Torture: The Evolution of European Torture and Torture Methods

Torture tools in Prague Castle; note spiked ladder rack, shrew's fiddle, and, at center left rear, a spiked wooden screw press applicable to elbows, knees, or feet

From the third century to twentieth century, from the Greeks and Romans to all of Europe, the meaning and methods of torture have greatly evolved.

Throughout Europe, torture and its application constantly changed, based on leadership, changes within the European legal systems, and the altering perceptions within civil societies as a result of reform.

Greek Torture

In early Greek and Roman law, torture was used as a mechanism for obtaining evidence to help determine the fate of the convicted individual. For the Greeks, torture was typically reserved for slaves only. Slaves were perceived as expendable beings whose torture would not have a negative impact on society, as would be the case with the torture of freemen. Instead, freemen were questioned under the law, while slaves were tortured despite their testimonies not being viewed with high regard.

With the change in Greek law between the 3rd and 6th centuries — from a communal legal system to a more complex system relying on evidence, honour and status to determine one’s guilt or not — the application of torture took on a larger role in ancient Greece.

When judges could not form an opinion, after having been provided with all of the testimonies and support for a particular case, they relied upon the corporal torture of slaves to obtain more information. By providing a purely legal definition of the word, the Greeks saw torture as a legal aid rather than a moral wrong.

Torture methods included, but were not limited to: the rack with distended joints, hooks that lacerated the flesh, red-hot metal, and flogging.

Roman Torture

Roman law followed closely to Greek law in that slaves were the primary victims of torture. Roman torture started with the expendable figures in society, the slaves, but with time it extended to lower members of society and those with public dishonour. Many of the torture techniques that the Greeks used were also used by the Romans: the rack, hooks to lacerate the flesh, hot metal and flogging.

The increased use of torture under the Roman Empire largely had to do with the emergence of class divisions near the end of the second century, as well as the growing power of the Emperor.

Inquisitorial Procedure and Torture

The rise of the inquisitorial procedure made the use of evidence in legal systems incredibly significant. Status and honour were no longer seen as such influential factors in legal matters as they had been with Greek and Roman law. Instead, proof of law became key to convicting. Consequently, there was a reemergence of the use of torture, since it was a means by which proof or confessions could be obtained.

12th to 20th Century Torture

Just as the Greeks had struggled with gathering confessions and evidence, in the 12th to the 20th century, torture was seen as the only way to overcome the lack of a second eyewitness or further proof that was required to convict.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, torture was limited to smaller groups, yet the methods of torture were considered no less brutal or barbaric than the torture of larger groups in later centuries. Like Greek and Roman torture, the 12h and 13h centuries involved torture by the rack, and being crushed by rocks.

By the 17th century, the application of torture had developed a broader base for use in criminal procedures. Fewer people found themselves exempt from torture, regardless of their status. Since the legal system required full proof for conviction, a legal definition existed in the 17th century that meant torture could be used to extract confessions or additional proof.

The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a change in torture techniques. Torture methods came to include: beatings, burning, assault, and sleep deprivation.

The 20th century also marked a different definition of torture, this one a moral and sentimental one. Human rights groups, charters and annexes emerged, seeking to restore human rights and abolish the use of torture in legal systems. Despite these attempts, however, the growth in policing, and the twentieth century World Wars led to further acts of torture in order to obtain information for societal protection and to prevent further criminal activities.

Torture in the 20th century was believed to have reemerged because of the growing power of the state. It was apparent that this century possessed more capable torturers, who were able to reduce the body’s natural resistance to enduring levels of pain so that the torture techniques being used proved more effective for getting answers.

When examining the term “torture”, and torture methods, it is clear that both have evolved since the early Greeks and Romans. During the early modern period, torture was a regular part of the judicial procedure in Europe because it provided a solution to unusually high standards of proof. In instances where a second eyewitness did not exist and further proof was required, torture was a means of obtaining a confession, or the necessary evidence to convict.


  1. Peters, Edward. Torture. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Press, 1999.