Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

1865: Gerardo Barrios, Salvadoran statesman

Add comment August 29th, 2014 Headsman

August 29 is a National Day of Commemoration in El Salvador, honoring the execution on this date in 1865 of the country’s beloved ex-president Gerardo Barrios.

Today, you’ll find Barrios (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) entombed adjacent Francisco Morazan, an apt deposition for both those great statesmen of Central American union. Barrios was just old enough — he enlisted at age 14 — to have served in Morazan’s army of the United Provinces of Central America, the abbreviated political expression of a wonderful vision for Spain’s former possessions. “This magnificent location between the two great oceans,” Bolivar once enthused of Central America,

could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties with Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps some day the capital of the world may be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium was the capital of the ancient world.

El Salvador was the capital of this prospective emporium, and not only in the sense that its government met at San Salvador.* As the “provinces” of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica pursued more autonomy and, eventually, outright independence, El Salvador was also the bastion of support for the failing union. It’s where Morazan fell back to as the United Provinces fractured, and it’s where he landed to mount a doomed reunification campaign.

Gerardo Barrios, come to political maturity as well as to manhood in Morazan’s service, was a Senator by the time the union ended. He followed Morazan into exile, and he raised a battalion for the abortive restoration attempt that cost Morazan his life.

After Morazan’s execution, Barrios increasingly became the key leader of remaining unionist aspirations, which also meant leadership of El Salvador’s liberal faction. This was the country — independent at last because all her sister provinces had declared independence from her — that Gerardo Barrios assumed leadership of in 1859,** a generation on from Morazan’s execution. Actual political reunification of the former provinces was by then as distant and gauzy a dream as Bolivar’s Byzantium; perhaps their most noteworthy common-purpose act in the meantime had been the coordinated defeat of American filibuster William Walker, an operation for which Barrios provided essential behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

So Barrios’s executive tenure would be a crucial period of state-building for Nicaragua: building up roads, schools, and other pillars of civil infrastructure; professionalizing the army; promulgating a comprehensive legal code; and economic development.†

It is from this farsighted era that Barrios won lasting fame as his country’s great statesman. And crowning the period with martyrs’ laurels has surely not done his reputation a bit of harm. His regional rivalry with the Guatemalan caudillo Rafael Carrera broke out into war in 1863, which quickly pulled in Honduras (on the side of El Salvador) and Nicaragua and Costa Rica (on the side of Guatemala). The populist Carrera, Guatemala’s “supreme and perpetual leader for life,” had been the central anti-unionist and anti-liberal figure dating back to the Morazan era, and besides his international alliances he gained the support in 1863 of Salvadoran Catholic clergy opposed to the secularization part of Barrios’s modernizing project. Finally encircled by his enemies in a besieged San Salvador in October of that year, Barrios was once again forced into exile.

Carrera died on April 14, 1865‡ and with the passing of the local hegemon Barrios — by now cooling his heels in Panama — saw an opportunity to regain leadership of his country. But the attempted rising that was to augur his re-entry into El Salvador came to nothing, and Barrios realizing the failure turned around to return to Panama almost as soon as he had arrived. Alas for him, a storm grounded his schooner in Nicaraguan waters.

Nicaragua extradited Carrera back to his native soil, albeit with an arrangement that the prisoner — who had been declared a traitor in absentia during his exile — would not face the death penalty. Once the man was in hand, El Salvador reneged on that part of the agreement and subjected Barrios to a military trial. “Today Duenas pronounces my sentence,” Barrios observed of his successor and enemy late the night of August 28, when the tribunal condemned him to be shot just hours thereafter. “But tomorrow I receive the verdict of history.”

The latter judgment has been an unmitigated victory for our man. His life is taught to schoolchildren and his image has graced the Salvadoran currency repeatedly. Two Salvadoran towns (Gerardo, and Barrios) are named in his honor, and many others have streets or plazas that bear his name, including a huge one in the center of San Salvador, ornamented with a monumental equestrian statue of its namesake.


(cc) image from Bradier044 of the Barrios statue in San Salvador’s Plaza Gerardo Barrios, also known as Plaza Civica.

* San Salvador, which is the present-day capital of El Salvador, was the capital of the United Provinces from 1834. Prior to that time, the capital was Guatemala City.

** Barrios had also been president on a brief interim basis for a few months in 1858.

† If you enjoy brewing a morning pot of El Salvador’s top agricultural export, coffee beans, tip your mug to Barrios: he’s credited with introducing coffee cultivation in the country.

‡ The same date John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

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476: Basiliscus, victim of the fine print

Add comment August 18th, 2014 Headsman

At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.

But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.

The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.

The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.

As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.

Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.

It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.

In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.

A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.


Basiliscus forced into the cistern.

The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.

Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.

* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”

** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.

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1714: Constantine Brancoveanu and his sons

Add comment August 15th, 2014 Headsman

Three centuries ago today, Wallachian prince Constantine Brancoveanu was beheaded in Istanbul with his four sons.

Brancoveanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) had fallen foul of the Sublime Porte, which dominated Wallachia, by dallying with the Ottomans’ European rivals, the Habsburgs and the Russians.

During the then-current installment the oft-renewed Russo-Turkish War derby, he actually massed armies for a potential swing all the way to the anti-Ottoman team. Breaking those up and returning Peter the Great’s gifts after the Russian clock got cleaned did not a tribute of loyalty make in the eyes of Turkey.

Not only Contantine but his entirely family — wife, four sons, and six daughters — were carried thereafter to Istanbul prisons. On the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the Sultan himself and of Christian diplomats who would be sure to put the word out, his four sons Constantine, Stefan, Radu and Matei were beheaded in his presence, as was the Wallachian treasurer Enache Vacarescu. The 60-year-old prince exhorted them as they endured their martyrdoms to remain steadfast, until at last he too lost his head. (Istanbul Christians managed to give the bodies honorable burials after fishing them out of the Bosphorus. The remains were later translated to Bucharest.*)

Most of the web sites about Branacoveanu and family are in Romanian; he was in his quarter-century reign a great cultural patron. The first Romanian Bible was completed in his time, and he undertook a great building program whose distinctive architectural stile still bears his name — Brancovenesc.

The Romanian Orthodox church conferred upon the martyred family the laurels of sainthood in 1992, a fine time to honor Romanian independence from foreign domination although of course by that time the Ottomans were yesteryear’s news and the outside heavy in question was the Russians.


Brancoveanu and his sons, from a mural at a monastery Brancoveanu founded.

Constantine also has a full panoply of secular miscellany in his honor: roads, statues, ballads, a metro station named after him, and so forth.

* At least, the alleged remains; it is well not to turn a forensic lens on saintly relics, and when Brancoveanu’s tomb was opened at the bicentennial of his death the skeleton therein appeared by the state of its teeth to be that of a man half Brancoveanu’s age. (Source)

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1578: Ivan Pidkova, Cossack hetman

Add comment June 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1578, Cossack hetman Ivan Pidkova lost his head in Lviv.

Pidkova* — the name means “horseshoe” and alludes to the horsemanship that would be de rigueur for a Cossack leader — had risen by his aptitude to leadership of the Zaporozhian Cossacks in present-day Ukraine.

His death was a bid to promote himself from the steppe to power over neighboring Moldavia, and in fairness to Ivan Moldavia was worth a go.

Its throne was held at that time by a new guy named Peter the Lame, and although the nickname just referred to Peter’s physical deformity, he was a creature of the Ottoman court who scarcely knew Moldavia before he became its vassal ruler in 1574. He was twice temporarily deposed before finally voluntarily resigning in 1591 so that he could retire to the comforts of Italy.

The first deposition came courtesy of our man Pidkova.

Claiming kinship with Peter’s late predecessor Ivan III,** Pidkova seized Iasi and proclaimed himself hospodar of Moldavia until the arrival of Ottoman reinforcements refuted the conceit.

This whole border region between the Polish-Lithuanian Empire to the north and the Ottomans to the south was a perennial trouble spot. Putatively subjects of the Polish crown, the refractory Cossacks were known to raid Ottoman territory illicitly and provoke diplomatic headaches on both sides of the border.

At this particular moment — 1578, that is — the Polish king Stephen Batory had only just concluded a truce with the Ottomans. As Batory had war with Russia to worry about, he was more than keen to keep his southern frontier calm; Polish troops captured the Cossack pretender and had him put to an exemplary death.


Monument to Ivan Pidkova in present-day Lviv. Image (c) stacy2005ua, a prolific photographer of Lviv’s environs whose work can be enjoyed at FaceAndHeart.com or on Flickr, and used with permission.

Ukraine’s national bard Taras Shevchenko celebrated Ivan Pidkova in an eponymous 1839 poem:

There was a time in our Ukraine
 When cannon roared with glee,
A time when Zaporozhian men
 Excelled in mastery!
They lived as masters — freedom’s joy
 And glory were their gain:
All that has passed, and what is left
 Is grave-mounds on the plain!
High are those ancient tumuli
 In which were laid to rest
The Cossacks’ fair white bodies
 In silken cerements dressed.
High are those mounds, serene and dark
 Like mountains they appear,
Their gentle whispers in the wind
 Of freedom’s fate we hear.
These witnesses of ancient fame
 Hold converse with the breeze;
The Cossacks’ grandson reaps the grass
 And sings old memories.
There was a time when in ukraine
 Even distress would dance,
And sorrow in a tavern drank
 In honeyed brandy’s trance.
There was a time when life was good
 In that Ukraine of ours …
Recall it then — perhaps the heart
 May briefly bathe in flowers.

II.

A murky cloud from Liman’s shore
 Covers the sun from sight;
The sea is like an angry beast
 That groans and howls with might.
It floods the mighty Danube’s mouth.
 ”My fellows, come with me
Within our barks! The waves are wild.
 Let’s have a merry spree!”
The Zaporozhians rushed out;
 The stream with ships was roiled.
“Roar on, O sea!” they all sang out,
 As waves beneath them boiled.
Billows like mountains round them surged,
 They saw no land, no sky.
Yet not a Cossack heart grew faint,
 Their eagerness ran high.
A bold kingfisher flies o’erhead
 As on they sail and sing;
The brave otaman in the van
 Leads on their mustering.
He strides the deck, and in his mouth
 His pipe grows cold from thought;
He casts his glances here and there
 Where exploits may be wrought.
He curled his long black whiskers,
 He twirled his forelock free,
Then raised his cap — the vessels stopped:
&nbsp:”Death to the enemy!
Not to Sinope, comrades,
 Brave lads beyond all doubt!
We’ll drive on full to Istanbul
 To seek the Sultan out!”
“Well spoken, our fine chieftain!”
 They roared in chorus back.
“I thank you, lads!” He donned his cap.
 Again the seaward track
Beneath their keels began to boil;
 And once more thoughtfully
He paced the deck in mute content
 And gazed upon the sea.

That translation is via The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko; the original in Ukrainian can be enjoyed here. The exact text of that poem also comprises the lyrics of this jam:

* Or Ioan Potcoava, as Ivan came from Romanian stock.

** Moldavia’s own “Ivan the Terrible” — no relation to his Russian contemporary, of course.

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1471: Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, after the Battle of Tewkesbury

Add comment May 4th, 2014 Headsman

May 4, 1471 was the date of one of England’s most pivotal battles, Tewkesbury.

Tewkesbury was the last great victory in the War of the Roses for the House of York, and it must have seemed to contemporaries like the last victory Yorkists would ever need. The “kingmaker” Warwick was dead from a previous battle that April; the Lancastrian claimant Henry VI was imprisoned by the Yorkists, who would murder him before the month was out; and Henri’s heir apparent, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, was put to death immediately after Tewkesbury.

Young Edward of Westminster had been stewing these past several years — until the aforementioned Kingmaker swung to his side — in exile in France, trying to finagle a way to rally the Yorkist cause. Like many a teenager he was prone to nursing bilious fantasies of revenging himself on people, as the Milanese ambassador wrote in 1467.

This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads* or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.

“Peace” would not be the watchword of the abortive Lancastrian restoration attempt.

Shortly after returning to England, Edward had word of Warwick’s defeat. But having taken the trouble to come all this way from France, he still plowed ahead into the desperate stand at Tewkesbury. Edward had no experience at all in battlefield command.

When the Lancastrian lines broke at Tewkesbury, a disordered route fled towards nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. The nobles who reached it would hole up there claiming the privilege of sanctuary … for just two days, at which point the victorious Yorkist King Edward IV had them arrested and put to swift execution, sanctuary be damned. (The abbey had to close to re-purify.)

Prince Edward didn’t even make it that long. There are varying accounts of his death at Tewkesbury suggesting a summary execution scenario of some kind.

In one version, the Duke of Clarence overtook him in flight. Clarence having himself briefly supported the rebellion before he returned to the Yorkist side, he’s supposed to have immediately beheaded the youth in a paroxysm of demonstrative loyalty.

Alternatively,

Prince Edward was taken as he fled towards the towne, by Sir Richard Crofts, and kept close … After the field was ended, proclamation was made, that whosoever could bring forth prince Edward alive or dead, should have an annuity of a hundred pounds during his life, and the princes life to be saved, if he were brought forth alive. Sir Richard Crofts, nothing mistrusting the kings promise, brought forth his prisoner prince Edward, being a faire and well proportioned young gentleman; whom when king Edward had well advised, he demanded of him, how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realm with banner displayed.

Whereunto the prince boldly answered, saying; “To recover my fathers kingdom and heritage, from his father and grandfather to him and from him after him to me lineally descended.” At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some say) stroke him with his gauntlet; whom incontinently, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas Grey marquess Dorset,** and William lord Hastings that stood by, suddenly murdered: for the which cruel act, the more part of the doers in their latter days drank of the like cup, by the righteous justice and due punishment of God.

Shakespeare dramatized this (considerably more dramatic — if admittedly less execution-like) version in Henry VI, Part 3.

Lancaster’s very dim (circa 1471) fortunes would ultimately be rescued in the 1480s by the grandson of a beheaded Welsh courtier — who won the throne as Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty.

* Edward as a seven-year-old was alleged to have been given the authority by his mother to decide what fate should befall the knights who had not successfully protected Henry VI from capture. Edward decreed their beheading.

** Ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

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1979: Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, Iranian Prime Minister

Add comment April 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, just days after a referendum overwhelmingly voted revolutionary Iran an Islamic Republic, its former Prime Minister was convicted by a drumhead tribunal in Qasr Prison. Minutes after the trial closed, he was shot to death in a prison courtyard.

The western-educated Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (or Hoveida) shimmied up the diplomatic ranks in the 1940s and 1950s, and became Prime Minister after Hassa Ali Mansur was assassinated in 1965.

Hoveyda held the office for twelve and a half years, longer than anyone in modern Iranian history. He had been noted as a progressive young statesman interested in reforming Iran. But his years in government notably failed to restrain Iran’s endemic corruption and state violence. That he was a debonair polyglot with a discerning taste in whisky cut more ice with his foreign admirers than his future judges.

Not long after the economic crisis of the 1970s forced him from office, the Iranian Revolution collapsed the entire state to which he devoted his public service.

Embracing either martyrdom or naivete, Hoveyda turned himself into the authorities of newborn revolutionary Iran, and soon found his name on the marquee for a spate of revolutionary trials. From mid-February, every day or two would bring fresh headlines of six or eight or 11 more shot for complicity in the ancien regime. Away from the capital, others suffered the same fate, mostly hidden from the world.

Revolutionary Iran’s first Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan — a raving bleeding heart by the yardstick of what was to come — forced a halt to the bloodbath by threatening to resign and denouncing the trials as “irreligious, inhuman and a disgrace” on national television. Revolutionary tribunals suspended on March 16, interrupting Hoveida’s prosecution — or merely protracting his death rattle.

But Bazargan had less weight to throw around than he might have thought. He would accede himself unhappily to the resumption of the revolutionary courts in early April, and eventually resign late in 1979 over the U.S. embassy hostage-taking.

Unimpeded now, those courts stayed busy with near wall-to-wall prosecutions of hundreds of former officials of the hated Shah.

It was, indeed, technically that same day — around 1 a.m., following a marathon 15-hour court session — that a half-dozen former military men met the same fate in Qasr Prison. Gen. Iraj Amini-Afshar, Gen. Mohammed-Javad Molavi Taleghani, Col. Mashallah Iftikhar Manish, Col. Hadi Gholestani, Lt. Bhadour Bahadouri, and a rank-and-file soldier named Mustafa Sadri were all shot for having fired on revolutionary crowds in Isfahan the previous December.

After a good night’s sleep, they were ready to have done with Hoveyda.

The notorious revolutionary “hanging judge” Sadeq Khalkhali ordered the execution shortly before 6 p.m. that evening, for immediate dispatch. Khalkhali is even been rumored to have personally finished off the former Prime Minister.*

* I’m skeptical of the anecdote in Khalkhali’s current Wikipedia page that the judge shot Hoveyda to pre-empt a possible stay. Virtually all the pre-execution 1979 reporting I’ve seen agreed that Hoveyda had no prospect of clemency given the political situation, and that the end of the Bazargan moratorium and resumption of the trials was tantamount to his death sentence.

Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk remembered a somewhat topical anecdote about the judge; it’s from Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East:

I had sat at the feet of Hojatolislam Sadeq Khalkhali, the “hanging judge”, as he listed those of the Shah’s family sentenced to death in absentia. Khalkhali it was who had sentenced a14-year-old boy to death, who had approved of the stoning to death of women in Kermanshah, who earlier, in a mental hospital, would strangle cats in his prison cell. “The Shah will be strung up; he will be cut down and smashed,” he told me. “He is an instrument of Satan.”

Weeks later, in Evin prison, he discoursed again on the finer details of stoning to death. I still have the cassette of our conversation, his lips smacking audibly on a tub of vanilla ice cream as he spoke.

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1502: Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo, Borgia casualties

Add comment December 31st, 2013 Headsman

On New Year’s Eve 1502, Cesare Borgia had two treacherous condottieri put to summary death at Senigallia.


The Showtime series The Borgias got canceled before it reached this particular depredation in Cesare Borgia’s career.

The “nephew” — that is, son — of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned a cardinalcy in 1498 to follow his true passion, bloodshed, and set up as one of the Italian peninsula’s warring dukes. He had many a martial adventure before getting ambushed by a party of Spanish knights in 1507. Machiavelli considered him an able leader fatally compromised by owing his temporal power to the pope’s territorial allotment. In The Prince, Machiavelli remarks on the lesson of Borgia’s reign, that “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building” — and yet Cesare Borgia’s own fall months after his patron paterfamilias passed “was not his fault, but the extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”

Cesare went from victory to victory in the first years of the sixteenth century, enough so that he threatened to make himself hegemonic in Italy. Several of his own allies, of which our day’s principals Vitellozzo Vitelli (his family ruled Citta di Castello and Oliverotto da Fermo* (lord of Fermo) were two, began plotting against him and sent out feelers to build an anti-Borgia alliance among small powers who fretted the prospective domination of Cesare. (Though Borgia had them killed on a separate occasion, the others of note for purposes of this post are two members of the powerful Orsini family — Francesco Orsini, known as the Duke di Gravina; and, Cardinal Pagolo.)

As Florence’s own representative to Borgia’s court during the events in question, Machiavelli had a first-person view of events and recorded them in some detail. Taken on the back foot momentarily, Borgia stalled, firmed up his relations with friendly cities like Florence, and beat a momentarily tactical retreat. He came to terms with his friends-cum-rivals, who once more resumed campaigning on Borgia’s side.

Putatively back on the same team, several of the plotters soon found themselves at a stalemate besieging Senigallia, which refused to surrender to any but Borgia himself. They were therefore required to summon the dangerous prince from Lombardy. True to his name, Borgia did not miss the opportunity of an innocent invitation to destroy his foes.

Borgia marched into Seniallia with 10,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry for a friendly little reunion. According to Machiavelli (who in this passage refers to Borgia as Duke Valentino, or simply as “the duke”),

Vitellozzo, Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina on mules, accompanied by a few horsemen, went towards the duke; Vitellozo, unarmed and wearing a cape lined with green, appeared very dejected, as if conscious of his approaching death — a circumstance which, in view of the ability of the man and his former fortune, caused some amazement. And it is said that when he parted from his men before setting out for Sinigalia to meet the duke he acted as if it were his last parting from them. He recommended his house and its fortunes to his captains, and advised his nephews that it was not the fortune of their house, but the virtues of their fathers that should be kept in mind. These three, therefore, came before the duke and saluted him respectfully, and were received by him with goodwill; they were at once placed between those who were commissioned to look after them.

But the duke noticing that Oliverotto, who had remained with his band in Sinigalia, was missing — for Oliverotto was waiting in the square before his quarters near the river, keeping his men in order and drilling them — signalled with his eye to Don Michelle, to whom the care of Oliverotto had been committed, that he should take measures that Oliverotto should not escape. Therefore Don Michele rode off and joined Oliverotto, telling him that it was not right to keep his men out of their quarters, because these might be taken up by the men of the duke; and he advised him to send them at once to their quarters and to come himself to meet the duke. And Oliverotto, having taken this advice, came before the duke, who, when he saw him, called to him; and Oliverotto, having made his obeisance, joined the others.

So the whole party entered Sinigalia, dismounted at the duke’s quarters, and went with him into a secret chamber, where the duke made them prisoners; he then mounted on horseback, and issued orders that the men of Oliverotto and the Orsini should be stripped of their arms. Those of Oliverotto, being at hand, were quickly settled, but those of the Orsini and Vitelli, being at a distance, and having a presentiment of the destruction of their masters, had time to prepare themselves, and bearing in mind the valour and discipline of the Orsinian and Vitellian houses, they stood together against the hostile forces of the country and saved themselves.

But the duke’s soldiers, not being content with having pillaged the men of Oliverotto, began to sack Sinigalia, and if the duke had not repressed this outrage by killing some of them they would have completely sacked it. Night having come and the tumult being silenced, the duke prepared to kill Vitellozzo and Oliverotto; he led them into a room and caused them to be strangled. Neither of them used words in keeping with their past lives: Vitellozzo prayed that he might ask of the pope full pardon for his sins; Oliverotto cringed and laid the blame for all injuries against the duke on Vitellozzo. Pagolo and the Duke di Gravina Orsini were kept alive until the duke heard from Rome that the pope had taken the Cardinal Orsino, the Archbishop of Florence, and Messer Jacopo da Santa Croce. After which news, on 18th January 1502, in the castle of Pieve, they also were strangled in the same way.

* Machiavelli also wrote up Oliverotto in The Prince.

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69: Vitellius, “yet I was once your emperor”

Add comment December 22nd, 2013 Headsman

Were 69 C.E. known as the Year of the Three Emperors, maybe the long and glorious era of the porcine Vitellius would still be celebrated today.

Unfortunately for Vitellius, 69 was the Year of the Four Emperors … and our Emperor No. 3 had his brief reign brutally aborted at the Gemonian Stairs on December 22.

Vitellius came from a political family; his father as Governor of Syria deposed Christ‘s reluctant judge Pontius Pilate.

In time, Vitellius’s own ruin would emerge from the Levant.

But first he had a run down Roman elites’ cursus honorum of Roman offices; he served as Consul in the year 48. Even so, he’s described to us as a ridiculous character, so much so that Vitellius himself supposedly mocked astrologers over the self-evidently preposterous prediction that he of all people could become emperor.

“Addicted as he was to luxury and licentiousness,” Cassius Dio reports, Vitellius “no longer cared for anything else either human or divine. He had indeed always been inclined to idle about in taverns and gaming-houses, and devote himself to dancers and charioteers.”

According to these chroniclers, the dissipated Vitellius entered history by the side door. The first emperor of our august year was Galba, who overthrew Nero late in 68. Galba appointed Vitellius to command the restive Rhine legions, who had notably put down the revolt of one of Galba’s early supporters and were now getting short shrift from the Galba administration. The plan here is a little sketchy; Suetonius says it was “rather through contempt than favour,” perhaps that this no-account fop would deprive the Germanic forces of an adequate figurehead for revolt. Vitellius’s dismayed creditors could scarcely be prevailed upon to let him leave Rome.

Now, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are extremely hostile witnesses who wrote (respectively) during the Flavian dynasty that Vitellius’s own usurper established, and in the wake of that period.* The facts on the ground are that Vitellius had been Consul as well as a provincial governor, was appointed by Galba to manage the vital German frontier, and leveraged the position into mastery (however brief) of the Roman world. Even these historians give Vitellius grudging credit for some of his wise civic reforms once he took power. And at the end, when all was hopeless, Vitellius’s loyalists furiously resisted their foes in the streets of Rome herself, fighting “in a solid mass opposed the victors and to a man fell giving blow for blow, dying with faces to the foe” (Tacitus, who wrote after the Flavians had passed, but whose family was elevated during that dynasty). Read without interlocutors’ gleeful character assassination, we might better incline to perceive not a buffoon but a capable political leader whom fortune (and a very large army) contrived to crush at the moment of his glory.

Be that as it may, the Caput Mundi was to find in the generations ahead that men of mediocre stature could readily be wrapped in purple by a willing army. More often than not it proved a purple shroud — as it did with Vitellius.

These Rhine legions had their grievances and whether Vitellius was a great man or small, he was emperor material enough for them. On New Year’s Day of 69, when they were supposed to take an oath to the sitting emperor, they instead cast down images of the much-resented Galba and acclaimed their new governor in his place. But even as the rebellious legions strapped on their greaves, Galba was being overthrown and executed within the walls of Rome itself.

That left Emperor No. 2, Otho, vainly endeavoring to find an arrangement with Vitellius and his marching German ranks. Even though Vitellius et al had rebelled against Galba (not Otho) they were now entirely too committed to their treasonable endeavor to just turn around and march home. In April, Vitellius won the decisive Battle of Bedriacum and Otho made his fame by nobly taking his own life rather than protracting a bloody civil war: “Let Vitellius be victor, since this has pleased the gods; and let the lives of his soldiers also be spared, since this pleases me. Surely it is far better and far more just that one should perish for all than many for one, and that I should refuse on account of one man alone to embroil the Roman people in civil war and cause so great a multitude of human beings to perish.” (Cassius Dio)

Otho’s scruples were not shared by all, including devoted supporters who could hardly fail to be moved by the sacrificial gesture. Most of these declared with the eastern provinces for the general Vespasian, lately engaged in smashing the Jewish revolt in Judea.

Vespasian was destined to be the ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors — the man who could claim power, and hold it, and pass it on to his heirs. With the East came Egypt’s grain supplies, upon which Rome depended. He moved methodically but by October 69 one of his generals was penetrating Italy. By coincidence, the forces of the rival emperors again met at a second Battle of Bedriacum. Once again, it was won by the upstart.

Vitellius was offered appealing surrender terms by the approaching army but his negotiations with Vespasian’s brother were aborted by his own supporters, who besieged that enemy envoy on the Capitoline Hill and eventually put him to death over Vitellius’s objections. Yet as furiously as the Vitellian faction in Rome resisted Vespasian’s conquest that December, the balance of forces decided the outcome in advance. The Flavians at length broke through and on the 22nd of December a desperate Vitellius was captured hiding himself in the palace and making ready to flee once night fell. “Tearing off his tunic,” Cassius Dio writes,

they bound his hands behind his back and put a rope round his neck. And thus they led down from the palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him, all insulted him, making comments especially upon his riotous living, since he had a protuberant belly. When, in shame at this treatment, he lowered his gaze, the soldiers would prick him under the chin with their daggers, in order to make him look up even against his will. A German who witnessed this could not endure it, but taking pity on him cried: “I will help you in the only way that I can.” Thereupon he wounded Vitellius and slew himself. Now, Vitellius did not die of the wound, but was dragged to the prison, as were also his statues, while many jests and many opprobrious remarks were made about them. Finally, grieved to the heart at what he had suffered and what he had been hearing, he cried: “And yet I was once your emperor.” At that the soldiers became enraged and led him to the Stairway, where they struck him down. Then they cut off his head and carried it about all over the city.

The Roman History podcast covers Vitellius in Episodes 71 and 72

* Suetonius was also directly self-interested: his father fought for Otho, and against Vitellius, at Bedriacum.

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602: Emperor Maurice and all his heirs

Add comment November 27th, 2013 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1969: Liu Shaoqi dies under torture

Add comment November 12th, 2013 Headsman

At 6:45 a.m. on this date in 1969, the Chinese Marxist statesman and intellectual Liu Shaoqi passed away secretly in a room of the Kaifeng Municipal Revolutionary Committee building.

He had not been executed in the literal sense. But his death was the mere bodily consequence of an Orwellian civic annihilation: the onetime President of China, fallen to unperson. Like the Man in the Iron Mask, his identity was secret from his own guards (and later from the crematorium workers who disposed of the remains); his own children did not learn of his death until 1972.

A Communist revolutionary from student days in the early 1920s, Liu was among the first to publicly turn against Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In 1959 Liu succeeded Mao as President of the People’s Republic of China, and led the walkback from the Great Leap’s destructive stab at modernization.

A years-long factional struggle within the Chinese Communist Party would ensue, pitting Maoists against a more reform-minded clique.

Liu and the reformers got the worst of it in the 1960s. Mao and Maoists seized power back in the 1966 Cultural Revolution, and purged Liu as a “capitalist roader” — “China’s Khrushchev” ran one denunciation.

The renegade, hidden traitor and scab Liu Shaoqi and other sham Marxists and political swindlers … dished up the theory of taking the electronics industry as the center … They also said, “The development of a modern electronics industry will bring about a leap forward in our industry, and it will be a starting point for a new industrial revolution in the history of China.” This is a reactionary principle for opposing the principle of taking steel as the key link.*

Liu endured months of frightful public harassment leading up to his September 1967 arrest: there were episodes when Mao’s “Red Guards” broke into his official residence and even plastered Liu’s own walls with anti-Liu placards,** as well as “struggling against” campaigns with mobs of anti-Liu demonstrators hurling abuse while Liu was made to stand in a pose of contrition. The formal allegations, for whatever such things are worth, were that Liu worked as a World War II traitor for the Americans, Japanese, and/or nationalists.†

Liu was badly mistreated in custody, possibly as a way to kill him off extrajudicially or just for the sadistic pleasure of bringing one who once stood so high to the depths of literally wallowing in his own shit. By summer 1968 Liu was suffering from pneumonia, cankered with bedsores, and could only be fed through a nasal tube. His neglectful medical care gradually wasted him death.

Mao himself died in 1976. A reformist and onetime Liu ally, Deng Xiaoping, eventually emerged as China’s post-Mao leader. Soon thereafter the Chinese Communist Party officially rehabilitated Liu and declared several of his writings, so recently forbidden, to be “Marxist works of great significance.” He has remained an official hero, and political martyr, ever since.

* 1971 salvo quoted in Lowell Dittmer, “Death and Transfiguration: Liu Shaoqi’s Rehabilitation and Contemporary Chinese Politics,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1981.

** “The Kuomintang vilified me for years but never used such language,” recalled Liu’s wife — who survived a decade in prison herself after her husband’s fall.

† Mao’s widow would later admit that thousands of people were detailed to comb through the records of the Japanese occupation in search of anything prejudicial to Liu.

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