5 Historical Figures More Terrifying Than Any Horror Villain
If the world seems like a more violent and brutal place these days, well, that's because your history class left out a bunch of shit, probably due to your teacher not wanting to give you PTSD. Oh sure, you know that history is full of wars and oppression and such. We're not talking about that -- we're talking about powerful and wealthy people who did things so nightmarish that if you saw them in a movie, you'd think the writer was a psychopath. For example ...
Phalaris of Acragas Roasted People Alive In a Hollow Bull Statue
Phalaris of Acragas was a pretty effective leader; he built his city-state into a prosperous, well-equipped place to raise a family. In theory, this makes his dominion one of the best spots to crash-land when your homemade time machine inevitably breaks down and leaves you stranded in the 6th century BCE. In practice, it would take roughly 0.2 seconds for Phalaris to give the order to roast your ass alive in a metal torture chamber shaped like a bull.
Phalari (the elected dictator of Acragas - now Agrigento - Sicily between 570 and 554 BC) is a perfect example of mankind's oldest dilemma: do you tolerate a capable leader if said leader also enjoys doling out sadistic torture every now and then? His favorite method was known as the brazen bull. This hollow bull statue was presented to him by a Greek artist named Perillos. The bull had a trapdoor installed in the belly, so the condemned could be shut inside the statue, and a roaring fire would be lit underneath. As the metal heated, the person trapped inside would be gradually roasted to death. To literally add insult to injury, the bull's mouth featured an acoustic device that would convert the victim's screams to a low, drawn-out sound not unlike the mooing of Satan's own livestock.
As depicted here:
Unfortunately for Perillos, he failed to realize that personally handing a new, ingenious torture/execution device to a bloodthirsty dictator with weak impulse control might be a poor life decision. As soon as Phalaris was given his new toy, he demanded a demonstration from the artist himself -- and by that, we mean he locked Perillos within the contraption. As its maker's screams would soon demonstrate, the bull worked exactly as advertised, so Phalaris had Perillos rescued from the bull ... only to have him immediately thrown off a cliff to his death.
This incident kick-started a long string of fatal roastings. For the remainder of his reign, Phalaris stuffed victim after victim inside the brazen bovine, to the hearty enjoyment of none but himself. Meanwhile, his subjects were presumably turned off of barbecue parties forever.
Fortunately, this nasty situation was not destined to last, and Phalaris eventually found out that citizen roasts tend to come with a huge side order of karma. The tyrant was eventually overthrown by the inevitable uprising of the people, and according to some historians, his successor saw no better punishment than to stuff Phalaris himself in his prized metal cow.
Emperor Tiberius Enjoyed Dick-Themed Executions and Fish Attacks
Emperor Tiberius ruled Rome before his great-nephew Caligula took over. As a result, Tiberius' time in power is generally overshadowed by the horse-worshiping reign of batshittery that followed. It's unfair, really, because ol' Tibe was a perfectly capable insane supervillain himself. In order to establish this, let's consider a torture technique he pioneered: he had people's dicks tied with lute strings so they couldn't pee, then forced them to drink copious amounts of wine until their bladder eventually burst.
Yeah, Tiberius was that kind of guy.
As such, making an enemy out of the emperor was generally seen as even worse news than usual. And anyone could make an enemy out of him -- when Tiberius noticed that his grandsons Nero (not that Nero -- the Romans just had, like, four possible male names) and Drusus were gaining popularity, Tiberius started a smear campaign that culminated in him declaring them enemies of the state. According to some historians, he then started dropping tactful hints in the form of a goddamn executioner standing outside Nero's window with a noose and a bunch of nasty hooks, until the grandson got the message and committed suicide to avoid inevitable dick-bondage. Well, that or they straight up executed him. Either way, Grandfather of the Year awards all around, Tiberius.
Drusus had even less luck. After a lengthy imprisonment, Tiberius simply stopped feeding him, until the starving man was forced to eat his own bedding to ward off death for a few more hours. He lasted nine days.
Even the Emperor'sactual friends weren't any safer. Once, Tiberius invited a friend from Rhodes to hang around, only to completely forget the invitation by the time the guy arrived. Not being the kind of man to bother remembering faces, Tiberius' reaction was to mistake the friend for a random informant and put him to torture.
Random acts of wanton cruelty were also par for the course. During one of Tiberius' visits to the countryside, a humble fisherman got the idea to show his affection for his leader by presenting him with a large, freshly-caught carp. The emperor responded by ordering his guards to seize the poor man and scrub his face raw with the fish's sharp scales, because Emperor Tiberius damn well prescribes to the cartoon notion that faces can simply be erased if you don't like them, thank you so very much. When the battered fisherman remarked that he was glad he hadn't offered the emperor a giant crab he'd caught earlier, Tiberius promptly ordered his guards to fetch said crab from the man's house.
King Goujian of Yue Confused Opponents by Forcing His People to Cut Their Own Throats
King Goujian was an early Chinese statesman with probably the most unorthodox way of winning fights in the history of warfare: victory via his own men slitting their throats in front of the enemy.
A little background: when his father died in the year 496 BCE, Goujian got a nasty coronation present when the nearby kingdom of Wu attacked. Yue was defeated and Goujian was taken to Wu, where he stayed in captivity until he had groveled enough to convince the King of Wu of his subservience. Eventually, he was allowed to return to his country, which proved to be the absolute worst mistake the Wu people would ever make. Goujian spent ten freaking years gathering his strength, patiently devising strategies, and waiting for the opportune time to strike. When a locust-induced famine eventually struck Wu, so did Goujian.
Goujian took to the battlefield with ten years' worth of revenge fantasies ricocheting around in his head. You had to assume things would get a bit weird, and they did -- before a particularly important battle, as the two armies were doing that thing where they line up and stare at each other for a while before hacking each other to pieces, Goujian would march a line of nigh-unarmed men to the front of his army. In full view of the enemy, these men would then take out knives, scream, and slit their own throats.
After that, he sent in another wave of self-inflicted windpipe-slashery. And another. If you're wondering how he convinced part of his own army to do this, it will make more sense once you realize they were really convicted Yue criminals, ordered to end their lives for no reason other than to momentarily confuse the enemy (making them follow orders was presumably rather easy, because of the massive freaking army of armed-to-the-teeth soldiers standing right behind them).
There was a method to this madness, sort of -- as the enemy troops stared slack-jawed and contemplated how they could hope to fight people who were prepared to kill themselves for no reason beyond dramatic effect, the rest of Goujian's forces would sneak up from behind and annihilate them.
It, uh, probably goes without saying that Wu didn't win a lot of battles in this particular war.
Pope Innocent VIII Allegedly Drank the Blood of Children
We need to begin this one with a disclaimer: historical records from certain ages can be tricky things. They're often written and/or revised way after the events they describe, and sometimes, whoever's doing the revising has their reasons to present the subjects of the record in a ... less than savory light. It's not like we have video footage of these people doing this shit -- all we can do is report what the (sometimes unreliable) historians wrote down. And with that disclaimer out of the way, we'd like to tell you a tale of a Pope who drank the blood of 10-year-old children.
Pope Innocent VIII rolled exactly like you imagine a significant 16th-century religious leader to roll, meaning he spent his days waging crusades, encouraging forceful conversion, and blaming everything on witches. During his later days, his health started to mysteriously fail. This was a problem, because this was the "apply leeches and mercury" era of medical technology, and no one seemed to know what manner of illness plagued the Pope. Innocent was running a high fever, and drifted in and out of a coma, and he hadn't been particularly healthy to start with. For the doctors, it was do-or-die time.
In a stroke of irony, the personal doctor of the strictly anti-witchcraft, anti-sorcery, and anti-infidel Innocent made the decision to bypass most standard forms of treatment and skip right to the witchiest, most sorcerous, most infidel-y thing he could think of: drinking human blood. The physician had three ten-year-old boys brought to the Vatican to serve as donors. Apparently, the good doctor had never quite learned how volume worked, because he drew so much blood from the boys that the procedure killed all of them. Their blood was then used to prepare a draught for the pope to drink, in the hopes that it would prolong his life.
Down went the blood cocktail, and up arose Vampire Pope, the bane of five continents, who secretly rules the world with an iron fist even today, and holy shit he's standing behind you right now.
Well, that may or may not have been the plan, anyway. We don't know, we're not 16th-century doctors. In reality, this clumsy medicine -- thought by many to have been an attempt at blood transfusion -- didn't work at all. Innocent VIII died several days later, presumably with a horrible aftertaste in his mouth. Humanity took another 100 years to figure out that these things work better when the blood actually goes into the patient's bloodstream.
James Jameson Fed a Little Girl to Cannibals
James Jameson was a young heir to the Jameson Irish Whiskey fortune in the late 19th century, well before the United States prohibition movement nearly toppled the family empire. Things were still good for the Jamesons, and James enjoyed your stereotypical privileged upbringing -- drinking fancy teas, traveling, hunting leprechauns for sport -- as he waited for the inevitable giant pile of family money to drop on him.
Oh, and he once purchased a young slave girl and fed her to cannibals, just fucking because.
You're a disgrace to that mustache.
At the time, various imperialist countries of Europe were fighting over which chunks of Africa they'd get to oppress, and thousands of black people from all corners of the continent were gathered to fight their wars for them. James Jameson took this opportunity to visit the Congo, because being rich enough means you can freely hang out in war zones and suck in the atmosphere while putting yourself at minimal risk.
One night during his stay, Jameson started asking about cannibalism with his interpreter. He was fascinated by the idea, but had never seen it happen. The interpreter consulted the matter with the local chiefs, who agreed on showing Jameson what eatin' people is all about. Only, instead of things going the way you'd expect (Jameson sitting in a giant cauldron), things took a dark turn. All Jameson had to do was buy a person for the cannibals to eat, and he was in for a show. The Whiskey heir readily agreed, and paid the hefty price of six handkerchiefs' worth of cloth for an 11-year-old girl. He promptly handed her over to a group of locals, grabbed his sketchbook, and drew rough sketches of the events as they stabbed and dismembered her. According to some sources, he was even present as they cooked and feasted on her remains. Then, he retired to his tent and finished his work with watercolors.
Yes, a young girl lost her life so that a whiskey mogul could create gorier versions of the tacky paintings you hang in your bathroom. Then he went home and inherited more money than any of us will ever see.
So there you go, folks -- the next time you see today's headlines and wonder, "What's the world coming to?" take solace in the fact that the world has always had plenty of powerful psychopaths to go around.
Janel Comeau writes words on the Internet all day. You can find more of them on her website, or on her Twitter feed.
For more terrifying people from history, check out 6 Real Serial Killers More Terrifying Than Any Horror Movie and 5 Real Murderers More Terrifying Than Any Horror Movie.
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