Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

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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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

-Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.

Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.

Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags in Mexico fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1981: Not Kim Dae-jung, South Korean president and Nobel laureate

Add comment January 24th, 2018 Headsman

South Korea’s dictator reluctantly commuted the death sentence of democracy activist Kim Dae-jung on January 24, 1981 … a gesture that would eventually enabled Kim to return the same favor to the dictator.

A farmer’s son who became a wealthy businessman and a charismatic orator, the Catholic Kim had been a fixture of the political opposition since the 1960s which was a dangerous profession. In his address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for 2000, Kim reflected that

five times I faced near death at the hands of dictators. Six years I spent in prison, and 40 years I lived under house arrest or in exile and under constant surveillance. I could not have endured the hardship without the support of my people and the encouragement of fellow democrats around the world. The strength also came from deep personal beliefs.

I have lived, and continue to live, in the belief that God is always with me. I know this from experience. In August of 1973, while exiled in Japan, I was kidnapped from my hotel room in Tokyo by intelligence agents of the then military government of South Korea. The news of the incident startled the world. The agents took me to their boat at anchor along the seashore. They tied me up, blinded me and stuffed my mouth. Just when they were about to throw me overboard, Jesus Christ appeared before me with such clarity. I clung to him and begged him to save me. At that very moment, an airplane came down from the sky to rescue me from the moment of death.

His life on that occasion was saved by the aggressive intervention of U.S. ambassador Philip Habib.

South Korean politics went on tilt after the ruler who nearly had Kim “disappeared” in 1973 was himself bizarrely assassinated by the country’s intelligence chief in late 1979. Emboldened democracy movements raced into the ensuing power vacuum, roiling cities and universities and culminating in May 1980 when a popular uprising in Kim’s native Jeolla was crushed with hundreds of deaths, bringing martial law in its wake. This was the Kwangju or Gwangju Rising (and/or -Massacre), and it led to Kim’s condemnation for sedition.

Kim Dae-jung in the front row of prisoners on trial after Kwangju.

The U.S. Carter administration, and (from November of 1980) the transition team for the incoming Reagan administration, worked strenuously behind the scenes to effect a commutation;* hanging Kim, Reagan foreign policy advisor Richard Allen warned a Korean intelligence delegation, “would be like a bolt of lightning out of the heavens that will strike you.”

The dictator Chun Doo-hwan eventually traded Kim’s life — he’d be sent into exile in the United States under the pretext of going abroad for medical treatment — for an official visit in the first weeks of the incoming president. Reasoning that

Kim’s execution would inflict long-term damage on Chun’s rule, which by this time had stabilized … On January 24, 1981, Chun commuted Kim’s death sentence to life imprisonment and lifted martial law. On February 3, Reagan warmly welcomed Chun to the White House for a summit meeting. He was the second foreign head of state Reagan met after his inauguration. This meeting was important in enhancing the legitimacy of Chun’s leadership both at home and abroad.

-Chae-Jin Lee, A Troubled Peace

Kim returned to South Korea in 1985 as a closely-monitored opposition figure and re-entered politics, repeatedly seeking election to the presidency — which he finally won in 1997, earning not only executive power but the rare opportunity to repay Chun Doo-hwan’s bygone act of grace.

Earlier in 1997, Chun had been convicted by the post-dictatorship courts on a number of capital charges relating to his reign in the 1980s, and himself sentenced to die. President-elect Kim coordinated with his predecessor Kim Young-sam to have Chun’s sentence commuted during the transition.

“In all ages, in all places, he who lives a righteous life dedicated to his people and humanity may not be victorious, may meet a gruesome end in his lifetime, but will be triumphant and honored in history; he who wins by injustice may dominate the present day, but history will always judge him to be a shameful loser. There can be no exception.”


* For period context, recall that in April of 1979 the Pakistani military government had hanged the former prime minister, over Washington’s objections.

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1716: Stefan Cantacuzino, Wallachian prince

1 comment January 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1716, the Ottomans extinguished their Wallachian (Romanian) client king — and with him native rule on that soil.

The Cantacuzino family has bequeathed Romania no small quantity of notables down to our present time. Our man Stefan Cantacuzino (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) got the throne of the Ottoman satellite principality of Wallachia via intriguing against a cousin whom the Ottomans deposed and executed in 1714. That guy is a saint today for refusing to convert to save his life.

Stefan Cantacuzino aimed perhaps at a more secular apotheosis, tipping the Austrians to Turkish battle plans as the frontier slid into war between those empires. Who knows what reverential murmurs would attend his name had he been able to attach the Danubian Principalities to Christendom?

But considering that summary death at the command of dissatisfied sultans was an occupational hazard for Wallachian princes, he can’t have been surprised to find the bowstring around his own neck instead.

“With him terminated the rule of the native princes,” notes this 19th century history — and began that of “the so-called Phanariote governors,” a class of Greek magnates initially resident in Istanbul. The Porte’s arbitration among these as deputies for Wallachia enabled it to maintain much better control of the troublesome province than entrusting succession to the treacherous local boyars.

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820: Not Michael the Amorian, conquer or die

Add comment December 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 820, holiday sentiment cost the Roman emperor his life.

In the unsettled aftermath of Byzantium’s devastating 811 defeat at the Battle of Pliska, the military took the lead in the person of the formerly disgraced general Leo the Armenian.

Leo forced the abdication of a short-reined predecessor and in this enterprise he was aided by a brother-officer named Michael, known as Michael the Amorian or more colorfully, Michael the Stammerer.*

Both these men had had careers of opportunistically shifting alliances and their friendship did not withstand the intrigues of the palace. (Perhaps the falling-out was aided by ill feeling when Leo put aside his wife, who was Michael’s wife’s sister.)

In 820, Leo got suspicious of Michael and had him condemned to death for plotting against him. But since this grim judgment came down just ahead of Christmas, the emperor graciously gave his comrade-turned-prey a holiday respite. This leniency was one of the very last acts of his life.

When your head ends up on the currency instead of a spike.

It has been famously said that the prospect of imminent execution concentrates the mind wonderfully and that was never truer than for Michael the Amorian. Leo had been right to suspect him of treason — and Michael was able to get word to his co-conspirators to act immediately, lest he betray the lot of them to his inquisitors.

On Christmas morning, Michael’s cronies did just that, ambushing the emperor as he prayed in the chapel of St. Stephen where they cut him down dead — then raced to the palace dungeons to liberate Michael and hail him emperor so hurriedly that he was still partially manacled.

Michael would rule capably for nine years and pass the throne to his descendants, initiating the Amorian or Phrygian dynasty.

The events surrounding this dramatic regime change are covered on the History of Byzantium podcast in episodes 98 and 99 (all about Leo’s reign, culminating with Michael’s coup), and episodes 101 and 102 (all about Michael’s reign).

* Leo also restored the controversial policy of iconoclasm, a policy that Michael continued in his own turn to the profit of this here site.

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1405: Astorre I Manfredi, former lord of Faenza

Add comment November 28th, 2017 Headsman

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

-Annales Forolivienses: ab origine urbis usque ad annum MCCCCLXXIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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1622: Sultan Osman II

1 comment May 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, the deposed Ottoman Sultan Osman II was strangled in Yedikule Fortress.

A boy-emperor still in his 18th year at death, Osman had been the subject of a strange succession dispute: his father died in 1617, but with multiple underaged princes available to succeed him, the throne had been placed in the hands of a mentally disturbed uncle instead.

Osman was able to depose this man, but at his age — and without the steadying maternal hand* so necessary in the “Sultanate of Women” era — he was always an underdog to the Porte’s political snakepit.

Osman would be an early casualty of an intractable administrative problem for the Ottomans: curbing the Praetorian-like power of that clique of European-born warrior elites, the Janissaries.

Irritated by a battlefield reversal in Europe, Osman showed his young backside to the Janissaries by having their officers discipline them and exploring the feasibility a replacement force of Muslim-born Anatolians.

Thus while Osman prepared for an expedition to the southern reaches of his realm, the disaffected infantrymen answered their sultan’s ire with a rising of its own, one which Osman imperiously refused to pay in the customary coin of executed courtiers and policy concessions. He was accordingly deposed for that same disturbed uncle he had supplanted, and the unhappy Osman

was thrust into a cart by the wrestler Bunyan and strangled within the walls of the Seven Towers. The Jebbehji-bashi cut off one of his ears and carried it with the news of his murder to [new regime Grand Vizier] Davud Pasha. His body was buried in the At-maidân in the mausoleum of Sultan Ahmed Khan [Osman’s father]. He was cut off by fate before he could leave any monument of his reign. (Source)

Allegedly (via this detailed pdf breakdown of his fall), Osman cried to the mob as the cart hauled him to his dungeon, “Yesterday morning I was a sultan, now I am naked. Pity me, learn a lesson from my misfortune! This world shall not stay yours forever!”

* His European mother was either dead or in exile; she does not factor in Osman’s story; it was most typical during this period for a harem mother to sustain a prince in power by mastering Topkapi Palace’s labyrinthine internal politics.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Heads of State,History,Ottoman Empire,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey

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1689: Sambhaji, Maratha king

Add comment March 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1689, the Maratha prince Sambhaji was put to a grisly death by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.*

Sambhaji was the firstborn son of the man whose daring had created the Hindu Maratha state — and whose death in 1680 seemed to the neighboring Muslim Mughals the right invitation to destroy this nascent rival.

The Mughals were right to worry, for in the 18th century the Maratha polity would grow into an empire dominating the Indian subcontinent, and drive the Mughals into a long decline.

But in the 1680s, it was the Maratha on the back foot as Aurangzeb invaded their haunts on the Deccan Plateau, steadily albeit very slowly reducing Maratha fortresses over the course of the decade (and the next decade).

This war defined Sambhaji’s reign, and ended it too, when he was at last captured with his favorite aide Kavi Kalash in Sangmeshwar. Mockingly dressed up as buffoons, they were paraded through Mughal territory to the emperor, who would present them a demand for Islamic conversion as the price of their lives.

But the doomed wretches knew that, after all, their heads would fall upon the scaffold, or that, if by abject submission and baseness, they escaped death, they would be kept in confinement deprived of all the pleasures of life, and every day of life would be a new death. So both Sambha and Kabkalas indulged in abusive language, and uttered the most offensive remarks in the hearing of the Emperor’s servants … [Aurangzeb] gave orders that the tongues of both should be cut out, so that they might no longer speak disrepsectfully. After that, their eyes were to be torn out. Then, with ten or eleven other persons, they were put to be put to death with a variety of tortures, and lastly he ordered that the skins of the heads of Sambha and Kabkalas should be stuffed with straw, and exposed in all the cities and towns of the Dakhin, with beat of drum and sound of trumpet. Such is the retribution for rebellious, violent, oppressive evil-doers. (Source — British, it must be said)

Sambhaji has not been highly rated for his indifferent internal governance of Maratha, but the clarifying allure of war and the gruesomely patriotic manner of his death earned him hero’s laurels still honored by Hindu nationalists down to the present day; the village of Tulapur where he was put to death honors Sambhaji with several monuments.

For a contemporary — like, say, Aurangzeb — Sambhaji’s death followed closely by the capture of his family when the Maratha capital succumbed to Mughal siege must have appeared to presage the destruction of his state. Things didn’t work out that way: Sambhaji’s younger brother Rajaram and especially Rajaram’s impressive queen Tarabai kept the Mughals bogged down on the Deccan, bleeding money** and time as they struggled to complete the conquest — until by Aurangzeb’s own despondent death in 1707, it was the Maratha on the advance, and the Mughal Empire on the brink of its own collapse.

* Aurangzeb was the son of the man who built the Taj Mahal. He’d needed some violence of his own to claim the Mughal throne from his brothers.

** “The expense in gold and rupees can hardly be accurately estimated. Aurangzeb’s encampment was like a moving capital — a city of tents 30 miles in circumference, with some 250 bazaars, with a ½ million camp followers, 50,000 camels and 30,000 elephants, all of whom had to be fed, stripped the Deccan of any and all of its surplus grain and wealth.” -Stanley Wolpert

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,India,Maratha Empire,Martyrs,Mughal Empire,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1836: Felipe Santiago Salaverry, President of Peru

1 comment February 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1836,* the deposed President of Peru was shot with his comrades by the new Bolivian boss.

The youngest ever to head his country, Felipe Santiago Salaverry (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Spanish) abandoned his studies in 1820 for the romance of soldiery.

He was all of 15.

By age 28, he was a brigadier general, fresh off crushing a bunch of rebels in the 1834 civil war.

He must have decided he could build a better mousetrap, because by 1835 Salaverry was rebelling himself. He chased off President Luis Orbegoso and was cock of the walk in Peru from the spring of 1835 until the first days of 1836.

By then, his exiled predecessor had made common cause with their Andean neighbor, Bolivian strongman Andres de Santa Cruz — who now proceeded to invade into southern Peru, where Orbegoso remained more popular than his usurper.

Salaverry answered with panache, pronouncing “Guerra a Muerte” and going on the offensive by crossing the border to raid Cobija where he pulled down the Bolivian flag and dragged it around. He was cocksure in victory after defeating his enemies at the Battle of Uchumayo (there’s a Salaverry Hill at the location, where a crumbling bust of our man stands trapezoidal sentinel).

The march “El ataque de Uchumayo” was originally dubbed “La Salaverrina”

But three days later, he was routed at Socabaya; his escapes cut off, Salaverry had to surrender his presidency and his person to the discretion of his foes. This outcome merged both states into the short-lived Peru-Bolivian Confederation under Santa Cruz, who now bore the Cromwellian title Supreme Protector. (Orbegoso was relegated to the tributary presidency of North Peru.)

But Salaverry was not around to see all that play out because Santa Cruz had he and eight chief officers condemned to death by a drumhead tribunal. Not a one of them had so many as 35 years; Salaverry was still just 29. They were shot together in Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas before a massive, and hostile, crowd: Arequipa was a stronghold for Orbegoso’s forces, and Salaverry in better times had openly relished the prospect of rewarding his own soldiers by putting it to the sack.

My dear Juana,

Within two hours I will be assassinated by Santa Cruz, and I address to you my final vows. I have loved you as you have loved me, and I carry into eternity the profound sorrow that I have made you so unhappy. I preferred my country’s good to my family’s, and I have been permitted neither. Educate my children, care for them; I put my trust in your wisdom and your talents. Do not lose heart that misfortune is the inseparable companion of mortals. Be as happy as you can, and never forget your dear husband.

-Salaverry’s last letter to his wife

* There are some cites out there for February 19. I have had a surprisingly difficult time finding a definitive date for so public and recent an event, but the more numerous and stronger sources — e.g., this very specific narration — prefer the 18th.

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Entry Filed under: Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers

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