Posts filed under 'Heads of State'

1672: Cornelis and Johan de Witt lynched

7 comments August 20th, 2010 Headsman

Chapter 1. A Grateful People

On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cupolas are reflected,–the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting, and restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.

the whole town was crowding towards the Buytenhof, to witness the departure of Cornelius de Witt from prison, as he was going to exile; and to see what traces the torture of the rack had left on the noble frame of the man who knew his Horace so well.

Yet all this multitude was not crowding to the Buytenhof with the innocent view of merely feasting their eyes with the spectacle; there were many who went there to play an active part in it, and to take upon themselves an office which they conceived had been badly filled,–that of the executioner.

There were, indeed, others with less hostile intentions. All that they cared for was the spectacle, always so attractive to the mob, whose instinctive pride is flattered by it,–the sight of greatness hurled down into the dust.

-Alexandre Dumas, pere, The Black Tulip

That ominous mob got its spectacle this date in 1672, lynching the Dutch Republic’s longtime de facto head of state, Johan de Witt along with his brother Cornelis/Cornelius.


A statue of Johan (standing) and Cornelis de Witt in their native Dordrecht.

The mercantile powerhouse that was the 17th century Dutch Republic was the stage for a long-running conflict between the Orange monarchists (hence the soccer uniforms) and the Republican merchant class.

With the sudden death of the young William II, Prince of Orange in 1650, leaving the (non-hereditary) executive office of stadtholder vacant, the Republicans became ascendant.

And the outstanding figure of the First Stadtholderless Period was Johan de Witt, scion of a Dordrecht merchant family powerful enough that William II had imprisoned de Witt’s own father during a power struggle.

Elevated in 1653 and at the tender age of 28 to the leadership position of Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt’s “eloquence, sagacity and business talents” guided the Dutch ship of state for essentially the remainder of his life.

This was the apex of the Dutch Golden Age. The Dutch East India Company dominated Asian trade routes,* and the Low Countries’ culture thrived on the wealth: Rembrandt and Vermeer were at the height of their talents; Spinoza revolutionized philosophy; van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.

While all these guys were landing themselves in their respective canons, Johan de Witt was trying to keep the age Golden.

Having only relatively recently broken free of Spain, the small country was an up-and-comer on the horns of a serious security dilemma: its leading commercial position put it into maritime competition with England, while its continental location made it vulnerable to the enormous army of the neighboring continental hegemon, France. Ultimately, even with its trade wealth, it did not have the resources to keep up with both of western Europe’s leading powers.

For a generation, de Witt’s statecraft kept the men of the Low Countries out of that predicament, while his brother Cornelis chipped in with a couple of timely naval victories. (Actually authored by Michiel de Ruyter, but Cornelis rode shotgun.)

In 1654, Johan brought the First Anglo-Dutch War to a close, making with Oliver Cromwell a secret pact he was only too happy to enforce never to allow William II’s son, the eventual William III, to be named stadtholder. Reason being: William III was the grandson of the Stuart king Cromwell beheaded, Charles I, and thus a potential claimant to the English throne. Both Protestant Republics had a distinct interest in keeping this monarchist well away from power. (Both would be sorely disappointed.)

A decade and a Stuart Restoration later, de Witt maintained (mostly) Dutch dominance of the seas in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, then held off France (with the help of a timely alliance with the recent adversary, England) in the War of Devolution.

In each case, he kept at least one of England or France on the sideline, or in his own camp.

But the Third Anglo-Dutch War was the charm — as it was also the Franco-Dutch War, and therefore 1672 was Rampjaar: disaster year. While the Dutch were aces on the waves, a massive French invasion easily overwhelmed them on terra firma.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a grisly painting of the mutilated de Witt brothers strung up at The Hague. It’s attributed to Jan de Baen, who in better times took Johan de Witt’s portrait.

De Witt’s never-beloved mercantile oligarchy speedily collapsed with the military reverses, and the now all-grown-up William III was there to pick up the pieces to popular acclaim. Arrested for treason, Cornelis sustained torture without confessing, but when Johan visited him in prison — and William III incriminatingly withdrew the cavalry protecting the brothers — the mob quenched its fury with the de Witts’ blood.

every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan’s] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.

And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.

Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.

-Dumas

The word “ungrateful” comes to mind.

De Witt stood altogether on a lower plane than Cromwell. We regard him rather as a man of rare and singular talent, than as one of the chosen great ones of the earth, which Cromwell was. He stands far above the common run of men; and he was head and shoulders above nearly all the notable men of his time. He would have been greater if the movement of his limbs had been less burdened with the Dutch governing apparatus … He is not one whom the world can ever greatly admire or love.

-History of the administration of John De Witt, grand pensionary of Holland, a Google books freebie.

(Here’s another, and here’s a 17th century volume de Witt himself coauthored.)

The rise of William III came with the decline of that Dutch Golden Age: the country fended off the immediate military threat, but it increasingly slipped behind its larger neighbors. Costly as was the Franco-Dutch War, it is a step on the path towards the present-day Europe, and this gives us enough excuse to notice that the Eurovision lead-in tune is actually from a Te Deum composed to mark its end.

But William’s own ascent to this wealthy sovereignty was just the beginning for him. Sixteen years later, the House of Orange’s champion vindicated Cromwell’s trepidation about him and gained a far more satisfactory position from which to do battle with his Gallic rival Louis XIV by stunningly overthrowing the Stuart dynasty and becoming King of England in the Glorious Revolution.**

* The Dutch remained the sole western contact of closed Japan until 1854, which is why Japan’s eventual period of scientific advancement became known as ‘Dutch Learning’.

** Albion did not forget the de Witts, either: according to this 1785 cant dictionary, the term “dewitted” had a 17th-18th century run in English to denote — well, exactly what happened to Cornelis and Johan.

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1914: Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, in German Kamerun

3 comments August 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the Germans hanged D(o)uala king Rudolf Duala Manga Bell for treason in German Kamerun.

European-educated and on retainer by the colonial German government, Bell was hardly the subversive type: rather, as the head of the largest clan of the important Duala tribe, he was the guy that Berlin looked to to uphold its authority.

This mutually satisfactory relationship began unraveling in 1910, with the Reich’s plan to abnegate the 1884 treaty under whose auspices it intruded into Kamerun (Cameroon) in the first place.

Seeking to confine the Duala to a few coastal villages — and subsequently, to push those Duala to less desirable inland territory — Berlin managed the rare feat of uniting the tribe’s various families, and pushing Rudolf Manga Bell himself into (surprising, to Germany) resistance.

When petitions to the Reichstag were ignored, the Duala began (Bell’s own degree of involvement in this seems to be a disputed point) making noises about holding Berlin in breach of the colonial treaty and finding itself a new European patron, like France or England.

Azanwi Nchami’s Footprints of Destiny (“the historical Cameroonian novel par excellence”) tells the story of Rudolf Manga Bell, Martin Paul Samba, and emergent Kamerunian nationalism.

And one notes the year in this post’s title, which would become momentous to Germany for other reasons. “The coming war,” notes Victor T. LeVine, “made it appear that Manga Bell had been plotting with Germany’s enemies.”

Bell was arrested for treason in the first half of 1914, as the Germans seized prime Bell land along the Wouri River.

In the conflict that became remembered as World War I, the first declarations of war were made in the very first days of August; Axis and Ententethe Central Powers and Triple Entente lined up against one another in the colonial territories, too, and German administrators in Kamerun realized that they were about to face an invasion from neighboring British and French colonies.

So it was in an atmosphere of panic and a view towards desperate internal repression that Bell was tried for treason on August 7, 1914, along with his friend and fellow-traveler Martin Paul Samba — and put to death the very next day.

Postscript

The Allied invasion had taken Duala and the other principal cities of Kamerun from the Germans by the end of September; over an 18-month campaign, the Germans were totally defeated in the territory, which France and England claimed as victors’ spoils after the war. (Also inheriting the tense relationship with the Duala; France was still trying to sort out the 1914 German expropriations that started the whole mess decades later.)

As a result, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell’s son, Alexander Ndoumbe Duala Manga Bell, not only inherited his father’s royal position among the Duala — he became Cameroon’s first elected representative to the French National Assembly.* There’s more about that guy here.

It is here that the Germans part ways with Cameroon’s national story, but there was almost a “peace in our time” diplomatic reconquista.

Although Hitler originally held the colonial movement in great disdain, in the late 1930s his regime ‘adopted’ and coordinated this movement. After 1936 the renewed campaign for the recuperation of German colonies had its desired results among the Allied powers. In discussions between the French Foreign Minister, Yvon Delbos, and the American Ambassador, William Bullitt, proposals were considered for the appeasement of Germany including tariff reductions, the involvement of the Third Reich in the development of Africa, and finally the granting of a colony to Germany, probably the Cameroons. In November 1937, during talks between Premier Chautemps, Prime Minister Chamberlain, Eden and Delbos, the suggestion was allegedly made by Chamberlain that France should ‘hand the Cameroons to Germany at once without any quid pro quo’.**

* Ralph A. Austen, “The Metamorphoses of Middlemen: The Duala, Europeans, and the Cameroon Hinterland, ca. 1800 – ca. 1960″, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1983).

** Richard A. Joseph, “The German Question in French Cameroun,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cameroon,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Royalty,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1872: Jose Balta, former President of Peru

1 comment July 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1872, four days after he was deposed as President of Peru, Jose Balta was summarily shot by the would-be dictatorship of Tomas Gutierrez.

Balta (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) made his name as a soldier, an ironic background for a martyr to constitutional government.

As a colonel, Balta in 1867 led a revolt against President Mariano Ignacio Prado in Chiclayo (mirrored by a similar revolt by Gen. Pedro Diez Canseco Corbacho in Arequipa). The resistance forced Prado’s resignation, and Balta won the ensuing 1868 election.

(Notably, it was under Balta’s administration that unprincipled American railroad speculator Henry Meiggs got his prolific track-building operations going in Peru. Basically, the government took all the capital it raised on its guano-export contract — appropriate source — and plowed it into Meiggs’ well-hyped railroads, whose returns rarely justified the outlay to construct them. Wealthy and influential at his zenith, this adventurer was widely considered culpable for the disastrous state of the Peruvian economy by the time of his 1877 death, since in the interim the guano market had crashed and Peru found itself buried in debt it would ultimately default on. Oh, and: reason Meiggs was in Peru? He had to flee California after perpetrating a real estate scheme.)

Back to Balta. The soldier-President was adamant about an orderly departure from office (with a handover to an opposition party*) when his term came up in 1872, but others around him were less keen on constitutional precedents when there was power to be kept or lost.

On July 22, 1872, War Minister Tomas Gutierrez and his brother, Col. Silvestre Gutierrez, arrested the president. Tomas Gutierrez proclaimed himself dictator.

He was surely expecting a more appropriately cowed reaction from the country than he got: the President-elect got away on a warship, whose crew declared for him; the Peruvian Congress passed a resolution outlawing the Gutierrez coup; and the public reaction against him was chilly enough that someone gunned down Silvestre Gutierrez in a railway station on July 26.

News of this turn for the worse reached brother Marcelino, who had (ex-)President Balta in his charge at Callao … and Marcelino had Jose Balta immediately shot. This event meets the definition of an execution better by its circumstances than by its ceremony, since there was none of the latter; Balta was simply blasted while lying sick in bed, perhaps even still asleep, and not with the least sense of occasion.

And by no standard did it meet the usurpers’ definition of utility.

Neither of the remaining two Gutierrezes would outlive Jose Balta by so much as a day, and news of Balta’s murder only helped fan the incipient uprising: both were killed by mobs as the would-be dictatorial party collapsed in the hours ahead. All three of Tomas, Silvestre and Marcelino wound up on lampposts in Lima (and then burned to ashes in a public square) as recompense for their four days’ sovereignty.

As one report given out in North America recounted it:

The events of the past week will forever be remembered in Peruvian history. The spectacle of a Constitutional President deposed and imprisoned by a military usurper; of a Congress dispersed at the point of the bayonet, after the members, irrespective of partisan feeling, had united in signing a solemn protest, declaring the new officers of the so-called Government criminals and outlaws; of an entire country gathering together its strength to repel the attack made upon its liberties and legal rights; of the rising of the people when their indignation could no longer be restrained on the news of the cowardly assassination of Balta by the Dictator; of the triumph of moral force and justice over bayonets and a bastard cause; of the terrible vengeance of the populace on their tyrants; of the final re-establishment of peace, order and good government. This wonderful series of events has been witnessed by Lima in the space of five days. The Peruvian people have nobly vindicated their name and their national honor; the country is now on a firmer basis, and presents greater hopes for prolonged tranquility, prosperity and progress than it has for many years past.

(Not exactly. The economy, as mentioned, crashed in the 1870s, and there was a successful coup in 1879.)

* The guy set to succeed Balta was Manuel Pardo — not to be confused with Mariano Prado, whom Balta had supplanted.

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1824: Agustin de Iturbide, Emperor of Mexico

Add comment July 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the Mexican officer who had made himself emperor was shot at the village of Padilla.

Iturbide‘s military acumen saw him through a meteoric rise in the service of what was then New Spain.

Iturbide rejected an early offer of generalship from the pro-independence leader Hidalgo in favor of spending the 1810s ably quashing the insurgency.

In a bizarre twist of fate, however, it would be Iturbide who would himself cement Mexican independence.

En route to try to finish off the last major rebel leader, Vicente Guerrero, Iturbide caught wind of the recent del Riego liberal revolt back in the mother country,* which had triggered civil war in Spain.

For the conservative royalist general, heir himself to a Basque noble lineage, the potential collapse of Bourbon authority in Spain raised the frightening specter of social upheaval.

All Iturbide’s work killing guerrillas for the sake of public order could come to naught if the Spanish monarchy collapsed or ceased projecting its power overseas … and then who knew what would emerge from the resulting power vacuum in Mexico?

So Iturbide cut a deal with Guerrero to consummate the Mexican War of Independence by separating from Madrid on an essentially conservative basis — a political breakaway without a social revolution. Independent Mexico would make nice with the Spaniards already living there, keep Catholicism as the official state religion, and get itself a constitutional monarchy of its own to insulate itself from the chance outcomes of continental politics across the ocean.

And when Iturbide marched into Mexico City and encountered a crowd conveniently imploring him to take the throne, well, who was he to deny them?

And so Iturbide transitioned smoothly from scourge of the revolution to its man on horseback,** immediately splintering the coalition that lifted him to power.


Contrary to this allegorical take on Iturbide’s coronation, he crowned himself — Bonaparte-like.

Only months after his July 1822 coronation, Iturbide shuttered Congress and began arresting the opposition. Meanwhile, Ferdinand VII had emerged from the Spanish fray as the (momentary) winner, leaving his upstart former subjects without international support.

A general that the freshly-minted emperor had himself had promoted, one Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — yes, the Alamo guy — declared against Iturbide by the end of 1822, and come the following spring, Agustin I was a European exile, in the paradoxical position of drawing a pension from Mexico while also officially considered a traitor and outlaw.

In Tuscany and then England, Iturbide published an autobiographical justification — Statement of Some of the Principal Events in the Public Life of Agustín de Iturbide — then finally took up a much-asked-for invitation from Mexican conservatives to return and become the savior of his country against internal breakdown and a potential Spanish attack.

Founded on vainglory, this expedition was destined for fiasco; within five days of touching Mexican soil, Iturbide was serenading a firing squad with the last words, “Mexicans! I die with honor, not as a traitor; do not leave this stain on my children and my legacy. I am not a traitor, no.” Apparently they were serious about that injunction never to return.

When in Mexico City, relive happier times for our day’s subject at the Palace of Iturbide where he briefly maintained himself in the purple.


Iturbide’s palace. Creative Commons image from patricio00.

And do think twice about styling yourself Emperor of Mexico, since the only other person to claim that title also ended his reign in front of a firing squad.

* Ironically, it was a body of soldiers assembled for a reconquista of Spain’s independence-minded New World possessions that enabled del Riego to mutiny.

** Iturbide paused in the revolution’s good graces just long enough to design the Mexican flag.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1285: Tile Kolup, pretender

2 comments July 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1285, a pretender to the Holy Roman Empire* throne was burned at the stake in Wetzlar, Germany.

Kolup (English Wikipedia page | German) found room to perpetrate his fraud via the “King in the mountain” legend.

This myth of a past hero who sleeps out of sight, awaiting the opportune moment for return, has a wide cultural currency; King Arthur would be the readiest example for most Anglos.

In Germany from the 13th century, a similar myth attached to Emperor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, who had suddenly drowned during the Third Crusade in 1190 after reigning as Holy Roman Emperor for nearly 40 years. It’s a myth with enough resonance for this poem by 19th century German romantic Friedrich Rückert:

The ancient Barbarossa,
Frederich, the Kaiser great,
Within the castle-cavern
Sits in enchanted state.

He did not die; but ever
Waits in the chamber deep,
Where hidden under the castle
He sat himself to sleep.

The splendor of the Empire
He took with him away,
And back to earth will bring it
When dawns the promised day.

The chair is ivory purest
Whereof he makes his bed;
The table is of marble
Whereon he props his head.

His beard, not flax, but burning
With fierce and fiery glow
Right through the marble table
Beneath his chair does grow.

He nods in dreams and winketh
With dull, half-open eyes,
And once an age he beckons
A page that standeth by.

He bids the boy in slumber:
“O dwarf, go up this hour,
And see if still the ravens
Are flying round the tower.

“And if the ancient ravens
Still wheel above us here,
Then must I sleep enchanted
For many a hundred year.”

(To say nothing of the resonance for the Nazis who codenamed their invasion of the Soviet Union Barbarossa.)

Anyway, by the time we lay our scene late in the 13th century, when the Hohenstaufen line has tragically vanished, a version of this myth — the “Emperor of Peace” (German link) — has attached itself to Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II. Like Frederick I, he was a great and long-lived consolidator of the Empire; unfortunately, he’s been dead since 1250. Or has he?!

Tile Kolup appears in 1284 claiming to be this Frederick, who would have been going on 90 years old at this time. The good citizens of Cologne are his first audience, and he totally bombs with them; only their conviction that he’s more madman than usurper gets him run out of town with only a taunting.

But he finds a more receptive crowd in Neuss, and for a time keeps a court there and issues documents on Frederick II’s authority. Rudolph I, King of the Romans and butt of reindeer jokes, eventually nabs him in nearby Wetzlar and tortures him into admitting his imposture.

There are some succinct German biographies of this falsche Friedrich here and here.

* “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” -Voltaire. (And the coffee talk lady.)

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1979: Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, former dictator of Ghana

2 comments June 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1979, former Ghanaian military strongman Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was shot in the aftermath of Jerry Rawlings’ successful coup d’etat.

Acheampong had executed a coup of his own in 1972 and run the unsteady West African state for most of the 1970s — a period of economic and political crisis — until he himself was toppled by another General, Fred Akuffo.

Acheampong was retired to his home village by the new regime, but he would not enjoy such satisfactory treatment when a national revolution ended Akuffo’s reign and brought junior officer Jerry Rawlings to power.

Less than two weeks after Rawlings was installed as Ghana’s new head of state, Acheampong was executed on a charge of corruption. This would not sate the considerable popular anger at the outgoing military clique, which went on to gorge itself on Akuffo and five others later that same month.

Former NFL defensive back Charlie Peprah is Acheampong’s grandson.

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1441: Corrado Trinci, Lord of Foligno

1 comment June 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1441, Corrado Trinci was executed in Foligno.

Once the hereditary lord of that venerable town,* Trinci (English Wikipedia page | Italian), had turned tetchy with his Guelph family’s onetime papal patrons and suffered the consequences.

As the proper captain of an Italian city-state in the 15th century, Trinci had taken a few spins around the wheel of fortune in battle with his neighbors. He kicked off his reign in operatically sanguinary style when a neighboring town‘s castellan murdered Trinci’s brothers, suspecting one of them of adultery with his wife. Trinci revenged himself by sacking Nocera Umbra, which still holds a civic relay race (Italian link) commemorating the occasion.

Trinci didn’t fare as well when it came to picking on someone his own size.

For the next generation, Trinci would do the Machiavellian dance characteristic of his time and station — by turns allied with, at war with, or plotting with the papacy, Condottiero Francesco Sforza, the archbishop of Florence, and miscellaneous other peninsular neighbors and rivals. He was down. He was back up. He was beaten. He fought back. Etc.

Trinci pushed the wheel of fortune one turn too far by rebelling (again) against papal authority in the mid-1430s. His march on the Vatican-controlled Duchy of Spoleto was an initial success —

Corrado brought to Foligno four hundred youths of Spoleto, the standard of Spoleto, the chains, the locks from the city gates, the seal, and the clapper from the great bell of the commune.

-Durante Dorio, as quoted and translated by Sergio Bertelli

That was in 1436. By 1439, Foligno itself (with Trinci inside it) had capitulated to a papal siege. Spoleto really wanted its clapper back.

Trinci was imprisoned with his family, and after a couple years’ languishing, put to death on this date. While both the English and Italian Wikipedia entries currently assert that he was strangled, the principal source for this gentleman’s biography, the freely-available Istoria della Famiglia Trinci by Durante Dorio, flatly asserts that the washed-up brawler was dispatched by decapitato.

By whatever method Corrado laid down his life, he retired with it not only the fame of his family but its Lordship of Foligno. The title fell extinct: Foligno became part of the Papal States and remain so right up to Italy’s 19th century unification.

* When next in central Italy, be sure to visit the lovely Palazzo Trinci. Corrado commissioned the Ottaviano Nelli frescoes in the chapel.


(cc) image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bramhall/3566795885/

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Strangled

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1395: Ivan Shishman, falling to the Turks

1 comment June 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1395, Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman was beheaded in Nikopol by the Ottoman Empire then engaged in absorbing his crumbling empire.

Ivan is the little guy in the middle; the towering figures are his parents.

The mythical (though not quite literal) last emperor of Bulgaria, Shishman is ungenerously judged by Wikipedia “a vacillating politician whose inopportune choices speedily guided him to his violent end and the subjugation of the country by the enemy.”

The guy ruled a waning state under the shadow of a neighboring expansionist superpower. Only inopportune choices were available.

Shishman’s sister, Maria Thamara Hatun, had been married off to the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in a token of Bulgaria’s vassalage.

In 1389, said Murad smashed the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo. Even though Murad died in combat, the Turks left the Field of Blackbirds with the Balkans by the throat and the Bulgarian Empire (or rather, Empires: Shishman and his brother had split the kingdom) nicely encircled.

Murad’s son Bayezid “the Thunderbolt” struck soon enough.

At the Siege of Tarnovo in 1393, the Turks essentially destroyed Shishman’s realm, while Shishman bugged out to be captured at a later mop-up operation.

The Ottomans took his head, but left Bulgaria a martyr whose iconography is still good for the nationalist metal audience.

The clips in this video are from the 1969 Bulgarian flick Tzar Ivan Shishman.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Bulgaria,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Popular Culture,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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193: Didius Julianus, who bought the purple from the Praetorians

3 comments June 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 193, Didius Julianus lost the rulership of Rome for which he had paid so dearly.

And his life.

Julianus‘s path to these doleful pages begins with the assassination of the notorious Emperor Commodus at the end of 192.

That man’s successor, Pertinax, was a notable bust with the Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard whose status as the only military unit in Rome made it potential — and here, actual — kingmakers.

The Praetorians expected the payoff that had become customary for new executives, and when Pertinax proved less than liberal on that particular budget item, they turned right around and overthrew him.

To see that there would be no mistake the next time around, the Praetorians dispensed with the pretense and brazenly auctioned the purple.

Roman aristocrat and historian Cassius Dio was a witness to this hot mess.

Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, “Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?” And to Sulpicianus in turn, “Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?” Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.

-Cassius Dio, Book 74

The ignoble achievement is the only thing Didius Julianus is now remembered for.

While Julianus and the Praetorian guard were conducting their damnable business in the capital, three Roman generals in the provinces claimed the throne for themselves.

For centuries the Roman legions had been scattered beyond the Italian peninsula as a hedge against military coups. But after decades of relative stability at the top,* Rome was about to get a bracing reminder of what civil war looked like.

Praetorians — a few cohorts worth of men not in fighting trim — were fine for bullying Senators, but in an outright civil war, they were no match for the legions. The Praetorian Guard’s power to arbitrate the succession was contingent upon the beneficiary’s capacity to cement his own legitimacy by commanding the loyalty of (most of) the state apparatus.

And it turned out that buying the sceptre on spqrBay was not the way to get folks to bend their knees to it.

Septimius Severus, the imperial claimant nearest to the capital, commenced a relentless and virtually unresisted march on Rome, co-opting the troop garrisons and towns as he swept down the peninsula and spurning Julianus’s desperate diplomatic entreaties.

Cassius Dio’s record of Julianus scrambling to defend Rome against Severus is full of black humor.

Julianus … caused the senate to declare Severus a public enemy, and proceeded to prepare against him. In the suburbs he constructed a rampart, provided with gates, so that he might take up a position out there and fight from that base. The city during these days became nothing more nor less than a camp, in the enemy’s country, as it were. Great was the turmoil on the part of the various forces that were encamped and drilling, — men, horses, and elephants, — and great, also, was the fear inspired in the rest of the population by the armed troops, because the latter hated them. Yet at times we would be overcome by laughter; for the Praetorians did nothing worthy of their name and of their promise, for they had learned to live delicately;** the sailors summoned from the fleet stationed at Misenum did not even know how to drill; and the elephants found their towers burdensome and would not even carry their drivers any longer, but threw them off, too. But what caused us the greatest amusement was his fortifying of the palace with latticed gates and strong doors. For, inasmuch as it seemed probable that the soldiers would never have slain Pertinax so easily if the doors had been securely locked, Julianus believed that in case of defeat he would be able to shut himself up there and survive.

In the end, Severus took Rome without striking a blow: the Praetorians switched sides again, and the Eternal City delivered itself from the one usurper to the other. Cassius Dio, again, in media res

the soldiers, convinced by letters of Severus that if they surrendered the slayers of Pertinax and themselves kept the peace they would suffer no harm, arrested the men who had killed Pertinax … We [the Senate] thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honours on Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?” He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.

(Actually, Julianus had killed someone: foreseeing that the Praetorians were liable to turn coat yet again, Julianus had the Praetorian prefect who sold him this lemon of an empire put to death for trying to cut a deal with Severus. Despite this negative feedback, the transaction took place on a strict no-refunds, no-exchanges basis.)

A harsh deal for Didius Julianus was a pretty good one for the Roman Empire. Septimius Severus cleaned up his other rival claimants, and ran the empire capably for the next generation.

Kick back with this review of the the dreadful interlude of Didius Julianus with episodes 98 and 99 of the enjoyable History of Rome podcast.

* “The period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,” in the judgment of Edward Gibbon.

** The Praetorians were also de-motivated because their promised donative had not been forthcoming.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Italy,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1393: The Muzaffarids, by Timur

1 comment May 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1393 — or 10 Rajab 795 on the Islamic lunar calendar — the feared conquerer Timur (or Tamerlane) disposed of the squabbling ruling dynasty he had recently overturned, the Muzaffarids.

The House of Muzaffar came to prominence under the Mongol Ikhanate that stretched itslef from Persia to the Mediterranean in the 13th century.

As the Ilkhanate broke up in 1335, a guy like Yazd governor Mubariz al-Din Muhammad ibn Muzaffar could bloodily carve out a state of his own.*

Renowned for his cruelties, Mubariz al-Din ended his life blinded by his heir, Shah Shuja (or Shah Shujaa).

And in this generation, the House Muzaffar rapidly became a house divided, with brothers and cousins vying with each other (and with neighboring princelings). They were easy pickings for the rising Timurid Empire and its eponymous founder.

Exploiting a letter** sent by the aging Shuja (after a lifetime warring with his fellow Muzaffarids) recommending Shuja’s son to Timur’s protection, Timur rolled in and set up his own puppet Muzaffar. (It wasn’t the recommended son. C’est la vie.)

No sooner had Timur decamped for his next conquest than yet another of the Muzaffar clan — a brother of Timur’s puppet by the name of Shah Mansur† — revolted and set himself up as king.

It didn’t work, but Edward Gibbon was moved to pay tribute to Mansur’s intrepidity as he surveyed the Timurid annexations:

[P]etty tyrants might have opposed him with confederate arms: they separately stood, and successively fell; and the difference of their fate was only marked by the promptitude of submission or the obstinacy of resistance. Ibrahim, prince of Shirwan, or Albania, kissed the footstool of the Imperial throne. His peace-offerings of silks, horses, and jewels, were composed, according to the Tartar fashion, each article of nine pieces; but a critical spectator observed, that there were only eight slaves. “I myself am the ninth,” replied Ibrahim, who was prepared for the remark; and his flattery was rewarded by the smile of Timour. Shah Mansour, prince of Fars, or the proper Persia, was one of the least powerful, but most dangerous, of his enemies. In a battle under the walls of Shiraz, he broke, with three or four thousand soldiers, the coul or main body of thirty thousand horse, where the emperor fought in person. No more than fourteen or fifteen guards remained near the standard of Timour: he stood firm as a rock, and received on his helmet two weighty strokes of a cimeter: the Moguls rallied; the head of Mansour was thrown at his feet; and he declared his esteem of the valor of a foe, by extirpating all the males of so intrepid a race.

* The Muzaffarids’ most famous subject was the Persian poet Hafez (or Hafiz), whose lifetime was roughly paralleled the dynasty’s own. Hafez was patronized by the powers that be, though his favor waxed and waned.

** Timur himself would not think of empire-building; he accrued a mighty central Asian realm strictly by happenstance. “God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.”

“For every war,” observes Gibbon of Timur and his ilk, “a motive of safety or revenge, of honor or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors.”

† The Muzaffarid family tree is unnecessarily confusing, but a genealogy here may clarify matters.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Iran,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Timurid Empire,Wartime Executions

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