Breaking on the wheel was a form of torturous execution formerly in use, especially in ancient Greece (where it originated), France, Germany, Sweden, and Russia.
The wheel itself was typically a large wooden wagon wheel, with many radial spokes, but a wheel was not always used. In some cases the condemned was lashed to the wheel and beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the cudgel to break through. Alternatively, the condemned was spreadeagled and broken on a Saint Andrew's cross consisting of two wooden beams nailed in an "X" shape, after which the victim's mangled body might be displayed on the wheel. In other cases, such as the execution of the parricide Franz Seuboldt in Nuremberg, 22 September 1589, a wheel was used as a cudgel: the executioner used wooden blocks to raise Seuboldt's limbs, then broke them by slamming a wagon wheel down onto the limb.
In France the condemned were placed on a cart-wheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to slowly revolve, and a large hammer or an iron bar was then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams, breaking the bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Sometimes it was 'mercifully' ordered that the executioner should strike the criminal on chest and stomach, blows known as coups de grâce (French: "blow of mercy"), which caused lethal injuries, leading to the end of the torture by death; without those, the broken man could take hours, even days, before shock and dehydration caused death. In France, a special grace, called the retentum, could be granted, by which the condemned was strangled after the second or third blow, or in special cases, even before the breaking began. Afterwards, the condemned's shattered limbs were woven ('braiden') through the spokes of the wheel which was then hoisted onto a tall pole, so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living individual.
In early modern Germany, the wheel was punishment reserved primarily for males convicted of aggravated murder (murder committed during another crime, or against a family member). Less severe offenders would be cudgelled 'top down', with the first blow to the neck, causing death; more heinous criminals were punished 'bottom up', starting with the legs, and sometimes being beaten for hours. The number and sequence of blows was specified in the court's sentence. Corpses were left for carrion-eaters, and the criminals' heads often placed on a spike.
Legend has it that Saint Catherine of Alexandria was to be executed on one of these devices, which thereafter became known as the Catherine wheel, also used as an iconographic attribute.
Philip, Duke of Orléans, who was regent of France from 1715 to 1723, gave the term the sense of impious and callous debauchee, which it has borne since his time, by habitually applying it to the very bad male company who amused his privacy and his leisure. The locus classicus for the origin of this use of the epithet is in the Memoirs of Saint-Simon. In Finnish the word teilata ("to execute by the wheel") refers to forceful and violent critique or rejection of performance, ideas or innovations. Alexander Pope, in his 1735 "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot", famously asked, "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?."