Four years ago today, Chinese lawyer Han Bing revealed a shocking execution further to China’s shadowy trade in harvested organs, with a post on the microblogging service Weibo.
The Epoch Times translates this post — which was widely shared, but deleted within days — thus:
This morning witnessed a horrifying practice of execution. The Supreme Court this week contacted the Provincial High Court to re-examine a determined death penalty case. However, the Intermediate People’s Court had the prisoner promptly executed without notifying the relatives for a last farewell visit. The reason for the prompt execution was that the death penalty prisoner had ‘willingly’ signed an organ donation release. To ensure the quality of the organs, the execution was carried out at the hospital. These judges and doctors without conscience turn a hospital into a place of execution and a market for organ trading!
If there has been any subsequent public explication of the details about this event — the identity of the prisoner, the particulars of the transplant — I have not been able to locate it.
In the month of November, there was a terrible execution in the Ukrain[e]. The son of a peasant in that country had given himself out for the Czarewitz, son of Peter I deceased, in the year 1718.
He had come into a village on the frontiers, where he had declared himself as such to three soldiers, who were on guard near the pyramidal beacons fixed along the limits. These had done homage to him, as also the inhabitants of the village. The priest had caused the bells to be rung, and said a mass in his favor.
At length the people of the village assembled, and perhaps the matter would have gone farther, if it had not been for a Sotnick, or Cossack captain, who, hearing of it, acquainted general Romanzow, then in the neighbourhood.
This pretended Prince and his adherents, who were not very numerous, were easily seized, and conveyed to Petersburgh, where they had their trial in the secret chancery; after which they were sent back to the Ukrain[e]. There the major-general Schipow had an order to see them executed.
The self-made Prince was impaled; the priest and the three soldiers were put to different kids of deaths.
The Empress forgave the peasants, but the village was razed to the ground, and the inhabitants were removed to other places.
From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.
Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.
The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*
She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.
On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.
On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.
The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’
The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.
Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.
September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.
One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.
But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.
Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.
This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**
He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.
Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.
It was a right massacre.
Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.
Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).
The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.
“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”
To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.
Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.
In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.
And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.
Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.
A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)
** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.
Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.
Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.
“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.
We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.
We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.
When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.
That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*
A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —
notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)
Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.
As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.
Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.
The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.
As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.
And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.
Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.
The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.
* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.
About 32 at his death, the “Bon Chevalier” was a member of the prestigious (and still-extant) Order of the Golden Fleece on the strength of a remarkable 1440s ramble around European where he would theatrically stage combats with local knights and never fail to win them. Celebrity and emoluments followed in their turn.
“Above all else, he knew the business of arms,” sighs a chronicle detailing his feats, and on its evidence it would be difficult to disagree.
He achieved his fame besting great champions in Aragon, Castile, Scotland, and Flanders, then set up a pas d’armes — the Monty Python-esque open challenge/invitation to battle all comers who dared him at a set location. In Jacques’s case the challenge lasted a full year at a statue of a weeping woman from which our pugilist derived the brand the Passage of the Fountain of Tears.
These were not intended to be fatal bouts but they featured expert fighters with real weapons so life and limb certainly stood in peril; occasionally our protagonist even deliberately courted danger by suiting up in only partial armor. Some challengers managed to emerge with a satisfying draw, but none could defeat him. At his last tournament in 1452, he even jousted the young future Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. (There’s an enjoyable detailed recap of Jacques’s career here.)
As this warrior par excellence was simultaneously noted for the perfection of his outside-of-armor knightly conduct — fidelity, generosity, piety, swooning ladies — Jacques de Lalaing had a fair claim on his contemporaries’ admiration as the very apex of the age of chivalry.
And his own fate poignantly embodied that of his era.
“This hero-worship of the declining Middle Ages finds its literary expression in the biography of the perfect knight,” Huizinga wrote — like our Jacques de Lalaing, “that anachronistic knight-errant” of “fantastic and useless projects.”
The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur,† where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.
A Passage of Arms of the fifteenth century is based on a fictitious case of chivalrous adventure, connected with an artificial scene called by a romantic name, as, for instance, the Fountain of Tears or the Tree of Charlemagne. [the latter was another famous pas d’armes defended in 1443 by another Burgundian knight, Pierre de Bauffremont -ed.] … There is an unmistakable connection between these primitive forms of warlike and erotic sport and the children’s play of forfeits. One of the rules of the “Chapters” of the Fountain of Tears runs thus: he who, in a combat, is unhorsed, will during a year wear a gold bracelet, until he finds the lady who holds the key to it and who can free him, on condition that he shall serve her.
Jacques de Lalaing and his ritual delights came to a savage end at the siege of Poucques when he had the apt misfortune to be struck by a ball from a defending veuglaire. The romantic master of the lists thereby became one of the first European elites slain by a cannon: for a junction to modernity one could do a lot worse than this moment.‡
The untimely end of Jacques happens to have hit the news in recent months when the Getty Museum acquired a precious Renaissance manuscript illustration of the event by Simon Bening, never previously exhibited.
In this extraordinarily bright and detailed miniature, our courteous doomed glances upward at the citadel, forming a sharp compositional diagonal with the fatal cannonball speeding towards him … and the fiery plume belched by the chivalry-smashing device that has hurled it.
Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bening miniature.
* The precise date on which this minor siege concluded is elusive and perhaps ambiguous; I’m basing Executed Today‘s dating on the July 13, 1453 correspondence in this archive reporting that “Poucques est tombée en son pouvoir le 5 courant; qu’il a fait démanteler ce deux places fortes et livrer au dernier supplice leurs défenseurs.”
On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.
Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.
For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.
One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.
Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.
Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”
A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.
Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.
Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.
But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”
The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”
Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”
Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.
* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.
On this date in 1612, Spanish colonial authorities smashed an alleged plot among Mexico City’s black slaves with a grisly mass execution.*
In Mexico as elsewhere in the Americas, African labor had been imported en masse in the 16th and 17th centuries; David Davidson estimated** that Mexico City had a black population ranging from 20,000 to 50,000. And as elsewhere in the Americas, they frequently resisted: Mexico City slave risings dating back to the 1540s had badly shaken the city, and led the viceroy Luis de Velasco to worry in 1553 that “this land is so full of Negroes and mestizos who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters.”
The most illustrious name of this era was Gaspar Yanga, who was kidnapped into bondage from the Gold Coast, and escaped bondage by leading a large band of fugitive slaves into the highlands of Veracruz and founded an outlaw colony that still bears his name today.
Yanga’s palenque — known in his time as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo — had to fend off military action by the Spanish authorities from 1609 until a truce in 1618.
Still, a truce was possible: a refuge like San Lorenzo offered slaves the unwelcome-to-their-masters prospect of escape from the scourge economy, but the real threat to New Spain was that purchasing liberty with lives bit.
As we have seen in the American South, the situation on the ground begat paranoia that makes it nigh impossible for later interlocutors to disentangle fact from fantasy: was there really a phenomenal slave rebellion nipped in the bud? Or just informers and torturers refracting the terrors of those outnumbered Spaniards?
The slaves in this case were said by a Portuguese merchant who overheard them to be readying themselves to exploit Spanish inattention during Holy Week celebrations, and to bloody those days by falling upon their masters and taking possession of the colony. In the inevitable rounds of arrests and torture that ensue, the alleged plot as recorded by the annalist Chimalpahin (Spanish link) sounds suspiciously like a psychosexual projection, for it
involved castrating any surviving Spanish males, making sexual slaves of white women, and gradually “blackening” the latter’s descendants.**
Certainly the punishment blackened Mexico City; our correspondent uses this same word to describe the condition of the gibbeted corpses when they were finally let down from their gallows on the feast of the Holy Cross. Even then, the flesh of the would-be slave kings could not rest: most were beheaded posthumously and mounted on pikes while six others were quartered for display on all the roads entering the capital. This in itself was a small moderation for the public good. Chimalpahin reports that doctors advised the state that “if all the dead were to be quartered and hung up in the main streets to rot, their stench will blow a sickness across the city.”
* Thirty-five is the execution count supplied by Chimalpahin; some sources give 33.
** “Negro Slave Control and Resistance in Colonial Mexico, 1519-1650,” The Hispanic American Historial Review, Aug. 1966.
† Maria Elena Martinez, “The Black Blood of New Spain: Limpieza de Sangre, Racial Violence, and Gendered Power in Early Colonial Mexico,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jul. 2004.
March 6 is the feast date of the 42 Martyrs of Amorium, the day in the year 845 when they submitted to the caliphate’s executioners in preference to conversion.
Though they were people of rank in their lifetimes, most of them are not known to posterity by name or even position. Devotionally, they govern no special sphere of intercession; iconographically, they have no special device. When depicted (itself unusual) it is simply as a gaggle of generic courtiers.*
It seems a fitting fate for mere individuals ground up between states and faiths; even so, their weedy tombs mark a fork on the path trod by Byzantium.
The 42 earned their martyrs’ crowns at the end of seven years’ imprisonment, so it is to the Byzantine war with the Abbasid Caliphate in 837-838 that we must return to unravel their story. This war was itself merely the resumption of a conflict that had been ongoing between the civilizations for two centuries since Arab conquerors emerged from the Arabian desert to found an empire.
With the connivance, encouragement, or cajoling of anti-caliphate rebel Babak Khorramdin, the young Byzantine emperor Theophilos broke four years of tense peace with destructive effect in 837, ravaging the Upper Euphrates.
“He captured and burned the fortress of Zapetra, putting to death the male population and carrying off the women and children,” John Bury wrote in A History of the Eastern Empire from the fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. Upon his return to the mandatory official Triumph, “[t]roops of children with garlands of flowers went out to meet the Emperor as he entered the capital. In the Hippodrome he competed himself in the first race, driving a white chariot and in the costume of a Blue charioteer;** and when he was crowned as winner, the spectators greeted him with the allusive cry, ‘Welcome, incomparable champion!'” Because the one thing 200 years of engaging the Arabs in back-and-forth raids, counterattacks, and suits for peace had taught Byzantium was that victories would surely prove durable.
In truth this war was also politics by other means — domestic politics, that is.
Theophilos really did aspire to incomparable championhood of something far more important than the position of the frontier: in matters religious, he was a stringent iconoclast and he meant to win Christendom firmly over to this philosophy.
The century-old schism within the communion — pitting iconoclasts, like Theophilos, who condemned as idolatrous the veneration of religious imagery against iconophiles or iconodules who embraced it — itself likely owed much to the stunning march of Arab arms and the wound Caliphate success had inflicted on a state and faith that had formerly presumed itself hegemonic. It was certainly the case that Roman superstition† perceived in the battlefield results of imperial adherents to the rival icon’isms a going divine referendum. God says go with whichever icon policy starts beating Islam!
Well might the triumphant Theophilos preen, then — right before the fall, like the Good Book says. Gibbon charged that Theophilos “was rash and fruitless” and “from his military toils he derived only the surname of the Unfortunate.”
The caliph al-Mu’tasim counterattacked the Unfortunate ruthlessly in 838, invading Anatolia in two huge columns that converged on a major city, Amorium.‡ There, they penetrated the city’s walls and put her to the sack — slaughtering unnumbered thousands and carrying away most survivors as slaves, outrageously unmolested by the chastisement of any Byzantine army.
12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes, an edition of the chronicle written by 11th century Greek historian John Skylitzes. The volume was produced in Sicily; it’s got “Madrid” in the name because that’s where the sole surviving copy of it resides today.
Byzantium might have been fortunate on this occasion that, before he could extend his conquest, al-Mu’tasim’s domestic politics promptly recalled him to the caliphate to deal with plots against his own throne. But the raid devastated the martial credibility of Theophilos the incomparable champion, and with it the credibility of iconoclasm. Nor can there have been much fortune reckoned by the thousands of prisoners marched out of the smouldering ruins of Amorium to the new Arab capital Samarra — among whom we find this post’s titular 42 martyrs.
They were, or at least seemed, the crown jewels among the captives, meaning the ones with cash value. Constantinople and Samarra would engage in periodic negotiations over the next several years to exchange them; the Caliphate’s insistence on obtaining for their return a treasure equal to the cost it had incurred to attack Amorium in the first place put an unbridgeable gap between the sides.
The nameless and rankless commoners among them went to their nameless destinies; undoubtedly their experience was cruel and many died or were killed, but for those who endured the tribulations there was a return to hearth and home in a prisoner exchange in 841.
For the VIPs, deliverance sank into the Mesopotamian mud.
Both Theophilos and al-Mu’tasim died in 842 and sometime around there the respective empires seem to have given up trying to resolve the impasse about the Amorium ransom. A few more years on with no apparent relief forthcoming from the annoyance of maintaining these now-useless prisoners of war, someone in Samarra decided to dispose of them with the ultimatum.
Their martyrs’ glory assured their afterlife in Byzantine religious propaganda. Yes, these two Christian sects had made martyrs of one another within the empire. But iconoclasm really hinged on one crucial argument fatally undone by the 42 martyrs: victory. The pro-icon emperors from 797 to 813 had been associated with retreat and humiliation;§ one had even been killed on campaign in the Balkans leaving the Bulgar king Krum to fashion the imperial skull into a ceremonial goblet. That the iconoclast rulers of the succeeding generation had at least stabilized the situation was their ultimate scoreboard taunt. Amorium dispelled that glow of providential favor, especially when followed by the years-long abandonment of that razed city’s noble hostages to the heathen dungeon.
Little could the monk Euodios know that his iconoclasm-tweaking hagiography of these martyrs would prove a redundant step.
The late Theophilos had only an infant son, so governance after his death fell to a regency led by the empress Theodora. Despite her dead husband’s scruples, Theodora didn’t mind an icon one bit, and restored icon veneration to a favor it would never again lose for the six centuries remaining to Byzantium.
† Among the Romans themselves for whom supernatural causation was an assumed fact on the ground, superstitio had a more attenuated meaning, contrasting with religio. That is far afield for this post; I use the term here advisedly from a post-Enlightenment cosmology.
‡ Amorium is no more today: just a ruin buried under a village. But not because of this siege.
§ Charlemagne being crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 was also a gesture of disregard for a weakened (and at that moment, female-ruled) Byzantium, which dignified itself the Roman Empire despite having long since abandoned Rome itself.