Posts filed under 'Italy'

1503: A banderaio and an executioner

Add comment May 29th, 2018 Headsman

Courtesy of Emotions in the Heart of the City (14th-16th century), we travel to Florence during its between-Medicis republican interim* for a very emotional execution:

On the morning of 29 May 1503, outside the city’s great Gate of Justice,** a young flag-maker (banderaio) was put to death for having murdered another banderaio. In a scene that struck the throng of spectators as an outrage, the executioner had failed to cut off his head even after three blows of his sword. The sight must have been grisly, for the attending mounted captain was next forced to move in and club the flag-maker to death. The compassion of the crowd now pivoted into incandescent rage. A tumult broke out, as men and boys directed a cannonade of rocks at the executioner. There was, in addition, something oddly religious about the event, because rocks were also thrown at the men hooded in black, the members of the religious confraternity who were there to offer comfort to the unfortunate banderaio. They had to flee for their lives. The executioner was killed, and children then lugged his corpse around, worked their way back into the city, and dragged the body all the way up to the Franciscan Church of Santa Croce. Were they sending a message to Savonarola‘s great local enemies, the Franciscans? There was a possible religious subtext to this episode : some contemporaries claimed that the hangman had been punished — he was the very same man — for having first insulted and then hanged Savonarola five years previously. It goes without saying that he had died without last rites, and the dragging about of his body again touched on something religious in being subject to a ‘ceremony’ of desecration.

Although I cannot locate an online version of this document, it appears to me that a primary source for this incident is the chronicle of Simone Filipepi. This historian is a bit less famous than his little brother Alessandro Filipepi … who is inscribed in the annals of art’s history by his nickname (meaning “Little Barrel”) as Sandro Botticelli.

Tangentially, readers might also enjoy this 1625 instance of a clumsy executioner being lynched: in that case, his proposed prey actually survived the scaffold. A similar fate nearly befell notorious English hangman Jack Ketch, after his maladroit butchering of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

* This period prior to the restoration of the Medici was also Machiavelli’s political heyday. (He wrote his classics of statecraft after Giuliano de’ Medici subsequently recaptured Florence from the pie-eyed republicans and retired Machiavelli to countryside exile.)

** This public domain English translation of Guido Carocci‘s classic Firenze Scomparsa (Bygone Florence) illuminates some of the relevant topography.

A tower which now only consists of four stone walls, plain and undecorated, but which some day must have been much higher and surmounted by battlements, rises at the end of the Lungarno apposite the viale Carlo Alberto.

It is the sole remnant, the only souvenir of a number of ancient buildings which were situated in this position, and were known as the old mint (Zecca Vecchia).

Previous to the demolition of the walls the tower reared its massive proportions on the river bank in the midst of the ramparts of a dismantled fortress, near a mill race and buildings next the walls which at this point showed traces of a walled up gate.

The buildings next to the tower seemed a mixture of old and modern construction with large arched rooms, long corridors and balconies overhanging the canal from the Arno — which gave motive power to the wheels of various cloth mills.

These houses, which grouped en masse were of singular picturesqueness, completed the view of green banks and vine covered hills lining the river and were full of interesting historical associations.

A postern gate was situated here, flanked by a tower on the river bank to defend the city from a water attack; this was called the Gate of Justice, and its name calls up painful and melancholy memories. Outside the walls at the end of a meadow beyond the moat was a small low church whose facade was frescoed with sad subjects. In this meadow was placed the gallows and executionary scaffold. The Gate of Justice was generally closed for the better security of the city and was only thrown open for the passage of religious companies accompanying condemned criminals to the place of execution.

The street through which they passed to the gate was very appropriately known as Via Malcontenti, (Street of the Discontented).


Via dei Malcontenti, Florence (c. 1880) by Telemaco Signorini.

In 1346 criminals condemned to death were brought to a chapel, still in existence, next to the church of San Giuseppe in Via Malcontenti were tied to an iron ring which may still be seen in the pavement, but afterwards the little church outside the walls was built for this last grim service. [If this artifact still exists, I would be indebted to anyone who can supply a picture of it. -ed.]

The church was used as a resting place where the penitent might offer his short and final prayer before being handed over to the executioner.

The victims’ bodies remained suspended on the gallows for days in order to act as a wholesome warning to all evil disposed persons, but the Florentines, who must have their little joke even on the most solemn subjects, called these meadows which formerly belonged to the Nemi family, the paretaio of the Nemi (bird-catching place of the Nemi).

The gate of Justice was walled up during the great siege, and after that the lugubrious procession passed through the Porta alla Croce. In our times traces of this gate, partly buried in the raised soil, could still be seen previous to the destruction of the old walls and above it the hole through which every defensive missile might be hurled on attacking parties below.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Florence,History,Italy,Lynching,Public Executions

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1618: Nicole Regnault and the brothers Bouleaux

Add comment May 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1618, Venice crushed a Spanish conspiracy with sudden violence.

The reality of this conspiracy has been argued for the four hundred years since it was exposed or “exposed” but there is no questioning the security panic experienced by Venice at this moment.

Spain’s viceroy to Naples, the Duke of Ossuna, was massing a fleet that the Serene Republic suspected was meant for her; meanwhile, contradictory rumors of possible conspiracies within the city dogged the Doge.

At last, a Frenchman named Juven informed on confederates and countrymen whom he claimed had taken him into their confidence with the intent to destroy Ven

The Government now determined to act. On the 12th May 1618 [Nicole] Regnault and the brothers Bouleaux were arrested, just when the former had been writing to his sister in Paris, to say that he had a piece of business in hand which would save him the trouble of earning his livelihood for the future, which was true enough. The two Bouleaux, it appeared at their examination, had been engaged at the Spanish embassy in the manufacture of petards and fireworks in connection with a general plan of incendiarism; and they were forced into the admission that the embassy was a perfect storehouse of arms and ammunition, and that the order of the arrangements had been drawn up by Regnault and Pierre … On the person of Charles Bouleaux were found several damning papers; two letters of Lorenzo Nolot, a Burgundian (Pierre’s messenger to Ossuna), directed to a Signor Pireu, and in his stocking two others written to the Duke of Ossuna … The capture of Regnault and the others produced a scare, and there was a sudden exodus from the city, unhindered by the Executive, and emptying the lodging-houses of their motley and disreputable occupants. All who fell into the hands of the Government confessed that everything on their side was ready, and that if Ossuna had been able to support them, Venice must have been overpowered … On the same day which witnessed the arrests of Regnault and the two Brouleaux, orders were transmitted to the proveditor-general at sea to dispatch [naval officers already detained under suspicion -ed.] Pierre, Langlad, and their secretary Rossetti, in such a manner as he might judge fit; in reporting their executions, Veniero stated that the fireworks fabricated by Langlad for the use of the fleet had been in reality destined to burn it. On the 18th Regnault and his confederates were strangled in prison, and their bodies afterward suspended head downward between the Columns. Other summary measures followed, and about 300 persons paid with their lives for their participation in the foolish and flagitious project; but no particulars have been preserved of the exact number or of the mode of disposing them … What sad shocks must have befallen households where a father, or a son, or a brother, whose guilt was unsuspected perhaps by the rest, was seized by the sbirro to be seen no more! What a spectacle the lower Dungeons must have offered during days and days!

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Italy,Strangled,Venice

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1389: Fra Michele Berti, “Cristo povero crocifisso”

Add comment April 30th, 2018 Headsman

“This is a truth that resides in me, to which I cannot bear witness if I do not die.”

-Fra Michele Berti, at the stake

On this date in 1389, the Fraticelli friar Fra Michele Berti da Calci burned in Florence as a heretic.

This excommunicate movement of “Spiritual Franciscans” who insisted upon the poverty of an order that had come to enjoy its emoluments had for decades now dogged the Church with a persuasive critique and credo: “io credo in Cristo povero crocifisso,” as our man Michele Berti said to his inquisitors. “I believe in Christ, poor and crucified.”

The quote is from a remarkable surviving account, “La passione di frate Michele” — whose title explicating the saint’s similarity to ancient martyrologies reveals where its sympathies lie. It can be perused online in Italian here or here.

According to the passione, the Florentine populace joined Michele’s persecutors in urging him to reconcile and save his life, as he made his public progress across the city to his death dressed in a mantle painted with demons in a sea of fire. The friar’s steadfastness eventually turned onlookers to his side, so that as his procession neared the Prato della Giustizia, “a believer began to cry out, saying: stand firm, martyr of Christ, who will soon receive the crown.”

Awestruck after Berti went to the pyre singing Te Deum, the crowd began to murmur, and “many said he seems a saint, even his adversaries … and they could not have their fill of railing against the priests.”

In Umberto Eco’s great literary monument to the Fraticelli, The Name of the Rose, the young oblate Adso reminisces at one point of visiting Florence, and of witnessing an execution that appears to be modeled on on this very account including such details as Michael’s criticism of Pope John XXII and Thomas Aquinas, his refusal to kneel before a “heretic” bishop, and the tongue-lashing he gave to skulkcowl Franciscans en route to his death.

A heretic Fraticello, accused of crimes against religion and haled before the bishop and other ecclesiastics, was being subjected to severe inquisition at the time. And, following those who told me about it, I went to the place where the trial was taking place, for I heard the people say that this friar, Michael by name, was truly a very pious man who had preached penance and poverty, repeating the words of Saint Francis, and had been brought before the judges because of the spitefulness of certain women who, pretending to confess themselves to him, had then attributed sacrilegious notions to him; and he had indeed been seized by the bishop’s men in the house of those same women, a fact that amazed me, because a man of the church should never go to administer the sacraments in such unsuitable places; but this seemed to be a weakness of the Fraticelli, this failure to take propriety into due consideration, and perhaps there was some truth in the popular belief that held them to be of dubious morals (as it was always said of the Catharists that they were Bulgars and sodomites).

I came to the Church of San Salvatore, where the inquisition was in progress, but I could not enter, because of the great crowd outside it. However, some had hoisted themselves to the bars of the windows and, clinging there, could see and hear what was going on, and they reported it to those below. The inquisitors were reading to Brother Michael the confession he had made the day before, in which he said that Christ and his apostles “held nothing individually or in common as property,” but Michael protested that the notary had now added “many false consequences” and he shouted (this I heard from outside), “You will have to defend yourselves on the day of judgment!” But the inquisitors read the confession as they had drawn it up, and at the end they asked him whether he wanted humbly to follow the opinions of the church and all the people of the city. And I heard Michael shouting in a loud voice that he wanted to follow what he believed, namely that he “wanted to keep Christ poor and crucified, and Pope John XXII was a heretic because he said the opposite.”

A great debate ensued, in which the inquisitors, many of them Franciscans, sought to make him understand that the Scriptures had not said what he was saying, and he accused them of denying the very Rule of their order, and they assailed him, asking him whether he thought he understood Scripture better than they, who were masters. And Fra Michael, very stubborn indeed, contested them, so that they began provoking him with such assertions as “Then we want you to consider Christ a property owner and Pope John a Catholic and holy man.” And Michael, never faltering, said, “No, a heretic.” And they said they had never seen anyone so tenacious in his own wickedness. But among the crowd outside the building I heard many compare him to Christ before the Pharisees, and I realized that among the people many believed in his sanctity.

Finally the bishop’s men took him back to prison in irons. And that evening I was told that many monks, friends of the bishop, had gone to insult him and enjoin him to retract, but he answered like a man sure of his own truth. And he repeated to each of them that Christ was poor and that Saint Francis and Saint Dominic had said so as well, and that if for professing this upright opinion he had to be condemned to the stake, so much the better, because in a short time he would be able to see what the Scriptures describe, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse and Jesus Christ and Saint Francis and the glorious martyrs. And I was told tht he said, “If we read with such fervor the doctrine of certain sainted abbots, how much greater should be our fervor and our joy in desiring to be in their midst?” And after words of this sort, the inquisitors left the prison with grim faces, crying out in indignation (and I heard them), “He has a devil in him!”

The next day we learned that the sentence had been pronounced, and I learned that among the crimes of which he was accused, it was said that he even claimed that Saint Thomas Aquinas was not a saint nor did he enjoy eternal salvation, but was, on the contrary, damned and in a state of perdition — which seemed incredible to me. And the sentence concluded that, since the accused did not wish to mend his ways, he was to be ocnducted to the usual place of execution et ibidem igne et flammis igneis accensis concremetur et comburatur, ita quod penitus moriatur et anima a corpore separetur.

Then more men of the church went to visit him and warned him of what would happen, and said: “Brother Michael, the miters and copes have already been made, and painted on them are Fraticelli accompanied by devils.” To frighten him and force him finally to retract. But Brother Michael knelt down and said, “I believe that beside the pyre there will be our father Francis, and I further believe there will be Jesus and the apostles, and the glorious martyrs Bartholomew and Anthony.” Which was a way of refusing for the last time the inquisitors’ offers.

The next morning I, too, was on the bridge before the bishop’s palace, where the inquisitors had gathered. Brother Michael, still in irons, was brought to face them. One of his faithful followers knelt before him to receive his beneiction, and this follower was seized by the men-at-arms and taken at once to prison. Afterward, the inquisitors again read the sentence to the condemned man and asked him once more whether he wished to repent. At every point where the sentence said he was a heretic Michael replied, “I am no heretic; a sinner, yes, but Catholic,” and when the text named “the most venerable and holy Pope John XXII” Michael answered, “No, a heretic.” Then the bishop ordered Michael to come and kneel before him, and Michael said no one should kneel before heretics. They forced him to his knees and he murmured, “God will pardon me.” And after he had been led out in all his priestly vestments, a ritual began, and one by one his vestments were stripped away until he remained in that little garment that the Florentines called a “cioppa.” And as is the custom when a priest is defrocked, they seared the pads of his fingers with a hot iron and they shaved his head. Then he was handed over to the captain and his men, who treated him very harshly and put him in irons, to take him back to prison, and he said to the crowd, “Per Dominum moriemur.” He was to be burned, as I found out, only the next day.

And on this day they also went to ask him whether he wished to confess himself and receive communion. And he refused, saying it was a sin to accept sacraments from one in a state of sin. Here, I believe, he was wrong, and he showed he had been corrupted by the heresy of the Patarines.

Finally it was the day of the execution, and a gonfalonier came for him, and asked him why he was so stubborn when he had only to affirm what the whole populace affirmed and accept the opinion of Holy Mother Church. But Michael, very harshly, said, “I believe in Christ poor and crucified.” And the gonfalonier went away, making a helpless gesture. Then the captain arrived with his men and took Michael into the courtyard, where the bishop’s vicar reread the confession and the sentence to him.

I did not understand then why the men of the church and of the secular arm were so violent against people who wanted to live in poverty and I said to myself, if anything, they should fear men who wish to live in wealth and take money away from others, and introduce simoniacal practices into the church. And I spoke of this with a man standing near me, for I could not keep silent any more. He smiled mockingly and said to me that a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it. And, he added, the preaching of poverty put the wrong ideas into the heads of the people, who would consider their poverty a source of pride, and pride can lead to many proud acts. And, finally, he said that I should know that preaching poverty for monks put you on the side of the Emperor, and this did not please the Pope. Except that at this point I did not understand why Brother Michael wanted to die so horribly to please the Emperor.

And in fact some of those present were saying, “He is not a saint, he was sent by Louis to stir up discord among the citizens, and the Fraticelli are Tuscans but behind them are the Emperor’s agents.” And others said, “He is a madman, he is possessed by the Devil, swollen with pride, and he enjoys martyrdom for his wicked pride; they make these monks read too many lives of the saints, it would be better for them to take a wife!” And still others added, “No, all Christians should be like him, ready to proclaim their faith, as in the time of the pagans.” As I listened to those voices, no longer knowing what to think myself, it so happened that I looked straight at the condemned man’s face, which at times was hidden by the crowd ahead of me. And I saw the face of a man looking at something that is not of this earth, as I had sometimes seen on statues of saints in ecstatic vision. And I understood that, madman or seer as he might be, he knowingly wanted to die because he believed that in dying he would defeat his enemy, whoever it was. And I understood that his example would lead others to death. And I remain amazed by the possessors of such steadfastness only because I do not know, even today, whether what prevails in them is a proud love of the truth they believe, which leads them to death, or a proud desire for death, which leads them to proclaim their truth, whatever it may be. And I am overwhelmed with admiration and fear.

But let us go back to the execution, for now all were heading for the place where Michael would be put to death.

The captain and his men brought him out of the gate, with his little skirt on him and some of the buttons undone, and as he walked with a broad stride and a bowed head, reciting his office, he seemed one of the martyrs. And the crowd was unbelievably large and many cried, “Do not die!” and he would answer, “I want to die for Christ.” “But you are not dying for Christ,” they said to him; and he waid, “No, for the truth.” When they came to a place called the Proconsul’s Corner, one man cried to him to pray to God for them all, and he blessed the crowd.

At the Church of the Baptist they shouted to him, “Save your life!” and he answered, “Rum for your life from sin!”; at the Old Market they shouted to him, “Live, live!” and he replied, “Save yourselves from hell”; at the New Market they yelled, “Repent, repent,” and he replied, “Repent of your usury.” And on reaching Santa Croce, he saw the monks of his order on the steps, and he reproached them because they did not follow the Rule of Saint Francis. And some of them shrugged, but others pulled the cowls over their faces to cover them, in shame.

And going toward the Justice Gate, many said to him, “Recant! Recant! Don’t insist on dying,” and he said, “Christ died for us.” And they said, “But you are not Christ, you must not die for us!” And he said, “But I want to die for him.” At the Field of Justice, one said to him he should do as a certain monk, his superior, had done, abjuring; but Michael answered that he would not abjure, and I saw many in the crowd agree and urge Michael to be strong: so I and many others realized those were his followers, and we moved away from them.

Finally we were outside the city and before the pyre appeared, the “hut,” as they called it there, because the wood was arranged in the form of a hut, and there a circle of armed horsemen formed, to keep people from coming too close. And there they bound Brother Michael to the stake. And again I heard someone shout to him, “But what is it you’re dying for?” And he answered, “For a truth that dwells in me, which I can proclaim only by death.”

They lit the fire. And Brother Michael, who had chanted the “Credo,” afterward chanted the “Te Deum.” He sang perhaps eight verses of it, then he bent over as if he had to sneeze, and fell to the ground, because his bonds had burned away. He was already dead: before the body is completely burned it has already died from the great heat, which makes the heart explode, and from the smoke that fills the chest.

Then the whole hut blazed up, like a torch, and there was a great glow, and if it had not been for the poor charred body of Michael, still glimpsed among the glowing coals, I would have said I was standing before the burning bush. And I was close enough to have a view (I recalled as I climbed the steps of the library) that made some words rise spontaneously to my lips, about ecstatic rapture; I had read them in the books of Saint Hildegard: “The flame consists of a splendid clarity, of an unusual vigor, and of an igneous ardor, but possesses the splendid clarity that it may illuminate and the igneous ardor that it may burn.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Italy,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1345: Giovanni Martinozzi, missionary Franciscan

Add comment April 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1345, Giovanni Martinozzi died for the faith in Cairo.

Martinozzi was a Franciscan who hailed from one of the prominent families of Siena. Like the famous founder of his order, Martinozzi undertook to convert the Saracens: part of a mmissionary ovement of Franciscans abroad from Europe which had been encouraged by the papacy as a means to discharge the troublesome ferment of the Franciscan movement. (As a reference point, Martinozzi would have died in the generation following the events of The Name of the Rose.)

Where Francis found the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil mild and welcomings, Martinozzi attained from the Mamluks the laurels of “missionary martyrdom” that had eluded the master.

After re-converting a Genoese merchant who had apostatized to Islam, Martinozzi was tortured and on April 15, 1345, immolated along with the inconstant entrepreneur.

According to S. Maureen Burke (“The ‘Martyrdom of the Franciscans’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65 Bd., H. 4 (2002)), a fresco of Beato Martinozzi’s martyrdom once adorned the Basilica of San Francesco in Siena; the fresco either does not survive or has eluded my online peregrinations. Giotto’s thematically topical 1320s Ordeal by Fire before the Sultan of Egypt will have to serve: it alludes to an episode (perhaps apocryphal) during Saint Francis’s travels in Egypt a century before.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture

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2004: Fabrizio Quattrocchi, “I’ll show you how an Italian dies!”

Add comment April 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Italian mercenary Fabrizio Quattrocchi was executed by Iraqi insurgents.

A former Italian army corporal turned baker, Quattrocchi (English Wikipedia entry | the vastly more detailed Italian) hired on with an American contractor in the Iraq fiasco as a private security guard at €8,000 per month, intending to save enough to start a family.

Instead, Quattrocchi was seized as a hostage outside Baghdad with three comrades on April 13, 2004, by the “Green Brigades,” one of that era’s many ephemeral bodies of militants. The other three* were held (and eventually freed unharmed via a June 2004 special forces raid) further to an unsuccessful ultimatum demanding Italian withdrawal. Quattrocchi, by contrast, was executed the very next day after capture — seemingly to prove that the kidnappers meant business after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi greeted news of the men’s capture with a vow that he would never give in to “blackmail.”

A video of the murder was delivered to Al Jazeera TV, which has never aired it in its entirety. However, it became known via second-hand reports of those who had viewed it, and eventually from a partial airing of the video, that just prior to being shot Quattrocchi spat defiant last words to his executioners:

'I'll show you how an Italian dies'
From the London Times, April 16, 2004.

Then he was shot dead,** and dumped in the grave he’d been forced to dig for himself.

Thanks to these last words, which Berlusconi and his foreign minister Franco Frattini immediately pinned to a bloody banner, Quattrocchi’s memory has been the subject of partisan rancor in Italy. The left has disdained to celebrate a gun for hire in a disastrous imperial foray; the right has honored his patriotism and conferred a medal of valor upon him in 2006 — arousing some protest since this recognition has not been extended to regular Italian soldiers who fell to terrorist attacks in Iraq, nor to less bellicose murdered hostages like Enzo Baldoni.

* The other captives were Salvatore Stefio, Maurizio Agliana, and Umberto Cupertino, all like Quattrocchi Italians in their mid-thirties. Stefio would later be prosecuted and acquitted for unauthorized recruitment of security contractors.

** About a month after Quattrocchi was slain by gunfire, the grisly beheading of hostage Nick Berg inaugurated a different epoch in Iraq’s stagey hostage murders.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Hostages,Iraq,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

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1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza

1 comment February 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the Bishop of Potenza was lynched by the faithful.

Andrea Serrao English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a late disciple of the reformist Jansenist movement which tended among many other things to such Enlightenment-friendly notions as liberty of conscience, the reduction of the papal authority, and “regalism” — the doctrine of secular supremacy over ecclesiastical.

According to Owen Chadwick’s The Popes and European Revolution, Serrao as Bishop of the southern Italian city of Potenza

found a cathedral in disrepair, a seminary closed for the last eleven years. He raised the money for a rebuilding of the cathedral, reopened the seminary, of which the products were suspect for their ideas of liberty. He was as strong a reformer as [fellow Jansenist Bishop Scipione de’]Ricci,* and with many of the same ideas. He held a diocesan synod which is unknown because the acts were afterwards destroyed by government; but evidently its conclusions resembled those of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia. He may have been more radical than Ricci, for he wanted clergy to be allowed to marry.

In December of 1798, Bourbon authority collapsed in the Kingdom of Naples — which ruled all of southern Italy, including Potenza — leading to the formation of the Parthenopean Republic. Serrao fully embraced it, “and urged them to obey the new government; and at the end of his address the people cried ‘Long live the French government. Long live liberty!’ and rushed out into the piazza to plant a tree of liberty. Bishop Serrao then accepted the office of civil commissioner of Potenza.” (Chadwick again)

But this Republic was destined for an imminent and bloody conclusion.

The most immediate reaction, and the one that led to Serrao’s abrupt death, was the summons of Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to a popular anti-Republican movement, called Sanfedismo (“Holy Faith”). In early February, a bare two weeks after the Parthenopean Republic’s establishment, Ruffo ventured from the royal refuge on Sicily and landed at his native Calabria like Che Guevara, with nothing but a handful of companions.

“Brave and courageous Calabrians, unite now under the standard of the Holy Cross and of our beloved sovereign,” Ruffo’s summons to a resistance implored. “Do not wait for the enemy to come and contaminate our home neighbourhoods. Let us march to confront him, to repel him, to hunt him out of our kingdom and out of Italy and to break the barbarous chains of our holy Pontiff. May the banner of the Holy Cross secure you total victory.”

Ruffo’s message was a winner and almost instantly began attracting holy guerrillas by the hundreds; in a few months’ time, Ruffo secured the surrender of the Republicans in Naples itself, by which time his army is reputed to have numbered 17,000.

And even in its earliest promulgation, it attained — seemingly to Andrea Serrao’s surprise — strength enough to overwhelm that tree of liberty stuff in Potenza within days of Ruffo’s landing. Back to Chadwick:

When Ruffo’s bands drew near to Potenza, many peasants and some priests regarded Bishop Serrao as ‘the enemy of the Pope, the king, and God’. Warned to escape, he said that he trusted his fellow-citizens. When the professors and students at the seminary wanted to make a bodyguard, he forbade them to arm.

Very early on 24 February 1799 soldiers of the Potenza guard smashed the tree of liberty, and raided the bishop’s palace. They came upon Serrao still in bed, and killed him with two shots of a pistol. Bleeding to death, he uttered the words ‘Long live the faith of Jesus Christ! Long live the Republic!’ The guards broke into the seminary next door, and murdered the rector as his students fled. After sacking palace and seminary they cut off the heads of bishop and rector and carried them in triumph round the city on pikes.

* There’s an interesting public domain biography of Ricci which, without any direct reference to Serrao, delves into the theological and political conflicts of the age that would have been of interest to our principal.

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2 CE: Iullus Antonius

1 comment February 14th, 2018 Headsman

On some undateable occasion in the second year of our Lord, Roman Emperor Augustus had his notorious daughter’s lover put to death.

Half-predator and half-prey in the incestuous Julio-Claudian family web, Iullus Antonius was the son of Augustus‘s great (and here, long-vanquished) rival Marc Antony, as well as the half-brother of Augustus’s discarded first wife.

Who fain at Pindar’s flight would aim,
On waxen wings, Iulus, he
Soars heavenward, doom’d to give his name
To some new sea.

Pindar, like torrent from the steep
Which, swollen with rain, its banks o’erflows,
With mouth unfathomably deep,
Foams, thunders, glows,

All worthy of Apollo’s bay,
Whether in dithyrambic roll
Pouring new words he burst away
Beyond control,

Or gods and god-born heroes tell,
Whose arm with righteous death could tame
Grim Centaurs, tame Chimaeras fell,
Out-breathing flame,

Or bid the boxer or the steed
In deathless pride of victory live,
And dower them with a nobler meed
Than sculptors give,

Or mourn the bridegroom early torn
From his young bride, and set on high
Strength, courage, virtue’s golden morn,
Too good to die.

Antonius! yes, the winds blow free,
When Dirce’s swan ascends the skies,
To waft him. I, like Matine bee,
In act and guise,

That culls its sweets through toilsome hours,
Am roaming Tibur’s banks along,
And fashioning with puny powers
A laboured song.

Your Muse shall sing in loftier strain
How Caesar climbs the sacred height,
The fierce Sygambrians in his train,
With laurel dight,

Than whom the Fates ne’er gave mankind
A richer treasure or more dear,
Nor shall, though earth again should find
The golden year.

Your Muse shall tell of public sports,
And holyday, and votive feast,
For Caesar’s sake, and brawling courts
Where strife has ceased.

Then, if my voice can aught avail,
Grateful for him our prayers have won,
My song shall echo, “Hail, all hail,
Auspicious Sun!”

There as you move, “Ho! Triumph, ho!
Great Triumph!” once and yet again
All Rome shall cry, and spices strow
Before your train.

Ten bulls, ten kine, your debt discharge:
A calf new-wean’d from parent cow,
Battening on pastures rich and large,
Shall quit my vow.

Like moon just dawning on the night
The crescent honours of his head;
One dapple spot of snowy white,
The rest all red.

-Horace, celebrating Iullus Antonius‘s verse in verse. The latter’s verse has not reached posterity, though he was a well-regarded poet in his time.

Contrary to what one might expect, Augustus didn’t hold the kid’s parentage against him* and “not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter.” (Per Marcus Velleius Paterculus**)

But at some point Iullus took his relations rather too far for the old man by achieving the favors of Augustus’s only daughter, Julia — notorious of ancient scribes for her promiscuity and eventually destined to be murdered off when her crusty, cuckolded husband Tiberius attained the purple.

There is nobody party to this event that comes out the better for it; Augustus for his part really cemented his uptight prig reputation for the history books, and Tacitus censures him because in “[c]alling, as he did, a vice so habitual among men and women by the awful name of sacrilege and treason, he went far beyond the indulgent spirit of our ancestors, beyond indeed his own legislation.”

In the telling of Cassius Dio:

when [Augustus] at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iullus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office. As a result of this affair many other women, too, were accused of similar behaviour, but the emperor would not entertain all the suits; instead, he set a definite date as a limit and forbade all prying into what had occurred previous to that time. For although in the case of his daughter he would show no mercy, remarking that he would rather have been Phoebe’s father than hers, he nevertheless was disposed to spare the rest. This Phoebe had been a freedwoman of Julia’s and her accomplice, and had voluntarily taken her own life before she could be punished. It was for this that Augustus praised her.

* Iullus’s older brother was not so lucky, nor was Marc Antony’s very dangerous son by Cleopatra.

** Worth noting: Velleius Paterculus says that Iullus died by his own hand rather than (as most other sources in antiquity give it) the executioner’s.

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1799: Francesco Conforti, regalist and republican

1 comment December 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the subversive priest Francesco Conforti was hanged in the Piazza Mercato for his role in the Naples Parthenopean Republic.

This scholar came on the scene in the 1770s penning apologias for the Enlightenment trend towards the secular authority supplanting the ecclesiastic. For Conforti, Christ had not claimed, and the Vatican ought not wield, civil power.

This was quite an annoyance to the church that had ordained him but Conforti was no red priest. His doctrine was so far from antithetical to sovereigns in the Age of Absolutism that it was known as regalism, and a notable 1771 work was dedicated to the Bourbons’ secular strongman in southern Italy and Sicily.

But clerical reaction after the French Revolution got Conforti run out of his university appointment and even thrown in prison which would drive him into the republican camp — and when those republicans took power in Naples in early 1799 he joined their government as Interior Minister, his duty to shape civil society for “the democratic and republican regime [which] is the most consistent with the Gospel.”

“Democracy is the greatest benefit God has given the human race,” Conforti once intoned. But in 1799 it was a gift to enjoy in small doses: after the Bourbons reconquered Naples that summer, executing 122 republican patriots into the bargain, the human race reverted to the second greatest benefit.

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1405: Astorre I Manfredi, former lord of Faenza

Add comment November 28th, 2017 Headsman

Baldasar Cossa,* in Romandiola cardinalis Ecclesieque legatus pro Ecclesia romana, Astorgium Manfredum, paulo ante dominum Faventie, publice decapitari fecit.

-Annales Forolivienses: ab origine urbis usque ad annum MCCCCLXXIII

On this date in 1405, the Italian nobleman/warlord Astorre I Manfredi was beheaded in his family’s on-again, off-again stomping ground of Faenza.

A clan made for an HBO series, the Manfredi had cut a colorfully scheming profile on the Renaissance scene for years, not excluding previous encounters with the executioner.

Astorre’s own calling was to retrieve with his sword in 1377 the family patrimony from which his father had been dispossessed twenty years previous. For the balance of Manfredi’s life it would be the seat of an opera buffa for a hard-working mercenary prince trying to claw his place in the peninsular crab bucket.

Manfredi’s mercenary company was destroyed in a Genoa-Venice war, with Manfredi on that occasion only barely eluding the capture and summary death that his brothers in arms suffered. He returned to Faenza to throw his brother in the dungeon for plotting a coup, then tangled with the Marquess of Ferrara who is infamous in these pages for executing his own wife and son for an incestuous affair.**

Manfredi also cultivated an ultimately lethal rivalry with groundbreaking condottiero Alberico da Barbiano, the former beheading the latter’s brother which would help to incite Alberico to a campaign against Faenza that Manfredi could not withstand. At the end of his resources, he resigned his territories to the Vatican in exchange for a pension — but this brief period in the new boss’s employ was terminated when he was found intriguing to reassert his lordship.

Rum luck for Astorre Manfredi was far from the last chapter for his house, which was only definitively relieved of its preeminence in Faenza a century later, by Cesare Borgia. The Manfredi name has graced many notable Italians even since.

* The papal legate Baldasar Cossa who orchestrated Manfredi’s decapitation is more notorious to posterity under a name he subsequently achieved: Antipope John XXIII.

** Parisina Malatesta, the wife/victim of the Marquess in this domestic tragedy, hailed from a Rimini noble house allied to the Manfredi. (Astorre Manfredi for a time was betrothed to the Malatesta lord’s sister, Gentile; likewise, Astorre initially retired to Rimini in 1404 when muscled off his home city.) For detail on the tangled and fascinating dynastic politics proximate to these families, see The Malatesta of Rimini and the Papal State.

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