10 bizarrely brutal historical practices you may not have known about

5) Krypteia –

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Despite our popular culture-inspired notions, the Spartan male was only considered as a true soldier from the age of 18 (and not before that) when he was called the eiren or ‘adult citizen’. However, the Spartan secret service known as krypteia only inducted male members – who were generally above 27 years old (and below 30 years). This ‘krypteia’ branch of the military practiced a cruel form of training for its initiates that required them to literally murder innocent ‘helots’. These helots belonged the subjugated populace of Sparta which provided the free Lakedaimonians with slaves to work on fields, while the Spartans trained themselves for wars.

As for the atrocious process in question here, it was started off when an ephor (an elected Spartan leader) upon entering his office, often declared war on the helots with the casus belli of fake revolts. This executive decision for all intents-and-purposes made the act of killing a helot legal from the perspective of state’s judicial system. And, when the terrible order was passed, young Spartan men under the krypteia branch of ‘special services’ armed with just daggers and rations were let loose into the countryside populated by such slaves. These men used stealthy bandit-like tactics, and ambushed unsuspecting helots to kill them mostly during times of night. The planning of such legalized murders were often elaborate and bloodthirsty. For example, there were cases when the strongest and largest helot was targeted first, so as to make a case for Spartan manliness in taking down bigger enemies.

4) Decimation –

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In our modern context, the very term ‘decimation’ pertains to the utter destruction of a habitat, populace or even an eco-system. But as it turns out, a few Roman generals purposefully enacted the method of decimation as a form of disciplinary punishment for their legions! Delving into the etymological root, the word ‘decimation’ comes from Latin decimatus, and itself relates to ‘decem‘ or tenth. So, when the punishment was enforced, it was most probably known as decimatio and the vicious process entailed choosing every tenth man from a cohort (approximately 480 men) to be put to death. And, the utterly ruthless part was – this unlucky man had be to stoned or clubbed to death by their remaining comrades-in-arms, in a shocking practice known as the fustuarium.

The remorseless punishment was rare, and was usually reserved for the troops who had displayed insubordination, cowardice, will to conspire, murderous intent on fellow soldiers, participation in espionage activities, desertion or in few cases when they had faked illness so as not to participate in upcoming battles. And in a true Roman fashion, the ‘democratic’ part of the ghastly process involved the selection of the soldier in a random manner (by lottery) – regardless of his rank, reputation or even his involvement in the actual transgression or revolt. The remaining soldiers were then sometimes forced to make their quarters outside the main army camp and given diets of barley which was obviously harder to digest than the usual rations of wheat.

Incredibly enough, there are alleged instances of decimation being implemented after the late medieval period and even in the 20th century. The drastic measures were apparently applied during the upheavals of the Thirty Years War, First World War and Finnish Civil War of 1918.

3) Viking ‘grave gifts’ –

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A discovery made in 2013 might have revealed the barbaric side of the Viking elite. The analysis of a grave on an island in the Norwegian Sea led to the finding of the main occupant’s skeleton (and man in his 20’s), accompanied by several skeletons without their heads. This does allude to the possibility of a gruesome ritual of killing slaves as ‘gifts’ for their master’s graves. And this was also not the first Viking grave that had a headless occupant, thought the burial site was the first to have more than one headless specimen.

According to University of Oslo’s Elise Naumann, who headed the study, the researchers had also found a marked difference in diet of these grave dwellers. In that regard, the scientists found that the single occupant with his head intact had a rich-protein based diet, that might have entailed greater quantities of milk and beef. On the other hand, the headless specimens had diets filled with low-cost seafood – thus suggesting a societal gap between the occupants. Furthermore, the researchers also assessed the bodies’ DNA, and the subsequent result suggested that these headless men were not kin and were probably mistreated before their deaths. These factors once again hint that the ‘other’ bodies were that of slaves who were ritually murdered to ‘serve’ their masters in death.

2) Scaphism –

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Ominously called ‘the boats’, Scaphism was a Persian method of torturing and then executing their enemies and criminals. The term itself is derived from Greek σκάφη (skáphe), which more-or-less translates to ‘anything scooped out’. The appalling method required the victim to be unclothed and then tied within the space of two narrow boats (or hollowed out wooden trunks), so that his hands and feet would project out from the main volume. Then the victim was force fed with milk and honey till the point that he would develop diarrhea due to the rich food content. Honey was also smeared along the other parts of the body, with special attention being given to the eyes, ears, mouth and genitals. Then the victim was left out in the sun for days.

Fueled by the enticement of the honey, insects like wasps would be attracted to the skin, thus resulting in biting and stinging all throughout the day. At the same time, the severe diarrhea brought on by the forced ingestion of the rich food, led to regular excretion – with the human feces accumulating over time inside the hollowed out space. This in turn attracted a myriad insects, some of which then went onto feed and breed upon the victim’s exposed flesh. The intrusive worms also burrowed through the rotting flesh, which unpleasantly led to blockage of blood flow, and then created gangrenous spots.

This process of feeding could be continued for days, thus extending the repugnant period of agony of the delirious victim. However ultimately, the victim did die from various combined effects, including dehydration and septic shock.

1) Carthaginian child sacrifice –

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For those who know their history, might have heard about the Carthaginians – an offshoot of the ancient Phoenicians, and a mighty naval power based in North Africa that challenged the burgeoning Romans in three Punic Wars. It was also the very same civilization that the great general Hannibal hailed from. However, in spite of their large mercantile empire (with colonies extending to Spain), the Carthaginians were often maligned by other contemporary Greek and Roman authors – courtesy of their alleged child sacrificing rituals. According to Roman historian Diodorus –

There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

Such practices according to the ancient authors, were carried out to conjure up ‘favors’ from gods – that even included materialistic benefits, like favoring a shipment of goods to arrive unharmed in a foreign ports. However, it should be noted that extant Carthaginian texts and sources make no mention of any kind of child sacrificing rituals. So, the question arises – why such horrendous allegations? Well, according to archaeological annals, historians have found ‘Tophets’ at the periphery site of Carthage that had crematory grounds exclusively for young children and animals. Many of these remains were found to be contained within small urns; and since the animals were sacrificed, many thought that the children might met the same gruesome fate.

Interestingly, the accuracy of many such finds are disputed by some experts – with a few studies openly declaring the non-supportive nature of the hypotheses. But, on the other hand, more recent analysis have shown that evidence suggesting child sacrificing MAY just be overwhelming (though the horrific act itself was probably carried out during very rare instances). According to Josephine Quinn (a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford), who headed a study done in 2014 –

But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favors but fulfilling a promise that had already been made. This was not a common event, and it must have been among an elite because cremation was very expensive, and so was the ritual of burial. It may even have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community.

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