Posts filed under 'Ancient'

Feast Day of St. Baudilus

Add comment May 20th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feast Day of Saint Leonides of Alexandria

Add comment April 22nd, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

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

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of Saint Honorina

1 comment February 27th, 2018 Headsman

February 27 is honored to be the feast date of Saint Honorina, patron of boatmen (a field of metaphorical import to this site) as well as liberated prisoners (which is more literal import).

She’s a standard issue we-don’t-know-much-about-her Diocletian martyr, locally revered in Normandy where she was executed by the pagans and pitched into the Seine. Her significance in this area led her devotee monks to carry her relics further inland in 876 to protect them from Viking raiders; this established them at a town at the confluence of the Seine and Oise rivers, aptly named Conflans. There the valuable remains remain even though the piratical Norsemen do not; it’s now Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a Paris suburb. (And only one of several French communes named for her.)

However, her spiritual import also remained in her original Norman haunts, even if her physical presence did not — as we discover in Architectural Antiquities of Normandy.

The church of Grâville [Graville-Sainte-Honrine, now a quarter of Le Havre -ed] was dedicated to St. Honorina, a virgin martyr, whose relics were preserved there in the times anterior to the Norman invasion; but were then transported to Conflans upon the Marne. Peter de Natalibus, copious as he is in his Hagiology, has no notice of Honorina, whose influence was nevertheless most extraordinary in releasing prisoners from fetters; and whose altars were accordingly hung round with an abundance of chains and instruments of torture. The author of the Neustria Pia, who attests many of her miracles of this description, relates, that her sanctity extended even to the horse which she rode, insomuch, that, when the body of the beast was thrown, after its death, as carrion to the dogs, they all refused to touch it; and the monks, in commemoration of the miracle, employed the skin for a covering to the church door, where it remained till the middle of the seventeenth century.

Although it was the Normans that cost this place its native holy bones, they made their amends to Graville and Honorina alike through doughty William the Conqueror crony William Malet de Graville, whose family’s largesse greatly aggrandized the still-extant abbey.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,France,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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2 CE: Iullus Antonius

1 comment February 14th, 2018 Headsman

On some undateable occasion in the second year of our Lord, Roman Emperor Augustus had his notorious daughter’s lover put to death.

Half-predator and half-prey in the incestuous Julio-Claudian family web, Iullus Antonius was the son of Augustus‘s great (and here, long-vanquished) rival Marc Antony, as well as the half-brother of Augustus’s discarded first wife.

Who fain at Pindar’s flight would aim,
On waxen wings, Iulus, he
Soars heavenward, doom’d to give his name
To some new sea.

Pindar, like torrent from the steep
Which, swollen with rain, its banks o’erflows,
With mouth unfathomably deep,
Foams, thunders, glows,

All worthy of Apollo’s bay,
Whether in dithyrambic roll
Pouring new words he burst away
Beyond control,

Or gods and god-born heroes tell,
Whose arm with righteous death could tame
Grim Centaurs, tame Chimaeras fell,
Out-breathing flame,

Or bid the boxer or the steed
In deathless pride of victory live,
And dower them with a nobler meed
Than sculptors give,

Or mourn the bridegroom early torn
From his young bride, and set on high
Strength, courage, virtue’s golden morn,
Too good to die.

Antonius! yes, the winds blow free,
When Dirce’s swan ascends the skies,
To waft him. I, like Matine bee,
In act and guise,

That culls its sweets through toilsome hours,
Am roaming Tibur’s banks along,
And fashioning with puny powers
A laboured song.

Your Muse shall sing in loftier strain
How Caesar climbs the sacred height,
The fierce Sygambrians in his train,
With laurel dight,

Than whom the Fates ne’er gave mankind
A richer treasure or more dear,
Nor shall, though earth again should find
The golden year.

Your Muse shall tell of public sports,
And holyday, and votive feast,
For Caesar’s sake, and brawling courts
Where strife has ceased.

Then, if my voice can aught avail,
Grateful for him our prayers have won,
My song shall echo, “Hail, all hail,
Auspicious Sun!”

There as you move, “Ho! Triumph, ho!
Great Triumph!” once and yet again
All Rome shall cry, and spices strow
Before your train.

Ten bulls, ten kine, your debt discharge:
A calf new-wean’d from parent cow,
Battening on pastures rich and large,
Shall quit my vow.

Like moon just dawning on the night
The crescent honours of his head;
One dapple spot of snowy white,
The rest all red.

-Horace, celebrating Iullus Antonius‘s verse in verse. The latter’s verse has not reached posterity, though he was a well-regarded poet in his time.

Contrary to what one might expect, Augustus didn’t hold the kid’s parentage against him* and “not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter.” (Per Marcus Velleius Paterculus**)

But at some point Iullus took his relations rather too far for the old man by achieving the favors of Augustus’s only daughter, Julia — notorious of ancient scribes for her promiscuity and eventually destined to be murdered off when her crusty, cuckolded husband Tiberius attained the purple.

There is nobody party to this event that comes out the better for it; Augustus for his part really cemented his uptight prig reputation for the history books, and Tacitus censures him because in “[c]alling, as he did, a vice so habitual among men and women by the awful name of sacrilege and treason, he went far beyond the indulgent spirit of our ancestors, beyond indeed his own legislation.”

In the telling of Cassius Dio:

when [Augustus] at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iullus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office. As a result of this affair many other women, too, were accused of similar behaviour, but the emperor would not entertain all the suits; instead, he set a definite date as a limit and forbade all prying into what had occurred previous to that time. For although in the case of his daughter he would show no mercy, remarking that he would rather have been Phoebe’s father than hers, he nevertheless was disposed to spare the rest. This Phoebe had been a freedwoman of Julia’s and her accomplice, and had voluntarily taken her own life before she could be punished. It was for this that Augustus praised her.

* Iullus’s older brother was not so lucky, nor was Marc Antony’s very dangerous son by Cleopatra.

** Worth noting: Velleius Paterculus says that Iullus died by his own hand rather than (as most other sources in antiquity give it) the executioner’s.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Scandal,Sex,Uncertain Dates

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820: Not Michael the Amorian, conquer or die

Add comment December 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 820, holiday sentiment cost the Roman emperor his life.

In the unsettled aftermath of Byzantium’s devastating 811 defeat at the Battle of Pliska, the military took the lead in the person of the formerly disgraced general Leo the Armenian.

Leo forced the abdication of a short-reined predecessor and in this enterprise he was aided by a brother-officer named Michael, known as Michael the Amorian or more colorfully, Michael the Stammerer.*

Both these men had had careers of opportunistically shifting alliances and their friendship did not withstand the intrigues of the palace. (Perhaps the falling-out was aided by ill feeling when Leo put aside his wife, who was Michael’s wife’s sister.)

In 820, Leo got suspicious of Michael and had him condemned to death for plotting against him. But since this grim judgment came down just ahead of Christmas, the emperor graciously gave his comrade-turned-prey a holiday respite. This leniency was one of the very last acts of his life.

When your head ends up on the currency instead of a spike.

It has been famously said that the prospect of imminent execution concentrates the mind wonderfully and that was never truer than for Michael the Amorian. Leo had been right to suspect him of treason — and Michael was able to get word to his co-conspirators to act immediately, lest he betray the lot of them to his inquisitors.

On Christmas morning, Michael’s cronies did just that, ambushing the emperor as he prayed in the chapel of St. Stephen where they cut him down dead — then raced to the palace dungeons to liberate Michael and hail him emperor so hurriedly that he was still partially manacled.

Michael would rule capably for nine years and pass the throne to his descendants, initiating the Amorian or Phrygian dynasty.

The events surrounding this dramatic regime change are covered on the History of Byzantium podcast in episodes 98 and 99 (all about Leo’s reign, culminating with Michael’s coup), and episodes 101 and 102 (all about Michael’s reign).

* Leo also restored the controversial policy of iconoclasm, a policy that Michael continued in his own turn to the profit of this here site.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Escapes,Execution,Heads of State,History,Not Executed,Power,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Turkey

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638: The garrison of Gaza, by their Muslim conquerors

1 comment December 17th, 2017 Headsman

By the early 600s, Roman and Persian armies had been trading blows for so many centuries that an eternal continuation of their Near East derby must have seemed a certainty. Here a raid into Mesopotamia, there a clash in the Taurus Mountains, border provinces shifting back and forth … countless dynasties had come and gone, world religions risen and fallen, and always there were the Romans and the Persians. It was the way of the cosmos ever since Carrhae.

Tribes boiling out of the Arabian desert were about to reorder the firmament.

After an exhausting and pointless struggle* stretching back generations, Byzantium under the emperor Heraclius had rallied in the late 620s to re-establish its formerly longstanding control of the Levant — incidentally pushing Persia’s Sassanid Empire to the brink of collapse.

Neither polity would enjoy much leave to lick its wounds.

The Byzantines’ first passing skirmish with Muslim warriors had occurred in 629, when the Prophet Muhammad was still alive. By the time of Muhammad’s death and the succession of the Caliphate in 632, Islam had all of Arabia firmly in hand and would begin the dazzling expansion destined within a single lifetime to carry the Quran from the Pillars of Hercules to the Indus valley — greatly facilitated by the scanty resistance offered by is battle-wearied neighbors in Constantinople and Ctesiphon.

You will come upon a people who live like hermits in monasteries, believing that they have given up all for God. Let them be and destroy not their monasteries. And you will meet other people who are partisans of Satan and worshippers of the Cross, who shave the centre of their heads so that you can see the scalp. Assail them with your swords until they submit to Islam or pay the Jizya.

-Words of Caliph Abu Bakr to his armies setting out for Syria in 634

After striking Mesopotamia (and crushing an internal rebellion), Caliphate armies pressed into Byzantine Syria and Palestine in 634 and soon controlled it — eventually delivering a decisive, nay world-altering, defeat to the Byzantine Christians at the Battle of Yarmouk in August 636.

The martyrology of Christians said to have been put to death on this date in 637 or 638 may be rated among the artifacts left to the shocked Romans; the victims would have numbered among the garrison in Gaza which would not fall to the Muslims until September 637.

The below is excerpted from Robert Hoyland‘s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Although the author is skeptical of the account’s historicity — preserved as it was only by a centuries-later third-hand fragment — the traumatic cultural memory it speaks to can hardly be doubted.


A Vatican manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century preserves for us an account of the martyrdom of the Byzantine garrison of Gaza at the time of the Arab conquests. It is written in crude Latin, but many of its expressions reveal it to be a translation from Greek. It informs us that the incident occurred “in the Christ-beloved city of Gaza … in the twenty-seventh year of the God-crowned emperor Heraclius” (636-37), then continues:

It happened at that time regarding the godless Saracens that they besieged the Christ-beloved city of Gaza and, driven by necessity, the citizens sought a treaty. This was done. The Saracens indeed gave to them a pledge, except to the soldiers who were captured in that city. Rather, marching into the city and seizing the most Christian soldiers, they put them in prison. On the next day ‘Amr (Ambrus) ordered the Christ-holy soldiers to be presented. Once brought before him, he constrained them to desist from the confession of Christ and from the precious and life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Since they would not consent, ‘Amr ordered their wives, children and weapons to be separated from them, and again to put them in prison.

Thirty days later they were transferred to a prison in Eleutheropolis for two months, then to a prison in “Theropolis” for three months before being taken to Jerusalem. There they are urged by the patriarch Sophronius to stand firm and accept martyrdom. After a further ten months incarceration ‘Amr wrote to “Ammiras who was commander in the holy city,” recommending that he execute a number of them if they still refused to deny Christ. Finding them obdurate, Ammiras has their chief Callinicus and nine others beheaded on 11 Novebember 638 “outside the city in front of the gates,” where they are buried by Sophronius. The rest are sent back a month or so later to ‘Amr in Eleutheropolis and given a final chance to comply. Unanimously, however, they witness that they are “servants of Christ, son of the living God” and “prepared to die for him who died and rose for us,” thus sealing their fate. Their bodies were bought for 3000 solidi and the church of the Holy Trinity was erected over their burial place at Eleutheropolis. The date given for their martyrdom is Thursday 17 December (which tallies for 638), indiction 13 (639-640), year 28 of Heraclius (September 637-September 638).

Since the choice of conversion or death seems mostly to have been reserved for Arab Christians and apostates from Islam, one is immediately suspicious of this account. It may be that these soldiers were made an example of for some particular cause, but there are other reasons for being wary of this text. In the first place, its provenance is unknown, since the Vatican manuscript containing it is our only witness. Secondly, it is very likely that we have merely a summary of a much longer piece. The changes of venue occur at a bewildering pace and with no explanation or elaboration, ‘Amr’s identity is not indicated, and the manner of death of the 50 remaining soldiers is not mentioned at all, even though this is usually a subject of much interest in martyrologies. Furthermore, one would expect the impassioned exhortation to martyrdom by the revered Sophronius and the emotive scene of him burying the martyrs to be accorded more than the paltry eight lines found in our version.

Perhaps most likely of all is that the garrison was put to death simply for resisting the Muslims, a fate meted out to Byzantine soldiers elsewhere, and that this was taken up by a later writer and recasted as a tale of martyrdom. So a kernel of truth may well lie behind the text, but later reworking and crude translation into Latin has obscured it beyond recognition. The only feature still clear in our epitome is the apologetic intent. For example, ‘Amr is labelled as “impious,” “devil,” “hateful to God” and “most cruel,” and the Arabs themselves described as “impious” and “godless.”

* Robin Pierson covers these years of backstory in depth in his History of Byzantium podcast; he’s interviewed for an overview of the Byzantine-Sassanid War(s) in a premium episode of the War Nerd podcast here.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Caliphate,Execution,God,History,Israel,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Palestine,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Cassian of Tangier

Add comment December 3rd, 2017 Headsman

December 3 is the feast date of the minor and perhaps fictional martyr Cassian of Tangier.

Not to be confused with the later Julian the Apostate-era martyr Cassian of Imola, our African Cassian was a court scribe who wound up riding sidecar to the legend of pacifistic centurion Marcellus of Tangier.

The latter is described in a Passion as having incurred the Roman governor’s wrath by adhering to Christ’s pacifistic teachings.

Agricolanus said, “What madness possessed you to cast aside aside your oath and say such things?”

Marcellus said, “No madness possesses him who fears God.” …

Agricolanus said, “Did you hurl down your weapons?”

Marcellus said, “I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service.”

Agricolanus said, “Marcellus’ actions are such that they ought to be disciplined.” And so he stated, “It pleases (the court) that Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’ records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword.”

So that’s Marcellus’s martyrdom. (His feast date is October 30.)

Cassian gets in on the act by allegedly refusing to fulfill his judicial duty to record the verdict, out of sympathy for the godly ex-warrior, a professional dereliction of his own that has paradoxically made him the patron saint of stenographers. There’s a very good chance that his is a legendary just-so story.

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Feast Day of St. Barlaam

Add comment November 19th, 2017 Headsman

November 19 is the feast date of Diocletian martyr Saint Barlaam of Antioch.*

A Cappadocian peasant, Barlaam defeated through righteous willpower a Roman judge’s diabolical attempt to go easy on him.

Barlaam was doing the old refusal to pay homage to the pagan gods thing and the judge’s plan was a masterpiece of practical jurisprudence: he had the refusenik stationed before the censer, with the offering in his hand. Then hot coals were plopped into the hand, in the expectation that Barlaam would flinch at the pain and involuntarily drop the herb, coals, and all into the fire — and everyone go home with his own honor satisfied.

But Barlaam had for honor “hardened brass, more than iron in mightiness, firmer than a statue” and instead withstood the coal until either it burned out, or his hand did, refusing to permit fire to touch incense under the eyes of the old gods. That earned him his martyrdom from an exasperated magistrate and, let us say, an extremely specific patronage of stoicism under prolonged hand torture, making him the forerunner of figures as diverse as Thomas Cranmer and Paul Muad’dib.

Here’s a laudatio in Latin for our holy militant from John Chrysostom who notes that the expected flinch-and-drop reaction wouldn’t have even counted as a sin.

* Not to be confused with the Russian hermit and painter Barlaam of Khutyn, nor with Barlaam and Josaphat, legendary India Christians who were adopted from Buddhist mythology.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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