Sometime in October 1584 in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, one Anders Bengtsson was sentenced to death for his crimes “against the law and justice and the subjects of His Royal Majesty.”
Anders, according to trial records, had a reputation as a violent criminal and “an unchristian man and a tyrant.” The crime that lead to his death sentence? He had “murderously beaten his son to death.”
A witness in the case testified to having seen him carry out this savage assault and stated that he had called on Anders a score of times to stop beating his child. After the father’s mishandling, the boy was said to be “so weak and battered that both his head and his body sagged limply.”
As the book explains, the Swedish justice system at the time did not rely heavily on the death penalty, even in cases of killing. However, because of its cruelty, Bengttson’s was considered no ordinary crime, and it was not dealt with in the ordinary way:
The town court stated in its grounds that the normal penalty prescribed by the law of Sweden under the Accidental Manslaughter Code for parents who chastised their children too harshly was a fine. However, in this case, it was not a question of an accident. Anders’s action is described as “tyrannical and inhuman.” He had not chastised his son for his betterment; rather, he had acted “like an executioner, in an unchristian way that was contrary to natural love.” The town court found that the deed could not be atoned for with a fine, and so it sentenced Anders Bengtsson to execution by the wheel.
He was put to death on some unknown date shortly thereafter.
The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.
As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.
Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.
None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.
All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.
With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.
Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.
Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.
We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.
In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.
In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.
Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after soaking his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.
One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.
But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.
* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.
** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”
† A “False Margaret” posting as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.
‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.
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.
At some point in the first weeks of June 1155 — nobody knows the exact date, but it precedes June 18 — the Roman authorities disposed of Arnold of Brescia.
For a decade the tongue of a fragile new Roman Republic, Arnold was a student of the cutting-edge theologian (and castrated romantic) Peter Abelard. Arnold held the temporal pretensions of the Vatican invalid, a theology sublimely according with the popular revolt that from 1143 overturned Rome’s overweening princes and even slew a pope in a melee on the Capitoline.
The Senate long forsaken was re-founded by this new Republic and an equestrian order re-founded to resume to the rights of a now-growing middle rank. The slain pope’s successor became a refugee tenant of the neighboring cities, orchestrating crusades against Turks, Moors, and Wends — but dying at Tivoli in 1153 still awaiting a prince who would restore his own person to the authority of the Eternal City.
That prince, however, had just begun to stir. The Hohenstaufen king Frederick I had concluded in the months before Pope Eugenius’s death a compact to restore the pontiff, which policy dovetailed nicely with an intent to show the German power against other wayward cites in Italy. It was Frederick’s Italian subjects, and conquests, who gave this man the distinctive name by which history recalls him: Barbarossa, or “red-beard”.
All these years — or at least, from 1145, when he surfaced in the rebellious city from past years’ exile in Zurich — Arnold of Brescia’s “eloquence thundered over the seven hills.” (Gibbon)
Blending in the same discourse the texts of Livy and St. Paul, uniting the motives of Gospel, and of classic, enthusiasm, he admonished the Romans how strangely their patience and the vices of the clergy had degenerated from the primitive times of the church and the city. He exhorted them to assert the inalienable rights of men and Christians; to restore the laws and magistrates of the republic; to respect the name of the emperor: but to confine their shepherd to the spiritual government of his flock. Nor could his spiritual government escape the censure and control of the reformer; and the inferior clergy were taught by his lessons to resist the cardinals, who had usurped a despotic command over the twenty-eight regions or parishes of Rome.
The absentee pope excommunicated Arnold in 1148. It was to no effect until Barbarossa’s legions neared the city.
As King Frederick approached, Pope Adrian IV* applied a deft turn of the screw by laying Rome itself under an interdict, depriving his quarrelsome flock of both spiritual balm and pilgrim revenue and at long last forcing the heresiarch’s ejection.
Arnold was seized in Tuscany and delivered to the Roman curia for punishment; the record of when or where this occurred is lost, but it is specified in the particular that his corpse was reduced to ashes that were scattered to the Tiber — proof against the prospect of a plebeian graveside shrine.
On June 18 even as his soldiers tamed Rome’s resisting republicans, Barbarossa accepted the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the hands of Pope Adrian in St. Peter’s Basilica.**
Though Arnold had vanished into the Tiber’s silt, the thirst of his former flock for spiritual succor beyond that which the worldly Vicar of Christ could offer did not die so easily. Succeeding movements — indeed, perhaps, one continuous movement — took up Arnold’s objection to the clergy’s worldly emoluments and his summons to plain virtue. There are the Arnoldists to start with, but a bare few years after Arnold’s death emerge Peter Waldo of the heretical Waldensians, as well as the Cathars in southern France; a generation on finds St. Francis of Assisi, giving way to 13th and 14th centuries thick with oft-suppressed popular reform currents — the Beguines, the Apostolic Brethren, even the Fraticelli who criticized other followers of the aforementioned St. Francis for having already abandoned the poverty of his order.
Later Protestants would claim all these, and Arnold too (Arnold reportedly opposed infant baptism), as their forebears, which is why we have the nice Colosseum’s-shadow picture above from Foxe’s Martyrs’ Mirror. Just how literally one should take that lineage might be a matter of debate, but there is little doubt that Arnold of Brescia’s critique maintained its potency into that era and keeps it still in the modern age — one reason that the incinerated firebrand could still make a powerful subject for a risorgimento writer like Giovannini Battista Niccolini 700 years later.
* Born Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian remains to this day the only English pope ever.
** Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were most usually rivals rather than allies in peninsular politics; indeed, the Roman Republic had issued its own summons to Frederick’s predecessor to come to its aid — and rule Rome with its support — to humble the pretensions of the papacy. Arguably, Barbarossa missed a trick by not availing that potential alliance and instead exalting the pontifex maximus in the manner of his coronation: Barbarossa probably thought so himself often enough during his running rivalry over the ensuing generation with Pope Alexander III.
[Upon entering the conquered Taku Forts] a distressing scene of carnage disclosed itself; frightful mutilations and groups of dead and dying meeting the eye in every direction.
I walked round the ramparts on the west side. They were thickly strewed with dead — in the north-west angle thirteen were lying in one group round a gun. Signor Beato was here in great excitement, characterising the group as “beautiful,” and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus, which was done a few minutes afterwards. -David Field Rennie
In 1863, Beato moved to Yokohama, Japan and spent the next several years capturing historically invaluable images of Japan at the close of the Edo period.
In this capacity, Beato captured the execution of a young servant by the eye-catching means of Japan’s distinctive spread-eagled crucifixion. The caption on the image reads, the servant Sokichi, crucified at the age of 25* for killing Nikisasuro, son of his master Nuiske in the village of Kiso. Exact year unknown.
To my knowledge, there is no further documentation available about this execution that would, er, affix it to a specific date or even a specific year. But we don’t exactly have a multitude of photographed executions by crucifixion, so we’re not going to be picky about it.
While we’re on the subject, we also have from Beato on the same trip an image called “the executioner” — topical for this blog even though it looks completely staged. This photograph makes use of hand-coloring, for which Beato often engaged Japan’s artisan illustrators. (The crucifixion image is reproduced in monochrome, but it, too, was artificially colored.)
Some Felice Beato photography books
* Various ages of 22 to 25 are given in various locations for the executed servant.
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.
January 21 is the feast date and traditional martyrdom date (in the year 304) of Agnes of Rome, a 13-year-old put to death in the Diocletian persecutions who has the distinction of being among the seven women mentioned by name in the Catholic Canon of the Mass.
Agnes means “chaste” in Greek,* and this was precisely the problem.
As prosperous as she was pulchritudinous, she was pious even moreso and spurned the many suitors for her hand and bed. Eventually one or the other of them peevishly reported her as a Christian.
Upon arrest, the abstinent youth was allegedly subjected to an official program of sexual assault, including displaying her naked in public and forcing her into a brothel. It’s said that divine intervention prevented her violation in these ordeals. (The flowing locks in the Ribera portrait of her at right are part of that myth, supposed to have sprouted long enough to save her from her public shaming.)
Considering that her defining characteristic is her virginity, Agnes has quite the lurid legend — and that does not exclude her very martyrdom. Per the erotically-charged poetic account of the 4th-5th century Christian poet Prudentius,** Agnes rejoiced sensually in the executioner sent to to render her to her heavenly bridal-bed:
I rejoice that there comes a man like this,
A savage, cruel, and wild warrior,
Rather than a languid, soft,
Womanish youth fragrant with perfume,
Come to destroy my life with the death of my honor.
This lover, this one at last, I confess, pleases me.
I shall rush to his eager steps
And not demur from his hot ardor.
I shall welcome the entire length of
His blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow
To the depths of my breast.
Agnes, whose purported relics are interred in the Roman church Sant’Agnese in Agone, is the patron saint of an entire pantheon of feminine sexual incipience: chastity, virgins, young women, and betrothed couples.‡
Little surprise, then, that the legend arose in Christendom that a maid could invoke the vision of her future husband by performing certain suggestive rituals — like lying supine and naked on her bed — on the eve of St. Agnes (that is, the night of January 20).
It’s upon this occasion that Keats pins his narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes§ (full text here or here), in which a young woman performing these rites is in her dreamlike state deflowered by the desired suitor her family forbids — and then the two slip away by night “o’er the southern moors.”
Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.
January 1, 404 is the date of the last known gladiatorial combat in Rome, and therefore also the traditional martyrdom date of St. Telemachus — who gave his life to end the games.
Rome’s infamous bloodsport dated to the foggy natal days of the Republic, perhaps beginning as funerary rituals borrowed from the Etruscans or Campanians. Its efflorescence into ubiquitous public entertainment diversified for special occasions by stupefyingly wasteful grotesques like naval battles in a flooded stadium or exotic animal fights marks — moralistically if not materially — the empire’s decadence and decline. Fitting indeed that Rome’s most impressive lower-class rebellion originated with a gladiator, Spartacus.
The spectacle was as popular as it was dangerous. For trainers and recruiters, it was also enormously lucrative, yet it was simultaneously distasteful in its own time and gladiators (for their brief lives) were a stigmatized caste.
No public crime scandalized Rome’s Senatorial class historians like an emperor who showed genuine relish for the games. Cassius Dio had to personally sit in the stands and applaud the notorious tyrant Commodus who styled himself Hercules and fought personally on the blood-drunk sands of the Colosseum; he revenges himself in his history expanding sneeringly on his former sovereign’s degrading exploits — Commodus “took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed. His antagonist would be some athlete or perchance a gladiator armed with a wand; sometimes it was a man that he himself had challenged, sometimes one chosen by the people, for in this as well as in other matters he put himself on an equal footing with the other gladiators, except for the fact that they enter the lists for a very small sum, whereas Commodus received a million sesterces from the gladiatorial fund each day.” Commodus “of course won” his fights against opponents who had no choice but to yield to the emperor; the bouts were “like child’s play.”
Gladiatorial games’ long-term decline might have set in motion because they were so godawful expensive and a Rome gradually less vast and omnipotent just didn’t have the resources to burn on a new Super Bowl every time some frontier general marched into town to proclaim himself emperor for the next six months.
But Christians especially lodged early and vociferous critiques of the games and curtailing — and finally eliminating — gladiatorial combat is a signal contribution to humanity by the early faith. Tertullian composed a letter On Spectacles is dedicated to proving to Christians with a weakness for low pleasures that men slaying one another for sport are idolatry and murder.
Christianity’s growing strength in the empire would eventually position it to put a stop to the evil show. The upstart faith’s first regnant champion, Constantine, laid down the first imperial ban on gladiator fights (“Those who were condemned to become gladiators for their crimes are to work from now on in the mines. Thus they pay for their crimes without having to pour their blood.”). As was his want, Constantine was less than constant about following his own directive, intermittent directives by emperors over the decades to come testify to the ancient sport’s deep-rooted popularity but also to the steady pressure that ascendant Christianity continued to apply against it.
Its fade was gradual, but the closest thing we have to a specific end point is January 1, 404, games sponsored by the teenage Western Roman emperor Honorius to celebrate Stilicho‘s parrying the latest Gothic thrust.
Into this carnage, it is said, strode a Greek monk, Telemachus who publicly objected to the unfolding spectacle. For his trouble he was killed by mob action or official order. The story has evolved over time but Honorius proceeded to ban the ungodly exhibition. It never again resumed (at least in the West), leaving the field clear in future centuries for Rome’s other degenerate sport, charioteering.
In these games of Honorius, the inhuman combats of gladiators polluted for the last time the amphitheatre of Rome. The first Christian emperor may claim the honour of the first edict which condemned the art and amusement of shedding human blood; but this benevolent law expressed the wishes of the prince, without reforming an inveterate abuse which degraded a civilised nation below the condition of savage cannibals. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand, victims were annually slaughtered in the great cities of the empire; and the month of December, more peculiarly devoted to the combats of gladiators, still exhibited to the eyes of the Roman people a grateful spectacle of blood and cruelty. Amidst the general joy of the victory of Pollentia, a Christian poet exhorted the emperor to extirpate, by his authority, the horrid custom which had so long resisted the voice of humanity and religion. The pathetic representations of Prudentius were less effectual than the generous boldness of Telemachus, an Asiatic monk, whose death was more useful to mankind than his life. The Romans were provoked by the interruption of their pleasures; and the rash monk, who had descended into the arena, to separate the gladiators, was overwhelmed under a shower of stones. But the madness of the people soon subsided: they respected the memory of Telemachus, who had deserved the honours of martyrdom; and they submitted, without a murmur, to the laws of Honorius, which abolished for ever the human sacrifices of the amphitheatre. The citizens, who adhered to the manners of their ancestors, might perhaps insinuate that the last remains of a martial spirit were preserved in this school of fortitude, which accustomed the Romans to the sight of blood, and to the contempt of death: a vain and cruel prejudice, so nobly confuted by the valour of ancient Greece and of modern Europe! (Gibbon)
On the morning of December 14, 1759, William Davis succumbed to a self-inflicted wound rather than face St. Croix’s harsh justice for an alleged slave rising plot.
They strung up his remains just the same.
St. Croix, today part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was at the time a Danish colony.* As with other Caribbean islands, its economy catered to the lucrative new European taste for sugar — powered by human bondage.
“The establishment of the sugar industry created the demand for labor in the West Indian islands,” Eric Williams wrote. “It was a choice, from the sugar planter’s point of view, of Negro labor or no labor at all. Sugar meant slavery.”
It was, in fact, sugar which raised these insignificant tropical islands from the status of pirates’ nests to the dignity of the most precious colonies known to the Western World up to the nineteenth century …
Tremendous wealth was produced from an unstable economy based on a single crop, which combined the vices of feudalism and capitalism with the virtues of neither. Liverpool in England, Nantes in France, Rhode Island in America, prospered on the slave trade. London and Bristol, Bordeaux and Marseilles, Cadiz and Seville, Lisbon and New England, all waxed fat on the profits of the trade in the tropical produce raised by the Negro slave. … Sugar was king; without his Negro slave his kingdom would have been a desert.
For those in King Sugar’s castle this desert stuff was no mere metaphor, but life and limb itself. They trafficked fantastical wealth from the shores of tiny islets where they took their sleep surrounded by a vastly more numerous** servile population. Just let the serfs of such a manor commence a jacquerie …
White planters’ vulnerability to a potential slave revolt, dramatically underscored by a 1733 revolt on neighboring St. John, bred great paranoia about imagined plots: a casual word here or there could be heard as a seditious murmuring, and then a politically motivated judicial machinery of torture, hearsay, and panicked accusations set into motion. It can be maddeningly difficult from the distance of centuries to weigh the truth value of a supposed slave plot strangled in the crib. Intrepid resistance? Or phantom from the planters’ nightmares?
Either way the slaves wound up just as dead.
We have the story of this revolt’s suppression from one of the judges, Engelbert Hasselberg, and this naturally constrains our view. Hasselberg wrote up his report, complete with an index of all the slaves punished, for eyes in Copenhagen. He’s certain that there really was an intended rising, even as he acknowledges a want of firm evidence: “many of the conspirators have refused to confess anything at all, although there has been sufficient evidence against them, insofar as it may be called evidence at all, where rogues have plotted and been the sole witnesses.” That is, a few people’s highly questionable accusations/confessions† sustained the entire affair.
But the story must have had the judges’ hearts in their throats.
Each [Negro] was if possible to slay his master or foreman; next, those whose masters’ plantations lay in the Christianstaed district, were to gather on Colleman’s plantation … and those Negroes who belonged to the West-End, were to assemble at the West-End fort, and first take possession of Fort Friderichswaern and of all the ammunition there to be found. Thereupon all those who had procured weapons were to march to Christianstaed, setting the plantation[s] on fire on the way, and killing or burning all whites who collected to put out the fires, and finally to storm [Fort] Christianstvaern.
Hasselberg’s report begins, oddly enough, by meditating that “the greater part of the slaves on colonies as recently developed as St. Croix are free-born, and have therefore just as good claim to their freedom as we have to ours. One or other fateful occurrence has brought them out of that natural equality which at birth they enjoyed with us, and made those persons our slaves who by a contrary event might have become our masters. What wonder then that such persons seek their freedom when they are provoked by the unreasonable conduct of unwise masters, and when they believe that the enterprise is not impossible.”
For Hasselberg this freely acknowledged natural inclination is not so much a systemic critique as a management challenge, and he expands on the talents required by the slaveowner to extract surplus-labor without “expos[ing] himself to resentment”, while not neglecting to request that Denmark increase its subsidy to St. Croix.
The enterprise was exposed by a few stray remarks from a quarrelsome slave.
It was in the month of December, 1759, that 2 white men, Matthias and Benjamin Bear, were molding bullets on Sr. Soren Bagge’s plantation. A Negro slave by the name of Cudjo, working at that time on Bagge’s plantation, asked Benjamin Bear to give him some of the bullets as a present, but as he was unable to give a proper account of what he was going to do with them, Bear gave him none. But Matthias, who did not think so far ahead, gave Cudjo a dozen bullets while Bear had stepped aside. Bear learned about it, and in the afternoon of the same day, he said to Cudjo, in the presence of a white man, Peter Hyde, and of a number of other Negroes, that he had heard that Matthias had given him some bullets, but he, Cudjo, had better look out, or his head might some day be found lying at his feet. To this, Cudjo replied, addressing himself to the 2 white men, Benjamin Bear and Peter Hyde, “You look out that some of your heads won’t lie at your feet pretty soon.” Peter Hyde then asked, “Whom will you then kill?” and Cudjo replied, “You shall be the first that I shall kill.”
The day before this conversation took place between Bear, Hyde and Cudjo, the Cudjo aforementioned had said concerning Mr. Bagge’s plantation house, “Maybe that house will be mine in a short time,” to which one of Bagge’s Negroes, namely Will, replied, “God damn you, you can’t keep a secret.” The same day Cudjo had asked B. Bear how long it would be until Christmas, and when Bear asked Cudjo why he wanted to know this, he answered, “I am asking about it, as I hope by that time to be a little Petit Maitre.”
Bear and Hyde reported the conversation and under questioning on December 11, Cudjo and his blood brother started revealing details of a slave rebellion in the offing — scheduled to capitalize on whites’ distracting Christmas celebrations. William Davis, a free black, was its supposed instigator.
Davis was under interrogation the very next day. The particular suspicion he was under would have instantly impressed him as placing him in the gravest peril; when induced with a plea bargain-type offer to merely suffer banishment, he “made a frank confession” and “exposed the whole dessein, and gave the names of quite a number of Negroes, some of whom have been found guilty and others acquitted.”
Hasselberg’s categorical assertion that Davis’s plea-induced statement was a “frank confession” doesn’t square comfortably either with Davis’s subsequent attempt to repudiate the “confession” or with the acknowledged denials and acquittals of most of the people he named. Perhaps this speaks well of St. Croix’s judicial restraint, but what might actually have been afoot for Christmas 1759, and how many people it might have involved, is heavily conjectural.
Not least because Davis — in remorse for naming names, perhaps, or else not trusting his captors’ assurance of humane treatment — took any subsequent remarks to an early grave.
[H]e managed to cut his throat in the morning of December 13, while in the fort. The wound was not considered dangerous by the surgeon, and he was immediately bound. He made various confessions after that time, but on the following night, he tore the bandage from his neck, cursed and scolded those who approached him, and swore that if they cut him up piece by piece, and roasted on the fire, he would nevertheless confess nothing. On the following morning, December 14, he died, and he was made an example of.
Hasselberg is not completely explicit here that the posthumous punishment occurred on that same day Davis succumbed, but he does not mince words when it comes to the example itself.
His dead body was dragged through the streets by a horse, by one leg; thereafter hanged on a ballows by a leg, and finally taken down and burned at the stake.†
By Hasselberg’s accounting, Davis was just the first of 14 people hanged, burned, broken on the wheel, or “set up in a gibbet or iron cage” to die of thirst and exposure.§
* St. Croix’s most famous denizen for posterity at this hour was a very small child named Alexander Hamilton.
** Of the British territory Nevis, one late 18th century chronicler remarked, “the present number of whites is stated not to exceed six hundred, while the negroes amount to about ten thousand; a disproportion which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well regulated militia.” According to Hasselberg, the ratio on St. Croix was 1,690 whites to 11,807 blacks.
† The first slave to provide a corroborating account, one Qvamina, received his freedom and 50 rigsdalers in a conspicuous ceremony performed in front of other slaves.
‡ All translations are via Waldemar Westergaard in “Account of the Negro Rebellion on St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1759″ in The Journal of Negro History, January 1926.
§ William Davis was the first; the full roster of additional executions in Hasselberg’s report:
2. Franch (or French), free negro, convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing himself.
He was broken on the wheel with an iron crowbar, laid alive on the wheel, where he survived 12 hours. The head was then set on a stake, and the hand fastened on the gallows.
3. Prince Qvakoe, belonging to his Majesty, convicted by witnesses, and has confessed being implicated.
Was executed in the same way as Franch and lived 2 hours.
4. Cudjo, belonging to Doran, is convicted by witnesses, and has himself confessed.
Was burned alive on a pyre, lived in the fire 4½ minutes.
5. Gomas, belonging to John Bradshou, is convicted and has confessed.
6. George, belonging to James Hughes, has confessed and is convicted.
Both these negroes (5 and 6) were first pinched with hot tongs, then hanged by the legs in a gallows, and a dog likewise, by the neck, between them. Gomas lived ½ an hour and was strangled; George lived 3 hours and was strangled.
7. London, belonging to Thomas Lacke, is convicted and has himself confessed.
He was first pinched with glowing tongs, then hanged up by the legs, lived 12 hours and was strangled.
8. Sam Hector, belonging to Pieter Heyliger, Senior, is convicted by witnesses, but has confessed nothing himself.
He was set up in a gibbet or iron cage and lived 42 hours.
9. Michel, belonging to Hugh O’Donnell, is convicted by witnesses, but confessed nothing.
Got the same punishment as Sam Hector, lived 91 hours.
10. Will, belonging to Soren Bagge, is convicted by witnesses, but made no confession.
Was burned alive, lived in the fire 14 minutes.
11. George, belonging to John Cookly, confessed and was convicted by witnesses.
He was pinched with glowing tongs and hanged by the neck.
12. [Name not given], belonging to Manan Rogers, is convicted by witnesses, and made a partial confession.
Was set up in a gibbet from January 18, at 3:30 p.m. to Jan. 27, 8:30 a.m.
13. Sylvester, belonging to James Conningham, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.
He was burned alive, and lived in the fire 4½ minutes.
14. Jupiter, belonging to W. Burnet, has confessed and been convicted by witnesses.
He was burned alive, and lived in the fire for 1½ minutes.
At some unspecified day in November 1284, in Edward I’s England, Alice Bowe or Alice at the Bowe (not the garden designer of the same name) was burned at the stake for murder, and seven of the men who took part in her same crime were hanged.
Alice and sixteen others had lynched a guy who’d attacked their friend.
Alfred Marks’s 1908 book Tyburn Tree: Its History and Annals, available for free here, tells the story:
In the year 1284, the 13th of Edward I., Laurence Ducket, goldsmith, having grievously wounded one Ralph Crepin in Westcheape, fled into Bow church, to the which, in the night time, entered certain evil persons, friends unto the said Ralph, and slew the said Laurence, lying in the steeple, and then hanged him up, placing him so by the window as if he had hanged himself, and so was it found by inquisition: for the which fact Laurence Ducket, being drawn by the feet, was buried in a ditch without the City: but shortly after, by relation of a boy, who lay with the said Laurence at the time of his death, and had hid himself there for fear, the truth of the matter was disclosed.
Wherefore a certain woman, Alice atte Bowe, the mistress of Crepin, a clerk, the chief causer of the said mischief, and with her sixteen men, were imprisoned, and later, Alice was burnt, and seven were drawn and hanged, to wit, Reginald de Lanfar, Robert Pinnot, Paul de Stybbenheth, Thomas Corouner, John de Tholosane, Thomas Russel, and Robert Scott. Ralph Crepin, Jordan Godchep, Gilbert le Clerk and Geoffrey le Clerk were attainted of the felony and remained prisoners in the Tower.
The church was placed under an interdict by the archbishop: the doors and windows stopped up with thorns. But the body of Laurence was taken from the place where it lay, and given burial by the clergy in the churchyard. After a while, the bishop of Rochester, by command of the archbishop, removed the interdict.