Posts filed under 'Ancient'

706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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A Day in the Death Penalty Around the Martyrology

Add comment December 30th, 2018 Headsman

We’ve paid tribute before to Christian martyrologies’ adroit remembrances of the dead. December 30 furnishes a crowded example from the Roman Breviary, found here:

Upon the 30th day of December were born into the better life —

At Spoleto, under the Emperor Maximian, the holy martyrs Sabinus, bishop of that see; the deacons Exuperantius and Marcellus, and the President Venustian along with his wife and children. Marcellus and Exuperantius were first racked then heavily cudgelled, then mangled with hooks, and their sides were afterwards burnt until they died. Venustian and his wife and children were shortly afterward put to the sword; holy Sabinus had his hands cut off, and was long imprisoned, and at length lashed to death. These did not all suffer at the same time, but they are all commemorated upon the same day.

At Alexandria, the holy martyrs Mansuetus, Severus, Appian, Donatus, Honorius and their companions.

At Thessalonica, the holy martyr Anysia [about the year 303]. There likewise holy Anysius, bishop of that city. [He succeeded S. Ascole, and died about the year 404.]

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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304: Saint Eulalia

Add comment December 10th, 2018 Headsman

December 10 is the aptly wintry feast date of Saint Eulalia of Merida, a virginal girl of age 12 to 14 who was martyred for the Christian faith under Diocletian‘s western empire wingman Maximian.

With the headstrong zeal of youth, Eulalia escaped from a pastoral refuge arranged by her mum and belligerently presented herself to the pagan authorities, daring them to martyr her. The pagans were game.

Because God abhors immodesty, He sent a timely snowfall to protect the martyr’s nudity from the prurient gaze of her killers, making Eulalia the informal patron saint of snow. (More officially, she’s a patron of runaways, as well as of Merida, Spain, where she died, and Oviedo, Spain, where her remains are enshrined in the cathedral.)

A hymn to St. Eulalia by the ancient poet Prudentius which greatly multiplied her fame in Christendom salutes her for “[making] her executioners tremble by her courage, suffering as though it were sweet to suffer.”

[She] stood before the tribunal, amidst the ensigns of the empire, the fearless Virgin.

“What madness is this,” she cried,

which makes you lose your unthinking souls? Wasting away your love in adoring these chiselled lumps of stone, whilst you deny God the Father of all? O wretched men! You are in search of the Christians: lo! I am one; I hate your worship of devils: I trample on your idols; and with heart and mouth I acknowledge but one God.

Isis, Apollo, Venus, all are nothing; Maximian, too, is nothing; they, because they are idols; he, because he worships idols; both are vain, both are nothing.

Maximian calls himself lord, and yet he makes himself a slave of stones, ready to give his very head to such gods. And why does he persecute them that have nobler hearts?

This good Emperor, this most upright Judge, feeds on the blood of the innocent. He gluts himself on the bodies of the saints, embowelling those temples of purity, and cruelly insulting their holy faith.

Do thy worst, thou cruel butcher; burn, cut, tear asunder these clay-made bodies. It is no hard thing to break a fragile vase like this. But all thy tortures cannot reach the soul.

At these words the Praetor, maddening with rage, cried out:

Away, Lictor, with this senseless prattler, and punish her in every way thou canst. Teach her that our country’s gods are gods, and that our sovereign’s words are not to be slighted.

Yet stay, rash girl! Would I could persuade thee to recall thy impious words before it is too late! Think on all the joys thou thus wilt obtain; think on that noble marriage which we will procure thee.

Thy family is in search of thee, and thy noble house weeps and grieves after thee, their tender floweret so near its prime, yet so resolved to wither.

What! are nuptials like these I offer not enough to move thee? Wilt thou send the grey hairs of thy parents into the tomb by thy rash disobedience? Tremble at least at all these fearful instruments of torture and death.

There is a sword which will sever thy head; there are wild beasts to tear thee to pieces; there are fires on which to burn thee, leaving to thy family but thy ashes to weep over.

And what do we ask of thee in order that thou mayest escape these tortures? Do, I beseech thee, Eulalia, touch but with the tip of thy finger these grains of salt and incense, and not a hair of thy head shall be hurt.

The Martyr answered him not: but full of indignation, spat in the tyrant’s face; then, with her foot, upsets idols, cakes, and incense.

Scarce had she done it, two executioners seize her: they tear her youthful breast, and, one on each side, cut off her innocent flesh even to the very ribs. Eulalia counts each gash, and says:

See, dear Jesus, they write thee on my flesh! Beautiful letters, that tell of thy victory! O, how I love to reac them! So, this red stream of my blood speaks thy holy name!

Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse (1885) is one of the most unique and outstanding exemplars of the Pre-Raphaelite style.

Thus sang the joyous and intrepid virgin; not a tear, not a moan. The sharp tortures reach not her soul. Her body is all stained with the fresh blood, and the warm stream trickles down the snow-white skin.

But this was not the end. It was not enough to plough and harrow up her flesh: it was time to burn: torches, then, are applied to her sides and breast.

Her beauteous locks dishevelled fell veiling her from worse than all their butchery, the stare of these wretches.

The crackling flame mounts to her face, and, running through her hair, surrounds and blazes over her head. The virgin, thirsting for death, opens her mouth and drinks it in.

Suddenly is seen a snow-white dove coming from the martyr’s mouth, and flying up to heaven. It was Eulalia’s spirit, spotless, eager, innocent.

Her soul is fled: her head droops, the fire dies out: her lifeless body sleeps in peace, while her glad spirit keeps feast in its ethereal home, and this sweet dove rests in the house of her most High God.

The executioners, too, see the dove issuing from the martyr’s mouth: astonished and trembling they flee from the spot. The lictor, too, is seized with fear and takes to flight.

‘Tis winter, and the snow in thick flakes falls on the forum, covering the tender corpse of Eulalia, which lay stiffening in the cold, with its fair pall of crystal.

Ye men that mourn at funerals, weeping and sobbing out your love for the dead, ye are not needed here: give place. God bids his elements, O Eulalia, do the honours of thy exequies.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Spain,Uncertain Dates,Women

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Feast Day of Gervasius and Protasius

Add comment October 14th, 2018 Headsman

October 14 is the original feast date* and alleged martyrdom date of early Christian saints Gervasius and Protasius.

Reputedly the twin sons of two other martyrs, their iconographic devices are the scourge, the club, and the sword, all of which implements were rudely employed by Nero’s (or possibly Domitian’s) executioners

Although put to death in Ravenna, their relics repose in macabre magnificence at Milan’s Basilica of Saint’Ambrogio; for this reason, the Roman church considers them patron saints of that city, and keeps their feast date on June 19, the anniversary of their relics’ translation. The Orthodox still mark the October 14 feast, which, being the execution date, is of considerably more interest to these grim annals.


Remains of Gervasius and Protasius at Milan’s Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, along with the remains of the cathedral’s builder and namesake, Saint Ambrose. (cc) image from BáthoryPéter.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,God,Italy,Martyrs,Ravenna,Religious Figures,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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476: Orestes, father of the last Roman Emperor

1 comment August 28th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 476, the father of the very last Roman emperor was put to death by a Germanic chief … a week before that last emperor was forced to abdicate his throne and the whole Roman experiment with it.

The final generation of Roman Emperors comprise a parade of nondescript interregnums, but the very last regnum fell to 16-year-old Romulus Augustulus whose destiny it was to seal the long fall of the (western) Roman Empire.

This youth with the apt nomen had been plopped in the purple by his dad, a Pannonian-born general named Orestes. Orestes had made his bones in the court of Attila the Hun before signing on as a free agent with Rome when the Hunnic polity collapsed after Attila’s death; he accordingly enjoyed the regard of the heavily-Germanic enlistees of Rome’s armies — a simpatico that constituted a great asset for Rome and a great danger for her sovereign. Our opportunistic general was able to turn this force against the previous emperor,* but as Gibbon notes, “having now attained the summit of his ambitious hopes,” Orestes encountered the danger of his disloyal soldiery from the opposite end of the spear.

[H]e soon discovered, before the end of the first year, that the lessons of perjury and ingratitude, which a rebel must inculcate, will be resorted to against himself; and that the precarious sovereign of Italy was only permitted to choose, whether he would be the slave, or the victim, of his Barbarian mercenaries. The dangerous alliance of these strangers had oppressed and insulted the last remains of Roman freedom and dignity. At each revolution, their pay and privileges were augmented; but their insolence increased in a still more extravagant degree; they envied the fortune of their brethren in Gaul, Spain, and Africa, whose victorious arms had acquired an independent and perpetual inheritance; and they insisted on their peremptory demand, that a third part of the lands of Italy should be immediately divided among them. Orestes, with a spirit, which, in another situation, might be entitled to our esteem, chose rather to encounter the rage of an armed multitude, than to subscribe the ruin of an innocent people. He rejected the audacious demand; and his refusal was favorable to the ambition of Odoacer; a bold Barbarian, who assured his fellow-soldiers, that, if they dared to associate under his command, they might soon extort the justice which had been denied to their dutiful petitions. From all the camps and garrisons of Italy, the confederates, actuated by the same resentment and the same hopes, impatiently flocked to the standard of this popular leader; and the unfortunate patrician, overwhelmed by the torrent, hastily retreated to the strong city of Pavia, the episcopal seat of the holy Epiphanites. Pavia was immediately besieged, the fortifications were stormed, the town was pillaged; and although the bishop might labor, with much zeal and some success, to save the property of the church, and the chastity of female captives, the tumult could only be appeased by the execution of Orestes.

As for the young puppet-emperor Romulus Augustulus himself, the conqueror who now proclaimed himself King of Italy wasn’t a vindictive man. “The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement.” This gesture of charity did not save Odoacer from suffering a violent death in his own turn.

* Julius Nepos has a claim on being the last Western Roman Emperor, insofar as Orestes’s revolt did not kill him but chased him to an exile where he pathetically maintained an ineffectual claim to the purple until his assassination in 480. It was only with Nepos’s death that the Western Roman Empire was formally abolished.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Alexander of Bergamo

Add comment August 26th, 2018 Headsman

Saint Alexander, patron of the Lombardy city of Bergamo, has his feast date on August 26 which is also the anniversary of his execution.

A character for the muscular Christianity required by the rising religion’s imminent conquest of imperial leadership, the purported Alexander was a soldier — indeed, he was said to have been a part of the legendary all-Christian Theban Legion, which was violently discharged during the Diocletian Persecution.

Despite a supposed post-military career preaching the outlaw faith on the run from the authorities, Alexander invariably appears in iconography in his martial aspect, dressed in the armor that signified his station and the ambitions of his cult’s later promoters.

One such depiction, ready to stride into battle with the pennant of his faith, surmounts the Bergamo Cathedral which is dedicated to Saint Alexander.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,God,Italy,Martyrs,Roman Empire,Soldiers

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Feast Day of St. Baudilus

Add comment May 20th, 2018 Headsman

January 20 is the feast date of Christian martyr Saint Baudilus, patron of Nîmes, France — also known as Baudilio or Baudelio in Spain, where his cult is also quite widespread.

Baudilus supposedly dropped into a festival of the Roman god Vejovis in the late third century and paid his respects by desecrating the pagan shrine, with predictable consequences for Baudilus.

Baudilus was neither a native of that place nor the first to carry the religion of the Galilean there, but his spectacular and confrontational martyrdom granted Baudilus pride of place locally as Christianity rose.

The location of his tomb, called Valsainte, became a pilgrimage destination and eventually the place of a church and monastery; three springs of water were by legend attributed to the holy bounces of the saint’s decapitated head, and an oratory built for them dedicated to Baudilus.

His cult spread widely in southern France and especially in Spain where you can call him Baudilio, Baudelio, or even Boal. There are over 400 churches named for him, notably San Baudelio de Berlanga in central Spain, a hermitage nearing its thousandth year and renowned for its ancient friezes.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of Saint Leonides of Alexandria

Add comment April 22nd, 2018 Headsman

April 22 is the Christian feast date of Saint Leonides of Alexandria, the patron saint of being surpassed by your children.*

The Christian historian Eusebius recorded of our man in his Ecclesiastical History that

when Severus raised a persecution against the churches, there were illustrious testimonies given by the combatants of religion in all the churches every where. They particularly abounded in Alexandria, whilst the heroic wrestlers from Egypt and Thebais were escorted thither as to a mighty theatre of God, where, by their invincible patience under various tortures and modes of death, they were adorned with crowns from heaven. Among these was Leonides, said to be the father of Origen, who was beheaded, and left his son behind yet very young.

We don’t have much more on Leonides but that son, Origen, was said to have attempted to turn himself in with dad to face missionary martyrdom together; he was only a teenager at the time. His mother forbade the willful boy throwing his life away and it’s a good job she did: Origen went on to become one of Christianity’s seminal** theologians.

(Sadly, a sizable corpus of Origen’s work is lost to history because for a period in later antiquity his thought was denounced as heresy; the Byzantine emperor Justinian had Origen’s writings burned.)

* According to Wikipedia, Leonides is actually the patron saint of “large families” (he had at least six other children besides Origen), which we assume must surely include large sons.

** That’s a little etymological pun, as the reader will discover with an image search on “Origen castration.”

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Egypt,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Israel,Myths,Palestine,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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