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The Tortuous End of Mithridates

A young Persian soldier named Mithridates didn’t live long enough to claim great victories or gain the respect of his fellow citizens, but instead, went down in history for accidentally killing a notable figure in history. According to the great historian Plutarch, he wrote in “Life of Artaxerxes II” that Mithridates was responsible for killing Cyrus the Younger in the Battle of Cunaxa.

Plutarch wrote of the incident: “Cyrus being made elate with victory, and full of confidence and force, passed through enemy lines, crying out, and that more than once, in the Persian language, “Clear the way, villains, clear the way;” which they indeed did, throwing themselves down at his feet. But his tiara dropped off his head, and a young Persian, by name Mithridates, running by, struck a dart into one of his temples near his eye, not knowing who he was, out of which wound much blood gushed, so that Cyrus, swooning and senseless, fell off his horse.”

It wasn’t too long before that the death of Cyrus reached the ears of the king, Artaxerxes. Unfortunately, Mithridates was in the court when he boasted about being responsible for the death of Cyrus. He didn’t even know that he was sealing his own fate at the time. The soldier was executed for murdering Cyrus the Younger by way of scaphism , a form of insect torture. He survived the procedure for 17 days before dying in 401 BC.

Scaphism (also referred to as ‘the boats’) was a method of torture meant to cause death , originally connected to the ancient Persians. A victim was stripped naked and firmly attached inside a pair of narrow rowing boats (or a hollowed-out tree trunk). The victim was then forced to drink a concoction made out of milk and honey, which would eventually cause severe diarrhea. Honey would be rubbed on the body so that insects would find the exposed limbs of the victim. The body was then left to float in a stagnant pond or out in the open where the sun was plentiful.

The victim could do nothing to prevent what faced him. Their feces would gather in the container they floated in, which in turn, brought more insects to their body. Their flesh would become full of gangrene, where insects would eat and breed within the exposed skin. In an effort to increase the pain of the torture, more milk and honey was fed to the victim each day. This also stopped dehydration or starvation from rescuing them from a swift death. Within a couple of days, the victim would enter a phase of delirium. However, death usually came by way of dehydration, starvation, and septic shock.

There are records of the torture that claim the insects did not eat the victim, but the bulk of the torture would come from insects that bit and stung the victim. Insects, such as wasps, were attracted to the honey on the body. Scaphism was a rather humiliating and painful way to die. Mithridates endured 17 days of this torture before finally succumbing to the process.