Death in the ancient world was rarely a dignified prospect. While this was certainly true for ordinary people, kings and religious leaders died horribly as well – often from illnesses brought on by excessive eating and drinking. Sometimes, they were just murdered, either by their own people or their enemies.
Many of the weird deaths of the ancient world, such as the Roman emperor forced to drink molten gold or the gruesome executions used by the Vikings, are the stuff of legends. Little proof exists that these actually took place or that they were anywhere near as bizarre as the stories say. But if these killings truly were even half as disgusting as the legends, a lot of really powerful ancient people perished in really bad ways.
Here are some of the strangest and most brutal deaths that befell leaders of the ancient world.
Senebkay, The Pharaoh Chopped Up With Axes
Likely living between 1650 and 1550 BCE in Egypt, King Senebkay suffered a vicious end. His tomb was found in 2014, and when his body was analyzed, his skeleton was found to have 18 wounds on the skull, back, and elsewhere.
It’s likely that he was attacked while on horseback, then hacked with an ax (or many axes) when he hit the ground.
Emperor Galba’s Head Was Used As A Soccer Ball
Taking the throne of the Roman Empire during a period of extreme strife (he passed in 69 CE, known as the “year of the four emperors”), Galba reigned for just seven months, during which he became unpopular with citizens and soldiers.
According to Plutarch, in January of that year, Galba was beheaded by rebellious troops, who brought the head to the camp of his foes. It was mocked and kicked around.
Sicilian Tyrant Phalaris Was Roasted Alive In His Own Bronze Bull
One of the most tyrannical leaders of the ancient world, Phalaris ruled the small kingdom of Acragas (now in Sicily) with not just an iron fist, but a bronze bull. He would lock his foes in a giant bronze statue of a bull, then set a fire underneath it, roasting the poor souls alive and listening to their screams.
Phalaris was finally overthrown and said to have been burned in the same bull where he tormented his victims. He passed around 554 BCE.
Sigurd The Mighty Was Killed By A Severed Head
Sigurd the Mighty was the second Viking Earl of Orkney and led the Viking conquest of what is now northern Scotland. Bizarrely, he was killed by the severed head of one of his enemies, Máel Brigte, who he had slain in arranged combat. The pair agreed to meet for combat, each with 40 men. But Sigurd showed up with twice that many and slaughtered the Scots.
Eager to make the Scottish leader an example, Sigurd strapped Máel Brigte‘s head to his saddle as a trophy of conquest. But as he rode, Máel Brigte’s distinctive buck teeth grazed against Sigurd’s leg (or in some legends, bit him), opening up a wound. The gash became infected with pestilence from the head, and Sigurd perished of blood poisoning.
Roman Emperor Caracalla Was Attacked While Taking A Leak
Reigning from 211 to 217 CE, Emperor Caracalla made few friends with his radical proposals to turn all free men in the Roman Empire into citizens for the purposes of taxing the heck out of them.
After having his brother slain, devaluing Roman currency, and making an enemy of one of his officials, Caracalla was murdered while urinating at a roadside stop between two cities.
Anglo-Saxon King Aelle, Slain By The Infamous Blood Eagle
According to the Viking sagas, Ragnar Lodbrok’s son, Ivarr the Boneless, slew King Aelle of Northumbria in revenge for his father’s murder. The execution was said to be carried out using the most infamous form of Viking punishment: the blood eagle, a ritualized execution involving the victim’s back being opened up, the ribs cracked open, and the lungs pulled out. Then, salt would be poured into the wound and the victim was left to die.
Multiple Norse kings of the ninth and 10th centuries were said to have been slain this way, but debate rages as to whether the blood eagle was an invention of saga writers, a misinterpretation of grave runes, or an actual act reserved for the most heinous of sins.
Jovian Was Asphyxiated By A Charcoal Fire (Maybe)
As is typical of the ancient world, accounts vary as to how the young Roman Emperor Jovian perished in 364.
He was found dead while traveling through the town of Dadastana, and the most common explanation is that he asphyxiated for the fumes of a recently plastered room where a charcoal fire had been burning.
Emperor Tiberius Perished Twice
Tiberius was one of the oldest emperors of Rome. He reached the advanced age of 77, and appeared to perish of natural causes after an injury and long illness in 37 CE… except he actually didn’t – he was simply unconscious for a time.
The cruel, gloomy, and paranoid Tiberius was so hated by the end of his reign that the people rejoiced when his passing was announced. But Tiberius awoke soon after, leading his successor, Caligula, to have a guard smother him with a pillow. Supposedly, another round of rejoicing broke out.
Greek Legislator Draco Was Suffocated By Cloaks
Draco was responsible for the first written constitution of Athens, codifying laws that, until then, had only been transmitted orally. Draco’s precepts were so harsh and biased towards wealthy landowners that the word “draconian” was later coined to describe them. Nevertheless, Draco was to be feted with a traditional Athenian celebration – having clothing thrown on him.
According to legend, Athenians eager to honor their lawgiver threw so many cloaks on Draco that he suffocated.
Hungarian Rebel Leader György Dózsa Was Eaten By His Comrades
The peasants revolt György Dózsa led against the landed nobility of Hungary didn’t end well – for him or anyone involved. Dózsa led a campaign of torturing and executing noblemen, burning their property.
Dózsa was captured and killed by torture: made to wear a hot iron crown and wounded with pliers that ripped his flesh that was then force-fed to his accomplices. After this, he was burned alive – some say, on a hot iron throne.
Emperor Valerian Was Force-Fed Molten Gold
Persian troops took the Roman Emperor Valerian, who reigned from 253 to 260 CE, captive as a prisoner of war. He likely lived for several years as a captive before being executed. Several rumored deaths befell Valerian. One is that Valerian was taken out when molten gold was poured down his throat.
Another version of Valerian’s end holds that Shapur, the Persian ruler, had the emperor’s skin flayed and displayed in a temple as a warning.
Bela I, The King Literally Slain By His Own Throne
After a lifetime spent at war with the enemies of Hungary, Bela finally took the throne in 1060, ending a rebellion led by his brother.
But Bela’s reign didn’t last long as he perished when his wooden throne collapsed and he was gravely injured.
Pope Paul II Died Of A Melon Overdose
Legend has it that the 1471 passing of Pope Paul II occurred due to the Pontiff’s excessive eating habits – specifically, death brought on by devouring two huge melons.
A rumor also spread that the Pope had died not from melons but as a result of injuries he sustained while being sodomized by a page, but this is not substantiated.
Pyrrhus Of Epirus, The Great General Ended By A Roof Tile
The Greek general and king for whom the term “Pyrrhic victory” is named, Pyrrhus of Epirus became legendary for his combat tactics, which included sacrificing large numbers of troops in order to win. After leading numerous campaigns against Rome, he met his end in what might be the most humiliating manner possible.
While settling a dispute in the city of Argos, he was in combat with a local soldier in the streets. An old woman – perhaps the soldier’s mother – threw a heavy tile at Pyrrhus from a rooftop, which landed on his head. He was then decapitated by the enemy soldier.
King Henry I Ate Too Many Eels
Henry I was one of the longest-serving kings of England, reigning from 1100 to 1135.
His end came not from war or murder, but thanks to a more common ailment: food poisoning. Specifically, he ate too many lamprey, a delicacy of the time.
Roman Usurper Joannes Was Paraded On A Donkey After His Hands Were Cut Off
Joannes was a senior civil servant in the Roman Empire at a time of instability. He was briefly elevated to emperor of the Western Empire as a usurper to the rightful emperor. Joannes was finally captured by elements of the Eastern Empire. His right hand was cut off and he was strapped to a donkey, which was paraded around and mocked.
Joannes was finally put out of his misery by being beheaded.
Emperor Galerius Died From Maggots Eating His Genitals
Galerius was a staunch warrior and helped to end the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. He likely also perished one of the most gruesome ends in Roman history, expiring thanks to bowel cancer, Fournier gangrene, or a combination of the two.
What’s Fournier gangrene, you ask? It’s a form of flesh-eating bacteria that specifically attacks the genitals, quickly destroying the tissue and often leading to death.
James II Of Scotland Was Blown Up By His Own Cannon
James II, who ruled Scotland from 1437 to 1460, was an early enthusiast of artillery, using it against both rebellious Scots and English occupiers.
When laying siege to a castle held by the British, a cannon exploded, sending metal everywhere. By some accounts, his thigh was gravely injured by a shard and he passed soon after.
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