a Greek physician and historian. It is not certain whether this method of execution is only a figment of ancient Greek literature, and distinct anti-Persian sentiment. Ctesias’s credibility is questionable due to his reputation for fanciful and exaggerated narratives.

Domestic Persian sources from the Achaemenid dynasty or later do not mention this punishment, although they commonly mention other brutal forms of capital punishment, such as impaling or dismemberment. There is also no archaeological evidence for the real existence of Scaphism. Either none have survived, it has not been found yet, or it never existed in the first place.

The Scaphism Torture Method

Preparation of the Boats

The process would begin with the construction of two narrow boats or hollowed-out tree trunks. The boats were made to fit the victim’s body tightly, leaving only the head, hands, and feet exposed.

Force-Feeding and Milk-and-Honey Coating

The victim’s hands and legs were tightly bound, restricting any movement and ensuring they had no chance of escape. Once the victim was immobilized, they would be force-fed a mixture of milk and honey, intended to induce diarrhoea. This was not only a form of torture in itself but also served to attract insects due to the sugary coating on the victim’s body.

Once thoroughly coated, the victim would be placed within one boat, and the other boat would be tightly affixed on top, effectively creating a claustrophobic cocoon.

Exposure to the Elements

The enclosed victim would be left floating on a stagnant pond or marsh, exposed to the elements. The stagnant water would promote the breeding of insects, and attack other creatures such flies, rats, maggots, and worms.

Over time, the victim would suffer from the effects of diarrhoea, dehydration, and malnutrition. The milk-and-honey mixture attracted insects, leading to a gradual infestation of the victim’s body. The confined space became a breeding ground for pestilence.

Insects and vermin also carried bacteria, leading to severe infections. As the victim’s body decayed and wounds opened, maggots would breed within the flesh, eating it from inside-out. The combination of insect bites, exposure, and bodily decay would eventually result in a slow and agonizing death.


Scaphism stands as a horrifying chapter in the annals of human history, illustrating the extremes to which some ancient civilizations would go in their pursuit of justice or vengeance. The cruelty of this method, both in its physical torment and psychological terror, remains a stark reminder of the darker aspects of humanity’s past.

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