You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?
This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.
After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:
Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.
European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.
By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*
Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.
Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).
The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.
In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.
As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.
Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.
Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.
The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.
Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.
After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.
Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.
one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)
Ah, Crawford’s campaign.
Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.
This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. European authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.
“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.
* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).
** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.
† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.
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.
On this date in 1931, the Chinese nationalists executed 23 Communists at Longhua, including five members of the League of Left-Wing Writers.
Early in what would prove to be the very long Chinese Civil War, the Koumintang government in 1930 mounted a suppression* of Communist outposts. That included military campaigns attempting to encircle communist-held regions, as well as an internal crackdown. It’s the latter that concerns us here.
A Communist-founded League of Left-Wing Writers operating in Shanghai was formally banned by the Koumintang in September 1930. Threatened with arrest, the writers struggled to stay underground but at a January 17 meeting in the British concession area,** British police arrested Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities.
The Five Martyrs: From left: Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Feng Keng, Yin Fu, Li Weisen (Li Qiushi)
They became the Five Martyrs of the League when they were shot this date in 1931 along with 18 other Communist prisoners, one of them a pregnant woman.
Among the five martyrs, Rou Shi† was particularly close to the great writer Lu Xun, who was heartbroken when he received word of his young protege’s untimely end — “one of China’s best youths,” in his estimation. In hiding himself, Lu Xun composed a “Lament for Rou Shi”:
To long and sleepless nights I’ve grown
accustomed in the spring;
Fled with a wife and babe in arms,
my temples are graying.
‘Mid dream there comes an image faint –
a loving mother’s tear;
On city walls the overlords’
e’er-changing banners rear.
I can but stand by looking on
as friends become new ghosts,
In anger face bayonet thickets
and search for verse ripostes.
The poem intoned, my gaze turns low –
one cannot write such down.
Moonlight shimmers with watery sheen
upon my jet-black gown.
The Neapolitan King Robert “the Wise”* dominated Italian politics for his 34-year reign, but his death in 1343 left a disastrously disputed succession.
Robert, who hailed from the French House of Anjou, had had only two sons, and they both predeceased him. So Robert’s will designated his granddaughter Joanna as his successor, and her sister Maria as no. 2 in line should Joanna die without an heir.
But Joanna was 16 years old, and Robert had had three brothers whose lines each coveted a taste of Neapolitan for themselves. In particular, the family of Roberts’ oldest brother, whose descendants had managed to establish an Angevin ruling dynasty in Hungary, arguably had a better claim that Robert himself. So in an effort to cement the Joanna-plus-Maria succession plan, Robert married Joanna off to a child of that branch, Andrew, Duke of Calabria, Joanna.
Maria, for her part, had been intended for another dynastic marriage, but after Robert’s death she got abducted by the heirs to the youngest of Robert’s brothers and married off to Charles (or Carlo), Count of Gravina and Duke of Durazzo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). This set their branch up to be a player for Robert’s patrimony, too; as one may infer from this character’s presence on this here execution blog, the play didn’t go to plan.
Dumas reckoned Charles an inveterate, and a sinister, schemer, “one of those men who to gain their end recoil at nothing; devoured by raging ambition and accustomed from his earliest years to conceal his most ardent desires beneath a mask of careless indifference, he marched ever onward, plot succeeding plot … His cheek grew pale with joy; when he hated most, he smiled; in all the emotions of his life, however strong, he was inscrutable.”
Now that we have the dramatis personae … to the action!
Robert was scarcely cold in his coffin when Joanna’s husband Andrew (supported by a faction within the Neapolitan court) began maneuvering for more power. Days before he was to capture a strategic hilltop in that campaign by becoming crowned in his own right in September 1345, a conspiracy of his rivals surprised Andrew on a hunting trip and murdered him — violently subduing the resisting teenager until they could strangle him to death and pitch him out a window. Joanna cowered in her bed as her shrieking husband was murdered; the suspicion of her involvement in the plot would follow her all the 37 years she had left on this earth, although she defeated the charge when she was formally investigated.
With this stunning act, peninsular politics got almost as messy as the Angevin family tree.
Andrew’s murder, which was succeeded by no pretext of punishing any guilty parties, opened a power vacuum and simultaneously supplied all Andrew’s power-hungry kinsmen the ideal pretext for elbowing their respective ways into it. The Hungarian Angevins, led by the murdered Andrew’s big brother King Louis I swept into Naples, routing Joanna** who was forced in 1348 to flee to the pope at Avignon, maybe on the very ships that were at this very moment introducing the Black Death from Sicily to ports all over Europe.
Cousin Charles made an expedient alliance with cousin Louis and joined the fun, angling to add Naples to his own domains once the dust settled and Hungarian affairs pulled Louis away. But almost immediately after expelling Joanna, the Hungarian king turned on Charles, too. In Dumas’s dramatic rendering, he accuses Charles of complicity in Andrew’s murder and treachery against his own royal person.
Traitor! At length you are in my hands, and you shall die as you deserve; but before you are handed over to the executioner, confess with your own lips your deeds of treachery towards our royal majesty: so shall we need no other witness to condemn you to a punishment proportioned to your crimes. Between our two selves, Duke of Durazzo, tell me first why, by your infamous manoeuvring, you aided your uncle, the Cardinal of Perigord, to hinder the coronation of my brother, and so led him on, since he had no royal prerogative of his own, to his miserable end? Oh, make no attempt to deny it. Here is the letter sealed with your seal; in secret you wrote it, but it accuses you in public. Then why, after bringing us hither to avenge our brother’s death, of which you beyond all doubt were the cause,–why did you suddenly turn to the queen’s party and march against our town of Aquila, daring to raise an army against our faithful subjects? You hoped, traitor, to make use of us as a footstool to mount the throne withal, as soon as you were free from every other rival. Then you would but have awaited our departure to kill the viceroy we should have left in our place, and so seize the kingdom. But this time your foresight has been at fault. There is yet another crime worse than all the rest, a crime of high treason, which I shall remorselessly punish. You carried off the bride that our ancestor King Robert designed for me, as you knew, by his will. Answer, wretch what excuse can you make for the rape of the Princess Marie?
Charles was put to summary death upon this accusation on January 23, 1348.
As for the Princess Marie, who at this point was 18 years old and had already borne Charles five children in almost continuous succession, she wasn’t done being abducted: another nobleman, the Lord of Baux, snatched her from the Castel dell’Ovo later that same year and had four more children with her before Maria had him murdered in 1353. Then she married yet another cousin and had five more kids by him.
On this date in 1942, Senitsa Vershovsky was shot in the city of Kremenchuk in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine.
Vershovsky was the mayor of Kremenchuk and was also a major in the Red Army. His executioners were members of Einsatzgruppe A, one of Nazi Germany’s mobile killing squads: they killed Vershovsky for “carry[ing] out his duties in gross defiance of German orders … [and] sabotaging the handling of the Jewish problem by having a great number of Jews baptized in order to remove them from German control.”
Approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Kremenchuk, constituting 40% of the city’s population and they had good cause to remove themselves as far as possible from German control. The Einsatzgruppen, as they did in countless other cities throughout the Soviet Union, rounded up the Jewish population, forced them to dig their own graves, and machine-gunned them by the thousands.
Vershovsky’s attempts to help the Jews under his charge, futile though his efforts may have been, nevertheless deserve a footnote in history. For, as historian Raul Hilberg noted, in all the situation reports filed by the Einsatzgruppen during their 22 months of operation,
This incident appears to be the only one of its kind. The counterpressure was evidently too great. Whoever attempted to aid the Jews acted alone and exposed himself as well as his family to the possibility of a death sentence from a German Kommando. There was no encouragement for a man with an awakened conscience.
In a time of great adversity, Senitsa Vershovsky showed himself to be a courageous and fundamentally decent human being, and he paid for it with his life. The least we can do is remember him.
On this date in 1869, a man named William German was lynched by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.
German, a white man, had been hanged for killing a black man, Bill Cullum.
Yes, you read that right.
Bill Cullum was a former slave; William German, a former soldier in the Confederate Army. German was living on a farm he’d rented from a white plantation owner, Alvin Cullum, who had been Bill’s owner.
German was ordered to clear off the land so the ex-slave could live there instead. Furious, German put on KKK robes and, with another man, tracked down Bill Cullum and shot him several times. The dying man was able to crawl to a nearby house and name his attacker before he expired.
The local KKK chapter was outraged. William German had committed his act wearing their garb, but without their authorization and against their rules.
What happened next was recounted in the Memphis Daily Appeal (now called The Commercial Appeal):
The Union and American of Saturday says: “By a private letter from a trustworthy gentleman residing at Cookville in Putnam County, we give some further information in regard to the recent execution near Livingston, in Overton County, by a body of supposed Ku-Klux, of the young man Wm. German, an account of which we published Thursday morning. “He says that a few days before the execution, German shot and badly wounded, and supposed he had killed, a Negro man living in his neighborhood. The shooting took place in a public road, and the Negro managed to crawl to the house of his employer, where he told who had shot him. The Negro had the character of being a quiet, peaceable man, and as there had been no previous trouble between him and German, it was supposed the crime was perpetrated in pure wantonness.
It is thought that the persons by whom German was killed were members of a secret organization, to which he belonged — but whether Ku-Klux or not, nobody in the neighborhood appears to know. The body of men concerned in the execution numbered about 200, and none of them were identified by citizens who witnessed their appearance and departure. Accounts reported Bill German was found hanged in a nearby barn; a sign posted there declared: Hung for shooting a Negro, Bill Cullum, and violating the laws of Ku Klux.”
These days, this story has been used by the KKK as evidence that they are a peaceable organization and not at all racist, honest, pinky-swear.
An aside: executions ran in the German family. William German’s brother, Columbus C. “Lum” German, had also served in the Confederate Army and also met his death at the end of a rope, in 1866.
In Constance’s entourage came the enchanting Ines, the daughter, albeit illegitimate, of a Galician nobleman.
Peter was entirely smitten by entirely the wrong woman. Vainly did the Portuguese sovereign Afonso IV strive to conform his indiscreet son to the demands of conjugal propriety. At last, the put-upon Constance died after bearing Peter his heir in 1345 and left the field to her rival.
Afonso steadfastly refused to let his lovestruck son marry Ines, and even tried banishing her to Castile, but the two carried on their forbidden passion secretly like they were in poetry, which would soon be the case.
One of 20-plus operas and ballets about Ines de Castro. She also turns up in the Portuguese national epic The Lusíadas, the French play La Reine Morte, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“Ignez da Castro murdered, and a wall / Here stripped, here made to stand”) … among many other literary appearances.
But beyond any qualms of prudery, Peter’s made dad sweat the politics. Peter refused to marry anyone else, and got tight with Ines’s brothers. These guys were Castilian exiles with their own axes to grind. Was the whole fortune of his house and his realm to fall under the sway of this unpredictable faction just because Peter couldn’t keep it in his codpiece? The affair had already made a dog’s breakfast of the alliance Peter was supposed to contract with his scorned wife’s family; now that Peter was having kids** with his mistress, there was the potential for a contested succession, and the brothers were goading Peter to pretend to the throne of their native Castile.
Afonso figured that this was about where his son’s right to romantic love ended. Peter had proven many times that only the most drastic of steps could separate him from Ines.
On the 7th of January 1355, Afonso and his own advisors met in secret and declared Ines’s death. Then three of the king’s emissaries, Pêro Coelho, Álvaro Gonçalves and Diogo Lopes Pacheco, rode out to find the irksome mistress at Coimbra, and chopped off her head right in front of her children.†
It was only with difficulty that a sufficient reconciliation between father and son was effected to manage a stable transition once Afonso kicked off in 1357. Finally in charge, Peter set about earning that “the Cruel” sobriquet by hunting down the retainers who had slain his wife and having them all put to terrible deaths in their turn, like their hearts ripped out of their chests. Just like had happened to Peter, see.
Peter also announced that he had been secretly married to Ines, posthumously legitimizing her. Legend, probably apocryphal, has it that he even exhumed her body and set her up on the throne in regal finery like the cadaver synod, so that his courtiers could pay their respects to the putrefying flesh of “the queen who was crowned after death”. But she wasn’t coming back for real: in the still-extant Portuguese idiom, “Agora é tarde; Inês é morta” — “It’s too late, Ines is dead.”
Couronnement d’Inés de Castro en 1361 (c. 1849), by Pierre-Charles Comte.
In death at this hour, Ines de Castro reigns in a gorgeous carved tomb in the Alcobaca Monastery … right next to her lover, King Peter I.
* The Peter-Constance marriage was itself an alliance of marital castaways. Constance had been the child bride of Castilian King Alfonso XI, but was put aside by Alfonso so that he could realign his bedroom politics by instead marrying Peter’s own elder sister. But Alfonso neglected her, too — causing a love triangle that would in time end with an execution.
When Peter’s humiliated sister fled the Castilian court, the Portuguese royal family allied with Constance’s family against Alfonso, by marrying the spurned Constance to the spurned-in-law Peter.
** High noble titles were bestowed on the three children of Peter and Ines who survived into adulthood. Two of them, John and Denis, unsuccessfully attempted to claim the throne during the chaotic interregnum of Portugal’s 1383-1385 Crisis.
† Ines’s execution/murder is associated with Quinta das Lagrimas, the Estate of Tears, even though that’s not where it actually occurred. A fountain there is said to have sprung from the tears she said as she was slain, and its red stones stained by her blood.
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)
The Showtime series The Borgias got canceled before it reached this particular depredation in Cesare Borgia’s career.
The “nephew” — that is, son — of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned a cardinalcy in 1498 to follow his true passion, bloodshed, and set up as one of the Italian peninsula’s warring dukes. He had many a martial adventure before getting ambushed by a party of Spanish knights in 1507. Machiavelli considered him an able leader fatally compromised by owing his temporal power to the pope’s territorial allotment. In The Prince, Machiavelli remarks on the lesson of Borgia’s reign, that “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building” — and yet Cesare Borgia’s own fall months after his patron paterfamilias passed “was not his fault, but the extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”
Cesare went from victory to victory in the first years of the sixteenth century, enough so that he threatened to make himself hegemonic in Italy. Several of his own allies, of which our day’s principals Vitellozzo Vitelli (his family ruled Citta di Castello and Oliverotto da Fermo* (lord of Fermo) were two, began plotting against him and sent out feelers to build an anti-Borgia alliance among small powers who fretted the prospective domination of Cesare. (Though Borgia had them killed on a separate occasion, the others of note for purposes of this post are two members of the powerful Orsini family — Francesco Orsini, known as the Duke di Gravina; and, Cardinal Pagolo.)
As Florence’s own representative to Borgia’s court during the events in question, Machiavelli had a first-person view of events and recorded them in some detail. Taken on the back foot momentarily, Borgia stalled, firmed up his relations with friendly cities like Florence, and beat a momentarily tactical retreat. He came to terms with his friends-cum-rivals, who once more resumed campaigning on Borgia’s side.
Putatively back on the same team, several of the plotters soon found themselves at a stalemate besieging Senigallia, which refused to surrender to any but Borgia himself. They were therefore required to summon the dangerous prince from Lombardy. True to his name, Borgia did not miss the opportunity of an innocent invitation to destroy his foes.
Borgia marched into Seniallia with 10,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry for a friendly little reunion. According to Machiavelli (who in this passage refers to Borgia as Duke Valentino, or simply as “the duke”),
Vitellozzo, Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina on mules, accompanied by a few horsemen, went towards the duke; Vitellozo, unarmed and wearing a cape lined with green, appeared very dejected, as if conscious of his approaching death — a circumstance which, in view of the ability of the man and his former fortune, caused some amazement. And it is said that when he parted from his men before setting out for Sinigalia to meet the duke he acted as if it were his last parting from them. He recommended his house and its fortunes to his captains, and advised his nephews that it was not the fortune of their house, but the virtues of their fathers that should be kept in mind. These three, therefore, came before the duke and saluted him respectfully, and were received by him with goodwill; they were at once placed between those who were commissioned to look after them.
But the duke noticing that Oliverotto, who had remained with his band in Sinigalia, was missing — for Oliverotto was waiting in the square before his quarters near the river, keeping his men in order and drilling them — signalled with his eye to Don Michelle, to whom the care of Oliverotto had been committed, that he should take measures that Oliverotto should not escape. Therefore Don Michele rode off and joined Oliverotto, telling him that it was not right to keep his men out of their quarters, because these might be taken up by the men of the duke; and he advised him to send them at once to their quarters and to come himself to meet the duke. And Oliverotto, having taken this advice, came before the duke, who, when he saw him, called to him; and Oliverotto, having made his obeisance, joined the others.
So the whole party entered Sinigalia, dismounted at the duke’s quarters, and went with him into a secret chamber, where the duke made them prisoners; he then mounted on horseback, and issued orders that the men of Oliverotto and the Orsini should be stripped of their arms. Those of Oliverotto, being at hand, were quickly settled, but those of the Orsini and Vitelli, being at a distance, and having a presentiment of the destruction of their masters, had time to prepare themselves, and bearing in mind the valour and discipline of the Orsinian and Vitellian houses, they stood together against the hostile forces of the country and saved themselves.
But the duke’s soldiers, not being content with having pillaged the men of Oliverotto, began to sack Sinigalia, and if the duke had not repressed this outrage by killing some of them they would have completely sacked it. Night having come and the tumult being silenced, the duke prepared to kill Vitellozzo and Oliverotto; he led them into a room and caused them to be strangled. Neither of them used words in keeping with their past lives: Vitellozzo prayed that he might ask of the pope full pardon for his sins; Oliverotto cringed and laid the blame for all injuries against the duke on Vitellozzo. Pagolo and the Duke di Gravina Orsini were kept alive until the duke heard from Rome that the pope had taken the Cardinal Orsino, the Archbishop of Florence, and Messer Jacopo da Santa Croce. After which news, on 18th January 1502, in the castle of Pieve, they also were strangled in the same way.
In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.
But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.
“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”
According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.
Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.
Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.
These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.
That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)
Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.
Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.
Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,
they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.