The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.
Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.
But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.
Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.
Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.
But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.
Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”
Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.
The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.
Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …
But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.
As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.
So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.
** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus famously moaned upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.
† Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.
On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.
Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.
Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.
Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.
The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, coming near the brink of outright destruction under continuous Persian pummeling. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”
The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.
The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.
The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.
Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:
The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
The (defunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.
* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.
On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.
Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.
And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.
Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.
But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)
Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**
The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†
The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.
* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.
** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”
Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.
Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.
Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.
After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.
The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.
The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**
Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.
Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.
St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.
Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.
* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.
Today is St. Clement’s Day, the feast day of the first century Pope Clement I — who, tradition has it, was martyred by the Romans under Trajan at the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus by being pitched into the Black Sea weighted down with an anchor.*
The documentary trail for leadership of the Christian community in these embryonic years is a little thin but officially, the Vatican rates Clement the fourth Pope following St. Peter, Linus, and Cletus; Tertullian says he was ordained by Peter’s very own hand.
He’s the earliest of these successors of the Apostle who can still speak to posterity. The First Epistle of Clement,** which might very well be from the pope’s own hand, is among the oldest extant Christian texts outside of the books actually gathered in the New Testament. Clement wrote it to recall the Corinthian congregation to obedience after “no small sedition” challenged its presbyters; by way of a voluminous review of authority both scriptural and natural,† the Bishop of Rome unsurprisingly concludes that folk ought submit to the constituted ecclesiastical authorities.
Forasmuch then as these things are manifest beforehand, and we have searched into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do all things in order, as many as the Master hath commanded us to perform at their appointed seasons. Now the offerings and ministrations He commanded to be performed with care, and not to be done rashly or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons.
And where and by whom He would have them performed, He Himself fixed by His supreme will: that all things being done with piety according to His good pleasure might be acceptable to His will.
They therefore that make their offerings at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed: for while they follow the institutions of the Master they cannot go wrong.
For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the levites their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances.
Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.
Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.
They therefore who do any thing contrary to the seemly ordinance of His will receive death as the penalty.
Presumably in consequence of the device used to sink the pope into the Euxine, St. Clement is honored as the patron of smiths and metalworkers; little-observed now, St. Clement’s Day once saw clanging processions of cloaked, and tanked, blacksmiths answering to Old Clem and belting out tunes at every tavern they passed. Pyromaniacs and Warner Brothers cartoon characters might also wish to honor St. Clement with a good old-fashioned anvil firing.
* Chersonesus, which is the city where the prince Vladimir the Great was baptized en route to Christianizing all of Russia, has gorgeous ruins that can be seen adjacent to present-day Sevastopol. St. Cyril, missionary to the Slavs and fountainhead of the Cyrillic alphabet(s), is supposed to have dug up Clement’s relics during his sojourn and hauled them, anchor and all, back to Rome.
† And unnatural! Viz. “There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years; and when it hath now reached the time of its dissolution that it should die, it maketh for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into the which in the fullness of time it entereth, and so it dieth.” The phoenix is supposed to be evidence and/or metaphor for the Resurrection and the afterlife.
On November 1 of 82 BCE, the Roman general Sulla clinched victory in his running civil war against the liberal populares by smashing them at a decisive battle at Rome’s Colline Gate. And on November 2 the victorious dictator* had his captured foes put to death en masse in the Villa Publica while Sulla himself laid out the new order in an address to the cowed Senate.
The roots of this climactic — although not literally final — battle stretch back years, decades even, to the populist Gracchi in the 130s and 120s, and even further than that. Rome’s burgeoning had strained her original social contract past the breaking point. Terms were renegotiated in bloody civil conflicts that saw Sulla emerge this date as master of the Caput Mundi.
The Gracchi all those years ago had tried (until the oligarchs’ faction assassinated them) to rebalance an increasingly stratified Roman society by introducing land reform and an early bread subsidy.
The Gracchi banner would eventually fall to Gaius Marius, a successful general noted among other things for defeating Jugurtha. His “Marian reforms” thoroughly overhauled military organization; crucially for the Roman social crisis, he opened to the propertyless masses service in the legions — formerly the preserve of the very landed citizen-farmer being squeezed out by the empire’s concentrating wealth.**
Marius’s program addressed two problems simultaneously: it gave the Roman poor a vector of upward mobility; and, it professionalized an army whose fighting capacity had slipped behind Rome’s imperial reach.
Because the capstone to a career in the newly-professionalized army would be a grant of land secured by Marius himself, it also introduced a dangerous personal alliance between vaunting commander and his troops, the seed of later centuries’ cycles of incessant rebellion.
During the decade of the 80s, a now-aged Marius was still the populares‘ standard-bearer, but was opposed now by the patrician general Sulla, Marius’s own former lieutenant during the war against Jugurtha.
Marius’s attempt to displace Sulla from command of a planned Roman expedition to the East to punish King Mighridates of Pontus for his abuse of Roman citizens in Asia Minor brought the two to open blows. Calling on his troops’ personal loyalty to him, Sulla broke an ancient taboo by marching on Rome itself.
Marius fled into Africa, a death sentence nipping at his heels. (Various artists have imagined him chilling in the ruins of Carthage.) Once Sulla sailed for Asia, however, Marius allied with the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna and roared back from exile, seizing the capital and instituting a reign of terror against his political enemies. Plutarch:
whenever anybody else greeted Marius and got no salutation or greeting in return, this of itself was a signal for the man’s slaughter in the very street, so that even the friends of Marius, to a man, were full of anguish and horror whenever they drew near to greet him. So many were slain that at last Cinna’s appetite for murder was dulled and sated; but Marius, whose anger increased day by day and thirsted for blood, kept on killing all whom he held in any suspicion whatsoever. Every road and every city was filled with men pursuing and hunting down those who sought to escape or had hidden themselves. Moreover, the trust men placed in the ties of hospitality and friendship were found to be no security against the strokes of Fortune; for few there were, all told, who did not betray to the murderers those who had taken refuge with them.
He died about the age of 70 in 86 BCE, days into his unprecedented seventh consulship.
Marius was dead; his ally Cinna had also been killed in a mutiny. The populares party was now headed by Marius’s altogether less formidable son Gaius Marius the Younger and a plebeian consul named Carbo — guys nobody today has heard of, which pretty much tells you what happened next.
Attempting to stop Sulla in the south, Marius the Younger was thrashed and forced to retreat to Praeneste, where he would be bottled up harmlessly until he took his own life in desperation. Further north, Carbo was trounced and chased into exile (and eventual execution) by Sulla’s ally Pompey, the future Triumvir who got his possibly-sarcastic honorific “the Great” from his action in Sulla’s civil war.
The populares general Pontius Telesinus made the last stand of his movement hurling a force of Samnites and Roman Marian supporters at the capital where, at the Colline Gate, they momentarily pressed Sulla’s wing dangerously against the city wall before another future Triumvir, Crassus, overcame them from the opposite flank.
The ensuing slaughter on this date in 82 settled the Marius-versus-Sulla civil war: Sulla published a large proscription of former Marius supporters who were put to death by the thousands before the general resigned his dictatorship at the end of the year 81.†
there is a famous utterance of Manius Curius, who after celebrating triumphs and making a vast addition of territory to 290 B.C. the empire, said that a man not satisfied with seven acres must be deemed a dangerous citizen; for that was the acreage assigned for commoners after the expulsion of the kings. What therefore was the cause of such great fertility? The fields were tilled in those days by the hands of generals themselves, and we may well believe that the earth rejoiced in a laurel-decked ploughshare and a ploughman who had celebrated a triumph, whether it was that those farmers treated the seed with the same care as they managed their wars and marked out their fields with the same diligence as they arranged a camp, or whether everything prospers better under honourable hands because the work is done with greater attention. The honours bestowed on Serranus found [297 B.C.] him sowing seed, which was actually the origin of his surname. An apparitor brought to Cincinnatus his commission as dictator when he was ploughing his four-acre property on the Vatican, the land now called the Quintian Meadows, and indeed it is said that he had stripped for the work, and the messenger as he continued to linger said, ‘Put on your clothes, so that I may deliver the mandates of the Senate and People of Rome’. That was what apparitors were like even at that time, and their name itself a was given to them as summoning the senate and the leaders to put in an immediate appearance from their farms. But nowadays those agricultural operations are performed by slaves with fettered ankles and by the hands of malefactors with branded faces! although the Earth who is addressed as our mother and whose cultivation is spoken of as worship is not so dull that when we obtain even our farm-work from these persons one can believe that this is not done against her will and to her indignation. And we forsooth are surprised that we do not get the same profits from the labour of slave-gangs as used to be obtained from that of generals!
† Surviving the proscription was the son-in-law of the late consul Cinna, one Julius Caesar. He was able to pull strings with Sulla to get himself off the list.
It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*
Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.
That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.
By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violentoverthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.
This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**
Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.
By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.
In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.
Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.
The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.
“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”
To which Phocas sneered,
“And will you rule better?”
Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.
his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)
As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”
Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.
At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.
But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.
The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.
The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.
As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.
Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.
It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.
In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.
A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.
It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.
Basiliscus forced into the cistern.
The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.
Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.
* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”
** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.
June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.
The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)
The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting
This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.
While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.
The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.
For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.
Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.
** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.
As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)
Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.
This ghastly event is covered by Thucydides‘ History. Thucydides’ account of the diplomatic negotiation between the mighty Athenians and the hopelessly outmuscled Melians is the subject of the Melian dialogue — a timeless classic of philosophy and statecraft.
The Athenians’ coldly realistic position — and their ultimate disposition of their conquest — is summed up in the wonderful epigraph, “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” (And numerous variations of this translation.)
As the reigning naval power, Athens (at war with a league led by its rival, the land power Sparta) had decided that an independent and neutral Melos would no longer be in the offing. The Melian dialogue pits Athens’ ultimatum to Melos to submit and save itself, against the Melians’ vain attempt to assert the justice of their cause; likewise, it is the dialogue of an imperial order against a holdover independent city-state from a fading era.
Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no flue words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.
Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.
Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.
Athenians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?
Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.
Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?
Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.
Over and over the Melian envoy is dismayed by his visitors’ indifference to the moral high ground. Frustrated of any concession, he resolves his embattled city to embark upon the remote hope of resistance in preference to voluntary servitude — leading the Athenians to part with this chilly sentiment:
You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honour which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonour were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honour too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonour than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honour if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision,
Athens wasn’t kidding.
Finding no traction with the Melian delegation, the greater power immediately besieged Melos. Thucydides recounts the Melians’ subsequent fate:
So the summer ended.
In the following winter the Lacedaemonians had intended to make an expedition into the Argive territory, but finding that the sacrifices which they offered at the frontier were unfavourable they returned home … About the same time the Melians took another part of the Athenian wall; for the fortifications were insufficiently guarded. Whereupon the Athenians sent fresh troops, under the command of Philocrates the son of Demeas. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.
On top of everything else, the Athenian sack put an end to the production of Melian reliefs. (The island still had the glory of the Venus de Milo to look forward to, however.)
If there was a consolation for the scattered remains of the ruined Melian polis, it was that Athens’ cruel imperial hubris led it just months later to launch a catastrophic invasion of Sicily.
That defeat helped turn the Peloponnesian War decisively against Athens. Just eleven years after overrunning Melos, haughty Athens itself surrendered to a Spartan siege.
Thucydides, an exiled former Athenian general, deploys the classical dialogue form to great effect; his own perspective on the various arguments advanced in the Melian debate is difficult to discern with confidence. Clearly, however, it’s a topic of great interest to Thucydides, as his account dwells repeatedly on the conundrums touching justice and international relations: he’s one of the first intellectuals to explore what’s now thought of as the “realist” view of foreign policy. Compare the Melian Dialogue, for instance, to the Athenian demos‘s Mytilenian Debate; or, to the Plataean speech making a Melos-like appeal to the powerful Spartans.* And in one early passage, private Athenians appeal to Sparta and Corinth not to commence on war against the hegemony of Athens with words similar to those later used at Melos: “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. Up till the present moment you, too, used to think that we were; but now, after calculating your own interest, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong. Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”
At any rate, Thucydides’ proud city-empire would never recover from the inglorious fall inflicted by this war. The result was a fourth-century power vacuum which the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great eventually rose to fill.
* Thucydides also reports the Athenians hoisted by their own realpolitik when, in the Sicilian invasion, they attempt to appeal to Camarina for support. That city spurns the appeal, fearing subjugation should expansionist Athens prevail, and the revenge of their overwhelmingly powerful neighbor Syracuse otherwise.