Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.
According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)
[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.
Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875
It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.
And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …
The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)
One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.
Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)
In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)
On this date in the year 96, the Roman Emperor Domitian was assassinated … his very last act in the purple having been to condemn to death an astrologer who predicted Domitian’s murder.
Son and second successor of the Flavian dynasty’s founder, Vespasian, Domitian left his mark on Italian postcard stands by decorating the Roman Forum with the Arch of Titus to salute his older brother and immediate predecessor.
In his day he was known as a tyrant, especially compared to the dynasty which followed him; indeed, Domitian’s murder was the exact birth date for imperial Rome’s golden age in the judgment of Gibbon, who opined that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Domitian, shall we say, set a low bar for the Antonines to step over by keeping the capital in a state of perpetual terror with wanton purges, not even excepting the sacred Vestal Virgins.
As is usually the case with ancient scrolls, our lurid accounts rarely furnish convenient dates to later death-bloggers. Our excuse for this occasion will be the condemnation Domitian issued to a nameless astrologer immediately preceding his own fate; alternatively, we could cite the subsequent execution of Domitian’s assassins which was successfully demanded by the soldiery, who admired him.
If this seems a cheat for an almanac site, consider that given a better documentary environment, the man’s entire reign would supply the execution-blogger a near limitless stock.
“It would be impossible to discover the total number of those who were executed by Domitian,” wrote Cassius Dio, conveniently excusing a gap in his research.* “Indeed, he condemned himself so severely for this course that, in order to prevent any remembrance of those who were put to death from surviving, he prohibited the entering of their names in the records.”
Pretexts for these executions under Domitian were as varied and capricious as the killings were numerous.
Many men and women alike among the wealthy were punished for adultery; some of these women had been debauched by Domitian himself. Many persons were also fined or put to death on other charges. Thus, a woman was tried and put to death because she had undressed in front of an image of Domitian, and a man for having associated with astrologers. Among the many who perished at this time was Mettius Pompusianus, whom Vespasian had failed to harm after learning from some report that he would one day be sovereign, but on the contrary had shown him honour, declaring: “He will surely remember me and will surely honour me in return.” But Domitian first exiled him to Corsica and now put him to death, one of the complaints against him being that he had a map of the world painted on the walls of his bed-chamber, and another complaint being that he had excerpted and was wont to read the speeches of kings and other leaders that are recorded in Livy. Also Maternus, a sophist, was put out of the way because in a practice speech he had something against tyrants. The emperor himself used to visit those who were expecting to accuse or to give evidence of guilt and he would help to frame and compose all that required to be said. Often, too, he would talk to the prisoners alone, while holding their chains in his hands; for he would not entrust to others the knowledge of what was going to be said, and as for the accused, he feared them even in their bonds.
As a consequence of his cruelty the emperor was suspicious of all mankind, and from now on ceased to repose hopes of safety in either the freedmen or yet the prefects, whom he usually caused to be brought to trail during their very term of office. He had first banished and now slew Epaphroditus, Nero’s freedman, accusing him of having failed to defend Nero; for he wished by the vengeance that he took on Nero’s behalf to terrify his own freedmen long in advance, so that they should venture no similar deed.
The historian Suetonius concurred that the emperor was taking Tiberius’s old turn into a paranoid old coot.
He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master; also Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out. A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games, he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: “A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.”
He put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia, Salvidienus Orfitus, Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial. He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife, the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: “I practise continence”; and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: “Are you too looking for a wife?” He put to death Salvius Cocceianus, because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle; Mettius Pompusianus, because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal; Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named “Lucullean,” after his own name; Junius Rusticus, because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men; and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy. He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife; Flavius Sabinus too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.
His savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner. When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: “Pray, shall we hear this base slave to?morrow?”
Domitian also seems to have been extremely superstitious, even by Roman standards. Suetonius gets a little carried away here, enough so that it is impossible at 2,000 years’ distance to guess precisely where the embroidery was sewn to the facts; after all, Domitian’s subjects and observers were all superstitious too. It certainly makes a jolly good story.
It is said that when Domitian was but a boy astrologers had forecast the very moment of his eventual violent death: the fifth hour of September the 18th in this very year. Domitian became extremely jumpy as Atropos’s shears drew nearer and dark omens began to accumulate around him:
For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported, that at last he cried: “Well, let him now strike whom he will.” The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription too on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb. The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew, then on a sudden fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful one, not without the mention of bloodshed. (Suetonius again)
He tried to defeat the gods by having put to death an astrologer named Ascletarion, having first demanded Ascletarion’s prediction of his own manner of death: “that he would shortly be rent by dogs,” the oracle replied. To prove him wrong, Domitian had him killed some other way and immolated — but his satisfaction drained away when “it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse.” Death closed around the prince, to his growing fear, and now he watched for the very hour.
At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany, who when consulted about the lightning strokes had foretold a change of rulers, and condemned him to death. While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead, and had drawn blood, he said: “May this be all.” Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement [of those conspiring against Domitian] the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off.
Retiring his bedroom to prepare for an exultant bath, Domitian was there attacked and stabbed to death by a steward named Stephanus, joined by several others — “Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.”
Domitian’s memory was immediately damned by the overjoyed Senate, which proclaimed as his successor an elderly placeholder named Nerva (who immediately canceled treason trials against this same Senate). Nerva’s line of adoptive succession (Nerva himself adopted the redoubtable Trajan) would rule that “happy and prosperous” Rome of Gibbon’s celebration for the best part of a century.
* Cassius Dio wrote more than a century after Domitian. Suetonius and Tacitus are truer primary sources as both wrote their histories in the early second century, and both had themselves experienced life in Domitian’s Rome. Unfortunately the books of the latter’s Histories that cover the reign of Domitian have not survived to posterity — so from Tacitus we have only fleeting glimpses of the young Domitian aiding his father’s rise to power.
Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.
September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.
One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.
But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.
Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.
This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**
He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.
Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.
It was a right massacre.
Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.
Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).
The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.
“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”
To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.
Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.
In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.
And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.
Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.
A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)
** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.
The Roman martyrology distinguishes August 9 as the feast date of several minor ancient saints of questionable veracity purportedly martyred by the persecutions of Rome.
Firmus and Rusticus
The Virgin of the Rosary with Saints Firmus and Rusticus (1603) by Pietro Marone
Saints Firmus and Rusticus are two gentlemen of Bergamo who are supposed to have wound up martyred in Verona under Diocletian‘s persecutions. There’s an Acts of Firmus and Rusticus that the contemporary church does not consider authentic; it’s possible that if they really existed they might have been North African Christians whose remains were translated to Verona.
Firmus and Rusticus are not the patron saints of Romeo and Juliet‘s hometown; that honor instead goes to Zeno.
August 9 is the vigil of St. Lawrence‘s martyrdom in Rome. St. Romanus is a legendary spinoff on Lawrence: a Roman guard who is supposed to have been so moved by Lawrence that he solicited baptism from the saint, and was immediately martyred for his trouble. Although his dubious historicity — one can’t but suspect outright fiction — has ushered him into the martyrology’s footnotes, he was formerly consequential enough to be sculpted for the colonnade of St. Peter’s.
Noccolo Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, by Paolo Uccello (c. 1435-1455).
Secundian, Marcellian and Verian
At last we have St. Secundian, another Decian martyr who was supposedly a Senator or similar VIP. August 9 marks his martyrdom perhaps near Civitavecchia, along with two bookish minions — students or scholars of some sort.
On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.
It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.
But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.
Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**
Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.
So it went with Crispus — for a while.
In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.
The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.
Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.
Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.
We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”
It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.
Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:
But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.
* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.
** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.
† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.
‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.
On or around this date in 535,* the Ostrogothic queen Amalasuntha was put to death in the Italian lake island of Martana (You can also find her name rendered Amalasountha and Amalaswintha.)
The Roman-educated princess had inherited rulership of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, a successor state to the lately fallen Roman Empire, from its redoutable founder Theodoric. Technically the crown had passed to Amalasuntha’s 10-year-old kid; ruling as regent in a perilous situation, mom cultivated an alliance with the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Her son took to boozing and carousing and died as a teenager, so Amalasuntha sought a new male imprimatur for her reign by the expedient of marrying a wealthy cousin, Theodahad. Though the nuptial deal had been for Theo to butt out of actual governance, he immediately strove to convert his power from titular to actual and became his wife’s deadliest rival — and then clapped her in prison. From the History of the Wars of Byzantine scribbler Procopius:
Theodahad, upon receiving the supreme power, began to act in all things contrary to the hopes she had entertained and to the promises he had made. And after winning the adherence of the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her — and they were both numerous and men of very high standing among the Goths — he suddenly put to death some of the connections of Amalasuntha and imprisoned her, the envoys not having as yet reached Byzantium. Now there is a certain lake in Tuscany called Vulsina, within which rises an island, exceedingly small but having a strong fortress upon it. There Theodatus confined Amalasuntha and kept her under guard.
A Roman diplomat named Peter had already been dispatched by this time from the court of Constantinople to do some routine statecraft with the Goths, and he learned of the surprise reshuffling of power when he met Theodohad’s envoys on the road.
Procopius says — or does he? — that Byzantium tried to twist the Goths’ shaggy arms in support of their matronly ally, but could not prevail against the vengeance of the deposed queen’s foes.
When the Emperor Justinian heard these things, he formed the purpose of throwing the Goths and Theodahad into confusion; accordingly he wrote a letter to Amalasuntha, stating that he was eager to give her every possible support, and at the same time he directed Peter by no means to conceal this message, but to make it known to Theodatus himself and to all the Goths. … Now when Peter arrived in Italy, it so happened that Amalasuntha had been removed from among men. For the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her came before Theodahad declaring that neither his life nor theirs was secure unless Amalasuntha should be put out of their way as quickly as possible. And as soon as he gave in to them, they went to the island and killed Amalasuntha, — an act which grieved exceedingly all the Italians and the Goths as well. For the woman had the strictest regard for every kind of virtue … Theodahad, such was his stupid folly, while still holding the slayers of Amalasuntha in honour and favour kept trying to persuade Peter and the emperor that this unholy deed had been committed by the Goths by no means with his approval, but decidedly against his will.
The “stupid folly” helped to trigger Justinian’s war against the Goths, which resulted in Byzantium’s conquest of Italy and (temporary) reunification of the empire. It also led Amalasuntha’s son-in-law Vitiges to depose and murder Theodahad in his own turn: just another turn of the wheel among backstabbing aristocrats.
Speaking of which: despite the pious good faith Procopius presents for Byzantium in his history above, his gossipy Secret History rewrites the story to attribute Amalsuntha’s fall not to the Ostrogoths’ internal political rivalries but to a catty assassination by Byzantine empress Theodora, whose low-born origin shows through here in murderous insecurity:
At the time when Amalasuntha, desiring to leave the company of the Goths, decided to transform her life and to take the road to Byzantium, as has been stated in the previous narrative, Theodora, considering that the woman was of noble birth and a queen, and very comely to look upon and exceedingly quick at contriving ways and means for whatever she wanted, but feeling suspicious of her magnificent bearing and exceptionally virile manner, and at the same time fearing the fickleness of her husband Justinian, expressed her jealousy in no trivial way, but she schemed to lie in wait for the woman even unto her death. Straightway, then, she persuaded her husband to send Peter, unaccompanied by others, to be his ambassador to Italy. And as he was setting out, the Emperor gave him such instructions as have been set forth in the appropriate passage, where, however, it was impossible for me, through fear of the Empress, to reveal the truth of what took place. She herself, however, gave him one command only, namely, to put the woman out of the world as quickly as possible, causing the man to be carried away by the hope of great rewards if he should execute her commands. So as soon as he arrived in Italy — and indeed man’s nature knows not how to proceed in a hesitant, shrinking way to a foul murder when some office, perhaps, or a large sum of money is to be hoped for — he persuaded Theodahad, by what kind of exhortation I do not know, to destroy Amalasuntha. And as a reward for this he attained the rank of Magister, and acquired great power and a hatred surpassed by none.
On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.
Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.
Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.
The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.
Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.
As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.
Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.
Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.
Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.
A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.
While we have many examples of martyrs attributed to Diocletian‘s persecution, Gordius belongs to the subsequent, transitional era. His purported death in 320 would have been a mere five years before the Council of Nicaea convened by the empire’s Christian ruler Constantine.
But in Gordius’s time, Constantine only ruled half the Roman world — the western half. The eastern half, where Gordius munched his insects, was in the hands of the empire’s last pagan baddie,* Licinius.
Gordius is said to have tied a knot in some games being staged in the Anatolian city of Caesarea to honor “a war-loving deity” (presumably Mars). “The whole people were collected above the hippodrome, and not a Gentile or a Jew was absent. No small portion of the Christians was mingled with them, who guarded not their lives from sin, but sat in the assemblies of vanity.”
We are quoting here from one of our primary sources on the life of Gordius, or at least of how it was understood just a few generations distant: it is a homily on the martyr delivered by St. Basil in the late fourth century — a native son of Caesarea, and then its bishop, who says of Gordius that “we are the more attached to him, inasmuch as he is our peculiar ornament … having grown up in our native soil, and attained the very height of glory.”
Per Basil, his late countryman, “mighty in soul, sublime in resolution, descended from the mountains upon the theatre” to harangue the impious spectators — and to solicit his own martyrdom.
The eyes of the whole theatre were instantaneously fixed on the unwonted prodigy. They beheld a man of aspect wild, and savage, through his long abiding in the mountains: his hair was matted, his beard bushy, his garments squallid, his whole body parched and shrivelled: he bore in his hand a staff; a wallet was suspended by his side; and beaming around him from an unknown source, a certain grace ineffable threw a charm upon the whole.
As soon as he was recognized, a loud and commingled shout was raised by all; those who were allied to him in faith, crying out for joy; and those who were enemies to the truth, exciting the judge to murder him, and before his trial, condemning him to death …
Being immediately apprehended, he was dragged before the governour, who sat in the theatre, and directed the contention of the chariots. At first, he addressed the prisoner in a gentle, and benignant tone … [Gordius] said, I am present here, by deeds to attest at once, my disregard of thine imperial mandate, and my faith in that God upon whom my hopes repose. Having heard that thou art eminent in harshness and severity, I have chosen this, as the fittest season for accomplishing my desire.
When he thus spake, his words lighted up the fury of the ruler, and drew upon himself his accumulated rage. Call the Lichtors hither. Where are the leaden weights? Where are the scourges? Let him be stretched on the wheel; let his limbs be racked: let all modes of punishment be prepared: the wild beasts; the fire; the sword; the cross; the pit …
While the tyrant thus felt, and purposed, the saint, looking unto God, was weaving round his heart, the enchantment of a holy psalm. “The Lord,” he exclaimed, “is my helper. I will not be affrighted at what man shall do unto me. I will not e affrighted at evil things, for thou art with me.” Other passages akin to these, and inspiring courage, he repeated; such as ye may imagine him to have been deeply imbued with; him, who was so far from trembling at the threatened evils, that he even provoked and challenged them. Wherefore do ye linger? he exclaimed. Wherefore do ye stand inactive? Let my body be torn: let my limbs be racked: torture them as much as ye desire: do not envy me the blessed hope I cherish; for in proportion as ye extend my sufferings, ye acquire for me a brighter retribution.
He spake: he signed himself with the symbol of the cross, and went forward to receive the blow. No fear blanched the hue of his complexion, or dimned the glory of his countenance. He seemed, not as if he were delivering himself to the Lictors, but as if consigning himself to the hands of angels; those angels, who in the moment of his liberation, wafted him to the blessed life, as once they wafted Lazarus. — But oh! who can describe the terrific shout, which arose from the assembled multitude? What thunder, pealing from the clouds, ever transmitted such a sound to earth, as then thundred from earth to heaven? This is the very stadidum in which he was enwreathed. This very day beheld that wonrous spectacle; whose impression, no time can obliterate; no familiarity can weaken; no future achievements can surpass. For as we ever behold the sun, and ever admire his brightness; even so, will the memory of the Martyr be ever blooming and efflorescent. “The just man is for an everlasting memorial;” a memorial with the inhabitants of earth, as long as the earth endureth; a memorial with the Saints in Heaven; a memorial with the all-righteous Judge; unto whom be ascribed glory, and dominion, through eternity.
Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.
As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)
Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.
Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).