Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

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 the 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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1603: Marco Tulio Catizone, the false Dom Sebastian

Add comment September 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1603, a man claiming to be the long-lost Portuguese king was publicly hanged on a square in the Andalusian city of Sanlucar.

Not Marco Tulio Catizone, but pretty close: the real Dom Sebastian

Dom Sebastian — so named because he was born on the Feast of St. Sebastian in 1554 — would be remembered longingly after his untimely death at age 24 as o Desejado, the Desired. What was truly desired was a return to Portugal’s golden age.

In its day, little Portugal had flourished as a great maritime empire of the Age of Discovery

One could say that trade was the calling-card of this realm of venturesome explorers, but there is no empire but that bears a sword, too. Sebastian, his young head probably bursting dreams of Alexander, undertook in 1577-78 to intervene under the glorious banner of Crusade in a disputed succession of the Moorish kingdom of Morocco.

This sort of personal valor makes for great press in the woodblocks when things go to script, and the allure must be correlated to the disproportionate odds engaged in gratuitously chancing one’s royal person to war. Sebastian was unmarried and had no children; his own father had succumbed to consumption at age 17 so he had no siblings, either. When this sole pillar of royal authority suicidally crashed himself headlong into a superior Moroccan force at the so-called Battle of Three Kings, his chivalrous self-immolation exacted a crippling toll on his kingdom.

An uncle in the cardinalate, Henry, was surprised to find himself suddenly elevated to the now-precarious Portuguese throne; Henry was 66 years old at the time and had taken vows of chastity that he could not maneuver to shed before he too died in 1580 with no heir at all.* In the ensuing succession crisis, the Spanish king soon swallowed up Portugal in a personal union.

It was only natural that the many Portuguese distressed by this staggering sequence of events would indulge the dream of their late king. Besides having the advantage of being frozen in time at the height of his youthful potential, Sebastian had never actually been found after that bloody Battle of Three Kings — or, at least, the identity of the body that the Spanish produced in the way of ending discussion was deeply doubted. Without convincing royal remains, such a dream began to spawn here and there pretenders who would emerge from unhappily unified Iberia to claim the name and the patrimony of the lost desired king.


The Recovering of the Desired King’s Body at Alcácer Quibir by Caetano Moreira da Costa Lima (1888)

The wild cast of longshot characters, according to Bryan Givens in Braudel Revisited, featured the likes of “the anonymous ‘King of Pernamacor’ in 1584; Mateus Alvares, the ‘King of Ericeira’ in 1585; and Gabriel Espinosa, the ‘Pastry-Maker of Madrigal’ in 1595.” These guys are claimants to a sleeping-king tradition aptly named “Sebastianism” which also fronted the prophecy of a visionary Azores blacksmith named Balthasar Goncalves who insisted to the Inquisition that the fallen King would return like a Messiah to liberate Portugal from Spain — and conquer Africa and the Holy Land — and defeat the Antichrist.** These beliefs in turn eddied out of currents of already-existing mystical eschatology, like the Trovas of Antonio Goncalves de Bandarra from earlier in the 16th century, mystically prophesying the return of a Hidden King.

Our man Marco Tulio Catizone (Italian link), a native of the south Italian town of Taverna, was one of these. In Venice he had made the chance acquaintance of an Italian mercenary who had joined Dom Sebastian’s catastrophic crusade, and this soldier was amazed by Catizone’s resemblance to the late king.

Thus handed a compelling calling in life, Catizone announced himself the very man himself, who had wandered the world in penance after the battle but now would like Portugal back if you please. The Venetians jailed and then expelled him (in the vein of the “King of Ericeira” and the “Pastry-Maker of Madrigal”, this one is the “Prisoner of Venice”); the Florentines re-arrested him and eventually deported him to Spain; and in Spain under the gentle suasions of hostile interrogators he coughed up his real name and purpose and was condemned a galley slave for life in 1602.

But no such sentence could squelch the desiring of a return to king and country, and for such a purpose the least plausible pretender could serve a sufficient rallying-point. João de Castro, the illegitimate son of a Portuguese nobleman who would become “the St. Paul of the sebastianista religion”† met the imprisoned “Sebastian” in Italy and became the convinced herald of his return as Bandarra’s Hidden King, the restorer of Portuguese glory and the scourge of Spain and Islam alike.

De Castro was nothing daunted by Catizone’s confession and confinement and from exile in Paris wrote a tome “with the license of the King” entitled Discurso da Vida do Sempre Bem Vindo et Apparecido Rey Dom Sebiao nosso Senhor o Encuberto, advancing the Prisoner of Venice’s claims. An attempt by De Castro and others like-minded to stir a Sebastianist rebellion in Lisbon in 1603 on Catizone’s behalf led to the latter’s trial for treason, with the outcome we have already noted.

Yet even this did not abate de Castro’s prophetic vigor.

“The man executed by the Spanish had, in fact, been Catizone, de Castro admitted, but Catizone had been switched with Sebastian by the Spanish so that they could quell the growing support for Sebastian without having the guilt of royal blood on their hands,” writes Givens. Our St. Paul would spend the remaining quarter-century of his life churning out treatises in exile “to prove Sebastian’s providential destiny, citing predictions from the full range of the Western prophetic corpus to prove that Sebastian was destined to rule the world.”

* The best who could be advanced as the Cardinal-King’s homegrown successor candidate was an illegitimate cousin of the late Dom Sebastian.

** Instead of burning this fellow as a heretic, the Inquisition instead mercifully judged him a lunatic and released him to some intensive personal indoctrination.

† J.L. de Azevedo in A evolucao do sebastianismo (1918), cited in Portuguese Studies Review, vol. 17, no. 1 (2009).

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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1865: Gerardo Barrios, Salvadoran statesman

Add comment August 29th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

‡ The same date John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

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476: Basiliscus, victim of the fine print

Add comment August 18th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Basiliscus forced into the cistern.

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

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

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

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

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1714: Constantine Brancoveanu and his sons

Add comment August 15th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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1578: Ivan Pidkova, Cossack hetman

Add comment June 16th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

The first deposition came courtesy of our man Pidkova.

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

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

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


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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

Add comment May 4th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternatively,

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

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

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

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

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

** Ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

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1979: Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, Iranian Prime Minister

Add comment April 7th, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1502: Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo, Borgia casualties

Add comment December 31st, 2013 Headsman

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Machiavelli also wrote up Oliverotto in The Prince.

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