Around this time in 904, Pope Sergius III allegedly had one or both of his deposed predecessors put to death in prison.
Sergius held the throne of St. Peter for seven years, which was a longer incumbency than achieved by his seven immediate predecessors combined:* they march speedily through the Vatican’s annals like so many third-century Caesars, acclaimed by one faction within Rome’s political vipers’ nest to no better effect than to offer flesh for their rival factions’ fangs; most are eminently forgettable save when they are utterly insane.
So pell-mell turned the scepter from one pretender to the next that the Church has even waffled in its official histories on just who was legitimate. Officially, Leo V is considered Sergius’s immediate predecessor; in reality, Leo was deposed and imprisoned two months after his July 903 election by a fellow named Christopher who was counted as a pope on canonical papal rolls until the 20th century. Today, he’s considered an antipope who was illegitimately elected.
“Legitimacy” in this period meant little but who had the muscle make their election stick. And though Sergius was the beneficiary, the man doing the flexing in this instance was Theophylact, Count of Tusculum along with his wife Theodora. For the next century the papacy would be a bauble of the Theophylacti family, who liberally plundered its perquisites. It is this Count who is thought to have forced the murder of Pope Leo — and possibly (Anti)pope Christopher, although Hermannus Contractus says Christopher was merely exiled to a monastery.
The resulting stability (relatively speaking) was the ascent with Sergius of the so-called “pornocracy”, or “Harlot State”.** The harlots in question are the Theopylacti women in a vicious bit of historiographical branding sourced ultimately (since there are very few to choose from) to the highly partisan histories of Liutprand of Cremona.
The count’s wife, Theodora, elevated to the unprecedented rank of “senatrix”, was the first voracious woman so designated and the possibly spurious charge that it was she who steered the Count’s hand is of course meant to redound to the detriment of both. Theodora’s daughter, Marozia, is alleged to have become Pope Sergius’s concubine at age 15.
As Marozia grew into womanhood, she would succeed as the de facto ruler of Rome, and become for propagandists the principal Pornocrat: “inflamed by all the fires of Venus,” gaped Liutprand; “a shameless whore … [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man.” She married the Duke of Spoleto and later the Margrave of Tuscany and was reputed to have manipulated numerous other paramours with her charms.
“A more inquisitive age would have detected the scarlet whore of the Revelations,” mused Edward Gibbon, who speculated that Marozia’s domination of the papacy might have sparked the later legend of a female “Pope Joan”. Our age might better see a ruthless conqueror entitled to indulge a Triumph or two. She made and unmade pontiffs in her own lifetime, and no fewer than six men tracing lineage directly to Marozia were Bishop of Rome in the next century and a half:
Marozia’s son (by either Pope Sergius or by the Duke of Spoleto) John XI, whose election Marozia forced in 931 when John was all of 21 years old;
Her grandsons John XII and Benedict VII;
Her great-grandsons (we’re into the 11th century for these) Benedict VIII and John XIX; her great-great-grandson Benedict IX
* In fact, you have to go back to Nicholas the Great (858-867) to find a longer-serving pope than Sergius.
** Saeculum obscurum, or Dark Ages, is historiography’s less colorful term.
On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.
The first documented executions of heretics in medieval Europe occurred on this date in 1022 in Orleans, when 13 or so were burned at Orleans.
The French king at this time was Robert II, known to history as “Robert the Pious” because he was so violent with the sub-orthodox.* In addition to this date’s burnings, he’s noted for inciting anti-Jewish persecutions that in some places drove local Jewry to drown themselves fleeing pogroms.
For those within Christianity, starting now, Robert’s Piety meant much tighter scrutiny of potentially deviant doctrines.
Now, these were not the first-ever Christian-on-Christian heresy executions in the West. But so far as is known they marked a revival of the practice after some six centuries of disuse — dating back to the Roman Empire when rival strains of early Christianity fought things out. That was ancient history, and not only literally; by this point in the Middle Ages, “heresy” was not nearly so dangerous a charge among Christian disputants as it would come to be after 1022.
The period’s chronicles paint the early eleventh century as a time of rising heresies, or rather rising fear of heresies. It’s an idea that would have a blazingly bright future.
What’s remarkable is that this tradition was resuscitated not for the exemplary punishment an itinerant band of outsiders or some marginal, radical sect, but for canons of the Orleans Cathedral — “certain clerks, raised from childhood in holy religion and educated as deeply in sacred as in profane letters … Some were priests, some deacons, some sub-deacons. The chief among them were Stephen and Lisois.” Their positions situate them as elite, establishment characters.
The “heresy” in question has in the past been speculatively associated with the gnostic Bogomils on the strength of one account that describes them as “Manicheans”. It hints at a tantalizing underground history of fugitive Bulgarian mystics. Unfortunately the author of that account was an epic swindler, and was not a firsthand witness to the trial. Besides, thanks to St. Augustine, “Manicheaism” was the medieval byword for heresy of any sort. There’s no concrete reason to ascribe Manicheaism to those burnt this day.
According to R.I. Moore‘s engaging The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe** (from which all quotes in this post derive), it was precisely because of their high ranks that the Orleans “heretics” were targeted — and so far from being the purveyors of some devilish doctrine, they were basically the victims of a political purge for which “heresy” was the stalking-horse.
Moore’s argument, in fine, is that King Robert, who was the scion of the new and uncertain Capetian dynasty, was in a tight spot vis-a-vis his powerful neighbors. He had previously married one Bertha, the mother of one of the Count of Blois; Robert, however, put her aside in favor of Constance, kin to the Count of Anjou. However, he had flip-flopped a couple of times between these two spouses, and the domestic relations mirrored the king’s political maneuvering opposite Blois, Anjou, and Normandy, where the trial was held. Richard II, Duke of Normandy,† was a Blois ally; it was Richard’s uncle who claimed to have busted the heresy by infiltrating the group.
The heresy charge, Moore argues, “was a manoeuvre by the supporters of the Blois faction, still hoping for the restoration of Bertha, against those of Constance and her Angevin connections.” They were able to attack Constance’s circle via her spiritual (and temporal) allies, and they were able to force the deposition of the Constance-friendly Archbishop of Orleans in favor of their own candidate.
It was a move very dangerous to the king. He was able to counter it only by dissociating himself from his former favourites at a hastily summoned trial. As Paul of St Père described it, ‘The king and Queen Constance had come to Orléans, as Harfast had asked, with a number of bishops, and at his suggestion the whole wicked gang was arrested by royal officials at the house where they met, and brought before the king and queen and an assembly of clerks and bishops at the church of Ste Croix.’
It was, Moore says, “like a kangaroo court.” Stephen had been Queen Constance’s own confessor; one later chronicler, exaggerating events he did not witness, claimed that Constance actually struck out Stephen’s eye with her staff as the condemned were hauled out of their home church for the stakes.
We have no way to know if the representation of the prelates’ beliefs that comes down to us bears any relationship to their real thoughts. If so, the grounds upon which this “wicked gang” were targeted does indeed read like heresy: denying the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the efficacy of baptism, and transubstantiation. Certainly a rap sheet like that would be enough to get a body burned in the heretic-hunting centuries to come.
Moore speculates that these “heretics” were basically neoplatonists who had some off-script ideas or experiences and got demagogued by Bertha’s people on that basis. The disdainfully condescending supposed riposte of the condemned certainly sounds calculated to put their persecutors in their place.
You may tell all this to those who are learned in earthly things, who believe the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals. We believe in the law written within us by the Holy Spirit, and hold everything else, except what we have learned from God, the maker of all things, empty, unnecessary and remote from divinity. Therefore bring an end to your speeches and do with us what you will. Now we see our king reigning in heaven. He will raise us to his right hand in triumph and give us eternal joy.
Being heretics, of course, they didn’t get to drop the mic with their noble defiance ringing from the page.
when the flames began to burn them savagely they cried out as loudly as they could from the middle of the fire that they had been terribly deceived by the trickery of the devil, that the views they had recently held of God and Lord of All were bad, and that as punishment for their blasphemy against Him they would endure much torment in this world and more in that to come. Many of those standing near by heard this, and moved by pity and humanity, approached, seeking to pluck them from the furnace even when half roasted. But they could do nothing, for the avenging flames consumed them, and reduced them straight away to dust.
For more on the primary(ish) sources that document this event and their various problem points, see this pdf.
* Notwithstanding his piety, Robert had actually been excommunicated for his marriage to Bertha, who was his cousin.
On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.
In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.
Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.
Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.
He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.
Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.
But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.
Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.
Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.
This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.
Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.
While legend has it that Eadric Streona (“Grasping Eadric” or “Eadric the Acquisitor”) irritated the monarch by beating him in a game of chess, Middle Ages chroniclers attributed his fate to the just deserts of inveterate treachery.
A couple centuries of Viking raids and conquests had just culminated with the Northmen’s outright capture of the English throne, fifty years before the better-remembered Norman invasion.
Notwithstanding his best efforts at resistance, the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready had been briefly driven into exile by Cnut’s father, Sweyn Forkbeard, and his house then decisively dispossessed by Cnut at the Battle of Assandun. (All kings had cooler names in the Anglo-Saxon period.)
Though not of the highest pedigree himself, “his smooth tongue gained him wealth and high rank, and gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence he surpassed all his contemporaries in malice and perfidy, as well as in pride and cruelty.” (Florence of Worcester, whose chronicle dates to a century later.) Eadric maneuvered himself into a union with Aethelred’s daughter, but he didn’t exactly follow Corleone rules where the family was concerned.*
Plenty of lords were playing both sides of the Anglo-Saxon/Danish conflict, but Eadric did it as well as anyone. He was an exponent of the policy of appeasing the Northmen with the Danegeld tribute, rather than resisting by arms. (Eadric might have been helping himself to a rake of the Danegeld that passed through his own hands.) He’s slated with, on one occasion, dissuading Aethelred from falling upon a crippled Danish force that might have been destroyed.
His nemesis on the policy front was Aethelred’s combative son and heir Edmund Ironside. (Seriously: cooler names.)
Anyway, in 1015, when Aethelred and Cnut were pressing rival claims at arms, Eadric “seduced forty ships from the king, and they went over to Cnut.” Early the next year, he defected back.
By this time, Aethelred had died and Eadric’s old rival Edmund Ironside inherited leadership. What terms these two old foes came to when Eadric returned are a matter of speculation, but it can be no surprise that Eadric switched sides back to Cnut yet again at Assandun. Some chronicles like to attribute the whole fall of England to this backstab, but it’s more than likely the guy just recognized the balance of forces (the English got routed) and tacked to the wind.
And Eadric sure could tack. He even helpfully cleared out his and Cnut’s mutual rival Edmund Ironside, allowing Cnut to claim all the lands he’d just recently agreed to leave to Edmund. The most flinch-inducingly scabrous version of the assassination story goes that Eadric’s guys shot Edmund up the backside from a privy-hole. Guess that side wasn’t so iron.
But Eadric’s belief that he’d ingratiated himself with Cnut was as sorely mistaken as Edmund Ironside’s confidence in the loo. Kings tend to look askance upon traitors, and not a few usurpers have been known to extend that opprobrium to the very people who betrayed their predecessors. Cnut valued loyalty, and it was pretty clear he couldn’t rely upon Eadric in that department.
After tolerating this underhanded underling for a decent year or so,
[a]t the Lord’s Nativity, when [Cnut] was in London, he gave orders for the perfidious ealdorman Eadric to be killed in the palace, because he feared to be at some time deceived by his treachery, as his former lords Ethelred and Edmund had frequently been deceived; and he ordered his body to be thrown over the wall of the city and left unburied.
* It needs to be said that Eadric is known through the testimony of hostile chronicles; given the dearth of primary documentation, his reputation lies at their mercy. One 20th century historian remarked that he takes on a bogeyman character in the texts, an all-purpose villain “to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed.”
One part Christianizing the pagans and one (or more) parts territorial aggrandizement, Charlemagne’s exertions on the Rhinish frontier were opposed by Widukind, or Witikind, or Widochind, whose “forest-child” name belies its owner’s legendary ferocity.
Widukind was reclaimed in the Renaissance as a patriotic or national figure. (Source)
In the summer of 782, when Charlemagne perhaps thought he had whatever passed for peace among the querulous Saxons, Widukind raised a revolt and dealt the Franks a stinging defeat that put a couple of imperial legates into the ground and made some martyrs out of clerics he found in the wrong place at the time.
Charlemagne’s forces counterattacked and routed the Saxons at the Battle of Suntel (or Sonnethal) Mountain, and thereupon
questioned the primores of the Saxons, all of whom be had summoned to attend him, as to who was responsible for the rebellion which had taken place. And since they all declared that Widukind was the author of this wickedness but were unable to deliver him up in view of the fact that he had taken himself off to the Northmen once the deed had been done, no fewer than 4500 of the others, those who had fallen in with his promptings and committed such a gross outrage, were handed over and at the place on the river Aller called Verden, at the king’s command, all beheaded in a single day. Thus was punishment executed; and the king then retired to winter-quarters at Thionville, where he celebrated both the Lord’s birthday and Easter in the customary fashion.
This merciless slaughter of prisoners is one of the lasting blights on Charlemagne’s impressive reputation. Even so, the reputation had the last word: three years later, Witikind was finally defeated and delivered up, in person, to the Frankish ruler … who accepted the Saxon pagan’s submission and forced him to convert to Christianity.
Charlemagne receives Witikind’s submission at Paderborn in 785.
presented the sad image of depopulation and decay: her slavery was a habit, her liberty an accident; the effect of superstition, and the object of her own amazement and terror. The last vestige of the substance, or even the forms, of the constitution, was obliterated from the practice and memory of the Romans; and they were devoid of knowledge, or virtue, again to build the fabric of a commonwealth. Their scanty remnant, the offspring of slaves and strangers, was despicable in the eyes of the victorious Barbarians. As often as the Franks or Lombards expressed their most bitter contempt of a foe, they called him a Roman;
“and in this name,” says the bishop Liutprand, “we include whatever is base, whatever is cowardly, whatever is perfidious, the extremes of avarice and luxury, and every vice that can prostitute the dignity of human nature.”
While the popes of the 10th century would really set that prostituted standard with the period known as the “pornocracy”, Stephen VI(I) makes everybody’s bad popeslists with one of the papacy’s all-time embarrassing events: the Cadaver Synod.
The pontiff at this point is no global media celebrity but an ensemble character captive to the the disreputable politics of a shrunken, malarial town. Stephen’s predecessor Formosus had been one of the city’s “Carolingian” faction backing the withering remains of Charlemagne’s once-great line.
At loggerheads with the Italian Spoleto family claiming the Holy Roman Emperor title for the anti-Carolingians, Formosus had invited an illegitimate Frankish scion to roll down the Italian peninsula and take it from them — which is exactly what happened.
Two months after Formosus crowned this Carolingian, Arnulf by name, as “Augustus” in Rome, Formosus died while Arnulf was on his way back to Bavaria … putting the Spoletos back in charge. After a brief interregnum papacy, the Spoleto-backed anti-Carolingian prelate Stephen ascended St. Peter‘s throne.
The factional conflict was approaching civil war. Stephen’s Cadaver Synod (or in the equally evocative Latin, Synod horrenda) was a singular show of power against the Carolingians.
About January of 897, the pope had Formosus’s corpse exhumed and creepily propped up in its vestments on a throne at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There, before a reluctant clerical conclave, the rotting remains of Formosus** were subjected to a kangaroo prosecution personally conducted by Pope Stephen. As Robert Browning described it in a digressive passage of The Ring and the Book,
And at the word the great door of the church
Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
And buried duly in the Vatican
Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.
For frightful was the corpse-face to behold,—
How nowise lacked there precedent for this.
Pope Formosus and Stephen VII (aka Stephen VI), by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870
After the possibly-nuts Stephen had his fill of ranting at the mortal remains, he declared his foe “convicted” and condemned the body to the dissevering of its three right-hand blessing-fingers — symbolic of the damnatio memoriae the synod would pass upon the ex-pope, revoking the decrees and undoing the ordinations that hand had wrought in life. Formosus in his various parts was tossed into the Tiber.
While this macabre spectacle lives forever in the papal annals, Stephen didn’t live out the year: his enemies overthrew him that summer and had him summarily put to death, declaring the Synod horrenda‘s judgment reversed in the process.
In the event, the matter would be settled the old-fashioned Roman way: in the streets.
Despite the loss of their leader, [Stephen’s] party remained active and elected a certain Cardinal Sergius as pope, simultaneously with the election of a candidate by the opposite faction.
But, in a sudden burst of violence, Sergius and most of his followers were chased out of the city … Over the next twelve months, four more popes scrambled onto the bloodstained throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks — or even days — before being hurled themselves into their graves.
These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.
According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.
Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.
The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.
Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.
On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.
Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.
He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.
At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.
Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.
“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.
On an uncertain date in the autumn of 555, a Byzantine commander and his brother were put to death for the treacherous murder of the vassal king of Lazica.
Rusticus, the commander, probably had good cause to be annoyed with Gubazes II, who ruled a borderlands realm on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, in modern-day Georgia.
Gubazes had gone from calling in Persian aid in 541 against Lazica’s Byzantine masters, to summoning Byzantine help against the Persians a few years later. Now, he was kvetching to Byzantine Emperor Justinian about the Byzantine generals he’d called for.
King Gubazes, who had been engaged in frequent quarrels with the Roman commanders, sent a complaint to Justinian accusing them of negligence in conducting the war. Bessas, Martin, and Rusticus were specially named. The Emperor deposed Bessas from his post, but assigned the chief command to martin and did not recall Rusticus. This Rusticus was the Emperor’s pursebearer who had been sent to bestow rewards on soldiers for special merit. He and Martin determined to remove Gubazes. To secure themselves from blame, they despatched John, brother of Rusticus, to Justinian with the false message that Gubazes was secretly favouring the Persians. Justinian was surprised, and determined to summon the king to Constantinople. “What,” asked John, “is to be done, if he refuses?” “Compel him,” said the Emperor; “he is our subject.” “But if he resist?” urged the conspirator. “Then treat him as a tyrant.” And will he who should slay him have naught to fear?” “Naught, if he act disobediently and be slain as an enemy.” Justinian signed a letter to this effect, and armed with it John returned to Colchis. The conspirators hastened to execute their treacherous design. Gubazes was invited to assist in an attack on the fortress of Onoguris, and with a few attendants he met the Roman army on the banks of the Chobus. An altercation arose between the king and Rusticus, and on the pretext that the gainsayer of a Roman general must necessarily be a friend of the enemy, John drew his dagger and plunged it in the royal breast. The wound was not mortal but it unhorsed the king, and when he attempted to rise from the ground, a blow from the squire of Rusticus killed him outright.
The Lazi silently buried their king according to their customs, and turned away in mute reproach from their Roman protectors. They no longer took part in the military operations, but hid themselves away as men who had lost their hereditary glory. The other commanders, Buzes and Justin the son of Germanus, concealed the indignation which they felt, supposing that the outrage had the Emperor’s authority. Some months later, when winter had begun, the Lazi met in secret council in some remote Caucasian ravine, and debated whether they should throw themselves on the protection of Chosroes. But their attachment to the Christian religion as well as their memory of Persian oppression forbade them to take this step, and they decided to appeal for justice and satisfaction to the Emperor, and at the same time to supplicate him to nominate Tzath, the younger brother of Gubazes, as their new king. Justinian promptly complied with both demands. Athanasius, a senator of high repute, was sent to investigate the circumstances of the assassination, and on his arrival he incarcerated Rusticus and John, pending a trial. In the spring (A.D. 555) Tzath arrived in royal state, and when the Lazi beheld the Roman army saluting him as he rode in royal apparel, a tunic embroidered with gold reaching to his feet, a white mantle with a gold stripe, red shoes, a turban adorned with gold and gems, and a crown, they forgot their sorrow and escorted him in a gay and brilliant procession. It was not till the ensuing autumn that the authors of the death of the late king were brought to justice, and the natives witnessed the solemn procedure of a Roman trial. Rusticus and John were executed. Martin’s complicity was not so clear, and the Emperor, to whom his case was referred, deposed him from his command in favour of his own cousin Justin, the son of Germanus. Martin perhaps would not have been acquitted if he had not been popular with the army and a highly competent general. (link)
“The historical importance of the Lazic War,” Bury says, “lay in the fact that if the Romans had not succeeded in holding the country and thwarting the design of Chosroes, the great Asiatic power would have had access to the Euxine and the Empire would have had a rival on the waters of that sea. The serious menace involved in this possibility was fully realised by the Imperial government and explains the comparative magnitude of the forces which were sent to the defence of the Lazic kingdom.”