Posts filed under 'The Worm Turns'

2010: Wen Qiang, prey of Bo Xilai

Add comment July 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2010, Chongqing politician Wen Qiang was executed for corruption — but the rival who felled him was on the brink of his own destruction.

Wen, the longtime Public Security Bureau chief in the southwestern city of Chongking, was a big dog to most. To Bo Xilai, Wen looked more like trophy game.

Son of an “immortal” Communist pol Bo Yibo, the aggressive and charismatic Politburo member Bo was then an ascending star on the national stage.

In 2007, Bo won the Communist Party’s appointment as party chief of Chongqing — effectively giving him control of the city. From this platform, Bo launched a high-profile crackdown on graft and organized crime rife in the 30 million-strong megacity.

During a campaign from roughly 2009 to Bo’s own fall in 2012, some 9,000 people were investigated for corruption, and nearly half of them jailed … or in Wen’s case, worse.

“Dare to fight against the devil, never compromise with the gangs”: Bo’s act resonated powerfully in a country fractured by economic development and widely afflicted by beak-wetting. But Bo’s political angle was not merely playing to the peanut gallery: it was also a factional power play, implicitly critical of his similarly powerful predecessor Wang Yang for having tolerated the mobsters’ rise.

And Wen Qiang, a holdover from even before the Wang years, was Bo’s highest-ranking prey.

Xinhua reported that he was found guilty of soliciting USD $1.7 million worth of bribes, of protecting criminals like his sister-in-law who happened to be the “godmother” of crime in Chongqing, and even of raping a university student. Media circulated salacious stories of buried sacks of cash, mistresses collected and discarded, and secret luxury villas.

In these years, Bo went from victory to vctory and destroying Wen was just another stepping-stone towards the top leadership circles in the People’s Republic.

But merely 16 months after Wen faced his executioner, Bo’s own star also dramatically fell to earth.

In November 2011, British businessman and Bo associate Neil Haywood was found suspiciously poisoned in his Chongqing hotel. Practically overnight, Bo Xilai found himself the target instead of the author of the investigation — politically stricken as all his own chickens came home to roost.

An incredible sequence of events ensued: Bo’s chief of police (and Wen’s own Javert) Wang Lijun bizarrely fled to the (temporary) sanctuary of an American consulate the following February, days after Bo demoted him — apparently citing fear that Bo might have him, too, murdered.

Within weeks, Bo had been sacked as Chongqing party boss and dismissed from the Politburo while his wife Gu Kailai arrested for Neil Heywood’s murder. Wang was arrested when he left the American consulate. Politically impotent now, Bo had months to wait before his own divisive case finally came to a courtroom resolution in 2013. As of this writing, Wang and Bo and Gu are all serving long prison sentences. (Gu’s was a suspended death sentence recently commuted to life imprisonment.)

Through Bo’s precipitous fall, Bo’s own patron Zhou Yongkang was also ruined, forced out of national leadership, and eventually sent to prison on corruption charges of his own.

Bo’s disgrace has brought a re-examination of his rough rule in Chongqing — though many targets of his bygone anti-corruption drive still languish in prison, vainly protesting their innocence.

Though he is no longer around to protest on his own behalf, and there appears to be little sentiment that he was clear of corruption in an absolute sense, Wen has also been re-evaluated in light of those events — including indications that the most incendiary allegations against him might have been ginned up for show:

police buried the bundles of cash, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper, in the morning and then dug them up in front of the cameras that afternoon.

Another key piece of evidence used to convict Wen — two luxury villas worth more than 30 million yuan that Wen allegedly owned — has also been questioned.

A former senior police officer in Chongqing who was close to Wen insisted he was the real owner of the villas, where Wen allegedly kept mistresses and which were later turned into destinations for “anti-graft education” tours.

The (possibly apocryphal) story has it than in a prison meeting, the doomed Wen prophesied Danton-like to his persecutor Wang, “You’ll meet the same fate as me.”

There are affecting interviews with Wen’s wife and son, and even a reporter’s conversation with Wen during the very last hours of his life, all here.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Pelf,Politicians,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,The Worm Turns

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1453: The garrison of Poucques, Jacques de Lalaing’s cannonball killers

Add comment July 5th, 2016 Headsman

On or about this date* in 1453, the Burgundians captured the fortress of Poucques (Poeke) during the revolt of Ghent, and put its entire garrison to summary death.

It was merely one of the appetizers the Burgundians had to chew off en route to devouring the main course at the Battle of Gavere, where the revolt was decisively crushed.**

While the battle itself was a footnote — sorry, slaughtered garrison! — it’s remembered for claiming the life of the Burgundian lord Jacques de Lalaing (English Wikipedia entry | French) — the Michael Jordan of 15th century tournament combat, “le chevalier sans reproche.”

About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.

“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.

He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.

These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)

As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.

And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.

Studying the Burgundian court to which our Walloon nobleman adhered when not doing his gladiator road show, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga reckoned this 15th century the “autumn of the middle ages” — a decadence flowering in decay.

“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”

The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.

A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.

Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡

The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.

In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.

* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”

** Maybe so, but Ghent is still with us today whereas independent Burgundy would vanish within 30 years.

† The late 15th century also gives us the apotheosis of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Arthur.

‡ Periodization fans should note that 1453 also marks the Ottoman capture of Constantinople.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burgundy,Execution,France,History,Known But To God,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Put to the Sword,Ripped from the Headlines,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1865: Okada Izo, barbarian-expeller

Add comment July 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the Japanese samurai Okada Izo was dispatched by crucifixion.

He was one of* the “Four Hitokirimanslayers — whose legendary blades coruscated in the Bakumatsu era that marked Japan’s pivot from an isolationist feudal state, one where samurai were big men on prefectures, to a burgeoning modern power ruled by industry and mass conscription.

The irony was that dinosaurs like the Hitokiri helped bring the asteroid down on their own heads.

During the chaotic Bakumatsu period, triggered by Japan’s becoming involuntarily opened to the outside world, the emperor — long a figurehead marginalized by the shogun — entered the political fray under the xenophobic banner “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.”

Warriors/assassins like the Hitokiri were wooed by the imperial camp and the promise of a policy that would maintain the purpose and privilege of elite swordsmen. But once power was conquered, the Meiji emperor repaid those knights’ exertions by doing the modernization thing that Hitokiri types had hoped to avoid.

Okada Izo was among the first barbarian-expellers to be caught up by the policy swing. After a couple of years running amok in Kyoto, the anti-foreigner movement was suppressed and its leader forced to commit seppuku, which was still more deference than Izo received.

The execution, usually conceived as the end, is the jumping-off point for the surreal time-and-space-hopping 2004 Takasha Miike bloodbath Izo, “one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times.”

* Along with fellow-execution victim Kawakami Gensai, and two other guys who met violent deaths that were not (more’s the pity for this site) executions.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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1945: Sudeten Germans, known but to God

Add comment May 10th, 2015 Headsman

Jirí Chmelnicek shot this footage in just-liberated Prague on May 10, 1945 of Czechs celebrating the end of World War II by doling out mistreatment — including a chilling mass-execution — to Sudeten Germans. It was the presence of that population, the reader will recall, that Berlin invoked to justify its occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Chmelnicek’s video only surfaced publicly in 2010: its images were far too sensitive to air closer to the Great War, especially while Czechoslovakia was under communist control. As Der Spiegel reported.

Chmelnicek’s film shows how the Germans were rounded up in a nearby movie theater, also called the Borislavka. The camera then pans to the side of the street, where 40 men and at least one woman stand with their backs to the lens. A meadow can be seen in the background. Shots ring out and, one after another, each person in the line slumps and falls forward over a low embankment. The injured lying on the ground beg for mercy. Then a Red Army truck rolls up, its tires crushing dead and wounded alike. Later other Germans can be seen, forced to dig a mass grave in the meadow.

We do not know who these people are. Considering the indiscriminate revenge visited on Sudeten Germans after the war, it is not likely that these several dozen souls were selected for their fate with care.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Czechoslovakia,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Wartime Executions

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628: Khosrau II, Sassanid emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.

Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.

Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.

Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.

The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, coming near the brink of outright destruction under continuous Persian pummeling. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”

The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.

The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.

The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.

Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:

  • The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
  • The (defunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
  • The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.

* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,Heads of State,History,Iran,No Formal Charge,Persia,Power,Royalty,Shot with Arrows,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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205: Plautianus, purple proximity

Add comment January 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.

Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.

And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.

Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.

But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.

It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)

Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**

The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†

The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.

* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.

** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”

† Caracalla had his former wife murdered in 212.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1621: Rodrigo Calderon, ambitious

Add comment October 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Spain’s once-powerful Marquis of the Seven Churches fell as far as tragedy can drop a man.

Still to this day a Spanish emblem of the perils of ambition, Rodrigo Calderon hailed from the minor nobility in the rebellious Low Countries breaking away from Hapsburg rule.

Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.

Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*

Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.

Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.

Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.

moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.

While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that

a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)

Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.

But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself, leaving the kingdom to a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.

It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”

Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.

As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.

Calderon’s mummy, the executioner’s gash through its neck still gruesomely visible, is still preserved in Valladolid. (Link in Spanish, but more importantly, with pictures.)

* Calderon was himself a great collector of art.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Pelf,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Spain,The Worm Turns

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**


Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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476: Basiliscus, victim of the fine print

Add comment August 18th, 2014 Headsman

At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.

But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.

The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.

The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.

As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.

Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.

It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.

In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.

A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.


Basiliscus forced into the cistern.

The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.

Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.

* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”

** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Starved,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1388: Three evil counselors of Richard II

Add comment May 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1388, James Berners, John Beauchamp, and John Salisbury were convicted by the “Merciless Parliament” of treason, and put to immediate death.

You could say that relations between the branches of government were a bit on the frayed side, since crown and parliament had civil war for political primacy. Parliament won.

It just wasn’t quite one of those all-out, kill-you-when-we’re-done wars to depose the king outright. (That would come later.) “We do not rebel or arm ourselves against the King except in order to instruct him,” one of the rebelling Lord Appellant told His Majesty.

“Instructing” Richard II meant politically isolating him and then mercilessly — hence the resulting parliament’s name — attainting his aides and allies for treason.

So all that spring, young Richard II helplessly “presided” over a parliament where his supporters were condemned on trumped-up charges.

This date was the turn for Sir John Beauchamp of Holt and Sir James Berners (or Barnes), two guys noble enough to suffer “merely” beheading, plus Sir John Salisbury, who was far enough down England’s class hierarchy that he got to endure the full drawing and quartering treatment.



Berners may have been the father of a 15th century prioress and author, Juliana Berners.

This woman wasn’t the type to keep to her cloister and meditate: Berners wrote books on her vigorous pastimes of heraldry, hunting, and hawking. Her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle remains one of the seminal books for the sport of angling.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Power,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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