Posts filed under 'Ancient'

399 BCE: Socrates

2 comments May 19th, 2013 Headsman

It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.

Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.

For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE


“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”

The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.

All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.

Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.

Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.

Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:

  • the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
  • the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.

Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

A few books about the death of Socrates

* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.

During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.

“Counting inclusively, as was then the custom, Socrates died on Thargelion 6, which is the very day recorded for his birth,” notes Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. It’s possible that Socrates’s birthday became associated with Thargelion 6 because Thargelion 6 was associated with Socrates via his execution … but Thargelion 6 became known as man’s execution date. It also happened to be the Athenian festival “Thargelia” (and the day before Plato’s Thargelia 7 birthday).

There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7″ from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.

For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.

** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.

† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.

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Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

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69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

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Feast Day of St. Jude

Add comment October 28th, 2012 Headsman

This is the feast date (in Christianity’s western tradition) of Saint Jude.

Possibly one of the bit players among Jesus’s original 12 apostles — “Jude”/”Judah”/”Judas” was a common name among first-century Israelites, so there’s some confusion about the identities among various texts talking about various (?) Judes — St. Jude is aptly-for-this-blog considered the patron saint of “lost causes” or “situations despaired of”.

He’s traditionally supposed to have knocked around the eastern Mediterranean after the Nazarene‘s crucifixion, introducing Christianity (along with St. Bartholomew) to Armenia, which eventually became the first officially Christian kingdom. (Jude is also a patron saint of Armenia; his other patronage gigs include the Philippines, the Chicago Police Department, a a Brazilian football club, and countless hospitals.)

Despite making so many sad songs better, Jude was eventually martyred, possibly in Armenia, allegedly by halberd; as a consequence, that sinuous poleaxe is Jude’s iconographic symbol on the relatively rare occasions when he’s artistically depicted. It’s also something you can buy in pendant form: come on … embrace The Halberd. But again, there are different versions as to who martyred Jude and where, and considerable confusion over how many Judes those versions might be conflating.

At any rate, for those up against the executioner and despairing of any but the most improbable deliverance, St. Jude is your man.

There’s even St. Jude software which prevents execution … of rootkit exploits.

I, Francis Steinernherz, will be the first noble of my profession, where I shall have despatched one more knight of the Empire.”

“Thou hast been ever in my service, hast thou not?” demanded De Hagenbach.

“Under what other master,” replied the executioner, “could I have enjoyed such constant practice? I have executed your decrees on condemned sinners since I could swing a scourge, lift a crow-bar, or wield this trusty weapon; and who can say I even failed of my first blow, or needed to deal a second? The term of the Hospital, and his famous assistants, Petit Andre, and Trois Eschelles, are novices compared with me in the use of the noble and knightly sword. Marry, I should be ashamed to match myself with them in the field practice with bowstring and dagger, these are no feats worthy of a Christian man who would rise to honor and nobility.”

“Thou art a fellow of excellent address, and I do not deny it,” replied De Hagenbach. “But it cannot be — I trust it can — not be — that when noble blood is becoming scarce in the land, and proud churls are lording it over knights and barons, I myself should have caused so much to be spilled?”

“I will number the patients to your excellency by name and title,” said Francis, drawing out a scroll of parchment, and reading with a commentary as he went on, — ” There was Count William of Elvershoe — he was my assay-piece, a sweet youth, and died most like a Christian.”

“I remember — he was indeed a most smart youth, and courted my mistress,” said Sir Archibald.

“He died on St. Jude’s, in the year of grace 1455,” said the executioner.

-Sir Walter Scott, Anne of Geierstein

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Feast Day of St. Euphemia

Add comment September 16th, 2012 Headsman

This is the feast date of early Christian martyr St. Euphemia.

Euphemia the “All-Praised” (that’s an Eastern construction; both east and west honor her martyrdom on September 16) died in the Asia Minor city of Chalcedon around 307. That would place her at the tail end of the Diocletianic persecutions, the part that actually came after said Diocletian retired to his cabbages and left the care and feeding of the eastern empire to Galerius.

Euphemia is said to have been the daughter of a senator, but went off and took vows of chastity and avoided sacrificing to Ares. Like many early martyrs, she is supposed to have survived various creative Roman execution attempts thanks to angelic protection, before the pagans just gave up and pitched her into the arena for the classic Christians-vs.-Lions showdown.

Euphemia would be credited with a supernatural intervention of her own a century and a half after her death.

The 451 Council of Chalcedon, meeting at a cathedral consecrated to St. Euphemia in her native city, featured orthodox Christianity attempting to bring to heel the “heresies” disputing the eminently disputable nature of Christ.

God + man? How does that work?

Monophysites, a substantial minority in the east at that time, took the position that Christ had only one single nature, rather than the view still mainstream to Christianity that Christ had both divine and human natures simultaneously. Among well-educated people sensitive to historicity, it’s the sign of a gross prejudice towards the secular and the modern to consider it absurd that humans spent decades at one another’s throats over this sort of hairsplitting, but seriously … humans spent decades at one another’s throats over this sort of hairsplitting.

But memo to Monophysites: do not get Saint Euphemia involved unless you’re ready for a faceful of hypostasis all up in your christology.

The story goes that at Chalcedon, two quarrelsome prelates representing the orthodox and Monophysite positions submitted the matter to the holy martyr’s adjudication by each leaving an apologia in her tomb. Three days of fasting and praying later, they opened the tomb and found the orthodox manifesto in Euphemia’s right hand, and the heretical manifesto at her feet. As the synod gloated to the (very orthodox) Pope Leo I,

it was God who worked, and the triumphant Euphemia who crowned the meeting as for a bridal, and who, taking our definition of the Faith as her own confession, presented it to her Bridegroom by our most religious Emperor and Christ-loving Empress, appeasing all the tumult of opponents and establishing our confession of the Truth as acceptable to Him, and with hand and tongue setting her seal to the votes of us all in proclamation thereof.

Euphemia’s relics today rest in Rovinj, Croatia, and are not available for settling metaphysical debates.

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Feast Day of St. Anastasia

Add comment December 25th, 2011 Headsman

Christmas Day is all about that Jesus fellow, but for a break from the usual gold, frankincense, and myrrh, spare a thought for St. Anastasia of Sirmium — whose feast date and purported execution date December 25 also is. She’s the only Christian martyr with a Christmas celebration,* and an apt choice for the depth of winter since her name means “dawn” or “rebirth”.

Byzantine icon of St. Anastasia from the Hermitage, holding a vial that alludes to her antitoxin powers.

Centuries of namesakes have shared that moniker, like the youngest daughter of the executed Romanov family, on the basis of the Great Martyr’s having died during the persecution of Diocletian; though this circumstance scarcely makes her unique, no less a source than the Catholic Encyclopedia avers that the ancient martyrology linking her to St. Chrysogonus “is purely legendary, and rests on no historical foundations.” (It’s possible that multiple historical Anastasias were conflated into a single legendary person.)

Despite later generations’ ignorance of what this early keeper of the faith was really about, she became associated — again, possibly thanks to nothing more sharing the same name as the facility’s local Roman matron — with an early church in Rome, the “titulus sanctae Anastasiae.” Today ruined, this was an important church in the capital of the faith during late antiquity, and helped vault St. Anastasia into the first rank of holy intercessors. She’s even mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass.

Her celestial department protecting against potions and poisons has, today, a distinctly retro vibe about it; “the last remnant of the former prominence enjoyed by this saint and her church” is the Christmas Dawn Mass, likely the day’s most lightly-attended service at your local Catholic or Anglican parish, wherein Anastasia is invoked by name.


Cathedral of St. Anastasia in Zadar, Croatia, where the saint’s relics repose. (cc) image from Paradasos.

* In western Christendom only.

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Feast Day of Santa Barbara

1 comment December 4th, 2011 Headsman


Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino arrived on Dec. 4, 1602 at the California coastal plain he named Santa Barbara.
“The Ballad of St. Barbara”
by G.K. Chesterton

They are firing, we are falling, and the red skies rend and shiver us,
Barbara, Barbara, we may not loose a breath—
Be at the bursting doors of doom, and in the dark deliver us,
Who loosen the last window on the sun of sudden death.

Although the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church has booted her from the liturgical calendar as a probable legend, this is the feast date of still-popular early Christian martyr St. Barbara.

There are a million fishy details of the story: nobody’s clear on which anti-Christian persecution claimed her; nobody’s clear on where in the Roman Empire she died; and it’s hard to keep a straight face at the clincher that her unsympathetic pagan father gets struck by lightning after her execution.

Actually, the story is practically straight out of a fairy-tale reader: nasty rich dad Dioscurus locked her up in a tower like Rapunzel, but flew into a rage when he discovered she had secretly become a Christian, and dragged her to the Roman prefect to be tortured and, eventually, beheaded. There are any number of further variations, like that mean old dad personally gave her the chop.

As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christianity’s all-star team of divine intercessors, Barbara was big on both sides of the east-west schism. She’s got saintly portfolios of special relevance to this site: she’s the patron saint of prisoners and of everyone who risks violent death at work, a rare but real occupational hazard for executioners. (We also think that her gig protecting against lightning storms might qualify Barbara for safekeeping people sentenced to die in the electric chair: maybe she saved Willie Francis.)

She’s best known as the guardian of miners and artillerists — folks who work around explosions, like Guy Fawkes — and the word santabarbara denotes a powder magazine in both Spanish and Italian.


The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1510, is clearly sensible in the swarthy, scimitar-wielding executioner of the contemporary-to-Cranach Turkish menace. (cc) image from Wally Gobetz.

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330 B.C.E.: Philotas, Alexander the Great Companion

1 comment October 25th, 2011 Headsman

Around this time — October, or at any rate autumn — of 330 B.C.E., Alexander the Great authored “one of the two greatest crimes of his life”* with the execution of his comrade-in-arms Philotas.

Philotas was one of Alexander’s “companions”, the elite cavalry who joined Alexander personally in battle. He had fought by Alexander’s side in the epic Battle of Gaugamela, which brought down the Achaemenid Empire and opened Persia to the legendary conqueror.

A year later, Alexander, and therefore also those companions, were winding down campaign season all the way on the other side of the late empire they had so stunningly dismantled. It’s the region of Drangiana on the present-day Iran-Afghanistan frontier. The Macedonians would name the city Prophthasia, Anticipation, in recognition of their chief’s narrow escape; we know it today as Farah, Afghanistan.

Unlike many of the “companions” who joined the young Macedonian king, Philotas wasn’t a bosom buddy of Alexander.

He was, instead, a bit of a political appointee who owed his position to the fact that his father Parmenion, a great Macedonian general, had backed the disputed succession of Alexander. Parmenion continued as one of Alexander’s generals; his kid — not particularly popular of himself but nevertheless a loyal and competent officer — got a plum gig in Alexander’s vanguard.

In this capacity so close to the royal person, Philotas was warned by a conscientious slave of an assassination plot going against Alexander. And rather incredibly, he didn’t bother to pass it on.

When the slave realized, a couple of days on, that the conspiracy hadn’t been busted, he proceeded to tell somebody else … and Philotas had some explaining to do.

For posterity, it’s as open a question as it was then: Philotas initially convinced Alexander that he had merely considered the whole thing so insubstantial as not to merit the king’s attention — but by the next day, Alexander had better inclined himself to the more damning reading, that Philotas was perfectly amenable to seeing Alexander eliminated.** If that were the truth, it would herald a conflict that would soon come to define the Macedonian’s coruscating and paradoxical career: the army’s rising discontent with its march so far from home, and its leader’s ever more visible habit of arraying himself in the alien habits of oriental despotism.

Philotas got a “proper” if farcically rigged trial before fellow-generals who were all too happy to be rid of him, and was tortured into confessing. He was executed either by stoning (actually the traditional Macedonian execution method, even for the likes of generals) or spearing.

(The scene is dramatized in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander; the relevant bit can be viewed here.)

Parmenion, a greater character than his son, would also pay the forfeit of his son’s alleged misprision.

At the time of Philotas’s execution, Parmenion was commanding a large army several days’ ride from Alexander. Fearing that the torture and execution of his last remaining son (the other two had also died on campaign) might inspire the august general to do something rash, Alexander dispatched a few trusted officers to outrace the news: they murdered an uncomprehending Parmenion as soon as they reached him. Whatever one makes of the child, the father’s loyalty both to Alexander and his predecessor Philip II had never previously been impeached in a long and brilliant career. Alexander ought to have counted himself fortunate to have avoided any wider disturbance in the army from the rough handling of this beloved general.

The whole affair was sufficiently distasteful that it remained a sensitive matter of state security hundreds of years and hundreds of miles distant: An Elizabethan play about Philotas by Samuel Daniel earned its author some uncomfortable official scrutiny for its perceived commentary on the contemporaneous execution of the Earl of Essex … the fallen courtier whose prosecution of a Jewish doctor arguably informed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

* The other — later and greater — crime was Alexander’s drunken murder of his friend and loyal commander Cleitus. (He’s the guy shown stabbing Parmenion to death in the clip from Alexander, a circumstance that plays better as drama than history.)

** It doesn’t help anyone’s fact-finding that the main alleged plotter committed suicide when they came to arrest him.

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Feast Day of Saint Denis, cephalophore

Add comment October 9th, 2011 Headsman

October 9 marks the feast date of the early Christian martyr Saint Denis.

Guess how he died:


(cc) image from minifig of the saint’s statue at Notre Dame.

When this missionary bishop to Paris got the Roman chop* for his conversions sometime after 250, he scooped up his own severed noggin and carried it to his preferred burial spot.

Upon that eventual pilgrimage site would spring up a medieval basilica whose 12th century renovation turned it into a pioneer of Gothic architecture.

(Denis is also sort of the namesake for the Parisian hill Montmarte where he’s supposed to have been put to death: “mountain of Mars” in heathen times, it Christianized to mons martyrium, “Martyrs’ Mountain”.)

While many Christian martyrs carry the instruments of their martyrdom in iconography, and a few others roll with the bits of severed flesh exacted by those martyrdoms, Denis is only the most notable of an entire designated sub-class who carry their own heads: cephalophores.

This subject, seemingly tailor-made for a They Might Be Giants song, finally got one in 2011: “You Probably Get That A Lot”.


A most profane footnote was appended to our holy man’s legend during the French Revolution.

Journalist Camille Desmoulins once recklessly sneered of Robespierre‘s vain lieutenant Saint-Just, “He carries his head like a sacred host.”

Saint-Just is supposed to have retorted upon hearing the slight, “I’ll make him carry his like Saint Denis.” He did it, too.

* Two companions, Rusticus and Eleutherius, were doing the same conversions and suffered the same execution. Nobody named cathedrals after them.

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Feast Day of St. George

3 comments April 23rd, 2011 Headsman

This is the feast date, and the traditionally-ascribed execution date in 303, of St. George — legendary dragon-slayer and patron saint of half the world and darn near everything that the original apostles didn’t nail down.

Saint George is supposed to have been a well-favored officer in Diocletian‘s army who suicidally announced his Christian faith during the latter’s persecutions, and refused every sop and entreaty to renounce it. He was martyred at Nicomedia.

Pretty standard persecution fare — and there’s next to nothing that can be reliably verified about his life — but George did well by his future cult to get into the martyr’s game right before Christianity’s official triumph. Still, at the end of the day, it’s one of those unaccountable accidents of history that this particular fellow ended up as perhaps Christendom’s most widely venerated champion.

He’s most immediately recognizable for the story of having slain a dragon, a plain metaphor for paganism (and usable metaphor for anything and everything else) that’s been depicted in all its scaly corporeality by innumerable artists.

England has liked him jolly well ever since his suitability to the chivalric ethos positioned him to supplant Edmund the Martyr as that realm’s patron saint during the Middle Ages. The red cross on the English flag is a St. George’s cross.

And so there he is, too, in one of Shakespeare’s most rousing patriotic monologues:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

But George gets around, and England has to share him.

That St. George’s Cross also adorns the flag of Georgia (the country, that is: it’s so hard core that it’s named for the guy), and he’s claimed as a sponsor throughout Orthodox Christendom: the city of Constantinople and its heir, the city of Moscow, and Russia generally; Serbia (which celebrates a major holiday when April 23 hits on the Julian calendar); Bulgaria; Greece; and also Ethiopia.

George is big in Spain, and even bigger in Portugal; through its Portuguese heritage, he’s also venerated in Brazil, where he’s the patron saint of the Corinthians football club. He’s the sponsor (via that dragon connection) of the snaky Hungarian military order that gave Vlad the Impaler the immortal sobriquet of Dracula.

There are other countries and any number of cities who also trust the dragon-slayer’s patronage; George accepts the further devotions of saddle-makers, lepers, animal husbandmen, shepherds, Crusader knights, butchers, the Maltese, gypsies, farmers, archers, syphilis-sufferers, cavalrymen and therefore also armored tankmen, Palestinian Christians, and the Boy Scouts of America. He’s generally got a stupendous worldwide collection of churches, art, legends, and devotional rites dedicated to his name.

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