Posts filed under 'Greece'

316 BCE: Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great

Add comment April 17th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.

The Epirote princess married Philip II of Macedon. Though Philip had put her aside for a younger queen, Olympias adroitly maneuvered her brilliant son* Alexander to the throne from which he conquered Babylonia and Persia, and history is not confident that she stopped short of regicide to secure Alexander’s precedence.

Olympias was famed for her snake-handling: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.

Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.

The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.

Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:

Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.

As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.

Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.

Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.

Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.

A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.

* Legend holds that Olympias gave birth to Alexander on the same day Herostratus torched the Temple of Artemis.

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Feast Day of St. Andrew

1 comment November 30th, 2014 Headsman

Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-18

“Walks on the Water” by the Russian band Nautilus Pompilius
Translation from friend of the blog Sonechka; alternate version here

Apostle Andrew was fishing from a wharf.
While the Savior was walking on the water.
Andrew was pulling fishes from the sea,
While the Savior – fallen men.

Andrew cried out: “I will leave the wharf,
If you reveal the secret to me.”
And the Savior answered: “Be calm, Andrew.
There is no secret here.

“You see, yonder, on the mountain
Towers a cross,
Underneath are a dozen soldiers.
Hang on it for a while.
And when you get bored,
Return back here
To walk on the water with me.”

“But, Master, the helmets are adorned with glistening horns,
A black raven circles the cross.
Explain to me now, take pity on the fool,
And leave the crucifixion for later.”

The Messiah gasped and with ire
Stamped his foot on the smoothness of water.
“You are indeed a fool.” — And Andrew in tears
Shuffled off home with his fishes.

November 30 is the feast date of St. Andrew the Apostle, Christ‘s very first disciple along with his brother St. Peter.

Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.

Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.

After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.

The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.

The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**

Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.

Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.


The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew, by Charles Le Brun (1646-1647).

St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.

Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.

* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.

** It was Archbishop James Hamilton — later executed — who gave the residents of St Andrews standing access to golf’s Holiest of Holies, the Old Course at St Andrews.

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c. 415 B.C.E.: The men of Melos

Add comment February 9th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the winter of 416-415 B.C.E., the island of Melos surrendered to an Athenian siege during the ruinous Peloponnesian War.

Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.

This ghastly event is covered by ThucydidesHistory. 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.

It’s a riveting read. The excerpts below are from this public-domain translation; there are others here and here.

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.

Melians: 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.

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356 BCE: Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis

3 comments July 21st, 2013 Headsman

By the ancient world’s tradition, it was on July 21, 356 — the night of Alexander the Great‘s birth* — that a theretofore forgettable man set fire to the wooden rafters of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Situated on the Hellenized coast of Asia Minor, near present-day Selcuk, Turkey, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. It counted Artemis (Diana) its patron deity, and gloried in a jaw-dropping marble temple, bankrolled two centuries before by the Lydian king Croesus, that would have nearly covered a modern football pitch. Ephesians took their Artemis seriously: 400-plus years later, St. Paul would barely escape lynching at the hands of enraged Artemis devotees when he proselytized there.

What a horror it must have been for 4th century BCE Ephesians to awake this day to the destruction of their city’s own sacred pride.

Even more shockingly, the temple’s destroyer made no effort to conceal himself. He openly boasted of his act, and of the horrifying reason for it: merely to exalt his obscure name with the luster of infamy.

Ephesus not only put this man to death, but passed a damnatio memoriae upon him, forbidding any mention of his name, in order to deny him his victory.

But the the historian Theopompus, who was not Ephesian, cheated the city of its sentence by recording it: Herostratus. It’s a word that has become a metonym in many languages and an allegory in many books for any villain impelled to his wickedness by the allure of celebrity.

We have no specific date for Herostratus’s execution. But we do have his last tortured victory. We do have his name.

The Ephesians in time rebuilt the magnificent temple, bigger and more awe-inspiring than before. It stood some 600 years more until the Goths sacked it in 268 AD, long enough to secure its place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus,” wrote Antipater of Sidon of the reconstructed, post-Herostratus temple. “But when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'”


The Temple of Artemis today: a weedy rubble. (cc) image from LWY.

* Plutarch remarked that Artemis was too distracted delivering the conqueror into the world to protect her shrine.

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399 BCE: Socrates

2 comments May 19th, 2013 Headsman

It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.

Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.

For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE


“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”

The corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that the real crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.

All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.

Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.

Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.

Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:

  • the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
  • the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.

Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

A few books about the death of Socrates

* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.

During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.

“Counting inclusively, as was then the custom, Socrates died on Thargelion 6, which is the very day recorded for his birth,” notes Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. It’s possible that Socrates’s birthday became associated with Thargelion 6 because Thargelion 6 was associated with Socrates via his execution … but Thargelion 6 became known as man’s execution date. It also happened to be the Athenian festival “Thargelia” (and the day before Plato’s Thargelia 7 birthday).

There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7” from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.

For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.

** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.

† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.

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317 B.C.E.: Philip III Arrhidaeus, who succeeded Alexander the Great

1 comment December 25th, 2010 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date in 317 that the half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great was put to death, just another casualty as the conqueror’s vast empire fragmented.

The half-witted Philip III Arrhidaeus (or Arridaeus) didn’t exactly seem like he was born to rule — or maybe he was and that was just the problem. Plutarch juicily speculated that the boy was muddled intentionally by the snake-worshiping wife of Macedonian conqueror Philip II, Olympias. Olympias was the mother of a kid named Alexander whom she was trying to advance to the throne ahead of his half-siblings; Angelina Jolie made an apt choice to depict her at her ruthless harem-politicking best.

Arrhidaeus was the son of Philip by a courtesan named Philinna, a woman of low birth. His deficiency in understanding was the consequence of a distemper, in which neither nature nor accident had any share. For it is said, there was something amiable and great in him, when a boy; which Olympias perceiving, gave him potions that disturbed his brain.

Plutarch

Philip III Arrhidaeus is one of the main characters of this historical novel.

Whatever potions Olympias did or did not administer, she did in fact put her kid in line to follow Philip; that boy vindicated the succession by rolling his phalanxes over vulnerable potentates from Hellas to India. You might have heard of the guy.

The problem for Macedon as for Arrhidaeus came after Alexander the Great’s brilliant career closed with his unexpected, youthful death.

The stupendous empire had no obvious heir, and different factions of Alexander’s military backed different candidates. Long story short, the Arrhidaeus succeeded as the titular, but powerless, king, under a succession of regents who were prone to untimely deaths.

“Merely” titular kingship is a pretty powerful post in itself, though, and Arrhidaeus’s wife Eurydice began maneuvering to gain a wider sphere of action from her now-allied, now-enemy regents, who were themselves fighting one another. In 317, Eurydice backed the wrong horse, and she and the hubby were put to death after capture by his rival, who was at the time allied with Olympias.

Alexander’s empire was fracturing, and would soon come completely apart (one of Alexander’s generals founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra‘s asp). It was a dangerous environment for everyone within a pikestaff of power, which meant that at least Arrhidaeus and Eurydice could take solace from the next world when the very same fate befell Olympias herself.

(More posthumous consolation: the Rimae Ariadaeus lunar crater is named for this short-lived figurehead.)


The funerary tumulus at Vergina, one of Greece’s most spellbinding archaeological treasures, features an in situ tomb whose occupant — though grandly claimed to be the more impressive Philip II — might, in fact, be Philip III. The contents of this tomb have been the subjected of spirited academic, and even nationalist, disputation, on which topics this blog is blessedly destitute of authority.


Royal Macedonian Tomb, Vergina. (cc) image from Templar1307 (whose user ID alludes to another blog-worthy incident).

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Greece,Heads of State,History,Macedonia,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions

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1972: Vassilis Lymberis, the last executed in Greece

2 comments August 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1972, 27-year-old Cretan electrician Vassilis Lymberis was shot for murdering his mother-in-law, his wife, and his two children by burning down the family house that January. It would be the last execution in Greece.

Lymberis didn’t so much deny torching the place as he did go for the insanity-esque defense of being off his rocker from the mother-in-law. (As seen on TV.)

He also insisted that he didn’t know his children were in the house when he set it ablaze. “If you don’t believe me,” he insisted, “execute me this very moment!”

That Lymberis would obtain his milestone status was hardly predictable at the time; the country was still under the military junta; two years later, the regime collapsed and its former principals were themselves sentenced to death. (Those sentences were later commuted.)

Greece abolished the death penalty in stages (initially retaining it for serious wartime crimes) in the 1990s and early 2000s.

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1821: Tudor Vladimirescu, Romanian revolutionary

2 comments June 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1821, Romanian national hero Tudor Vladimirescu (sometimes “Theodore Vladimiresco” in 19th century Anglo sources) was executed-slash-murdered in revolt against the Ottoman Empire by his Greek counterparts.

In the run-up to the Greek War of Independence, the Greek patriotic network Filiki Eteria tried to line up support in the Danubian Principalities.

As it happened, Tudor Vladimirescu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was the guy enlisted to head up the Wallachian rebellion.

The low-born Vladimirescu had risen to the boyard nobility through his own merit. He had also won the Russian Order of St. Vladimir for his service in that country’s army, which made him an attractive partner for Greek conspirators hoping to attract Russian aid.

Vladimirescu’s pandurs even made the first move, ahead of the Greeks, seeking to occupy a power vacuum with the death of the Wallachian prince.

And this fact, ultimately, brackets the Wallachian Uprising into its unfortunate fate. While Greek revolutionaries went on to romantic glory, Tudor Vladimirescu struggled to gain Russian support, stressed internal reforms as against breakaway aspirations to keep the Ottomans cool, and tried to stay on at least cordial terms with Greek revolutionary leader Alexander Ypsilanti.

It’s perhaps because he accomplished none of these things and therefore became no other man’s instrument that Vladimirescu can be appreciated by posterity as a true exponent of the nationalist cause.* Illustrative of the difficulty: one of Romania’s chief nationalist beefs at this point was with Phanariot Greeks who soaked the Balkans under the Ottoman aegis; Vladimirescu’s initial manifesto to Constantinople called for restoration of Wallachian privileges and protection from Phanariot abuses. And that Greek leader Ypsilanti? He was a Phanariot himself. Peasants who rallied to the Wallachian banner weren’t looking to go to the wall for the Greeks.

Sources of a Hellenic bent are liable to perceive “perfidy and crimes” in Vladimirescu’s twisting and turning and maneuvering … which happens to be what Ypsilanti decided, too. This, too, was probably in the best interests of Tudor’s long-term reputation.

Vladimirescu was arrested by Greek agents, subjected to a drumhead tribunal for cooperation with the Ottomans, and immediately put to death. (And then chopped up and tossed in a privy; clearly, the Greeks were giving up on the diplomatic approach to Wallachia.) The Turks bloodily pacified the Principalities, and the locus of the war shifted to the Peloponnese.

There are today many streets named after Tudor Vladimirescu in Romania. There was also a pro-Soviet Tudor Vladimirescu Division that fought the fascist Ion Antonescu government during World War II, and the man’s face used to adorn the 25-leu note.

If only by happenstance, this “perfidious” and perhaps mainly self-interested captain has morphed into a Rorschach-blot nationalist image amenable, as Lucian Boia observes, to almost any reading.

The hero of 1821 passed all ideological examinations con brio, being invoked successively by liberals, Legionaries, “internationalist” communism, and nationalist communism. A major historiographical offensive was launched in the time of Ceausescu around his relations with the Greek Etaireia movement. After Andrei Otetea had striven to demonstrate the close links between the two (Tudor Vladimirescu and the Etairist Movement in the Romanian Lands, 1945), the historians of the nationalist phase did all they could to absolve the Romanian revolutionary of any obligation towards the Etairists.

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1943: Jerzy Iwanow (Georgios Ivanof)

2 comments January 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1943, Polish-born Greek resistance hero Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz was shot (or shot attempting to escape the Kaisariani execution ground, which amounts to pretty much the same thing) for a dramatic career fighting the occupation of Greece.

Iwanow (Polish) — or Georgios Ivanof — was the son of a Russian officer, but his parents divorced in his childhood, and mom married a Greek.

Jerzy was on his way to a cosmopolitan upbringing, mastering half a dozen languages and apparently just as many sports.

His athletic and linguistic prowess would both come in handy for derring-do missions (more Polish) in the Greek waters that saw him sink a German submarine and a destroyer with magnetic bombs. He even escaped the first two times he was captured.

Third time was a charm for the Nazis.

Sounds like celluloid material. As a matter of fact, a 1972 Polish film valorized Iwanow as Agent Nr. 1.

You can see the full movie on Veoh, if you’re prepared to install their viewing software.

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c. 560 B.C.E.: Aesop, fabulist

2 comments December 28th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date around the 560s B.C.E., the storyteller Aesop is supposed to have been executed in Delphi by being hurled from the Hyampeia rock.

The semi-legendary fable-fashioner is not quite so irretrievable to history as, say, Homer, although assuredly many or all of the tales that have accrued under the heading “Aesop’s Fables” trace to origins other than this man.

Supposed to have lived from the late 7th to mid 6th centuries B.C.E., Aesop is first referenced by history’s first historian, Herodotus.

But by way of summation, we cannot improve upon Plutarch‘s succinct description of Aesop’s fate in his essay, “On God’s Slowness to Punish Evil”. (Available here; a different translation is free online here.)

I’m sure you know the story of how Aesop came here bringing gold from Croesus. He meant to make a magnificent offering to the god,* and also to give every inhabitant of Delphi four minas, but apparently he got angry and fell out with the locals; so he made the ritual offering, but sent the money back to Sardis, because he didn’t think that the people deserved a windfall. They then engineered a charge against him of temple robbery and executed him by pushing him from the famous cliff called Hyampeia.** Subsequently, the story goes on, divine wrath afflicted them with failed harvests and with all kinds of strange diseases, and as a result they used to visit all the festivals where Greeks were assembled and make an announcement inviting anyone who so wished to claim compensation from them for Aesop. Two generations later Idmon of Samos arrived at Delphi; not only was he not a relative of Aesop, but he was in fact a descendant of the people who had bought Aesop as a slave in Samos.† It was only when the Delphians had compensated him that their troubles ceased.‡ (We are also told that this incident was the reason for moving the place of punishment for temple robbers from Hyampeia to Aulia.)

There are many books and media under the Aesop’s Fables branding available for purchase, but you can also find the same content in the public domain at Gutenberg.org and elsewhere.

In any format, they’re timeless. “The Mischievous Dog”, for instance, could have been written especially for bloggers.

[audio:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19616/mp3/19616-04.mp3]

* Referring to the sacred shrine occupied by the Oracle of Delphi, of course.

** When visiting Delphi, look for Hyampeia marked on your tourist map as “Phleboukos”, one of the Phaedriades surrounding the sacred site. Hyampeia/Phleboukos towers above the Castalian spring. It’s high.

† Besides being a slave, Aesop (at least, the Aesop as legend accumulated) was afflicted with other disadvantages suitable to elevate his mythological wisdom. According to The Life of Aesop:

AESOP (according to Planudes, Cameraius and others) was by Birth, of Ammorius, a Town in the greater Phrygia; (though some will have him to be a Thracian, others a Samian) of a mean Condition, and his Person deformed, to the highest degree: Flat-nos’d, hunch-back’d, blobber-lipp’d; a long mishapen Head; his Body crooked all over, big-belly’d, badger-legg’d, and his Complexion so swarthy, that he took his very Name from’t; for Aesop is the same with Aethiop. And he was not only unhappy in the most scandalous Figure of a Man, that ever was heard of; but he was in a manner Tongue-ty’d too, by such an Impediment in his Speech, that People could very hardly understand what he said.

Be sure to check The Life‘s account of Aesop’s demise, with the undiplomatic Aesop having enraged his hosts with his poor opinion of their digs … and the fables he tells in his defense falling very flat: “He was speaking on, but they pushed him off headlong from the Rock, and he was dashed to pieces with the Fall.”

‡ The Delphians’ search for compensation is directly described by Herodotus’ Histories, written little more than a century after Aesop’s death. Though the execution story itself could be apocryphal, its presence in Herodotus at least makes Greeks’ belief in the event as a real one of their recent past about as credibly documented as anything from 2500+ years ago.

That Aesop belonged to Iadmon is proved by many facts — among others, by this. When the Delphians, in obedience to the command of the oracle, made proclamation that if any one claimed compensation for the murder of Aesop he should receive it, the person who at last came forward was Iadmon, grandson of the former Iadmon, and he received the compensation. Aesop therefore must certainly have been the former Iadmon’s slave.

Evidently, Aesop’s reputation for sagacious wit was well-established in the 5th century B.C. Aristophanes makes respectful references to Aesop in his plays The Wasps, Peace and The Birds — in the latter, the birds’ ignorance is underscored because they haven’t read their Aesop.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Greece,History,Myths,Popular Culture,Precipitated,Public Executions,Slaves,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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