Archive for December 17th, 2008

1182: Maria of Antioch

Add comment December 17th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date thought to be around the end of 1182, the mother of the Byzantine emperor was strangled to death in Constantinople on her adolescent son’s authority.

In signing his mother’s death warrant, 13-year-old Alexios II signed his own … and that of his dynasty.

The progeny of a nearby Crusader principality, Maria of Antioch was dynastically married to Alexios’ dad, Manuel I.

Two realms separated by a common religion, Orthodox Byzantium’s relationship with western Crusaders was fraught at best, and it was about to get a lot testier. Maria’s Latin heritage went over like a lead balloon in the Greek empire.

When her husband died in 1180, the widow was left in a tenuous position as the unpopular regent of a child-emperor in a political snakepit.

In short order, Andronikos I Komnenos, after a lifetime of scheming, got his mitts on the throne two years after he’d been obliged to grovel in chains before Maria’s husband to be allowed a peacable retirement.

Some retirement.

Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates narrates Andronikos’s ruthless divide-and-conquer path to the purple.

Having thus slaughtered those whom he had been most eager to seize, Andronikos bided his time to assail others; some he delivered over to prison, some he condemned to banishment, and some he utterly destroyed in various ways. Those few who remained were anxious to go along with the majority and to reverse their former course. They changed their minds like the unstable planets and offered their necks to Andronikos to be tread underfoot, revolving around him as their axis, and so Andronikos hastened to bring about the ruin of the empress. After leveling several accusations against her, he finally charged her with treason and convened a court sympathetic to his cause with judges certain to condemn, not try, the wretched woman. The empress, who had attempted to enlist the help of her sister’s husband, Bela [III], the king of Hungary, writing him letters and tempting him with grand promises to ravage the lands around Branicevo and Belgrade, was led away to a cramped dungeon near the Monastery of Saint Diomedes. There she was grossly reviled by the guards as the butt of their jokes, and, pining with hunger and thirst, she was haunted by a vision of the executioner standing on her right where his edge would cut most surely. Andronikos’s ferocity did not abate even a whit. In the words of David, he perceived trouble and wrath and hastened to deliver her over to death, annoyed by the fact that she was still numbered among the living. Ere long he again assembled the justices who mete out injustice and whose right hand is the right hand of iniquity. He inquired as to what punishment the laws decree for traitors of cities and provinces, receiving in hand a written judgment sentencing such criminals to death, his assault against the empress went unchecked. When these lawless men raised their voices and shouted aloud as they cast their votes that this ill-starred woman must depart this life, a decree condemning her to death was immediately signed by her son, the emperor, written as though with a drop of his mother’s blood.

Elected to carry out this loathsome and unholy deed were Andronikos’s firstborn son Manuel and the sebastos George, the brother of Andronikos’s wife. Both men recoiled from their selection in disgust and contemned the emperor’s decree, declaring that they had not concurred earlier in the empress’s execution and that their hands would remain guiltless of such defilement; now, even more so, they could not endure to see her innocent body broken. This unexpected reply struck Andronikos like a thunderbolt. He continually twisted the hairs of his beard around his fingers, his eyes were filled with fire, and, shaking his head up and down, he repeatedly pitied himself and was greatly troubled that he did not have friends who delighted in blood and were eager to commit murder at the nod of his head. Holding his rage in check, like a hot-blooded horse champing at the bit or like smoke wrapping itself around a flame, he quenched his unremitting anger and postponed the execution. A few days later he condemned the ill-starred empress to a wretched death by strangulation. The sentence was carried out under the supervision of Constantine Tripsychos, who held the office of hetairarch, and the eunuch Pterygeonites … And she, who was the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men, was buried in obscurity in the sand of the nearby shore (O Sun, who didst look down upon this defilement, and Thou, O Word of God, who art without beginning, how inscrutable is thy forbearance!). The bloodthirsty soul of Andronikos exulted at this, for with the extermination of Manuel’s family, with the imperial garden laid waste, he would reign as sole monarch over the Roman empire and hold sway with impunity.

The next year, Andronikos dispensed with the charade and had the young Alexios strangled, too.

A much worse fate awaited Andronikos himself not long after, with still less able successors to follow him … sending the Byzantine Empire into a calamitous tailspin that would see Constantinople sacked by those antagonistic western Crusaders within a generation.

Update: Maria’s German Wikipedia page pegs her execution date at August 27, 1182, citing Detlev Schwennike, Europäische Stammtafeln Band II, Tafel 177, Verlag Stargardt, Marburg, 1984.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Royalty,Strangled,Treason,Uncertain Dates,Women,Wrongful Executions

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