Sisamnes’s Story: A Corrupt Judge Flayed Alive

Today we decided to present you one of the stories noted by the Greek historian and geographer Herodotus in his fifth book entitled Histories written around 430 BC.

Sisamnes’s Story

According to Herodotus, Sisamnes was a royal judge during the reign of King Cambyses II, who reigned from 529 to 522 B.C.

During a trial, Sisamnes accepted a bribe from a party involved in a lawsuit, thus becoming a corrupt judge. Following that bribe, Sisamnes no longer fulfilled his duty as a judge to deliver a fair sentence. Instead, he decided to deliver a favorable judgment to the party that offered him the bribe, and an unfair one to the other party.

Unfortunately, King Cambyses II learned of the bribe and unjust judgment Sisamnes had taken and decided that Sisamnes must be punished for his unfair action. King Cambyses II ordered the arrest of Sisamnes and decided to punish him very harshly for his act. The punishment suffered by Sisamnes was cruel and downright horrible.

King Cambyses II ordered that Sisamnes be flayed alive and then the skin be used to cover the chair in which he used to work.

But the King did not stop there with his punishment. He decided that the replacement of Sisamnes should be his son Otanes. Therefore, King Cambyses II appointed Otanes judge and made him work sitting on the chair wrapped in his father’s skin. Then, Cambyses II warned Otanes to keep in mind where the leather on the chair came from whenever he hears testimony or delivers a verdict.

Paintings Inspired by Sisamnes’s Story

The Judgment of Cambyses and The Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David

In 1498, Gerad David made two paintings that capture the trial and the punishment of Sisamnes. Gerard David received this task from the councilors of the city of Bruges, who intended to use the story of the corrupt judge as a lesson in 1498. They displayed Gerard’s works in the councilors’ hall to remind them daily to do their duty and not forget that corruption is punished.

Judgement of Cambyses - The Arrest of Sisamnes by Gerard David
The Judgment of Cambyses – The Arrest of Sisamnes by Gerard David
The Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David
The Flaying of Sisamnes by Gerard David

Both works of art titled The Judgment of Cambyses and The Flaying of Sisamnes are in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium.

The Judgment of Cambyses, by Vigor Boucquet

Another picture that captures this story is the one made by the painter Vigor Boucquet. He captured the flaying scene of Sisamnes, and the moment when the king presents Otanes with the chair wrapped in his father’s skin. The painting was commissioned by the magistrate of the city of Nieuwpoort, who gave it to the city as a gift in 1671.

The Judgment of Cambyses by Vigor Boucquet
The Judgment of Cambyses by Vigor Boucquet

The Judgment of Cambyses by Rubens

The Brussels Council commissioned Rubens to paint his own version of Sisamnes. Rubens accepted the 3000 florins and worked on the painting for 4 years (1622-1626). He decided to paint the moment when the son sits on the chair wrapped in his father’s skin. Rubens’ painting was hung in the courtroom of the City Hall in Brussels, but in 1695 it was destroyed during the bombardment of the French troops.

The Judgement of Cambyses by Isaac Isaacsz

Inspired by the work of Rubens, the Dutchman Isaac Isaacsz created his own Judgment of Cambyses painting. His work was exhibited in Harderwijk city hall.

The Judgement of Cambyses by Isaac Isaacsz
The Judgement of Cambyses by Isaac Isaacsz

The Judgement of Cambyses by Hans Sebald Beham

This painting was made by Hans Sebald Beham in 1542 and illustrates both the chair wrapped in the skin of Sisamnes and his face.

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