Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

1610: Roger Cadwallador, English priest

Add comment August 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1610, the priest Roger Cadwallador was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Herefordshire, where he had maintained an illicit Catholic ministry for 16 years.

Having spent most of the morning in spiritual preparation (for his end) about ten o’clock he took some corporal food, viz. a little comfortable broth; and calling for a pint of claret wine and sugar, on occasion of a friend that was come to visit him, he made use of the words of bishop Fisher in the like case, as he said, when he was taking a cordial, before the like combat of death; fortitudinem meam ad te domine custodian, Saying in English, he took it to make himself strong to suffer for God. Then as if he had been to go to a feast, he put on his wedding-garment (viz. a new suit of cloaths) which a friend had provided for him, from top to toe, whom he requited with a good and godly exhortation, counselling him to persevere till death in the catholic faith; and giving him directions to bestow twelve pence of his money on the porter; for he kept two shillings in his own pocket to bestow on him that was to lead and drive the horse, when he went to execution.

His jailer pressed him repeatedly, as was usual, to apostasize and save his flesh. The terrors of the gallows being quite real even to martyrs, this menace surely worked for some … but never, it seems for those who reach these grim annals.

Being taken off the hurdle, and brought within sight of the gallows, and the block whereon he was to be quartered, they shewed him these and other instruments of death, leading him between two great fires, the one prepared to burn his heart and bowels, the other to boil his head and quarters: and thinking the sight of these did somewhat terrify him, they promised him once more that none of them should touch him, if he would take the oath; but his christian courage made him persist in his resolution of dying in that quarrel.

Cadwallador would need every drop of that resolution when an artlessly executed hanging unintentionally left him quite sensible to experience the horrors of having his trunk ripped open to tear out organs that would feed those great fires. When “the unskilful executioner”

came to turn the ladder … [Cadwallador] said aloud five or six times, In manus tuas Domine commendo spiritum meum. Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. And lastly, Domine accipe spiritum meum. Lord receive my spirit. He hunt very long, and in extraordinary pain, by reason that the knot, through the unskilfulness of the hangman, came to be directly under his chin, serving only to pain, and not to dispatch him.

Insomuch that when the people were persuaded that he was thoroughly dead, he put up his hand to the halter, as if he had either meant to shew how his case stood, or else to ease himself: but bethinking himself better, and perhaps a scruple coming into his head to concur to hasten his own death; he had scarce touched the halter, but that he presently pulled away his hand. And within the space of a Pater-noster after, he lifted up his hand again to make the sign of the cross; which made all the standers by much amazed; and some of the vulgar desirous to rid him of his pain, lifted him upwards by the legs twice or thrice, letting him fall again with a swag.

Then after a little rest, when they thought him quite dead, he was cut down: but when he was brought to the block to be quartered, before the bloody butcher could pull off his doublet, he revived and began to breathe; which the multitude perceiving began to murmur; which made the under-sheriff cry out to the executioner to hasten: but before they had stripped him naked he was come to a very perfect breathing.

It was long after they had opened him before they could find his heart, which, notwithstanding, panted in their hands when it was pulled out.

As soon as the head was cut off, one of the sheriff’s men lifted it up on the point of a halbert, expecting the applause of the people, who made no sign that the fact was pleasing to them. Nay, they that were present were struck at the sight, and said, this priest’s behaviour and death would give great confirmation to all the papists of Herefordshire: which saying fell out to be true; for it ministered to them great courage and comfort.

Cadwallador was beatified in 1987.

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1570: John Felton, papal bull promulgator

Add comment August 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1570, the English Catholic martyr John Felton suffered hanging, disemboweling, and quartering at St. Paul’s Churchyard in London for the Old Faith.

Not to be confused with the 17th century assassin of the same name, our John Felton was reported by the biography from his daughter’s hand to be a wealthy Southwark gentleman whose wife had gamboled in her own childhood with the future Queen Elizabeth.

John’s crime was to hang up publicly in the dark of night before Corpus Christi the papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth — an act not merely of religious dissidence but of overt political rebellion, inasmuch as the bull released English subjects from their obedience to “the pretended Queen of England” and exhorted them on pain of damnation to ignore her edicts. This directive from Rome was to prove so taxing for Catholics that it was soon modified to permit outward obedience in civil matters, pending the overthrow of the heresiarchess.

Following a decade of uneasy religious tolerance — in which, not coincidentally, Elizabeth entertained the suits of assorted continental royalty, some of them Catholic — Regnans in Excelsis marked the onset of open hostilities. The Catholic “Ridolfi plot” would be hatched this very year, for instance, and lead the Duke of Norfolk to the scaffold by 1572.

And then he said, O Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit, in English; and as he was saying it in Latin, In munus tuas Domine, he was turned off the ladder; and hanging there six turns, he was cut down, and carried to the block, and there his head was smitten off, and held up, that the people might see it: whereat the people gave a shout, wishing that all Traitors were so served. Then he was quartered, and carried to Newgate to be parboiled, and so set up as the other rebels were. — God save the Queen.

John Felton’s son Thomas Felton was also martyred, in 1588. Both have since been beatified.

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1746: Francis Towneley, of the Forty-Five

Add comment July 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1746,* the English Jacobite Francis Towneley was hanged, drawn and quartered at London’s Kennington Park.

This Lancashire Catholic had relocated residence and loyalty to France at age 19 in 1728, and fought in that country’s army. He was right at the sweet spot of veteran seasoning and youthful enterprise by the time “the Forty-Five” rolled around: the last great Jacobite rising to reverse the Glorious Revolution and re-enthrone the dispossessed heirs of King James.

With British armies deployed around Europe and the colonies in the 1740s during the War of Austrian Succession, the French decided to back a Jacobite bid to restore the exiled Stuart pretender, using the customary geopolitical strategem of teaming up with the Scottish. Being a Lancashire local, Towneley was commissioned a colonel and dispatched as an advance party to Manchester to scare up a regiment of Stuart loyalists there who would join up with Highlanders on the march from points north.

Towneley’s Manchester Regiment turned out to number just 300 hardscrabble souls. Discouraged by the thin show of public support — and by reports of a large loyalist army that turned out to be pure bluff — the Jacobites retreated, dropping off Col. Towneley’s regiment on the way to garrison Carlisle. Just days later, this small rearguard was overrun and forced into unconditional surrender by a guy named William the Butcher. This wasn’t destined to end well.

Towneley’s legal defense made the case that he was a commissioned officer of France, and not of the Stuarts themselves, which made him a prisoner of war rather than a traitor, an interesting debating point for barstool barristers but the sort of jurisprudence that will inevitably be determined in the breach by policy instead of principle. Policy in this instance was not to go easy on the Jacobites.

After he had hung for six minutes, he was cut down, and, having life in him, as he lay on the block to be quartered, the executioner gave him several blows on the breast, which not having the effect designed, he immediately cut his throat: after which he took his head off then ripped him open, and took out his bowels and threw them into the fire which consumed them, then he slashed his four quarters, put them with the head into a coffin, and they were deposited till Saturday, August 2nd, when his head was put on Temple Bar, and his body and limbs suffered to be buried.

Towneley’s family still had his severed, spike-holed head into the 20th century, when they finally interred the macabre mememto.

* We’re sticking with the local date in England here. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point (though for just a few years more). You’ll also see August 10 cites out there: that’s the equivalent date on the Gregorian calendar, which was current in France and throughout Europe’s Catholic realms.

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1616: “A gentellwoeman” by exposure, for a eunuch liaison

Add comment July 13th, 2014 Headsman

The English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, envoy to the Mughal Empire from 1615 to 1619 during the reign of Jahangir, recorded in his journal* the unfortunate fate this date of a nameless woman for being caught rendezvousing with a palace eunuch.

This day a gentellwoeman of Normalls was taken in the kings house in some action with an Eunuch. Another Capon that loved her kylld him. The Poore Woeman was sett up to the Arme pitts in the Earth hard ramed, her feete tyde to a stake, to abyde 3 dayes and 2 nights without any sustenance, her head and armes bare, exposed to the sunns violence: if shee died not in that tyme she should bee pardoned. The Eunuch was Condemned to the Eliphantes. This damsell yeelded in Pearle, Jewelles, and ready mony 160,000 rupias.

That this bit character who does not even merit a name here left such a fortune surely testifies to the Mughal Empire’s famously astounding trade wealth.

Roe does not disclose how long the condemned woman managed to survive, but the separate memoir of Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry confirms that she succumbed to exposure well before the elapse of the pardonable three days. (The two seem to have received differing intelligence on the execution method of the eunuch, despite Terry’s indication that it transpired practically in the English mission’s backyard.)

Now for the disposition of that King, it ever seemed unto me to be composed of extremes; for sometimes he was barbarously cruel, and at other times he would seem to be exceedingly fair and gentle.

For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched and kept company with, but now she was superannuated; for neither himself nor nobles (as they say) come near their wives or women, after they exceed the age of thirty years. The fault of that woman was this; the Mogul upon a time found her and one of his eunuchs kissing one another; and for this very thing, the King presently gave command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put into that hole, where she should stnad with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in again unto her close round about her, that so she might stand in the parching sun ’till the extreme hot beams thereof did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost ’till the next noon, crying out most lamentably, while she was able to speak, in her language, as the Shumanite’s child did in his, 2 King. 4. “Ah my head, my head!” which horrid execution, or rather murder, was acted near our house; where the eunuch, by the command of the said King, was brought very near the place where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in her sight cut all into pieces.

* Published as The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence. This vignette is from volume 1; there is also a volume 2

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1800: Suleiman al-Halabi, assassin of General Kleber

Add comment June 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.

Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.

Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.

But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.

Suleiman al-Halabi (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Syrian Kurd hailing from Aleppo. (“al-Halabi” means “of Aleppo”)

He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.

The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the every corner of earth.

But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.

The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.

The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.

As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,

The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.

(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)

Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.

According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)

* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.

** Napoleon brought a corps of scientists and intellectuals along on his invasion, kicking off the modern Egyptology craze. His mission also uncovered the Rosetta Stone — although that artifact now resides in the British Museum because of the aforementioned naval blockade.

† According to Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War, phrenologists hailed Suleiman’s skull as an outstanding exemplar of criminality and fanaticism.

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Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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1860s: Sokichi, crucified servant

Add comment April 18th, 2014 Headsman

The trailblazing Italian-British photographer Felice (Felix) Beato was one of the first people to shoot in east Asia.

In 1858, he captured the aftermath of the 1857 “Sepoy Rebellion” in India (with possibly the first photography of corpses on a battlefield); in 1860, Beato documented in images military campaigns of the Second Opium War.

[Upon entering the conquered Taku Forts] a distressing scene of carnage disclosed itself; frightful mutilations and groups of dead and dying meeting the eye in every direction.

I walked round the ramparts on the west side. They were thickly strewed with dead — in the north-west angle thirteen were lying in one group round a gun. Signor Beato was here in great excitement, characterising the group as “beautiful,” and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards. -David Field Rennie

In 1863, Beato moved to Yokohama, Japan and spent the next several years capturing historically invaluable images of Japan at the close of the Edo period.

In this capacity, Beato captured the execution of a young servant by the eye-catching means of Japan’s distinctive spread-eagled crucifixion. The caption on the image reads, the servant Sokichi, crucified at the age of 25* for killing Nikisasuro, son of his master Nuiske in the village of Kiso. Exact year unknown.


Original versions of this image here and here.

To my knowledge, there is no further documentation available about this execution that would, er, affix it to a specific date or even a specific year. But we don’t exactly have a multitude of photographed executions by crucifixion, so we’re not going to be picky about it.

While we’re on the subject, we also have from Beato on the same trip an image called “the executioner” — topical for this blog even though it looks completely staged. This photograph makes use of hand-coloring, for which Beato often engaged Japan’s artisan illustrators. (The crucifixion image is reproduced in monochrome, but it, too, was artificially colored.)

Some Felice Beato photography books

* Various ages of 22 to 25 are given in various locations for the executed servant.

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1871: Ma Hualong, Dungan rebel

Add comment March 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Qing executed Ma Hualong (or Ma Hua-lung), one of the principal leaders of a 15-year Muslim revolt in northwest China.

Ma was the fifth leader of the Jahriyya, a Sufi order whose founder Ma Mingxin had himself been executed during disturbances in the early 1780s.

By the team of Ma’s leadership, the Jahriyya were a major force in Gansu, Shaanxi and Ningxia.

Neither Ma nor any other single person led the Dungan revolt. (“Dungan” was a 19th century term for the ethnicity that’s now known as the Hui.) Rather, a cascading series of ethnic riots led in 1862 — while the Chinese army was absorbed elsewhere with the bloody Taiping Rebellion — to a patchwork of rebellious leaders and movements, operating independently and often viewing one another as rivals.

The Jahriyya was the closest thing to a unifying element among discontented Muslims. According to this volume, though Ma struck a pose of moderation and loyalty, in the Chinese court’s eyes, the disturbances “depend[ed] on Ma Hua-lung.” For the Qing, Ma’s nearly impregnable position at Jinjipu (Chin-chi-pao) and his diplomatic finesse were the lynchpin.

Dispatched to put down the revolt, General Tso Tsung-tang had the prestigious Ma as his primary target: with him gone, the rest of the rebels could be divided and conquered at leisure.

Unable to take Jinjipu by storm, General Tso besieged it unto near starvation, forcing Ma to surrender himself. Notwithstanding his attempts to take all the blame for the revolt on his own shoulders,

Ma was executed, together with twelve members of his immediate family, by the “slicing process”; some eighty of the lesser Muslim leaders were beheaded. Chin-chi-p’u was depopulated, and the surviving Muslims were sent, en masse, into exile or slavery.

Just a drop in a bucket for a conflict with 8 million-plus dead.

The Jahriyya order still exists to this day. And so too, of course, does General Tso — on Chinese restaurant menus.

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1653: Jasper Hanebuth, robber and murderer

Add comment February 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.

An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.

Hanebuth is the titular villain in the German historical fiction novel The Murderer’s Concubine.

In a time of crisscrossing armies had conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.

“It defies the pen to recount all the miseries and horrors” from those years of pillage and rapine, wrote August Jugler in his history of Hanover.

True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.

He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.

But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.

He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.


Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:

The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.

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404: St. Telemachus, gladiator-slayer

Add comment January 1st, 2014 Headsman

January 1, 404 is the date of the last known gladiatorial combat in Rome, and therefore also the traditional martyrdom date of St. Telemachus — who gave his life to end the games.

Rome’s infamous bloodsport dated to the foggy natal days of the Republic, perhaps beginning as funerary rituals borrowed from the Etruscans or Campanians. Its efflorescence into ubiquitous public entertainment diversified for special occasions by stupefyingly wasteful grotesques like naval battles in a flooded stadium or exotic animal fights marks — moralistically if not materially — the empire’s decadence and decline. Fitting indeed that Rome’s most impressive lower-class rebellion originated with a gladiator, Spartacus.

The spectacle was as popular as it was dangerous. For trainers and recruiters, it was also enormously lucrative, yet it was simultaneously distasteful in its own time and gladiators (for their brief lives) were a stigmatized caste.

No public crime scandalized Rome’s Senatorial class historians like an emperor who showed genuine relish for the games. Cassius Dio had to personally sit in the stands and applaud the notorious tyrant Commodus who styled himself Hercules and fought personally on the blood-drunk sands of the Colosseum; he revenges himself in his history expanding sneeringly on his former sovereign’s degrading exploits — Commodus “took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed. His antagonist would be some athlete or perchance a gladiator armed with a wand; sometimes it was a man that he himself had challenged, sometimes one chosen by the people, for in this as well as in other matters he put himself on an equal footing with the other gladiators, except for the fact that they enter the lists for a very small sum, whereas Commodus received a million sesterces from the gladiatorial fund each day.” Commodus “of course won” his fights against opponents who had no choice but to yield to the emperor; the bouts were “like child’s play.”

Gladiatorial games’ long-term decline might have set in motion because they were so godawful expensive and a Rome gradually less vast and omnipotent just didn’t have the resources to burn on a new Super Bowl every time some frontier general marched into town to proclaim himself emperor for the next six months.

But Christians especially lodged early and vociferous critiques of the games and curtailing — and finally eliminating — gladiatorial combat is a signal contribution to humanity by the early faith. Tertullian composed a letter On Spectacles is dedicated to proving to Christians with a weakness for low pleasures that men slaying one another for sport are idolatry and murder.

Christianity’s growing strength in the empire would eventually position it to put a stop to the evil show. The upstart faith’s first regnant champion, Constantine, laid down the first imperial ban on gladiator fights (“Those who were condemned to become gladiators for their crimes are to work from now on in the mines. Thus they pay for their crimes without having to pour their blood.”). As was his want, Constantine was less than constant about following his own directive, intermittent directives by emperors over the decades to come testify to the ancient sport’s deep-rooted popularity but also to the steady pressure that ascendant Christianity continued to apply against it.

Its fade was gradual, but the closest thing we have to a specific end point is January 1, 404, games sponsored by the teenage Western Roman emperor Honorius to celebrate Stilicho‘s parrying the latest Gothic thrust.

Into this carnage, it is said, strode a Greek monk, Telemachus who publicly objected to the unfolding spectacle. For his trouble he was killed by mob action or official order. The story has evolved over time but Honorius proceeded to ban the ungodly exhibition. It never again resumed (at least in the West), leaving the field clear in future centuries for Rome’s other degenerate sport, charioteering.

In these games of Honorius, the inhuman combats of gladiators polluted for the last time the amphitheatre of Rome. The first Christian emperor may claim the honour of the first edict which condemned the art and amusement of shedding human blood; but this benevolent law expressed the wishes of the prince, without reforming an inveterate abuse which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty. Amidst the general joy of the victory of Pollentia, a Christian poet exhorted the emperor to extirpate, by his authority, the horrid custom which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion. The pathetic representations of Prudentius were less effectual than the generous boldness of Telemachus, an Asiatic monk, whose death was more useful to mankind than his life. The Romans were provoked by the interruption of their pleasures; and the rash monk, who had descended into the arena, to separate the gladiators, was overwhelmed under a shower of stones. But the madness of the people soon subsided: they respected the memory of Telemachus, who had deserved the honours of martyrdom; and they submitted, without a murmur, to the laws of Honorius, which abolished for ever the human sacrifices of the amphitheatre. The citizens, who adhered to the manners of their ancestors, might perhaps insinuate that the last remains of a martial spirit were preserved in this school of fortitude, which accustomed the Romans to the sight of blood, and to the contempt of death: a vain and cruel prejudice, so nobly confuted by the valour of ancient Greece and of modern Europe! (Gibbon)

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