(Lucian, 2nd century A.D.)

And now I must explain to you the origin of my present offering, and the manner in which it came into my hands. For it was by no instructions of mine that the statuary made this bull: far be it from me to aspire to the possession of such works of art! A countryman of my own, one Perilaus, an admirable artist, but a man of evil disposition, had so far mistaken my character as to think that he could win my regard by the invention of a new form of torture; the love of torture, he thought, was my ruling passion. He it was who made the bull and brought it to me. I no sooner set eyes on this beautiful and exquisite piece of workmanship, which lacked only movement and sound to complete the illusion, than I exclaimed: “Here is an offering fit for the God of Delphi: to him I must send it.” “And what will you say,” rejoined Perilaus, who stood by, “when you see the ingenious mechanism within it, and learn the purpose it is designed to serve?” He opened the back of the animal, and continued: “When you are minded to punish any one, shut him up in this receptacle, apply these pipes to the nostrils of the bull, and order a fire to be kindled beneath. The occupant will shriek and roar in unremitting agony; and his cries will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings. Your victim will be punished, and you will enjoy the music.”

The Brazen Bull

His words revolted me. I loathed the thought of such ingenious cruelty, and resolved to punish the artificer in kind. “If this is anything more than an empty boast, Perilaus,” I said to him, “if your art can really produce this effect, get inside yourself, and pretend to roar; and we will see whether the pipes will make such music as you describe.” He consented; and when he was inside I closed the aperture, and ordered a fire to be kindled. “Receive,” I cried, “the due reward of your wondrous art: let the music-master be the first to play.” Thus did his ingenuity meet with its deserts. But lest the offering should be polluted by his death, I caused him to be removed while he was yet alive, and his body to be flung dishonoured from the cliffs. The bull, after due purification, I sent as an offering to your God, with an inscription upon it, setting forth all the circumstances; the names of the donor and of the artist, the evil design of the latter, and the righteous sentence which condemned him to illustrate by his own agonized shrieks the efficacy of his musical device.

The Syrian rhetoritician Lucian, who was born in present-day Turkey and wrote in Greek, was a specialist in satire and also wrote speculative stories that are now regarded as forerunners of science fiction. In this excerpt from his story Phalaris, the eponymous character, a tyrant who lived in Sicily in the 6th century BC, describes one of the more perverse musical technologies of which we have record. Lucian, who tried to rehabilitate the tyrant’s reputation, has Phalaris condemn the bull’s inventor as its first victim. This story should be compared to the parallel passage in Sebastien Mercier’s The Year 2440, in which a similar phonotechnic invention serves the purposes of Enlightenment pacifism.
Though the “brazen bull” was a historical artifact, the pipes through which the victim’s cries of agony were transmuted into lovely tones is a piece of pure technological magic. Another version of this story, told in the first century BC by Diodorus of Sicily, omits the pipes, suggesting that a truly evil tyrant would find the victim’s unfiltered screams to be music to his ears.
Text: Works of Lucian of Samosata, Vol. 2, translated by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler
Image: Perillus Condemned to the Bronze Bull by Phalaris, by Pierre Woeiriot (c. 1575)