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The Brief History Of “The Brazen Bull”

There are some things that do not change.

So there was once a tyrant in Ancient Greece who went by the name Phalaris. He ruled the city of Akragas, on the island of Sicily. Got that? There’s more: Phalaris was a real asshole. Even by the standards of the day. This guy was worse than Alcandros and Phintias and Sosistratus. Yes, even Sosistratus. I mean, Phalaris was probably even worse than Hipparchus and that dude, as you no doubt know, was a real shithead.

This was a golden age of tyrants, you have to understand. It really sucked if you weren’t a king.

Here’s an anecdote and, please, stop me if you’ve heard it. Theron, the tyrant of Acragas, went to war with Himera, the tyrant of Terillus. So on the eve of the battle, Theron is talking with Gelo, the tyrant of Gela, about Himera and he says “That jerk is a real dick in the eyeball!” And Gelo responds, “He’s not as bad as Phalaris!” Then they laughed and laughed and, eventually, they died, and their bones turned to dust and their deeds have been forgotten because time is teeth and hunger and all that humans do — their palaces and roads, grand victories and bold discoveries, all the kisses, whispers and tears — are, ultimately, gristle.

We can look back and chuckle at the cruelties of the past because civilization has evolved. I can, if I want, have a wide variety of dumplings delivered to my apartment via handheld supercomputer. This is called progress. Humanity is no longer divided into king and slave. The modern world is a king, a slave, and, like, whatever the word is for slightly better than a slave. It’s kind of melancholy that human achievement is pointless because, as I just mentioned, the infinite is indifferent to our joys and suffering.

Where was I? Because this is important and, also, not important at all. Like most things, I’m afraid. It’s just a story from antiquity that I am recalling from memory because research is hard, a fact that is, I’ll admit, also a problem. But there’s a happy ending. Sort of. So it’s just a story and remember that stories are important because we can’t spend all our time just blatantly lying to each other.

Once upon a time Phalaris got tired of how he tortured and killed people. Madmen love to torture and kill. Kill and torture. He killed his enemies and the guilty and the innocent and his friends. He killed slaves and citizens and anyone who spoke truth to power and then, sometimes, anyone who spoke power to power. Like I said, if you can be a king, be a king.

I suppose it can get tedious if you regularly have people maimed and murdered the same way, over and over. Variety is the spice of life and all that. Phalaris was bored. His royal smarty pants just couldn’t come up with new and interesting ways to torture and kill. The tyrant came up with a solution: first, throw his royal smarty pants off a cliff. Then he sent for Perillos of Athens for a solution to his boredom. Now, Perillos was an inventor. Not Daedalus good — no way Perillos could have invented a labyrinth that could trap the Minotaur or wax wings that could make a man soar. But, you know, he was alright. Solid B-/C+. Phalaris wanted a new way to make the citizens of Akragas suffer. Perillos came up with an answer.

Before I continue, I just think you should know that I am, in no way, a historian. This is just a legend. A legend is the corpse of history, stuffed, and mounted. I read this story many years ago when I was obsessed with Greek mythology. My mother introduced me to books of myths and I loved them. They gave me a real taste for pantheons. Later, I would become equally obsessed with Catholic saints. They all had super powers and most died awful deaths. In some long discarded sketch book are drawings of a battle between Zeus and Saint Francis who, in my imagination, could command animals the way Aquaman commands sea creatures. The story of Phalaris isn’t in regular books about Greek mythology. You know, the ones for kids with happy illustrations that try to make Zeus look like Santa Claus instead of an emotionally-abusive cloud grandpa with a fistful of lightening penises. I think, in hindsight, I was a natural born pagan. I sought out books about old gods and dark arts and the undead.

I discovered this story about a Greek tyrant’s execution device because I use to spend hours at the library researching terrible ways to die. After all, I was raised a Catholic, and Catholics are obsessed with the crucifixion, which is one of meanest, grossest, and most painful ways to die. For any member of future generations reading this who don’t know what a library was: imagine if the internet was full of truth.

Okay. Onward. After many months of toil Perillos presented Phalaris with his invention, which he called The Brazen Bull. It has other names like The Bronze Bull, or The Sicilian Bull, or The Fucked-Up Death Bull. Ironically, I recently worked in lower Manhattan across the street from the famous Wall Street Bull. I’m pretty sure the Wall Street Bull is not an execution device. The Brazen Bull was a brilliant, and insidious, creation. It was a giant, hollow bronze bull with a door in the side. The condemned would be pushed through that door into the belly of the bull and locked in. Then a fire would be lit underneath. The victim would then roast, slowly, to death.

Phalaris, naturally, loved it. I mean, who wouldn’t? You spend years hacking, stabbing, flaying, burning, impaling, hanging, and perforating people with arrows — boring — and now this? Pharalis made one request and that was for the smoke from the bull to smell like incense because the stink of a human cooking to death can really ruin appetizers. This was not a problem. And so the Brazen Bull became a sort of air freshener of doom. Perillos was at the top of his game — I mean, he was no Steve Jobs of execution devices, but, like, easily a Michael Dell. He would not only make the smoke smell nice, like your average Yoga studio before all the grunting and sweating, but he would also solve the problem of the screaming. I mean, normally, if you’re into torturing you’re probably into screaming. But The Brazen Bull was designed to make death slow and unbearable. That’s lots of screaming, lots of pleading, lots of childlike whimpers, especially near the end.

Perillo built a system of tubes and pipes into the head of the bull that would transform the prisoner’s screaming into a pleasant melodic roar. Real chillwave. Phalaris was so pleased with his new musical torture toy that he immediately had it tested on Perillo who was unceremoniously shoved into his own evil apparatus. The Ancient Greeks were totally into irony.

Take a moment to imagine being forced into a giant, dark, bronze pot. Then hearing the crackling of fire beneath you. A bead of sweat, two, then you’re soaked. Then imagine the cool bronze warming until it was too hot to touch, and then, so hot that your flesh sizzled. Imagine suffocating and sweating and every time you banged or kicked, there would be a hiss. You’d bang the sides and skin would peel off. In a moment of inexplicable mercy, Phalaris chose to have Perillo removed, mid-roast, so he could then throw him off a cliff. Why would he interrupt Perillo’s execution only to toss him onto some rocks? Who can say. That’s just a madman for you. Phalaris then spent many years turning misery into music. Like, you’d go to Phalaris’ place because if you didn’t, he’d kill you, and you’d get to enjoy some food and wine and, in the background, as the partygoers munched and chatted you’d hear soft musical notes pouring out of a bronze bull that smelled super nice. Maybe you knew the music was actually some poor bastard broiling. Maybe you didn’t! The Brazen Bull was the dopest DJ in all of Akragas to that person.

Eventually, Telemachus, an ancestor of Theron, would toss Phalaris into The Brazen Bull. Yes, being king is great until the sudden violent end. I wonder if, in the shadows, the slaves danced to the beautiful shrieks of the tyrant of Akragas?

Anyway, things have been worse but they’ve rarely been better.

Written by

Editor, Humungus. I won two James Beard Awards once for an essay about Taco Bell. Let’s be friends.

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