Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

1730: Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, Tulip Era Grand Vizier

1 comment October 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha was deposed by strangulation.

Ibrahim Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish)* was the minister of Sultan Ahmed III; more than that, he was the sultan’s son-in-law.**

It was the Lâle Devri in Istanbul, whose great families thrilled to the voluptuary pleasures of tulips — a consumption conspicuous not only of wealth but of European affectation.†

Ibrahim himself was a great connoisseur of the fashionable bulb that defines his 1718-1730 administration as the “Tulip Period”. Arts and culture in the empire — there’s no other way to say it — flowered.

But neither horticulture nor family ties were safety in Istanbul when events required of the sultan a politically expedient purge.

For the mass of Turks unable to entertain French noblemen in their cultivated gardens, resentments both economical and cultural accumulated during in Tulip Period until they were discharged by a ham-handed tax imposition in 1730 into a huge mob rising. We have previously covered this revolt; suffice to say that it was briefly a mortal threat to which the ruling dynasty was obliged to sacrifice a few elites: an Albanian shopkeeper named Patrona Halil basically ruled Istanbul for a few weeks, and one of the concessions his angry supporters required of the sultan was the death of his son-in-law. Ahmed himself got off “easy” and was simply made to resign in favor of his nephew.

The end for Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha also meant the end of the Tulip Era; periodization aside, however, the flower does remain a popular Turkish symbol. (Even the word for tulip, Lale, is used as a feminine name.) They’re planted all over in present-day Istanbul, and bloom gloriously in the spring; Turkish Airlines also uses a stylized tulip as its logo.

* Not to be confused with the Damat Ibrahim Pasha who was Grand Vizier from 1596 to 1601, and still less with the Grand Vizier executed by Suleiman the Magnificent, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha.

** His wife Hatice Sultan wielded considerable power of her own; after her husband’s death and her father’s resignation, she played a leading role in statecraft for the government-averse successor sultan.

† This is, however, a century after the completely unrelated Dutch tulip mania. The flower is native to Anatolia, not to the Low Countries.

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1867: Not Santa Anna

Add comment October 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1867, the Mexican general and onetime president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna avoided execution at his court-martial.

Best recognized north of the Rio Grande for overrunning the Alamo, Santa Anna actually enjoyed an amazing career with a near half-century as Mexico’s definitive caudillo.

Antonio López de Santa Anna joined the military he would come to personify as a 16-year-old cadet in 1810 … except it was the Spanish colonial army, where he had hands-on training in the cold counterinsurgency tactics he would subsequently apply in his maturity.

Within barely a decade, the ambitious young officer was advanced to general — the last step by dint of his timely adherence to the incoming emperor of now-independent Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide.

Iturbide was destined for a firing squad, but Santa Anna had a better knack for tacking with his new country’s political gales — turning against his recent patron just in time to help depose the guy.

Santa Anna’s P.T. Barnum*-quality panache for shameless self-promotion — at one pont he repelled Spain’s last attempted reconquista and pronounced himself the “Napoleon of the West” — soon self-promoted himself right to the presidency. From 1833 to 1855, he held the office during 11 distinct stints.

His dictatorial exercise of power and abundant graft aroused resistance from more than just Texan Anglos, so he was often engaged in suppressing internal rebellions, and occasionally in being chased by them into exile. His last turn at president was aborted in 1855 by liberal reformers. Santa Anna fled to Cuba.

Considering the mad twists of fortune in his long career, it’s a miracle that none of his enemies ever actually executed Santa Anna. He was: both adoit and lucky to avoid purging during the tumultuous 1820s; captured by rebelling Texans, who preferred to avenge Alamo by forcing him to treaty terms; handed over to the U.S. government, which eventually sent him back to Mexico; captured again by rebelling Indians in Veracruz who sold him to the Mexican government which sent him to exile; and, tried by the liberals who finally toppled him, but in absentia since he had escaped once more. He had more lives than a cat; small wonder that here in his sixties and seventies he still wasn’t done plotting.

A full decade out of power, Santa Anna spent 1866-1867 in Staten Island, New York,** until the fall of Mexico’s French-backed Emperor Maximilian induced him once more — at the age of 73 — to sail for home with one last summons to his banner. Instead he was captured in a position that must have looked like curtains for sure.

The New York Times actually reported on July 5, 1867 that Santa Anna had been summarily executed; in fact, the restored liberal government of Benito Juarez clapped the nettlesome general in prison and subjected him to a court martial that ran Oct. 7-10. Juarez allegedly expected the old snake to be convicted of treason and finally executed, but like the Times, Juarez too was frustrated: the commission sentenced Santa Anna to exile and he was carried away to Havana once again.

It proved to be a waking death: cheated of the glory of a firing squad, the old general was pitiably forgotten.

“His schemes” — for still he schemed — “became increasingly the ravings of an old, deluded, sick man,” writes Robert Scheina in Santa Anna: A Curse Upon Mexico.

Permitted with Juarez’s death in 1874 to return to Mexico, Santa Anna now fought only for a pension. (He lost that fight.) So long his country’s first man, he “became increasingly depressed which was only relieved by his increasing senility. Santa Anna was suffering the worst possible punishment — obscurity and irrelevancy.” He died penniless of diarrhea in 1876.

* Santa Anna eventually came to hobble about on a cork leg, courtesy of a war wound. The leg was captured during the Mexican-American War, and Barnum put the artificial limb on exhibit.

That limb has never been returned to its native soil: Santa Anna’s prosthesis remains available to the Yankee gawker at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

** Santa Anna’s legacy in the United States (apart from that Alamo unpleasantness) was the importation of chicle, which the general liked to chew. Santa Anna’s American secretary, Thomas Adams, used it to create the chewing gum marketed as chiclets.

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1946: Vojtech Tuka, Slovakian Prime Minister

Add comment August 20th, 2015 Headsman

Slovak fascist politician Vojtech Tuka was hanged on this date in 1946 by the postwar Czechoslovakian government.

A lawyer, academic, and journalist, Tuka spent the decade leading up to World War II in prison for inciting Czechoslovakia’s Slovakian half to break with the Czechs.

These calls found their footing in 1938-39 when the Third Reich’s expansion crippled Czechoslovakia; a newly autonomous Slovak region under Prime Minister Jozef Tiso soon began pushing for outright independence.

In fact, one of the last actions of the pre-war Czechoslovakian state was to deploy troops to occupy Slovakia under martial law and (momentarily) depose Tiso on March 9, 1939. This desperate attempt to preserve Czechoslovakia was the action triggering Germany’s outright takeover of Czech territory. Tiso was in full support, and in reward he got restored as leader of the now “independent” Slovakia … in reality a German client state.

Tuka was right there for the ride.

In October 1939, Tiso became President of Slovakia, and appointed our man Vojtech the Prime Minister. Tuka would hold that office for the bulk of the coming war years, until ousted by the Slovak National Uprising late in 1944, and distinguish himself early for his enthusiasm in deporting Jews to German camps — and implementing comprehensive domestic anti-Semitic laws.*

But that decade in prison had not done Tuka’s health any favors. He suffered a stroke late in the war, and emigrated, wheelchair-bound, to Austria. He was arrested there and returned to Slovakia; by the time of his trial, he had suffered multiple strokes and was partially paralyzed.

Nevertheless, he was condemned as a war criminal for throwing Slovakia into war against the Soviet Union and for the defeated Slovak Republic’s anti-Jewish measures.

* Dieter Wisliceny, an Eichmann assistant, was a key German liaison to the Slovaks.

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1284: Tekuder, Mongol sultan

Add comment August 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1284, the deposed Mongol ruler Tekuder was put to death.

The Mongols had conquered half the world on the back of steppe horses and religious toleration. Mongols variously adopted Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, as well as tribal shamanism; it even sponsored debates among the rival confessions. What counted in the end for the men who commanded its armies was wins and losses.

Our man Tekuder was the son of Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who exemplified pluralistic competence. The son of a Christian but an eventual convert to Buddhism, Hulagu Khan’s signal achievement in the religious arena was done by his sword-arm: he defeated and destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate.

In time, three of the four large khanates comprising the Mongol ascendancy would declare themselves for Islam … but in the 13th century the doctrine most likely to get you in trouble was simply to be too doctrinaire.

Hulagu’s son and heir Tekuder, though once baptized into his parents’ Christian faith, turned to Mohammed’s faith with a convert’s zeal and demanded the compliance of his military brass. He declared the Ilkhanate of Persia and Mesopotamia a Muslim sultanate, and tilted Mongol diplomacy away from the Franks and towards Mamluk Egypt.

Tekuder receives an ambassador.

This split Tekuder’s coalition between Muslims on one side, and Christians and Buddhists on the other, and “the whole of the old Mongol party of malcontents, Buddhists and Nestorians alike, rallied to”* Tekuder’s own nephew Arghun.** One may infer from this entry which man prevailed.

Arghun enjoyed a successful seven-year reign with an incidental appearance in the Marco Polo saga: Arghun appealed to his great-uncle Kublai Khan to send him a wife, and Marco Polo was a part of the party that escorted that woman to Persia in 1291-1293.

Marco Polo would proceed back home to Venice after this voyage, laden with Spice Road riches after a quarter-century’s absence.

Arghun Khan of Persia, Kublai’s great-nephew, had in 1286 lost his favourite wife the Khatun Bulughan; and, mourning her sorely, took steps to fulfil her dying injunction that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own kin, the Mongol Tribe of Bayaut. Ambassadors were despatched to the Court of Kaan-baligh to seek such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Kokachin, a maiden of 17, “moult bele dame et avenant.” The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was not only of portentous length for such a tender charge, but was imperiled by war, so the envoys desired to return by sea. Tartars in general were strangers to all navigation; and the envoys, much taken with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially as Marco had just then returned from his Indian mission, begged the Kaan as a favour to send the three Firinghis in their company. He consented with reluctance, but, having done so, fitted the party out nobly for the voyage, charging the Polos with friendly messages for the potentates of Europe, including the King of England. They appear to have sailed from the port of Zayton (as the Westerns called T’swan-chau or Chin-cheu in Fo-kien) in the beginning of 1292. It was an ill-starred voyage, involving long detentions on the coast of Sumatra, and in the South of India, to which, however, we are indebted for some of the best chapters in the book; and two years or upwards passed before they arrived at their destination in Persia. The three hardy Venetians survived all perils, and so did the lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard; but two of the three envoys, and a vast proportion of the suite, had perished by the way. Arghun Khan too had been dead even before they quitted China; his brother Kaikhatu reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady’s hand. We are told by one who knew both the princes well that Arghun was one of the handsomest men of his time, whilst Ghazan was, among all his host, one of the most insignificant in appearance. But in other respects the lady’s change was for the better. Ghazan had some of the highest qualities of a soldier, a legislator and a king, adorned by many and varied accomplishments; though his reign was too short for the full development of his fame.

-The Travels of Marco Polo

* Quote from The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia.

** We have met Arghun Khan in passing in these pages, as the executioner of Georgian prince Demetre II, the Self-Sacrificer.

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1688: Constantine Gerachi, the Siamese Falcon

1 comment June 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1688, the astonishing Constantine Gerachi — the Greek cabin-boy turned virtual prince of Siam — plummeted to earth.

The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, Gerachi ran away to sea in 1660 and soon caught on with the English East India Company ships who plied the Mediterranean and all the Seven Seas. Though little-educated, Gerachi proved himself frightfully clever and picked up his crewmates’ English. In time he also mastered French, Portuguese, Malay, and of course Siamese.

The word gerachi is Greek for falcon, and no name was ever more aptly conferred. From the humblest beginnings, Constantine Phaulkon soared higher than all.

By the late 1670s, Constantine had segued from hauling East Indies cargo to trading it, and this brought him to the attention of the Siamese king Narai. For Siam, the growing influence of European traders, diplomats, and arms was the prevailing issue of the late 17th century; Narai engaged fully with those interlopers and most especially with the French, who provided architects, mathematicians,* missionaries, and military engineers to the Siamese kingdom and received lucrative commercial concessions in return.

The king appreciated our polyglot adventurer’s many talents and attracted him to the Siamese court, where the pro-French Constantine quickly rose to become Narai’s indispensable chief counselor — basically the equivalent of the Siamese Prime Minister, the power in the kingdom.

But Gerachi’s close association with Narai, and with a French relationship that Siamese grandees increasingly feared might convert insensibly into domination, finally felled the Falcon.

In 1688, the ailing king tried to arrange for the succession of his daughter. Instead, he triggered a revolt by his foster brother Phetracha, backed by a “broad coalition of anti-foreigners, including Buddhist monks, the nobility and low-ranking officers.”**

This Chief of the Royal Elephant Corps seized power, murdering a number of royal relatives (and possibly hastening along the dying Narai himself). Monsieur Constantine of such discreditable familiarity to the French naturally went in his own turn, unsuccessfully trying to rally the realm’s French garrisons to defense of the mutual benefits of the ancien regime.

Nor was this merely a palace coup: Petracha’s takeover became the Siamese Revolution of 1688, “one of the most famous events of our times, whether it is considered from the point of view of politics or religion” in the judgment of a European contemporary. Thais who had resented the growing prominence of the farang now expelled most Europeans, or worse: though not a Japan-like closure (Siam maintained active intercourse with its neighbors), the country would remain essentially dark to Europeans until the 19th century.

Historical Fiction Series by Axel Aylwen

* The relationship gave to European mathematics the “Siamese method”.

** Thanet Aphornsuvan, “The West and Siam’s quest for modernity: Siamese responses to nineteenth century American missionaries”, East Asia Research, vol. 17, no. 3. (Nov. 2009)

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.

By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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1946: Ion Antonescu

Add comment June 1st, 2015 Headsman

Romania’s wartime fascist dictator Ion Antonescu was shot on this date in 1946.

Antonescu (hand raised) and Adolf at Nazi headquarters in June 1941. Behind them are Ribbentrop and Keitel.

An army officer who worked his way up to the brass via his exploits in the Second Balkan War and then in World War I, Antonescu emerged as a major nationalist politician in the interwar period. He was the elite political figure who allied with Corneliu Codreanu‘s Iron Guard movement.

Antonescu became the Defence Minister in a a far-right government, was temporarily shouldered out of the state by King Carol II‘s coup, and then re-emerged as the leading alternative when Carol’s government was undone by the tectonic political crises in the run-up to World War II. After territorial concessions wrung by Romania’s neighbors triggered protests against the king in Bucharest, Antonescu on September 5, 1940, forced Carol to transfer dictatorial power to him — and shortly thereafter, he forced Carol to abdicate altogether.*

That left Carol’s son Michael the figurehead of state, and Ion Antonescu the actual strongman — at least, once he tamed the Iron Guard.

Antonescu oriented Romania towards Hitler’s Germany, including a fairly enthusiastic involvement in the Holocaust.**

For Germany, it was an important alliance: Romania’s oil fields were essential to powering the Reich’s mechanized army. And Romania ultimately fielded the largest Axis army other than Germany and Italy themselves with well over one million men under arms by the summer of 1944. For Romania, well, opportunism is as opportunism does: as Antonescu put it, echoing an ancient argument, “in today’s circumstances a small country which is under threat, such as ours, does not do what it wishes, but what it can.”

The Romanian “General Antonescu Army Group” joined the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union. Romanian divisions were prominent at Stalingrad where some 150,000 were lost as casualties or prisoners.

The turn of the war’s tide put Romania in a grievous dilemma whose parameters ran something like this:

  • Maintain Antonescu’s personal grip on power
  • Maintain the territorial expansion Romania had achieved early in the war
  • Exit the war without going down in Germany’s Gotterdammerung

… pick one of three. Provided it’s the last one.

As the Red Army approached from the northeast and American bombers struck from Italy and North Africa, Antonescu scrambled to sound out what kind of a deal he could cut with the Allies.

Antonescu might perhaps have negotiated without the desperation due his position,† and dilated with his decreasingly patient enemies while the Germans flattered him with the dream that he could still retain conquered Bessarabia (present-day Moldova). Only with the Soviet army on his doorstep was Antonescu finally disabused of the statesman’s dream and office both — when King Michael ousted Antonescu and immediately switched Romania to the Allied side.‡ This move accepted the Soviet occupation that was about to become a fait accompli, and put Romanian soldiers into the field for the last months of the war fighting against their former German allies.

It also put Antonescu into Soviet custody. He rode out the war under guard in Moscow, then was shipped back to postwar Romania where he would serve as the feature attraction of the People’s Tribunals.

One hundred eighty-seven people answered war crimes charges to these bodies; there were 13 death sentences, but only four were actually executed.§ All four — Transnistria governor Gheorghe Alexianu, Interior Minister Constantin Vasiliu, and Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu (no relation — were shot on this date at Jilava. The executions were filmed.

* Carol went into exile, never to see his native soil again. He died in Portugal in 1953.

** “Of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself,” according to a 2003-2004 commission. “Efforts to rehabilitate the perpetrators of these crimes are particularly abhorrent and worrisome. Nowhere else in Europe has a mass murderer like Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s faithful ally until the very end, been publicly honored as a national hero.” (The full report is available here; the quoted lines come from its executive summary.)

† Berlin was keeping an eye on Romania’s separate-peace feelers, too, and had prepared a plan to occupy Romania should it attempt to desert the Axis. This is precisely the fate that befell Nazi-allied Hungary … but in Romania’s case, Germany never had the moment to implement the plan.

‡ Michael was, like his father, forced into exile in 1947; he did not return to Romania until after the collapse of Communism. Now in his nineties, King Michael is still alive as of this posting and remains the claimant should Romania ever re-establish its monarchy.

§ Six of the 13 death sentences were delivered in absentia. Notable among those fled souls was the Hungarian writer Albert Wass: Wass had escaped to the United States, which refused repeated appeals by Communist Romania to deport him. There is a running struggle in both Hungary and Romania over whether to rehabilitate Wass or posthumously rescind his death sentences. (Postwar Hungary condemned him, too.)

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628: Khosrau II, Sassanid emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.

Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.

Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.

Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.

The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, bringing that longtime rival of Persia to the brink of outright destruction. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”

The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.

The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.

The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.

Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:

  • The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
  • The (defuunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
  • The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.

* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.

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1204: Alexios V, precipitated Byzantine emperor

Add comment December 25th, 2014 Headsman

Around this time in the year 1205, the fleeting Byzantine emperor Alexios V Doukas was put to a dramatic death in Constantinople’s Forum of Theodosius by being hurled from the top of the ancient Column of Theodosius.

Nicknamed “Mourtzouphlos” for his prominent brow, Alexios obtained his Pyrrhic purple by being the only elite with wit and courage in Constantinople during the horror of the its sack by a Venetian Crusader army.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! Hands in mailed gauntlets and silk gloves grasping after glory and treasure were our Emperor Eyebrow’s rise and his fall.

The prime desideratum was the prime desideratum, Jerusalem. In a monument to bad management, a Crusader army of 12,000 was mustered to Venice in 1202 for a flotilla suitable to thrice its number. Venice had taken on an enormous contract to assemble this fleet and since the soldiers who showed up could in no way pay what the Serene Republic had been proised, Venice simply repossessed the army to make good its debt by means of pillage.

First, it sacked Venice’s Dalmatian rival Zadar. Then, having picked up the exiled nephew of the reigning Byzantine emperor — the uncle had overthrown the father to get the job — the Crusader-mercenaries made for Constantinople, become now shameless Praetorians by dint of young Alexios’s assurance of all the liberalities the East’s treasuries could bear.

Constantinople in 1202 was the jewel of Christendom. Its mighty walls had preserved the city inviolate since antiquity — a city of half a million souls reposing in the splendors of the Roman world, augmented by eight more centuries’ imperial surplus.

A morsel so ripe needs but one unguarded moment for some ruffian to pluck it. The Crusaders’ attack so happened to catch Constantinople, at long last, at such a moment. The city was lightly defended and unable to summon more aid — while under the direction of an emperor, Alexios III, who had been cruel and profligate in the enjoyment of his power but vacillated fatally when he was required to defend it.

In a matter of days in July of 1203, Alexios’s rule collapsed, and the emperor himself fled, when the Crusaders besieged Constantiople. These Crusaders of course installed their scheming moppet as Emperor Alexios IV, actually co-emperor with his father who despite having been brutally blinded by his brother was liberated and acclaimed by the populace.

The ensuing months make painful reading — and surely much worse than that to experience at first hand. The new emperors feuded with each other despite their kinship. They also had to squeeze every revenue they could for the Crusader army, which stubbornly refused to depart as its leader, the nonagenarian Doge of Venice, schemed to establish lasting Venetian authority in Byzantium. Irritated residents, enduring the continued presence of a Crusader army that thought it was supposed to be going to Jerusalem all along, rioted and fought with one another.

(For a ready summary of this situation and the entire buildup of the Fourth Crusade, grab episode 15 of Lars Brownworth’s outstanding 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast.)

The bottom line was that young Alexios was no more impressive in power than had been his predecessor and he had the added disability of having been installed by a foreign invader. He also discovered to his chagrin that the staggering sum of 200,000 he had so lightly promised the Venetians in exchange for his throne was double what he could actually find in the capital. When the situation unmanned him in January of 1204, he cowered in the imperial palace and sent his chamberlain to petition the Crusaders to back him in the latest exigency.

That chamberlain was our man, Alexios Mourtzouphlos.

Acting with an alacrity that might have spared Constantinople a horror had an earlier prince exercised it, Alexios instead arrested the co-emperors and spirited them off to a dungeon where they were quietly murdered.

The usurper then turned the city’s energies towards reinforcing its battered defenses and attempted to mount an attack against the Crusaders. This proved, however, much too late to spare the Second Rome its most awful tribulation.

In a matter of days in April 1204, the rude band of Latins who set out to win Jerusalem for Christ overran glorious Constantinople and put it to the sack. Tourists today who gawk at the bronze horses decorating Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica are in fact enjoying the plunder of Byzantium. In time Constantinople would be retrieved from the Latins, but neither the city itself nor the Byzantine Empire ever fully recovered from the blow. This is also the event that made the schism between Eastern and Western confessions of Christianity permanently irretrievable.*

It was not given Alexios Mourtzouphlos to see what horrors ensued for Constantinople, never mind to get a start on finagling an imperial comeback of his own. Fleeing the sack of the city, he wound up in Thrace in the company of yet another deposed ex-emperor. But after first allowing Mourtzouphlos to marry his daughter, that old schemer had Alexios V blinded and in November 1204 abandoned him to an advancing Latin army — and its eventual death-by-precipitation — while his former in-laws fled to Corinth.

* One of Alexios IV’s promises to his Crusader buddies was to submit the Byzantine patriarchate to Papal authority — another pledge that could never have been realistically delivered.

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610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**

Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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