Posts filed under 'Ancient'

Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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Feast Day of Rasyphus and Ravennus

Add comment July 23rd, 2017 Headsman

July 23 is the feast date of fifth century Christian martyrs Rasyphus and Ravennus.

Supposed by Middle Ages legends to be British natives who fled to Gaul as Rome abandoned the island to onrushing Anglo-Saxons, they found martyrdom on the continent via some different horde — possibly the Goths.

Today, these historically unreliable characters have been deprecated to the Vatican’s minor league “local cult” circuit, but in their day they were the pride of Bayeux, whose cathedral held the honor of the saintly relics

Despite the repose of their bones, Rasyphus and Ravennus were not associated with Bayeux in life; they are said to have been decapitated at instead at the town of Mace.

This reliquary relocalization was consequence of a widespread shuffling of religious treasures during the Viking age — like the century-plus posthumous journey of St. Cuthbert as Danes put his various resting places to the sack. Bayeux’s native saint, the 4th-5th century bishop Exuperius (Exuperius of Bayeux is not to be confused with his contemporary and fellow-bishop, Exuperius of Toulouse), had had his bones moved for safekeeping from the Northmen to Corbeil, near Paris. Relics, especially very old ones, bestowed reverential prestige on their surroundings during the Middle Ages and having lucked into this bounty Corbeil afterwards refused to return Exuperius — which was a very common (mis)behavior. At one point Corbeil even humiliatingly shammed Bayeux by sending it the skeleton of some peasant after accepting a bribe for Exuperius.

So much for Bayeux’s homegrown holyman, but no problem: the Vikinger threat had also driven Rasyphus and Ravennus on from Mace to Bayeux, and two late antiquity corpses being even better than one, these British refugees now became patrons of a home they had never known.

(In later years the Rasyphus and Ravennus relics would be uprooted yet again, by the Wars of Religion; today, they’re not to be found in Mace or in Bayeux, but in Grancey.)

And thanks to their domicile, R+R perhaps make a cameo appearance on medieval Europe’s most famous narrative textile, the Bayeux Tapestry.

The tapestry pictures events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, culminating with the epochal 1066 Battle of Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon king who lost that battle, Harold, is a key character on the tapestry, and in the 23rd scene Harold swears an oath to his eventual foe at Hastings, William the Conqueror.

Although it’s not explicitly labeled as such in the threads, according to Trevor Rowley in An Archaeological Study of the Bayeux Tapestry: The Landscapes, Buildings and Places, we can plausibly identify the setting for that oath as the altar consecrated to Rasyphus and Ravennus in the Bayeux Cathedral. (The artifact was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s powerful half-brother Odo, who was also Bishop of Bayeux — hence both the tapestry’s name and its prospective interest in broadcasting the Bayeux cults. The 22nd scene preceding it appears to overtly situate the action at Bayeux (“Bagia”).)

Rasyphus and Ravennus provided a high-status devotional focus. Their feast day was celebrated in the cathedral and their altar was second only to the high altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Bishop Odo’s centrepiece for the shrine was a new reliquary, which is described in an inventory of 1476 as a large architectural shrine, richly decorated with gilding and enamel work.

The back side [of the shrine] is of gilded silver or worked in beaten metal; and all the rest of it, that is to say the front side, the two ends, and the top is made of fine gold, with raised golden images, and decorated with large and expensive enamels and precious stones of various kinds.

The reliquary was installed on an especially dedicated altar in the apse of Bayeux Cathedral just behind the primary altar and was described by a sixteenth-century antiquarian as ‘a miniature version of Bayeux Cathedral that was taller than a ten-year-old girl’.

Although the cult of the brothers did not spread outside Bayeux, at the time Harold swore his oath their perceived sanctity would have been at its height and their fine new reliquary would have provided an appropriately holy shrine for the purpose. It is also clear from what we know of Odo in other contexts that he would not have hesitated to use the opportunity of the Tapestry to advertise the Bayeux cult to an audience outside his own diocese.

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Feast Day of Rufinus and Valerius

Add comment June 14th, 2017 Headsman

Rufinus and Valerius, Roman tax collectors who converted to Christianity and were martyred at Soissons during the Diocletian persecution in 287, are honored by the Roman martyrology on this date.

They’re saints of a lesser firmament, although Rufinus has a spot of archaeological distinction as the intercessor honored on the Darenth Bowl, a beautiful fifth-century glass artifact that somehow survived to us intact. (Note, however, that there are 11 saints Rufinus.)

They figure indirectly in one of the martyrology’s recurrent themes, the Saul-like conversion of Roman persecutors to the Christian faith: Rufinus and Valerius were held to have been martyred by the Roman prefect Rictius Varus,* who presents as a recurrent tormenter of Christians and in the martyrology arrives to dispatch our taxmen straightaway after doing the same to future Shakespeare monologue superstars Crispin and Crispinian.

In fact, Rictius Varus figures in no fewer than nine late third century martyrologies, compassing 20+ champions of the faith … the last of whom was the great Saint Lucy who is said to have induced Varus to embrace the same persecution and suffer martyrdom right along with her.

* Sometimes rendered Rictiovarus or Rixiovarus. He is no relation to the Varus from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: that (in)famous man‘s cognomen was not Varus, but Quinctilius.

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Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strengths as a read-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. That in this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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Feast Day of St. Barnabas

1 comment June 11th, 2017 Headsman

June 11 is the feast date of St. Barnabas, St. Paul‘s New Testament wingman.

A Cypriot Jew named Joseph, “Barnabas” (“Son of Encouragement”) was so christened in the fourth chapter of the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles because upon his conversion he sold his land for a donative to the Galileans.

After that, Barnabas reappears throughout Acts as one of the most important of the early Christian missionaries, usually joining St. Paul — whom Barnabas himself introduced to the Christians after Paul got religion — as emissary to the non-Jews, for which purpose the Holy Spirit itself demanded him by name. (Acts 13:2: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”)

They’re frequently paired thereafter in the narrative although it’s invariably Saint Paul’s honeyed tongue that does the confounding before the companions flee this city or that ahead of a furious mob.* Evidently the Holy Spirit’s labor policies could have used some updating: Barnabas also features in a whinge by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 against the excess sacrifices the Jesus sect is exacting from its most successful envoys, who get no wages and no sex and (so it seems) have to hustle side jobs to keep up their proselytizing.

Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [St. Peter]? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? … whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Barnabas eventually parted ways with Paul, proceeding to Cyprus with the mysterious John Mark (possibly Mark the evangelist, author of the Gospel, or possibly a different guy) where hagiography holds that Jews angered by his preaching fell on Barnabas and stoned him to death, perhaps around the year 61.

Although obviously a consequential figure in early Christianity, Barnabas’s many Biblical appearances do not capture his voice. The apocrypha preserves at least two tracts** further animating this important character: the Epistle of Barnabas dating to the late first century or early second century; and, the Acts of Barnabas, a 5th century creation which purports to arise from the hand of John Mark and describes a martyrdom by fire, not stone:

And Barjesus, having arrived after two days, after not a few Jews had been instructed, was enraged, and brought together all the multitude of the Jews; and they having laid hold of Barnabas, wished to hand him over to Hypatius, the governor of Salamis. And having bound him to take him away to the governor, and a pious Jebusite, a kinsman of Nero, having count to Cyprus, the Jews, learning this, took Barnabas by night, and bound him with a rope by the neck; and having dragged him to the hippodrome from the synagogue, and having gone out of the city, standing round him, they burned him with fire, so that even his bones became dust. And straightway that night, having taken his dust, they cast it into a cloth; and having se cured it with lead. they intended to throw it into the sea. But I, finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it, we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

Because June 11 formerly fell on/near Midsummer, ere the Gregorian reforms skipped the calendar 10-11 days forward, St. Barnabas’s Day has a festive agrarian history commemorated by the proverb, “Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.” The saint is also the patron of Cyprus, and may be invoked to protect against hailstorms or in service of peacemaking. Numerous schools, churches, and monasteries around the world bear his name.

* There’s a comic touch to their preaching travails, too: in one exciting episode (Acts 14), Paul (of course) heals a cripple while the dynamic duo preaches in Lystra, leading excited witnesses to take them for Hermes and Zeus and start sacrificing to them.


No tips, please: Paul and Barnabas refusing the sacrifices of Lystrans in this detail (click for the full image) of a 1650 painting by Nicolaes Berchem.

** Beyond the Epistle and the Acts, there is also a very much later Gospel of Barnabas.

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Feast Day of St. Victor and St. Corona

Add comment May 14th, 2017 Headsman

May 14 is the feast date of St. Victor, a Christian Roman soldier and his co-religionist and possible spouse Corona. Both the city and the century (and therefore the reality) of their passion are uncertain.

For the believer, what these martyrs lack in firm historicity they make up for in practical effect.

Corona chanced to become associated by medieval times with money — possibly the coincidence of her name, meaning crown,* with the sigils on coins — and thus she got wrapped up into a variety of pecuniary prayers and incantations. Strictly unofficial stuff from Rome’s standpoint, you understand: treasure-hunting, lotteries, wagering, and other fond fantasies of unearned windfalls.

The solemn devout might laugh, but “dear god, give me some stuff” comprises an underrated share of popular theology. J. Dillinger cites this charmer in Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History, dating to 1794 Austria:

Virgin and martyr Corona, I, a poor sinner, ask you to remember your great mercy and honour and your control over the treasures of the world and whoever asks you in the name of Jesus Christ your dear bridegroom, in his name you have power to give worldly goods to me, a poor and needy person, so I beg you with all of my humble heart, oh virgin and martyr Corona relief [sic] me from my needs and my poverty by giving me 50000 florins of good gold for the salvation of my soul through the redemption of my need body.

This enchantment needs to be added to the web’s supply of money-drawing rituals.

Because engaging such supernatural entities was a frightful venture for the petitioner, be he ever so humble, the prayer amusingly contains an equally elaborate chant for dismissing Saint Moneybags after she has paid up.

Now go away in the peace of God, which shall be between you and me, go back to the place where you came from, the eternal peace of God shall be and shall stay forever between you and me, and you will come again, when I wish to see you. Now go away and be blessed, through God and his holy five wounds, and go away in the peace of God, and the blessing be between you and me and the mine. Amen.

* Her legend can be found attributed to St. Stephanie: like “Corona”, the name Stephanie means “crown”.

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Feast Day of St. Eupsychius, anti-Apostate

3 comments April 9th, 2017 Headsman

April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.

As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.

When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.

And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.

Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.

In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.

And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julius as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.

So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.

Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.

A few books about Julian the Apostate

This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.

Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).

His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:

The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.

It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.

Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.

It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.

Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*

Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.

The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146.

* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).

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295: Saint Maximilian, conscientious objector

Add comment March 12th, 2017 Headsman

March 12 is the martyrdom date (in 295) and annual feast date of Saint Maximilian of Tebessa, Christianity’s protomartyr of conscientious objectors.

A Christian from Numidia (the Mediterranean coast of present-day Algeria), Maximilian presented himself to the African proconsul for mandatory conscription and refused in the name of Christ to bear arms.

The proconsul remonstrated with him, and in their interaction Maximilian espoused a vindication of pacifism so clear and timeless that a Vietnam War-era Catholic antiwar organization would take the name Order of Maximilian. “I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.”

The translation below is via Peace Be With You: Justified Warfare or the Way of Nonviolence.

Cassius Dion You must serve or die.

Maximilian I will never serve you. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.

Cassius Dion What has put these ideas into your head?

Maximilian My conscience and He who has called me.

Cassius Dion (to Maximilian’s father) Put your son right.

Maximilian’s Father He knows what he believes, and he will not change.

Cassius Dion Be a soldier and accept the emperor’s badge.

Maximilian Not at all. I carry the mark of Christ my God already.

Cassius Dion I shall send you to your Christ at once.

Maximilian I ask nothing better. Do it quickly, for there is my glory.

Cassius Dion There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian* and Maximian, Constantius and Galerius.

Maximilian That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.

Cassius Dion But what harm do soldiers do?

Maximilian You know well enough.

Cassius Dion If you do not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army.

Maximilian I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live in Christ my Lord.

Cassius Dion Write his name down … Your impetiy makes you refuse military service and you shall be punished accordingly as a warning to others. (Reading the sentence) “Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded.”

Maximilian God lives.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly Maximilian’s historicity is quite questionable. He’s not to be confused with the remarkable and certainly real World War II martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe.

* 295 was a few years before Diocletian launched his great persecution of Christians.

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68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

1 comment January 3rd, 2017 Headsman

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.

-“Locusta”, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

On an unknown date late in the year 68 or in the very first days of the year 69 the infamous Locusta was put to death.

Like most ancients, Locusta survives for us through a bare handful of lines — but the notoriety of her deadly potions has made her name a metonym for poisoners down the centuries and inspired outlandishly lurid Game of Thrones-esque legends like the one about being executed via giraffe-rape.

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 …

-Tacitus

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)

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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96: Domitian assassinated after condemning an astrologer

Add comment September 18th, 2016 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,History,Italy,Power,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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