Posts filed under 'Roman Empire'

Feast Day of Saint Leonides of Alexandria

Add comment April 22nd, 2018 Headsman

April 22 is the Christian feast date of Saint Leonides of Alexandria, the patron saint of being surpassed by your children.*

The Christian historian Eusebius recorded of our man in his Ecclesiastical History that

when Severus raised a persecution against the churches, there were illustrious testimonies given by the combatants of religion in all the churches every where. They particularly abounded in Alexandria, whilst the heroic wrestlers from Egypt and Thebais were escorted thither as to a mighty theatre of God, where, by their invincible patience under various tortures and modes of death, they were adorned with crowns from heaven. Among these was Leonides, said to be the father of Origen, who was beheaded, and left his son behind yet very young.

We don’t have much more on Leonides but that son, Origen, was said to have attempted to turn himself in with dad to face missionary martyrdom together; he was only a teenager at the time. His mother forbade the willful boy throwing his life away and it’s a good job she did: Origen went on to become one of Christianity’s seminal** theologians.

(Sadly, a sizable corpus of Origen’s work is lost to history because for a period in later antiquity his thought was denounced as heresy; the Byzantine emperor Justinian had Origen’s writings burned.)

* According to Wikipedia, Leonides is actually the patron saint of “large families” (he had at least six other children besides Origen), which we assume must surely include large sons.

** That’s a little etymological pun, as the reader will discover with an image search on “Origen castration.”

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Egypt,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

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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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Feast Day of Saint Honorina

1 comment February 27th, 2018 Headsman

February 27 is honored to be the feast date of Saint Honorina, patron of boatmen (a field of metaphorical import to this site) as well as liberated prisoners (which is more literal import).

She’s a standard issue we-don’t-know-much-about-her Diocletian martyr, locally revered in Normandy where she was executed by the pagans and pitched into the Seine. Her significance in this area led her devotee monks to carry her relics further inland in 876 to protect them from Viking raiders; this established them at a town at the confluence of the Seine and Oise rivers, aptly named Conflans. There the valuable remains remain even though the piratical Norsemen do not; it’s now Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a Paris suburb. (And only one of several French communes named for her.)

However, her spiritual import also remained in her original Norman haunts, even if her physical presence did not — as we discover in Architectural Antiquities of Normandy.

The church of Grâville [Graville-Sainte-Honrine, now a quarter of Le Havre -ed] was dedicated to St. Honorina, a virgin martyr, whose relics were preserved there in the times anterior to the Norman invasion; but were then transported to Conflans upon the Marne. Peter de Natalibus, copious as he is in his Hagiology, has no notice of Honorina, whose influence was nevertheless most extraordinary in releasing prisoners from fetters; and whose altars were accordingly hung round with an abundance of chains and instruments of torture. The author of the Neustria Pia, who attests many of her miracles of this description, relates, that her sanctity extended even to the horse which she rode, insomuch, that, when the body of the beast was thrown, after its death, as carrion to the dogs, they all refused to touch it; and the monks, in commemoration of the miracle, employed the skin for a covering to the church door, where it remained till the middle of the seventeenth century.

Although it was the Normans that cost this place its native holy bones, they made their amends to Graville and Honorina alike through doughty William the Conqueror crony William Malet de Graville, whose family’s largesse greatly aggrandized the still-extant abbey.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Execution,France,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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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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Feast Day of St. Cassian of Tangier

Add comment December 3rd, 2017 Headsman

December 3 is the feast date of the minor and perhaps fictional martyr Cassian of Tangier.

Not to be confused with the later Julian the Apostate-era martyr Cassian of Imola, our African Cassian was a court scribe who wound up riding sidecar to the legend of pacifistic centurion Marcellus of Tangier.

The latter is described in a Passion as having incurred the Roman governor’s wrath by adhering to Christ’s pacifistic teachings.

Agricolanus said, “What madness possessed you to cast aside aside your oath and say such things?”

Marcellus said, “No madness possesses him who fears God.” …

Agricolanus said, “Did you hurl down your weapons?”

Marcellus said, “I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service.”

Agricolanus said, “Marcellus’ actions are such that they ought to be disciplined.” And so he stated, “It pleases (the court) that Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’ records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword.”

So that’s Marcellus’s martyrdom. (His feast date is October 30.)

Cassian gets in on the act by allegedly refusing to fulfill his judicial duty to record the verdict, out of sympathy for the godly ex-warrior, a professional dereliction of his own that has paradoxically made him the patron saint of stenographers. There’s a very good chance that his is a legendary just-so story.

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Feast Day of St. Barlaam

Add comment November 19th, 2017 Headsman

November 19 is the feast date of Diocletian martyr Saint Barlaam of Antioch.*

A Cappadocian peasant, Barlaam defeated through righteous willpower a Roman judge’s diabolical attempt to go easy on him.

Barlaam was doing the old refusal to pay homage to the pagan gods thing and the judge’s plan was a masterpiece of practical jurisprudence: he had the refusenik stationed before the censer, with the offering in his hand. Then hot coals were plopped into the hand, in the expectation that Barlaam would flinch at the pain and involuntarily drop the herb, coals, and all into the fire — and everyone go home with his own honor satisfied.

But Barlaam had for honor “hardened brass, more than iron in mightiness, firmer than a statue” and instead withstood the coal until either it burned out, or his hand did, refusing to permit fire to touch incense under the eyes of the old gods. That earned him his martyrdom from an exasperated magistrate and, let us say, an extremely specific patronage of stoicism under prolonged hand torture, making him the forerunner of figures as diverse as Thomas Cranmer and Paul Muad’dib.

Here’s a laudatio in Latin for our holy militant from John Chrysostom who notes that the expected flinch-and-drop reaction wouldn’t have even counted as a sin.

* Not to be confused with the Russian hermit and painter Barlaam of Khutyn, nor with Barlaam and Josaphat, legendary India Christians who were adopted from Buddhist mythology.

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388: Magnus Maximus, minimized

Add comment August 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 388, Magnus Maximus, partially successful usurper of the western Roman Empire, was put to death by Emperor Theodosius.

The late centuries of Rome witness many a rebellious general but the smart money in a civil war rarely fancied the guy whose power base was distant Britannia. With his bombastic name and balls to back it, Magnus bigly bucked those odds, defeating and murdering the western Augustus Gratian in Gaul in 383. From there he bossed Africa, Britain, and his native Spain for several years.

The departure from Britain of this local chancer made good would prove to correspond approximately with the empire’s crumbling foothold on on the island, with the sandal-shorn Roman feet in ancient times last walking upon England’s mountains green in 410. As the last, most scintillating representative of Roman Britain, Magnus Maximus has survived into legend — extolled for example by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the title hero of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig”. In it, “Macsen”/Maximus weds a Welsh princess and sires a native dynasty, granting Brittany to the Britons in gratitude for their aid as he conquers Rome.

But forget living in legend. The real Magnus Maximus, like every aspirant to the dangerous purple, mostly just worried about living out the next campaign season.

He had a spell of tense peace with his eastern opposite number, during which time Maximus — a staunch Nicene Christian — had the distinction in 385 of decreeing the trial on trumped-up sorcery charges of the dissident bishop Priscillian. It’s widely, if loosely, accounted the very first intra-Christian heresy execution. (Saint Ambrose of Milan and St. Martin of Tours both intervened strongly to oppose this precedent which has spawned so very many imitations.)

Meanwhile Maximus and Theodosius maneuvered toward inevitable civil war and it is obvious from his presence on this here blog that Maximus on this occasion did not rise to his nomens. As Zosimus describes,

Theodosius, having passed through Pannonia [routing Maximus in the process -ed.] and the defiles of the Appennines, attacked unawares the forces of Maximus before they were prepared for him. A part of his army, having pursued them with the utmost speed, forced their way through the gates of Aquileia, the guards being too few to resist them. Maximus was torn from his imperial throne while in the act of distributing money to his soldiers, and being stripped of his imperial robes, was brought to Theodosius, who, having in reproach enumerated some of his crimes against the commonwealth, delivered him to the common executioner to receive due punishment.

Such was the end of Maximus and of his usurpation.*

The poet Pacatus thereafter paid the conquering Theodosius homage for this victory in one of antiquity’s great panegyrics. (Enjoy it in the original Latin here.) Sure he lost the war, but how many figures are both magnus and maximus in fields as disparate as Celtic mythology and classical rhetoric?

Audiophiles might enjoy history podcasters’ take on Magnus Maximus: he’s been covered by both the British History Podcast (episode 31) and the History of Rome Podcast (episodes 156 and 157).

* After the post-Maximus arrangements Theodosius made in the west also went pear-shaped, necessitating yet another conquest and execution, Theodosius established himself as the emperor of both the eastern and western halves of the Roman world in 392. He was last man ever destined to enjoy that distinction.

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Feast Day of Pope Pontian and Antipope Hippolytus

1 comment August 13th, 2017 Headsman

August 13 is the shared feast date* of third century saint and antipope — two adjectives rarely held in common — Hippolytus of Rome, and the official pope to whom he reconciled in the end, Pontian.

His legend, including his feast date, has been muddled with another ancient martyr of the same name, and even with the mythological son of Theseus — from which also derives the etymologically apt fancy that St. Hippolytus met his end by the straining of horses.**


The central panel (click for the full image) of the St. Hippolyte Triptych, from the Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium. (via the blog of Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast) Attributed to Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, this image was commissioned by a courtier of Charles the Bold, Hippolyte de Berthoz — who also underwrote other depictions of his namesake’s martyrdom.

But Hippolytus the theologian and cleric was no fable.

Zealous after the correct doctrine in an age of heretical pitfalls like modalism and alogianism, Hippolytus clashed with Pope Zephyrinus and his successor Callixtus over their leniency — not only for heterodoxy but also for sinful conduct like adultery.

This timeless horn-locking between purists and pragmatists led Hippolytus to take his flock out of the Roman communion in opposition to Callixtus, and apparently to maintain himself as antipope for the best part of a generation — the very first recorded antipope, in fact.

Ironically it was the schismatic’s perspicacious quill that would bear to posterity much of our understanding of Christianity in the early third century. Apostolic Tradition, whose attribution to Hippolytus is contested, is a rare source on the early liturgy; Refutation of All Heresies helpfully catalogues dozens of beliefs disfavored of its author among pagan and Christian sects. He wrote a chronicle of the world since its creation, a compendium of ecclesiastical law, and numerous Biblical commentaries.

While world-shaping controversies gripped the sacerdotal space, the temporal world spiraled toward Rome’s Third Century Crisis, a periodization commonly dated to the rise of the cruel barracks-emperor Maximinus in the very year of our rival pontiffs’ martyrdoms, 235.

Maximinus’s years in the purple were short and sanguinary, harbinger of many like decades to come. “Italy and the whole empire were infested with innumerable spies and informers,” Gibbon wrote.

On the slightest accusation, the first of the Roman nobles, who had governed provinces, commanded armies, and been adorned with the consular and triumphal ornaments, were chained on the public carriages, and hurried away to the emperor’s presence. Confiscation, exile, or simple death, were esteemed uncommon instances of his lenity. Some of the unfortunate sufferers he ordered to be sewed up in the hides of slaughtered animals, others to be exposed to wild beasts, others again to be beaten to death with clubs.

Both Pontian and Hippolytus were arrested at Maximinus’s order, which was scarcely an act of pagan reverence on the latter’s part since he was also noted for stripping the traditional temples of valuables that could be melted into currency.

Banished to Sardinia for rough handling that was tantamount to a death sentence, the two men reconciled before attaining the crown of martyrdom.

Numerous cities in France (and one in Quebec) are named for St. Hippolytus.

* It’s the feast date in the Roman church. The Orthodox world honors Hippolytus on January 30.

** He’s the patron saint of horses, too.

† A reading of On Christ and the Antichrist is available free from Librivox.

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Feast Day of Rufinus and Valerius

Add comment June 14th, 2017 Headsman

Rufinus and Valerius, Roman tax collectors who converted to Christianity and were martyred at Soissons during the Diocletian persecution in 287, are honored by the Roman martyrology on this date.

They’re saints of a lesser firmament, although Rufinus has a spot of archaeological distinction as the intercessor honored on the Darenth Bowl, a beautiful fifth-century glass artifact that somehow survived to us intact. (Note, however, that there are 11 saints Rufinus.)

They figure indirectly in one of the martyrology’s recurrent themes, the Saul-like conversion of Roman persecutors to the Christian faith: Rufinus and Valerius were held to have been martyred by the Roman prefect Rictius Varus,* who presents as a recurrent tormenter of Christians and in the martyrology arrives to dispatch our taxmen straightaway after doing the same to future Shakespeare monologue superstars Crispin and Crispinian.

In fact, Rictius Varus figures in no fewer than nine late third century martyrologies, compassing 20+ champions of the faith … the last of whom was the great Saint Lucy who is said to have induced Varus to embrace the same persecution and suffer martyrdom right along with her.

* Sometimes rendered Rictiovarus or Rixiovarus. He is no relation to the Varus from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: that (in)famous man‘s cognomen was not Varus, but Quinctilius.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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