The Roman martyrology distinguishes August 9 as the feast date of several minor ancient saints of questionable veracity purportedly martyred by the persecutions of Rome.
Firmus and Rusticus
The Virgin of the Rosary with Saints Firmus and Rusticus (1603) by Pietro Marone
Saints Firmus and Rusticus are two gentlemen of Bergamo who are supposed to have wound up martyred in Verona under Diocletian‘s persecutions. There’s an Acts of Firmus and Rusticus that the contemporary church does not consider authentic; it’s possible that if they really existed they might have been North African Christians whose remains were translated to Verona.
Firmus and Rusticus are not the patron saints of Romeo and Juliet‘s hometown; that honor instead goes to Zeno.
August 9 is the vigil of St. Lawrence‘s martyrdom in Rome. St. Romanus is a legendary spinoff on Lawrence: a Roman guard who is supposed to have been so moved by Lawrence that he solicited baptism from the saint, and was immediately martyred for his trouble. Although his dubious historicity — one can’t but suspect outright fiction — has ushered him into the martyrology’s footnotes, he was formerly consequential enough to be sculpted for the colonnade of St. Peter’s.
Noccolo Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, by Paolo Uccello (c. 1435-1455).
Secundian, Marcellian and Verian
At last we have St. Secundian, another Decian martyr who was supposedly a Senator or similar VIP. August 9 marks his martyrdom perhaps near Civitavecchia, along with two bookish minions — students or scholars of some sort.
That is certainly not the character in the Pelagius story: that caliph is a tyrannical lout who develops a pederastic infatuation with his young charge (13 years old when martyred) and lusts to conquer him both corporeally and spiritually.
Pelagius spurned all advances and refused inducements to apostatize until the frustrated Moor finally ordered him tortured and dismembered. The year was 925 or so.
He’s the subject of the Latin poem Passio Sancti Pelagii by the German poet Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (here it is, in Latin). Although she claimed to have obtained the account from an eyewitness to Pelagius’s martyrdom the story’s historicity is very much doubted today. Nevertheless, it has had obvious national-propaganda utility in the land venerating “St. James the Moor-slayer” and has conferred the Spanish version of his name (Pelayo) on a number locations in Spain and the former Spanish empire. Topically for our dark site, Pelagius is also the patron saint of torture victims.
* This saint has no connection to the ancient heresy of Pelagianism or the 4th-5th century British monk for whom it was named.
Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.
In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …
“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.
Fortune’s fool …
“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)
“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”
It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.
The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.
He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.
Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”
This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.
Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.
So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.
Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”
Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.
As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)
Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.
Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).
Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.
Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.
Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.
After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.
The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.
The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**
Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.
Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.
St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.
Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.
* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.
On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.
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.
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.
** 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.)
On this date (most likely) in 1713, Slovakian “Robin Hood” figure Juraj Janosik was hung on a hook in Liptov County for his outlawry.
Janosik was a flesh-and-blood man, but much of what is known or believed about him lies squarely in the realm of folklore.
He hailed from the village of Terchova. You’ll find Terchova today just on the Slovakian side of the Polish border; in Janosik’s time, this was the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary.
In Janosik’s native Terchova, a walking path leads to a monumental statue of the famed outlaw. (cc) image from Andre Skibinski.
Janosik is said to have fought with the anti-Habsburg Kuruc guerrillas in his youth, then joined the imperial army when that rebellion fizzled, then found his short life’s calling when detailed to guard a brigand named Tomáš Uhorcík. The two went into (Uhorcík’s) business together in about 1711, and Janosik’s natural aptitude soon made him the leader of their robber band.
From pine-forest lairs the merry bandits preyed on aristocrats and rich merchants throughout their mountainous home territories and into Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia and are supposed to have taken chivalrous care not to injure their prey other than financially. They’re inevitably also credited with sharing the fruits of their heists with the poor.
When Janosik became celebrated in later centuries his virtues both moral and martial would multiply by each astonishing retelling. In this Polish verse, for example, Janosik is less Robin Hood and more Terminator as he boldly presents himself at a royal tourney and avenges the honor of Slovakian maids raped by some of the contending knights.
“O king, an accusation I bring thee!” he proclaimed.
“Our women are dishonored, our village maidens shamed!
Twelve of our maidens ravished — on these twelve knights the guilt! —
Twelve of our village maidens! Let blood for blood be spilt!
“Twelve cottages dishonored — twelve homes lament today …
Sire, throned on gold, be gracious — give ear to me, I pray!
Blood must be shed, and bloody must be the foeman’s face;
I come, I come avenging our Slovak maids’ disgrace!”
Then all men stood astounded, and silent fell the ring.
“What word is this? How durst thou? Who art thou?” asked the king.
“A hill-born outlaw, hetman Janosik, that am I.”
Then marvelled all the courtiers, and king enthroned on high.
And the king’s visage slowly with rising wrath was lit,
And his moustache was bristling, his grizzled brows were knit.
Upon that band of Magyars, twelve gentlemen, he glowered.
Beneath the crested headgear twelve heads were earthward lowered.
“What, willest thou to fight them, all twelve, and brow to brow?”
— “With all, O king,” Janosik made answer; “all, and now!
O king, twelve fields of harvest a single gust will clear;
Thus let me, single-handed, meet these twelve warriors here.”
Then the king’s sceptre signalled; the trumpets gave one blast.
Janosik fixed his girdle, and off his mantle cast.
The king and all the courtiers, they marvelled to behold
The shirt that came from Juhasz, the trousers looped with gold.
There from his cap a bundle of discs, all golden, rayed,
And moved he ever so little, the cap a tinkling made.
A row upon his axe-haft of brazen rings he had;
At every step he swung it. His shoes in steel were clad.
His hand had gripped the hatchet, and there he took his stand.
Heralds struck up; then signalled the king, with sceptred hand;
Twelve lances, like a forest thick-timbered, took their aim,
And at Janosik’s bosom twelve lances flying came.
Hola! in golden Budzyn, hola! how went it, tell!
And in the king’s chief city what thing that day befell?
Upon that day what pastime might there the king await
In his dear daughter’s honor, by his town’s golden gate?
Now on the sand, all shattered, twelve lances fell and crashed,
And off the polished helmplates twelve glittering sabres flashed.
For see! up sprang Janosik, and raised his arm to strike,
Whistled the tune of Juhasz, and whirled around his pike.
How like a flame of lightning that hatchet circled round!
Erdoedy, count, with vizor hewn through, was on the ground;
Pallavicini, margrave, had rent his horse’s rein;
His riven skull was soiling the sand with bloody stain.
And now Prince Bathyani on his left side had dropt;
Right hand and sword were severed. Count Palffy’s brows were chopt.
And soon Prince Esterhazy upon the sand lay low,
Scrabbling the ground; and straightway his face was white as snow.
Not long did Count Festetics smile in the light of day,
But by the brothers Toskoel fell dead — and dead were they.
And then, before Janosik, the remnant lay in death.
When the twelfth corpse had fallen, he drew a mighty breath,
And leaned upon his weapon; like some rich beechtree then
He stood; there lay before him twelve haughty gentlemen;
Twelve golden suits of armor and twelve sharp sabres lay;
And dumbly gazed the people upon that mortal fray.
And no man spoke, and all men a tomblike silence kept.
To the king bowed Janosik, and low his cap he swept.
Then in their blood were carried twelve corpses from that place
And thus avenged Janosik those Slovak maids’ disgrace.
But the actual Janosik was quite vincible.
His career only really lasted a year or so; he was captured in 1712, escaped, and was soon re-taken. It seems that despite the marauders’ usual care for the safety of their victims, they managed to kill a Father Juraja Vertíka.
March 17, 1713 was the date of Juraj Janosik’s conviction and death sentence; though not explicitly recorded of Janosik, the usual practice would have been to carry out such a sentence without delay. Many of his comrades met similar fates: Uhorcík, for instance, was put to death a month after Janosik.
The bandit’s legend has survived and thrived after his death in literally hundreds (per Hobsbawm) of poems, legends, and folk ballads, like Jan Botto’s epic “The Death of Janosik”.
Oddly, Martin Votruba argues,** there is no indication that anyone in 1713 or the years following celebrated Janosik with anything like the fervor he eventually attained.
Janosik is all but invisible as a literary figure until the late 18th century, according to Votruba. Pesumably his name attached to miscellaneous anecdotes and exploits — enough to keep it in the conversation of bandits.
Around the turn to the 19th century Janosik’s person seems to have become gradually conjoined to stories and songs about other brigands, both real and fictional, just as these characters were booming in literary popularity. Juraj Janosik went from being just a guy who’d be mentioned in passing in a list of bandits, to the bandit. (Votruba guesses that the linguistic similarity our fellow’s surname had with with generic male name Jan, Janik, or Janko — variations on “John” that were commonly used for entirely legendary outlaws in folk songs — helped to form the connection)
Only in the 1830s and 1840s did the long-dead outlaw, who by then dominated lowbrow bandit-legend folklore, begin to take on the form familiar today — that of “a benevolent, rebellious, tragic, quasi-folkloric freedom-fighter” called “Janosik.” And “since this happened in a period of mounting ethnic activism in central Europe, Janosik could not become merely a romantic hero. The Slovak literary and social discourse highlighted his ethnicity, which then appeared in implicit contrast to the ethnicity of the now politically overpowering Hungarians.” The rich guys Janosik robbed — not ethnically specified in the earliest sources — now became oppressive foreign lords. Janosik’s growing corpus of attributed exploits now earned elite artistic attention.
Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.
This ghastly event is covered by Thucydides‘ History. Thucydides’ account of the diplomatic negotiation between the mighty Athenians and the hopelessly outmuscled Melians is the subject of the Melian dialogue — a timeless classic of philosophy and statecraft.
The Athenians’ coldly realistic position — and their ultimate disposition of their conquest — is summed up in the wonderful epigraph, “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” (And numerous variations of this translation.)
As the reigning naval power, Athens (at war with a league led by its rival, the land power Sparta) had decided that an independent and neutral Melos would no longer be in the offing. The Melian dialogue pits Athens’ ultimatum to Melos to submit and save itself, against the Melians’ vain attempt to assert the justice of their cause; likewise, it is the dialogue of an imperial order against a holdover independent city-state from a fading era.
Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no flue words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.
Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.
Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.
Athenians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?
Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.
Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?
Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.
Over and over the Melian envoy is dismayed by his visitors’ indifference to the moral high ground. Frustrated of any concession, he resolves his embattled city to embark upon the remote hope of resistance in preference to voluntary servitude — leading the Athenians to part with this chilly sentiment:
You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honour which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonour were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honour too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonour than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honour if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision,
Athens wasn’t kidding.
Finding no traction with the Melian delegation, the greater power immediately besieged Melos. Thucydides recounts the Melians’ subsequent fate:
So the summer ended.
In the following winter the Lacedaemonians had intended to make an expedition into the Argive territory, but finding that the sacrifices which they offered at the frontier were unfavourable they returned home … About the same time the Melians took another part of the Athenian wall; for the fortifications were insufficiently guarded. Whereupon the Athenians sent fresh troops, under the command of Philocrates the son of Demeas. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.
On top of everything else, the Athenian sack put an end to the production of Melian reliefs. (The island still had the glory of the Venus de Milo to look forward to, however.)
If there was a consolation for the scattered remains of the ruined Melian polis, it was that Athens’ cruel imperial hubris led it just months later to launch a catastrophic invasion of Sicily.
That defeat helped turn the Peloponnesian War decisively against Athens. Just eleven years after overrunning Melos, haughty Athens itself surrendered to a Spartan siege.
Thucydides, an exiled former Athenian general, deploys the classical dialogue form to great effect; his own perspective on the various arguments advanced in the Melian debate is difficult to discern with confidence. Clearly, however, it’s a topic of great interest to Thucydides, as his account dwells repeatedly on the conundrums touching justice and international relations: he’s one of the first intellectuals to explore what’s now thought of as the “realist” view of foreign policy. Compare the Melian Dialogue, for instance, to the Athenian demos‘s Mytilenian Debate; or, to the Plataean speech making a Melos-like appeal to the powerful Spartans.* And in one early passage, private Athenians appeal to Sparta and Corinth not to commence on war against the hegemony of Athens with words similar to those later used at Melos: “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. Up till the present moment you, too, used to think that we were; but now, after calculating your own interest, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong. Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”
At any rate, Thucydides’ proud city-empire would never recover from the inglorious fall inflicted by this war. The result was a fourth-century power vacuum which the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great eventually rose to fill.
* Thucydides also reports the Athenians hoisted by their own realpolitik when, in the Sicilian invasion, they attempt to appeal to Camarina for support. That city spurns the appeal, fearing subjugation should expansionist Athens prevail, and the revenge of their overwhelmingly powerful neighbor Syracuse otherwise.