Posts filed under 'Florence'

406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

4 comments August 23rd, 2009 dogboy

Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.

Possible etymological connection to the possibly proto-Slavic barbarian horde: shadowy Slavic god Radegast lends his gnarly visage to a Czech beer — and maybe to a Tolkein character.

Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.

According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.

But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.

While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.

So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.

Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.

Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.

Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.

* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 423, long after Stilicho was murdered.

** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.

† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Florence,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers

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1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities

11 comments May 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1498, the Dominican friar who had once bent Florence to his austere will was hung in chains and burned.

Girolamo Savonarola preached standing-room-only, millenial sermons against worldly immorality, in the early 1490’s. By 1494, when peninsular politics chased a weak Medici scion from Florence, he had become its master.

He makes a complex character, with a streak of flawed greatness even his contemporary enemies recognized; his anti-Renaissance theology was severe but not dour, fired as it was by a genuine spiritual passion that spoke to real needs of his audience and a real crisis growing in the Church. And he did not disdain the revolutionary real-world implications of his faith.

Savonarola instituted Republican government with a touch of the Taliban — a vice squad of young hooligans to rough up rouged ladies and card-players;* a famous Bonfire of the Vanities in which Botticelli incinerated some of his own work — but also a populist economic touch.

For reasons both internal (the killjoy factor of busting up dice games wore out its welcome) and external (his French ally Charles VIII was driven from Italy, and Savonarola made a dire enemy of the corrupt Borgia pontiff Alexander VI), the priest’s grip on Florence weakened. In April 1498, he was arrested with two other clerics; all three were tortured into signing confessions, then hanged in the Piazza della Signoria by an insolent executioner.

The doomed Savonarola anguished that he had not been strong enough to resist the tortures of the rack, and penned in contrition the Latin meditation Infelix ego:

Alas wretch that I am, destitute of all help, who have offended heaven and earth — where shall I go? Whither shall I turn myself? To whom shall I fly? Who will take pity on me? To heaven I dare not lift up my eyes, for I have deeply sinned against it; on earth I find no refuge, for I have been an offence to it…

Like Savonarola’s memory and teachings, it spread — often illicitly — in a Europe ready for religious reform. Infelix ego has been frequently set to devotional music, like this version by Orlande de Lassus:


Savonarola might have been in himself a dead end, an unsuccessful prophet quickly rolled back, but he nonetheless possesses a recognizable essence that distills both the Zeitgeist of his time and the immemorial hunger for simplicity and virtue that coexists with the equally human celebration of pleasure and beauty. He left complex legacies to both the Church and the city his reforms sought (and ultimately failed) to scourge.

In religion, his castigation of the vice and sin of the Church (a position of which he was an outstanding but hardly a lonely advocate) prefigured the coming Reformation. But Savonarola also never left off the most devout affiliation to Catholicism, nor sought institutional schism even when he had been excommunicated.** What to make of such a man? He is both depicted (at the base of a Martin Luther statue) at the Worms Reformation Monument, and proposed for present-day Catholic canonization.

So too his secular legacy — the theocrat who burned books and expelled the Medici and was reduced to ashes for his reactionary principles — merits a respectful recollection in Florence, even if few would actually want to live in his republic. He repelled Machiavelli, a libertine counselor of the post-Savonarola Florentine Republic, but perhaps fascinated him as well, as a prince with a precisely backward grasp of his own power.

This stone marking the site of the execution stands at a crossroads of tourist traffic in a thicket of statuary, mostly nude and/or classically inspired, outside the entrance to one of Europe’s principle collections of Renaissance art.

One wonders what the old Dominican would have made of it.

Books about Savonarola’s Florence

* Savonarola also made sodomy punishable by death.

** Alexander VI tried first to get him (in Lyndon Johnson’s fragrant phrase) inside the tent pissing out by making him a cardinal, which Savonarola spurned.

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1478: Pazzi Conspiracy attempted … and suppressed

1 comment April 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1478, a coup d’etat against the Medici family in Florence was attempted during Easter mass — and by day’s end, its leading perpetrators had been hanged.

The Pazzi conspiracy implicates, even more than the municipal political rivalries of the Pazzi and Medici families, the peninsular geopolitics pitting Florence against the Pope, each side with its own constellations of allied lords and city-states.

The arrangement of players and their assorted interests is amply covered elsewhere; we shall suffice for this space to say that the Pazzi were a family of wealth and lineage (another death-sentenced Florentine, Dante, had dropped a couple of their ancestors into his infernal tableau), and proceed to the aftermath.

When one strikes a king, one must strike to kill. In this case, the co-ruling Medici brothers, Giuliano and Lorenzo were both attacked — but Lorenzo survived, and visited a terrible vengeance upon the assailants.

An enraged mob — the Pazzi had misjudged the city’s mood to begin with, and committing murder in church was ill-calculated to win sympathy — and a star chamber of Medici loyalists immediately began rounding up the numerous conspirators, many of whom were summarily hanged from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Along with a number of obscure foot soldiers and family retainers who suffered such indignities as being thrown from high windows onto cobblestones and torn apart by the mob, the most prominent victims this day were Francesco de Pazzi (the link is to his Italian wikipedia page) and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, a papal loyalist whose grievance against Florence for delaying his seat as archbishop of Pisa had done much to instigate the conspiracy.

They were far from the only victims: fugitives who had escaped the city were hunted for weeks and months thereafter, although Lorenzo “the Great” — who cuts the very model of the enlightened prince to posterity, rightly or not — was disposed in several cases to grant mercy to innocents against the dictates of political expediency.

However, the culpable after this day had every reason to fear. Perhaps the most affecting story is that of elderly Pazzi patriarch Jacopo de Pazzi (Italian again), caught in flight by Tuscan villagers whom he tried desperately (and unavailingly) to bribe for the privilege of suicide rather than a return to the fate of his kinsmen. Florentine communal pride celebrated popular participation in vengeance against the papal plot. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the executed conspirators hanging in their death throes on the very facade of the palace where they had in fact been put to death.

The Pazzi family wasn’t quite blotted out literally — later, it would even be restored to the city — but a comprehensive sentence of civic damnatio memoriae followed in the weeks after the immediate danger was checked. The family property was confiscated, its name and coat of arms banished, even the public festival its Crusader forebear had inspired was (unsuccessfully) renamed. For a time, merely to marry a Pazzi was to exclude oneself from public office.

Niccolo Machiavelli was a boy of eight at the time the Pazzi conspiracy was attempted. As a political theorist in later years, the event would liberally illustrate his writings. In Machiavelli’s Discourses (available free from Project Gutenberg), for instance, the Pazzi conspiracy is a lesson in the danger of conspiring against two princes at once, the risk inherent in having any great number of people aware of the plot, and the unpredictable small turns of fortune and minor slips in execution upon which a great matter may succeed or fail.

[I]n these grave undertakings, no one who is without such experience, however bold and resolute, is to be trusted.

The confusion of which I speak may either cause you to drop your weapon from your hand, or to use words which will have the same results. Quintianus being commanded by Lucilla, sister of Commodus, to slay him, lay in wait for him at the entrance of the amphitheatre, and rushing upon him with a drawn dagger, cried out, “The senate sends you this;” which words caused him to be seized before his blow descended. In like manner Messer Antonio of Volterra, who as we have elsewhere seen was told off to kill Lorenzo de’ Medici, exclaimed as he approached him, “Ah traitor!” and this exclamation proved the salvation of Lorenzo and the ruin of that conspiracy.

Machiavelli also renders his account of this day’s affair in his History of Florence, another Gutenberg freebie.

A detailed exploration of the event is available here.

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

6 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

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

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Famous,Florence,Guest Writers,Intellectuals,Italy,Nobility,Not Executed,Other Voices,Papal States,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,The Worm Turns

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