Posts filed under 'Byzantine Empire'

1204: Alexios V, precipitated Byzantine emperor

Add comment December 25th, 2014 Headsman

Around this time in the year 1205, the fleeting Byzantine emperor Alexios V Doukas was put to a dramatic death in Constantinople’s Forum of Theodosius by being hurled from the top of the ancient Column of Theodosius.

Nicknamed “Mourtzouphlos” for his prominent brow, Alexios obtained his Pyrrhic purple by being the only elite with wit and courage in Constantinople during the horror of the its sack by a Venetian Crusader army.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! Hands in mailed gauntlets and silk gloves grasping after glory and treasure were our Emperor Eyebrow’s rise and his fall.

The prime desideratum was the prime desideratum, Jerusalem. In a monument to bad management, a Crusader army of 12,000 was mustered to Venice in 1202 for a flotilla suitable to thrice its number. Venice had taken on an enormous contract to assemble this fleet and since the soldiers who showed up could in no way pay what the Serene Republic had been promised, Venice simply repossessed the army to make good its debt by means of pillage.

First, it sacked Venice’s Dalmatian rival Zadar. Then, having picked up the exiled nephew of the reigning Byzantine emperor — the uncle had overthrown the father to get the job — the Crusader-mercenaries made for Constantinople, become now shameless Praetorians by dint of young Alexios’s assurance of all the liberalities the East’s treasuries could bear.

Constantinople in 1202 was the jewel of Christendom. Its mighty walls had preserved the city inviolate since antiquity — a city of half a million souls reposing in the splendors of the Roman world, augmented by eight more centuries’ imperial surplus.

A morsel so ripe needs but one unguarded moment for some ruffian to pluck it. The Crusaders’ attack so happened to catch Constantinople, at long last, at such a moment. The city was lightly defended and unable to summon more aid — while under the direction of an emperor, Alexios III, who had been cruel and profligate in the enjoyment of his power but vacillated fatally when he was required to defend it.

In a matter of days in July of 1203, Alexios’s rule collapsed, and the emperor himself fled, when the Crusaders besieged Constantiople. These Crusaders of course installed their scheming moppet as Emperor Alexios IV, actually co-emperor with his father who despite having been brutally blinded by his brother was liberated and acclaimed by the populace.

The ensuing months make painful reading — and surely much worse than that to experience at first hand. The new emperors feuded with each other despite their kinship. They also had to squeeze every revenue they could for the Crusader army, which stubbornly refused to depart as its leader, the nonagenarian Doge of Venice, schemed to establish lasting Venetian authority in Byzantium. Irritated residents, enduring the continued presence of a Crusader army that thought it was supposed to be going to Jerusalem all along, rioted and fought with one another.

(For a ready summary of this situation and the entire buildup of the Fourth Crusade, grab episode 15 of Lars Brownworth’s outstanding 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast.)

The bottom line was that young Alexios was no more impressive in power than had been his predecessor and he had the added disability of having been installed by a foreign invader. He also discovered to his chagrin that the staggering sum of 200,000 he had so lightly promised the Venetians in exchange for his throne was double what he could actually find in the capital. When the situation unmanned him in January of 1204, he cowered in the imperial palace and sent his chamberlain to petition the Crusaders to back him in the latest exigency.

That chamberlain was our man, Alexios Mourtzouphlos.

Acting with an alacrity that might have spared Constantinople a horror had an earlier prince exercised it, Alexios instead arrested the co-emperors and spirited them off to a dungeon where they were quietly murdered.

The usurper then turned the city’s energies towards reinforcing its battered defenses and attempted to mount an attack against the Crusaders. This proved, however, much too late to spare the Second Rome its most awful tribulation.

In a matter of days in April 1204, the rude band of Latins who set out to win Jerusalem for Christ overran glorious Constantinople and put it to the sack. Tourists today who gawk at the bronze horses decorating Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica are in fact enjoying the plunder of Byzantium. In time Constantinople would be retrieved from the Latins, but neither the city itself nor the Byzantine Empire ever fully recovered from the blow. This is also the event that made the schism between Eastern and Western confessions of Christianity permanently irretrievable.*

It was not given Alexios Mourtzouphlos to see what horrors ensued for Constantinople, never mind to get a start on finagling an imperial comeback of his own. Fleeing the sack of the city, he wound up in Thrace in the company of yet another deposed ex-emperor. But after first allowing Mourtzouphlos to marry his daughter, that old schemer had Alexios V blinded and in November 1204 abandoned him to an advancing Latin army — and its eventual death-by-precipitation — while his former in-laws fled to Corinth.

* One of Alexios IV’s promises to his Crusader buddies was to submit the Byzantine patriarchate to Papal authority — another pledge that could never have been realistically delivered.

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

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 violent overthrow, 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.**


Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

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.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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476: Basiliscus, victim of the fine print

Add comment August 18th, 2014 Headsman

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.

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602: Emperor Maurice and all his heirs

Add comment November 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 602 (although some sources prefer November 23, but that’s close enough for ancient history) the 20-year reign of Byzantine Emperor Maurice came to a most unpleasant conclusion.

No gangster of love, Maurice made his bones (and other bones) as a military commander in a running war with the Sassanids unproductively engaged by the forgettable successors of Justinian.

So successful was the progress of his arms that Emperor Tiberius II Constantine married his daughter to Maurice and set him up as the official heir, a sage expedient considering that Roman commanders had once been known to take the succession into their own hands.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Maurice.

As a reward for his many victories in the field, Maurice got to take charge of a badly stumbling state: war both east and west (Maurice made peace with the Persians and brought the Slavs and Avars to heel in the Balkans), the intractable intra-Christian Monophysite controversy (Maurice extended a politic religious toleration), the bankruptcy of his state (Maurice cleaned up the reckless prodigality of his predecessors). For twenty years Maurice managed as well as anyone a very messy situation that in clumsier hands might easily have consumed the state entirely.

In the end this might be his legacy, for good and ill: a manager, not a visionary. Byzantium maybe doesn’t even survive without Maurice, but he was not fated to be familiar to posterity’s every schoolchild like Octavian Augustus — merely to lose his job to office politics.

Maurice, says Charles William Previte-Orton, “was a better judge of policy than of men.” And while the emperor “saw the dire need of economy,” he “forgot that the army did not” and so fatally disregarded “the ferment among the overtried soldiery.”

Maurice had already irritated his Dacian legions by refusing to pay an Avar ransom for their captured brethren — that fiscal rectitude thing, always a dangerous virtue to exercise in proximity to armed men. Now, he provocatively dialed back their pay and then tried to keep them beyond the frontier in Avar territory rather than retiring to home winter quarters.

The legions mutinied, thrusting a mere centurion named Phocas (or Phokas) to their fore. As Maurice commanded neither love nor fear in his home precincts, Constantinople itself yielded readily to the rebels while the enervated erstwhile emperor crossed the Bosphorus and there resigned to his fate not only himself but the several sons he had been designating to succeed him on thrones East and West. Gibbon:

Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. … The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: “Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.” And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant. The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea; their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience.

Maurice’s widow Constantina and his daughters were suffered to live, but only for a few years more: they too were eventually put to death for plotting. It was the perfect way to kick off a calamitous century for the Byzantines.

Phocas wore the purple from 602 to 610. Just guess how his term in office ended.

The History of Byzantium podcast covers Maurice’s rough go at the top in episode 34, 35, and 36.

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555: Rusticus and John

Add comment November 5th, 2010 Headsman

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.

We’ll let J.B. Bury take it from here:

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.”

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1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople

5 comments June 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Ottoman Grand Vizier Çandarli Halil Pasha (or Chandarly) was put to death, the first time anyone holding that office had suffered such a fate.

In Istanbul, Halil Pasha tower — part of the siegeworks used to take Constantinople — overlooks Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named for the man who ordered Halil Pasha’s death.

It was a stunning fall for the man who had presented himself in the sultan’s council just six days before to argue for discontinuing the seven-week-old Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople.

This siege would succeed, on May 29, in conquering the second Rome, and it may have been Halil Pasha‘s longstanding opposition to this project so glorious for the rising Ottomans that cost him his life.

Or, something else; we are obliged to speculate. Other possible factors include:

  • Halil Pasha’s enormous personal wealth, which made his family both a potential rival and a source of confiscated revenues badly needed by the state.
  • Personal rivalry with the sultan now known as Mehmed the Conqueror, whom Halil Pasha had deposed in the former’s childhood in favor of his retired father when exigencies of state required a more experienced hand.
  • A generation gap with the sultan’s younger advisors. Both Ottoman and Christian sources recorded charges that he was in league with Byzantium’s defenders; even if not true in a literally treasonous sense, the veteran statesman had relationships with Christians through Constantinople and (as evidenced by his opposition to the siege) likely had more to lose than to gain from Mehmed’s aggressive foreign policy.

Especially in the last respect, Chandarly Halil Pasha’s death turned over a leaf in Europe’s complex relationship with the rising Turks. And among those inclined to view a clash of civilizations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the May 29, 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople rates as a day just as weighty for the fate of the world as for that of Halil Pasha himself.

A highly recommended digression: Lars Brownworth’s coverage in the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast of that empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI — who died with his boots on the day Constantinople fell, “the empire as his winding-cloth.”

[audio:http://download.12byzantinerulers.com/16-Constantine-XI.mp3]

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1182: Maria of Antioch

Add comment December 17th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date thought to be around the end of 1182, the mother of the Byzantine emperor was strangled to death in Constantinople on her adolescent son’s authority.

In signing his mother’s death warrant, 13-year-old Alexios II signed his own … and that of his dynasty.

The progeny of a nearby Crusader principality, Maria of Antioch was dynastically married to Alexios’ dad, Manuel I.

Two realms separated by a common religion, Orthodox Byzantium’s relationship with western Crusaders was fraught at best, and it was about to get a lot testier. Maria’s Latin heritage went over like a lead balloon in the Greek empire.

When her husband died in 1180, the widow was left in a tenuous position as the unpopular regent of a child-emperor in a political snakepit.

In short order, Andronikos I Komnenos, after a lifetime of scheming, got his mitts on the throne two years after he’d been obliged to grovel in chains before Maria’s husband to be allowed a peacable retirement.

Some retirement.

Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates narrates Andronikos’s ruthless divide-and-conquer path to the purple.

Having thus slaughtered those whom he had been most eager to seize, Andronikos bided his time to assail others; some he delivered over to prison, some he condemned to banishment, and some he utterly destroyed in various ways. Those few who remained were anxious to go along with the majority and to reverse their former course. They changed their minds like the unstable planets and offered their necks to Andronikos to be tread underfoot, revolving around him as their axis, and so Andronikos hastened to bring about the ruin of the empress. After leveling several accusations against her, he finally charged her with treason and convened a court sympathetic to his cause with judges certain to condemn, not try, the wretched woman. The empress, who had attempted to enlist the help of her sister’s husband, Bela [III], the king of Hungary, writing him letters and tempting him with grand promises to ravage the lands around Branicevo and Belgrade, was led away to a cramped dungeon near the Monastery of Saint Diomedes. There she was grossly reviled by the guards as the butt of their jokes, and, pining with hunger and thirst, she was haunted by a vision of the executioner standing on her right where his edge would cut most surely. Andronikos’s ferocity did not abate even a whit. In the words of David, he perceived trouble and wrath and hastened to deliver her over to death, annoyed by the fact that she was still numbered among the living. Ere long he again assembled the justices who mete out injustice and whose right hand is the right hand of iniquity. He inquired as to what punishment the laws decree for traitors of cities and provinces, receiving in hand a written judgment sentencing such criminals to death, his assault against the empress went unchecked. When these lawless men raised their voices and shouted aloud as they cast their votes that this ill-starred woman must depart this life, a decree condemning her to death was immediately signed by her son, the emperor, written as though with a drop of his mother’s blood.

Elected to carry out this loathsome and unholy deed were Andronikos’s firstborn son Manuel and the sebastos George, the brother of Andronikos’s wife. Both men recoiled from their selection in disgust and contemned the emperor’s decree, declaring that they had not concurred earlier in the empress’s execution and that their hands would remain guiltless of such defilement; now, even more so, they could not endure to see her innocent body broken. This unexpected reply struck Andronikos like a thunderbolt. He continually twisted the hairs of his beard around his fingers, his eyes were filled with fire, and, shaking his head up and down, he repeatedly pitied himself and was greatly troubled that he did not have friends who delighted in blood and were eager to commit murder at the nod of his head. Holding his rage in check, like a hot-blooded horse champing at the bit or like smoke wrapping itself around a flame, he quenched his unremitting anger and postponed the execution. A few days later he condemned the ill-starred empress to a wretched death by strangulation. The sentence was carried out under the supervision of Constantine Tripsychos, who held the office of hetairarch, and the eunuch Pterygeonites … And she, who was the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men, was buried in obscurity in the sand of the nearby shore (O Sun, who didst look down upon this defilement, and Thou, O Word of God, who art without beginning, how inscrutable is thy forbearance!). The bloodthirsty soul of Andronikos exulted at this, for with the extermination of Manuel’s family, with the imperial garden laid waste, he would reign as sole monarch over the Roman empire and hold sway with impunity.

The next year, Andronikos dispensed with the charade and had the young Alexios strangled, too.

A much worse fate awaited Andronikos himself not long after, with still less able successors to follow him … sending the Byzantine Empire into a calamitous tailspin that would see Constantinople sacked by those antagonistic western Crusaders within a generation.

Update: Maria’s German Wikipedia page pegs her execution date at August 27, 1182, citing Detlev Schwennike, Europäische Stammtafeln Band II, Tafel 177, Verlag Stargardt, Marburg, 1984.

On this day..

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Feast Day of Boethius

4 comments October 23rd, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

Today is the feast day of Neoplatonic philosopher and Christian theologian Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius), author of The Consolation of Philosophy, and according to tradition martyred in 524 or 525, or possibly 526, by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric.

Well, maybe.

We know roughly as much about why Boethius was killed as when or how. We do know that he came from a line of prominent Romans (including a couple of popes back there, depending on who you count as “pope”), was himself consul in 510, and his sons were rather astonishingly joint consuls in 522. At that time he moved up to Ravenna accepting an appointment at Theodoric’s court as the Master of Offices, something like the equivalent of chief of staff, managing the work of Theodoric’s officers.

But then things went horribly wrong.

There is a long tradition, going back at least to the eighth century, regarding Boethius as having been executed for maintaining the Catholic faith against the Arian Theodoric. While Theodoric was probably paranoid about spies representing the Catholic eastern emperor-in-waiting Justinian (who would, in fact, later “reconquer” the Italian peninsula), and Boethius claims in the Consolation that he was hated for being smarter than everyone else, the truth is probably that he was caught up in the usual machinations of an imperial court.

A member of the Senate was accused of treasonably conspiring with Justinian’s predecessor Justin I against Theodoric. Boethius defended the accused (apparently the only person to do so, although the charges were surely trumped up), and in the Consolation, Boethius says he was only defending the Senate (implying that the accusations were meant to undermine the authority of the Senate by challenging its loyalty to the king).

In any event, the sources we have say that Boethius was condemned by the Senate (who appear to have thrown him under the bus) without being able to speak in his own defense. After an indeterminate time of imprisonment, he was executed.

It was while he awaited death that he wrote his most famous and arguably most influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A few of the many editions of The Consolation of Philosophy available. Others are available free at Project Gutenberg (here, here and a Latin one here), as is a podcast version.

Boethius’ translations of and commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy were the only such texts available in Europe for much of the Middle Ages, but the Consolation was translated and widely read even outside of the philosophical circles in which his other work was so important.

Written in the form of Menippean satire (alternating verse and prose) as a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, the Consolation is Boethius’s attempt to think through and make sense of the sad state of his affairs.


Boethius and Philosophy, by Mattia Preti.

Ultimately, it was both the universal nature of the problem (why are these horrible things happening to me?) and the compelling way in which he tackled the problem (a combination of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism) that have made this text so widely read and imitated.

There is no way in this space to do justice to the Consolation, which addresses the very idea of philosophical discourse (“would you like us to clash together our arguments, for perhaps out of a conflict of this kind some beautiful spark of truth my fly out?”), the nature of time and God’s perspective outside of time, the difference between providence and fate, and the nature of and way to the Good itself.

But the gist of Boethius’s argument about the sufferings of the good person maybe be quickly summarized. In short, Boethius has forgotten his true nature, which never changes, and gotten caught up in the things of this world, which come and go. If he but remembers himself, he will have something no injustice, no turning of the wheel of fortune, can take away from him. And as for the unjust and the evil, they also have their “reward”:

But since goodness confers on each man his reward, he will only lack it when he has ceased to be good. [ . . . Now] since the good itself is happiness, it is clear that all good men are made happy for this reason, that they are good. But those that are happy, it is agreed, are gods; and therefore that is the reward of good men, which no time can lessen, no man’s power diminish, no man’s wickedness obscure, to become gods. These things being so for good men, no wise man can doubt either of the punishment inseparable from evil men; for since good and evil, and also punishment and reward, are directly opposite to one another, what we see added in the case of the good man’s reward must necessarily be reflected in an opposite manner in the evil man’s punishment. As therefore goodness itself is the reward for good men, so for wicked men wickedness is itself the punishment.

On this day..

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472: Anthemius, twilight emperor of Rome

1 comment July 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 472, one of the last “twilight emperors” of the western Roman Empire — and the last of any conspicuous ability — was beheaded by his rebellious general Ricimer.

Here in Rome’s dying days, the dangerous, centuries-old game for the purple was played with the twist of political triangulation with barbarian kings who had set up permanent shop within the old empire’s borders.

Maybe it was his closet paganism, or his Greek patrician breeding, or the way he slung his toga — whatever it was, Anthemius didn’t have the knack for winning them over.

Born and reared in Constantinople, Anthemius was being groomed for succession in the relatively less treacherous eastern empire when his royal patron (and father-in-law) suddenly got gangrene and died.

The Alan commander who held military power in the east wasn’t into Anthemius, so he got the Al Gore treatment and Leo I got the laurels. Interestingly, although barbarian tribes were establishing themselves as the power behind the throne — and this was even more true in the west — they were not yet prepared to assert the imperial majesty in their own names. That last feeble cultural bulwark, however, would not hold out much longer.

Leo “rewarded” Anthemius for taking it all in stride by appointing him emperor of the perilous west. (He also rewarded the kingmaking barbarian chieftain by having him murdered. “Leo the Butcher,” he’s called.)

That pissed off legendary Vandal king Genseric (or Gaiseric, or Geiseric), who had sacked Rome in 455 and settled into a long career lucratively plundering the Mediterranean. And with good reason: Leo’s idea was for the two emperors jump Genseric.

Now, before this time Leo had already appointed and sent Anthemius as emperor of the west, a man of the senate of great wealth and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war. And yet Gaiseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian, and on account of his relationship well-disposed toward him, and when he failed in this he was still more angry and kept plundering the whole land of the emperor. (Procopius)

That war was a debacle and left Genseric merrily raiding Italy, but Anthemius’ real problem was domestic: his new realm had its own Germanic commander who also preferred to pick his own emperors, and he took an instant dislike to the foreign ponce. Anthemius and Ricimer managed a brief detente, during which the new guy tried to take Gaul back from the Visigoths (no dice), but the two fell to fighting in 472. After a brief siege, Ricimer overran Rome and set up in Anthemius’ place that Genseric-favored Olybrius (who would last all of 39 days).

Anthemius took refuge in one of Rome’s churches — either St. Peter’s or Santa Maria in Trastevere — where he was betrayed, and beheaded by (naturally) Ricimer’s Burgundian nephew.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Summary Executions

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