In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.
But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.
“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”
According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.
Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.
Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.
These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.
That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)
Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.
Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.
Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,
they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.
So successful was the progress of his arms that Emperor Tiberius II Constantine married his daughter to Maurice and set him up as the official heir, a sage expedient considering that Roman commanders had once been known to take the succession into their own hands.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Maurice.
As a reward for his many victories in the field, Maurice got to take charge of a badly stumbling state: war both east and west (Maurice made peace with the Persians and brought the Slavs and Avars to heel in the Balkans), the intractable intra-Christian Monophysite controversy (Maurice extended a politic religious toleration), the bankruptcy of his state (Maurice cleaned up the reckless prodigality of his predecessors). For twenty years Maurice managed as well as anyone a very messy situation that in clumsier hands might easily have consumed the state entirely.
In the end this might be his legacy, for good and ill: a manager, not a visionary. Byzantium maybe doesn’t even survive without Maurice, but he was not fated to be familiar to posterity’s every schoolchild like Octavian Augustus — merely to lose his job to office politics.
Maurice, says Charles William Previte-Orton, “was a better judge of policy than of men.” And while the emperor “saw the dire need of economy,” he “forgot that the army did not” and so fatally disregarded “the ferment among the overtried soldiery.”
Maurice had already irritated his Dacian legions by refusing to pay an Avar ransom for their captured brethren — that fiscal rectitude thing, always a dangerous virtue to exercise in proximity to armed men. Now, he provocatively dialed back their pay and then tried to keep them beyond the frontier in Avar territory rather than retiring to home winter quarters.
The legions mutinied, thrusting a mere centurion named Phocas (or Phokas) to their fore. As Maurice commanded neither love nor fear in his home precincts, Constantinople itself yielded readily to the rebels while the enervated erstwhile emperor crossed the Bosphorus and there resigned to his fate not only himself but the several sons he had been designating to succeed him on thrones East and West. Gibbon:
Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. … The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: “Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.” And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant. The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea; their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience.
Maurice’s widow Constantina and his daughters were suffered to live, but only for a few years more: they too were eventually put to death for plotting. It was the perfect way to kick off a calamitous century for the Byzantines.
October 28 marked the start on the Roman calendar of the Isia, a dayslong festival in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who enjoyed a wide following in the Roman Empire. (There’s a temple of Isis in the ruins of Pompeii.)
In recognition of the Isia, we’re unearthing an extremely dubious but suitably execution-related slander of the Isis cult by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus — who writes that at some unspecified date around 19 AD, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius in Rome, a freewoman named Ide and some priests from the cult of Isis were crucified for their role in a wacky conspiracy.
It is known from several ancient historians that followers of both Isis and Yahweh were banished from Rome at about this time, but the specific immediate causes are unclear. Both were “foreign” (and still more, eastern) religions, so might have come in for a bit of expedient demagoguery; the emperor Augustus, only five years dead at that point, had been down on Isis-worship in general thanks in part to his rival Cleopatra, who associated herself with the goddess.
Suetonius says that Tiberius “abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia.” Cassius Dio attributes the Jews’ punishment to their successful proselytizing; such a pattern also intermittently worried future emperors with respect to Isis, and could be consistent with the Senate’s decree that those who renounced their cult(s) could stay.
There’s a different backstory for each community’s expulsion, according to Josephus — very much at pains to distinguish cases we today, and Josephus’s contemporaries, might naturally take to be connected. Both stories have a novelistic feel of collective punishment for particular crimes, but it’s noticeable that while the Jews’ fate is mildly attributed to a couple of individual criminals (already outcast by the Jews) defrauding a Roman convert who wanted to donate to the temple in Jerusalem, the Egyptian rite gets fabulously shown up as systematically corrupt and a menace to the honor of good Roman matrons.** Josephus is mining here an existing Roman stereotype of Isis-worship as a libertine cult, but he wrote Antiquities in about 93-94 CE, a time when Isis had waxed in the favor of the emperor Domitian as well as his predecessor Vespasian.
Per Josephus, Paulina, wife of Saturninus, was a wealthy married woman “of a beautiful countenance” and “great modesty,” and a devoted follower of Isis. Decius Mundus, a prominent Roman aristocrat, fell in love — or more like in lust — with her, and tried to seduce her. She rejected him. He offered her presents; she refused them. Finally he offered the staggering sum of 200,000 Attic drachmae for, as Josephus tactfully puts it, “one night’s lodging.” Paulina was outraged by his suggestion.
Despondent, Decius Mundus went home and declared his intent to starve himself to death. A freed slave in his household, a woman named Ide who was “skillful in all sorts of mischief,” couldn’t stand to watch him waste away like this and took pity on him. She could get Paulina to sleep with him, she promised, and she’d do it for the bargain rate of 50,000 drachmae, 75% off.
Knowing that Paulina could not be bought at any price, and also knowing of her devotion to the cult of Isis, Ide resorted to trickery: she went to two corrupt Isis priests and promised to split the 50,000 drachmae with them if they would help deceive the lady. They agreed, rejoicing at the prospect of being 25,000 drachmae richer.
The elder of the two priests went to Paulina with a stunning revelation: the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis had noticed her piety and fallen in love with her, and desired to spend a jackal-headed night with her.
Paulina, who in another era would probably have bought the Brooklyn Bridge and some oceanfront property in Arizona, was delighted by the news. She passed the message on to her husband, asking for permission to “sup and lie” with the God, and Saturninus, “full satisfied with the chastity of his wife,” agreed to share her.
So she want to the temple and had dinner with Anubis (who remained invisible and silent during the meal), then the priest escorted her to the bedroom, put out the lights and shut her in.
Whereupon Decius Mundus emerged from his hiding place and made sweet love to Paulina all night long in the dark, slipping away at dawn.
Whether he wore the jackal’s mask has not been recorded.
Paulina went home in a cloud of post-coital bliss, enraptured by her encounter with the god. She told her husband all about it, and all her friends, who weren’t sure whether to believe her. None of them challenged her, though, such was her reputation as a modest and religious woman.
Decius Mundus let her spread the story around for three days, then came to her and told her the truth, and laughed in her face. She may have rejected him while he was Mundus, he added maliciously, but she had sure liked him when she’d thought he was Anubis!
Furious and humiliated, Paulina tore her own clothes in hysterics when she realized what she’d done. She demanded Saturninus go complain to Tiberius about how she’d been treated, and her embarrassed husband complied.
Tiberius was notone of Rome’s nicer emperors, but he took ample action to avenge Paulina’s dishonor: he razed the temple of Isis to the ground, threw her statue into the river, and suppressed the cult. Lastly, Tiberius ordered that Ide and the Isis priests involved in the conspiracy be crucified.
But Decius Mundus? He got off lightly, merely being banished from Rome. Tiberius decided there were mitigating circumstances, namely that “what crime he had committed was done out of the passion of love.”
* Josephus himself was a rebel Galilean commander in this war; he was captured by the Roman general Vespasian when Josephus weaseled out of a group suicide pact as the Siege of Yodfat ended in a bloody rout. Taken as prisoner to his opposite number, Josephus boldly hailed Vespasian as future emperor. Vespasian did indeed achieve the purple, and pensioned Josephus as a house historian (and Roman citizen) under his own protection.
** See Horst Moehring, “The Persecution of the Jews and the Adherents of the Isis Cult at Rome A.D. 19,” Novum Testamentum, Dec. 1959.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
Though the band of brothers is much better-known than Crispin and Crispinian themselves, Shakespeare’s immortal verse alludes to a pair of questionable third-century martyrs whose feast date this is.
They were supposedly Christian missionaries proselytizing in Gaul, or possibly Britain,* and there made to suffer for the faith under Diocletian‘s persecutions: Crispin Crispian’s version of the period’s characteristic “execution survived” story has them being pitched into the drink with millstones, but failing to drown. As usual, the Romans had more methods in reserve than God had escapes.
Somewhat derogated latterly since their historicity is so shaky, C+C are the patrons of leather workers and related professions including tanners, saddlers and cobblers.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
August 21 is the harvest-time feast of Consualia, honoring the Roman god of grain storage, Consus.
We mark on this occasion the legendary capital punishment inflicted by Lucius Junius Brutus when he was consul of the ancient Roman Republic upon two rebels — his own sons, Titus and Tiberius.
The great Brutus had been one of the leaders of the revolt that expelled Rome’s last king, Lucius Tarquinius — reputedly after the king’s son raped Lucius’s kinswoman Lucretia. (Brutus was also Tarquin’s nephew.)
Upon completing his coup, Brutus immediately summoned the populace to swear an oath that no king would ever rule Rome again. So potent was the civic memory of this event that even centuries later when the Republic was well gone, Rome’s emperors dared not appropriate such an incendiary title as “King”.
But that was for a later time, after the winners wrote the history.
The exiled Etruscan king, subsequent Romans’ eternal watchword for tyranny, got the boot about 510 B.C.E., and in 509 was still hanging about looking for an opportunity to re-seat his dynasty. The plot he hatched is known as the Tarquinian conspiracy, and Brutus, to his grief, would discover that his own children had adhered to it. The statesman’s willingness to put his own flesh and blood to death for the security of Rome would long stand as a parable of manful patriotism.
Our account here is from Livy (line breaks have been added for readability), and the excuse to approximate this undated execution to summer’s harvest-time is bolded therein.
liberty was well nigh lost by treachery and fraud, a thing they had never apprehended. There were, among the Roman youth, several young men of no mean families, who, during the regal government, had pursued their pleasures without any restraint; being of the same age with, and companions of, the young Tarquins, and accustomed to live in princely style.
Longing for that licentiousness, now that the privileges of all were equalized, they complained that the liberty of others has been converted to their slavery: “that a king was a human being, from whom you can obtain, where right, or where wrong may be necessary; that there was room for favour and for kindness; that he could be angry, and could forgive; that he knew the difference between a friend and an enemy; that laws were a deaf, inexorable thing, more beneficial and advantageous for the poor than the rich; that they allowed of no relaxation or indulgence, if you transgress bounds; that it was a perilous state, amid so so many human errors, to live solely by one’s integrity.”
Whilst their minds were already thus discontented of their own accord, ambassadors from the royal family come unexpectedly, demanding restitution of their effects merely, without any mention of return. After their application was heard in the senate, the deliberation on it lasted for several days, (fearing) lest the non-restitution might be a pretext for war, and the restitution a fund and assistance for war. In the mean time the ambassadors were planning different schemes; openly demanding the property, they secretly concerted measures for recovering the throne, and soliciting them as if for the object which appeared to be under consideration, they sound their feelings; to those by whom their proposals were favourably received they give letters from the Tarquins, and confer with them about admitting the royal family into the city secretly by night.
The matter was first intrusted to brothers of the name of Vitellii and those of the name of Aquilii. A sister of the Vitellii had been married to Brutus the consul, and the issue of that marriage were young men, Titus and Tiberius; these also their uncles admit into a participation of the plot: several young noblemen also were taken in as associates, the memory of whose names has been lost from distance of time. In the mean time, when that opinion had prevailed in the senate, which recommended the giving back of the property, and the ambassadors made use of this as a pretext for delay in the city, because they had obtained from the consuls time to procure modes of conveyance, by which they might convey away the effects of the royal family; all this time they spend in consulting with the conspirators, and by pressing they succeed in having letters given to them for the Tarquins. For otherwise how were they to believe that the accounts brought by the ambassadors on matters of such importance were not idle?
The letters, given to be a pledge of their sincerity, discovered the plot; for when, the day before the ambassadors set out to the Tarquins, they had supped by chance at the house of the Vitellii, and the conspirators there in private discoursed much together concerning their new design, as is natural, one of the slaves, who had already perceived what was going on, overheard their conversation; but waited for the occasion when the letters should be given to the ambassadors, the detection of which would prove the transaction; when he perceived that they were given, he laid the whole affair before the consuls. The consuls, having left their home to seize the ambassadors and conspirators, crushed the whole affair without any tumult; particular care being taken of the letters, lest they should escape them.
The traitors being immediately thrown into chains, a little doubt was entertained respecting the ambassadors, and though they deserved to be considered as enemies, the law of nations however prevailed.
The question concerning the restitution of the tyrants’ effects, which the senate had formerly voted, came again under consideration. The fathers, fired with indignation, expressly forbad them either to be restored or confiscated. They were given to be rifled by the people, that after being made participators in the royal plunder, they might lose for ever all hopes of a reconciliation with the Tarquins. A field belonging to them, which lay between the city and the Tiber, having been consecrated to Mars, has been called the Campus Martius. It happened that there was a crop of corn* upon it ready to be cut down, which produce of the field, as they thought it unlawful to use, after it was reaped, a great number of men carried the corn and straw in baskets, and threw them into the Tiber, which then flowed with shallow water, as is usual in the heat of summer; that thus the heaps of corn as it stuck in the shallows became settled when covered over with mud: by these and the afflux of other things, which the river happened to bring thither, an island was formed by degrees. Afterwards I believe that mounds were added, and that aid was afforded by art, that a surface so well raised might be firm enough for sustaining temples and porticoes.
After plundering the tyrants’ effects, the traitors were condemned and capital punishment inflicted. Their punishment was the more remarkable, because the consulship imposed on the father the office of punishing his own children, and him who should have been removed as a spectator, fortune assigned as the person to exact the punishment.
Young men of the highest quality stood tied to a stake; but the consul’s sons attracted the eyes of all the spectators from the rest of the criminals, as from persons unknown; nor did the people pity them more on account of the severity of the punishment, than the horrid crime by which they had deserved it.
“That they, in that year particularly, should have brought themselves to betray into the hands of Tarquin, formerly a proud tyrant, and now an exasperated exile, their country just delivered, their father its deliverer, the consulate which took its rise from the family of the Junii, the fathers, the people, and whatever belonged either to the gods or the citizens of Rome.”
The consuls seated themselves in their tribunal, and the lictors, being despatched to inflict punishment, strip them naked, beat them with rods, and strike off their heads. Whilst during all this time, the father, his looks and his countenance, presented a touching spectacle, the feelings of the father bursting forth occasionally during the office of superintending the public execution.
This Brutus was an ancestor of the Brutus who helped assassinate Julius Caesar, and that later et tu, Brutus is commonly represented as having been convinced to turn against his friend and patron by, in part, the example of his legendary namesake.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.
-Cassius to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2)
One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.
This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§
“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”
James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”
But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.
Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.
Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.
James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.
Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacher “had the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)
* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.
† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.
‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.
By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.
What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.
Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.
Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.
But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.
We have no specific date for Herotratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.
The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”
The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.
* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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)
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.