Posts filed under 'Royalty'

1335: Prince Moriyoshi, imperial martyr

Add comment August 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1335,* imperial power in Japan received the executioner’s decisive verdict.

The three-year Kenmu Restoration (1333-1336) makes an interregnum sandwiched between two different eras of samurai-backed feudal shogunates, but if you were an heir to Japan’s ancient imperial house you might call the Kenmu era a plain-old regnum: the briefest of moments when the emperor actually exercised his purported authority.

It would not recur for another five centuries, during Japan’s 19th century Meiji Restoration.

Our older restoration saw Emperor Go-Daigo attempt to seize autocratic powers for his family, appointing his own sons successively as shogun. One of those sons was our date’s principal, Prince Moriyoshi (English Wikipedia entry | the more robust Japanese).

And one of those outside lords aggrieved at being cheated of the shogunate was Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai lord who would rebel against Go-Daigo. It says here that the subsequent period in Japanese historiography was the Ashikaga Shogunate, so that gives you an idea why you’re reading about Prince Moriyoshi on an execution blog. In the midst of his civil war, the upstart shogun-to-be captured Moriyoshi and sent him to a brother, who held the prince prisoner in a cave and had him beheaded at the provocation of some setback to the family cause.

Upon the re-establishment of the imperial house all those centuries later, the Meiji emperor had a Shinto shrine erected in veneration of this martyred ancestor at the place of his sufferings; the Kamakura-gu remains a popular pilgrimage and tourist site to this day.

* As best I can determine, August 12 is the consensus translation of the date from the Japanese lunisolar calendar; a date of “July 23” can also be found in some citations, which apparently reflects the 23rd day of the 7th month. However, the first day of the Japanese year occurred a few weeks after the Julian calendar’s January 1.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1958: King Faisal II of Iraq and his family

1 comment July 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Iraq’s Hashemite dynasty got the Romanov treatment from coup-making nationalist officers.

Having already overstayed their welcome as agents of British-American control in the oil-rich Gulf State, the Hashemites were doubly burdened to be led by the inexperienced King Faisal II, who was all of 23 years old.

For much of the recent past, while this underaged grandson of the Arab Revolt hero matriculated at an English boarding school, his sovereignty had been exercised by his uncle and regent ‘Abd al-Ilah — a practitioner, like all of Iraq’s leadership, of a staunchly pro-British and -American policy that increasingly rankled Iraqis.

On July 14, 1958, a swift coup d’etat led by Abd al-Karim Qasim — and explicitly modeled on the Free Officers Movement that had raised the Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt — overturned the Hashemites, and made sure that it was for good.

Captured royal family members — including not only King Faisal but the aforementioned ‘Abd al-Ilah and al-Ilah’s wife and mother, plus a number of royal servants — were all summarily machine-gunned in the palace courtyard, after which the royal corpse was given over to public abuse.

“His legs and arms were decapitated, stomach disemboweled with his intestine gushing outside” recalled one of the king’s helpless royal guards of the late king. “His corpse was later suspended from a building until one came with a dagger in his hand to try to divide it into two pieces. The corpse was burned, cut many times until it was thrown in the Tigris river when night came.”

Today there’s an honorable tomb in Baghdad where Faisal reposes, and considering the many terrors that have befallen Iraq in the intervening decades, one can even find pockets of nostalgia for the monarchy.

Cold comfort that Faisal II lives immortally in the classic Belgian comic series The Adventures of Tintin as the inspiration for the puckish and spoiled Prince Abdullah of Khemed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Innocent Bystanders,Iraq,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Shot,Summary Executions

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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2016: Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kadir

Add comment October 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2016, Saudi Arabia had Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabir beheaded: the first royal executed in the kingdom since 1975.

Prince Turki was convicted of shooting to death a friend named Adel bin Suleiman bin Abdulkareem Al-Muhaimeed during a 2012 brawl outside Riyadh.

Victims’ families have the right to pardon condemned criminals in Saudi Arabia, but Adel’s family refused repeated offers of diya (blood money) from the royal relatives up to the very last moment.

“The greatest thing is that the citizen sees the law applied to everyone, and that there are not big people and other small people,” Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, a prominent Saudi lawyer, wrote on Twitter.

New York Times

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Royalty,Saudi Arabia

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1648: Sultan Ibrahim the Mad

Add comment August 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1648, the once-debauched and now-deposed Ottoman sultan Ibrahim I “the Mad” was strangled to make way for his seven-year-old son.

He’s fondly remembered as a debauched madman at the helm of state but you’d go crazy too with his upbringing. He was locked up by his famously brutal brother Sultan Murad in the palace Kafes — literally, “cages”, where potentially dangerous rival claimants lived under constant surveillance — and could not but dwell on the Damoclean sword constantly dangling at his throat. Justifiably nervous about the ever-present danger of a coup — Murad owed his own throne to the Janissaries deposing and murdering a prior sultan in 1622 — Murad had three of his caged brothers put to death. Ibrahim woke each day from the ages of 8 to 25 in his gilded cage knowing that Murad was one foul mood away from ordering his own death, too.

So paranoid was he that when informed that he was to come to the throne as sultan, he suspected a trick meant to implicate himself in treason. Only the combined assurance of his and Murad’s mother and the Grand Vizier* plus a personal inspection of the late Murad’s corpse convinced him to accept rulership of the Ottoman Empire.

And once he did so, he was able to unite in his person the pathologies of imprisonment with those of absolutism.

Freed from the terror of his cell, he gave himself to sensuality that was noted for both volume and transgressiveness: forcing himself on the Grand Mufti’s daughter, scouring his empire for the fattest woman he could find and elevating her to the pinnacle of his harem, and pony playing a virile stallion in his gardens to virginal women who were made to disrobe and act his mares. But don’t forget the wild mood swings! Becoming convinced that his harem was indulging in sub-imperial frolics, he once had 278 of them drowned in the Bosporous.

We will leave to wiser observers of the Porte than we just where among these legends we enter into the calumnies of the enemies who eventually toppled him. That happened in 1648 and had more to do with his profligacy in matters financial, for he gobbled jewelry and expensive furs as voraciously as maidenheads, and then put the Ottoman economy under a fearful strain by launching a ruinous war of choice against Venice that would drag on for 24 years and result in the Venetian navy blockading his capital.

Pitiably, his last days were spent back in the Kafe after he was displaced by rebelling Janissaries driven to fury by the growing tax burden required to support a war that brought only immiseration. Maybe it was a mercy that he had not years thereafter to pace the gardens under the eyes of burly minders with unknown orders, but for 10 days** that quarter of the palace redounded with his wails until

on August 18, the executioners entered the “Cage”. With the Koran in his hand, Ibrahim cried out: “Behold! God’s book! By what writ shall you murder me?” and “Is there no one among those who have eaten my bread who will take pity on me and protect me? These cruel men have come to kill me. Mercy! Mercy!”

* In 1644, Ibrahim would have this same Grand Vizier executed.

** We would be remiss on this grim site not to mention the fate that befell his Grand Vizier on August 8, when Ibrahim fell: torn apart by an angry mob for attempting to impose a heavy tax, he gained the posthumous nickname “Hezarpare” (“thousand pieces”).

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Ottoman Empire,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. (“I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,” patters the Modern Major-General of Gilbert & Sullivan canon.)

But in this they are not faithless to their sources. The ancient chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

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

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernal Diaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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1659: Dara Shikoh, deposed Mughal heir

Add comment September 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1659,* the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb disposed of his primary competition … his older brother Dara Shukoh or Shikoh.

These two sons of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan were the principal contenders in a fratricidal four-way civil war for the Peacock Throne. We’ve previously covered this time of troubles via the execution of yet another of the brothers here.

But if the old man had had his way, Dara would have been the winner. For many years it was the firstborn who had been painstakingly positioned as the heir, not excluding possession of the Mughal capital — a circumstance which helped to goad the envious brothers into rebellion when Shah Jahan’s illness threatened to make Dara’s succession a fait accompli.

It turned out, when Aurangzeb emerged victorious, that Shah Jahan had survived just fine: it’s just that it would be his to contemplate in his enforced retirement the destruction of his former favorite. According to the account of Dara’s French physician, when Aurangzeb captured Dara in battle, he had him humiliatingly

secured on an elephant; his young son, Sipah Shikoh, placed at his side, and behind them, instead of the executioner, was seated Bahadur Khan [one of the royal generals]. This was not one of the majestic elephants of Pegu or Ceylon, which Dara had been in the habit of mounting, pompously caparisoned, the harness gilt, and trappings decorated with figured work; and carrying a beautifully painted howdah inlaid with gold, and a magnificent canopy to shelter the Prince from the sun: Dara was now seen seated on a miserable and worn-out animal, covered with filth; he no longer wore the necklace of large pearls which distinguish the princes of Hindoustan, nor the rich turban and embroidered coat; he and his son were now habited in dirty cloth of the coarsest texture, and his sorry turban was wrapt round with a Kashmir shawl or scarf, resembling that worn by the meanest of the people.

Such was the appearance of Dara when led through the Bazars and every quarter of the city [of Delhi]. I could not divest myself of the idea that some dreadful execution was about to take place, and felt surprise that government should have the hardihood to commit all these indignities upon a Prince confessedly popular among the lower orders, especially as I saw scarcely any armed force. The people had for some time inveighed bitterly against the unnatural conduct of Aureng-Zebe: the imprisonment of his father, of his son Sultan Mahmud, and of his brother Murad Bakhsh, filled every bosom with horror and disgust. The crowd assembled upon this disgraceful occasion was immense; and everywhere I observed the people weeping, and lamenting the fate of Dara in the most touching language. I took my station in one of the most conspicuous parts of the city, in the midst of the largest bazar; was mounted on a good horse, and accompanied by two servants and two intimate friends. From every quarter I heard piercing and distressing shrieks, for the Indian people have a very tender heart; men, women, and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves. Javan Khan [a Pathan who betrayed Dara into Aurangzeb’s hands] rode near the wretched Dara; and the abusive and indignant cries vociferated as the traitor moved along were absolutely deafening. I observed some faqirs and several poor people throw stones at the infamous Pathan; but not a single movement was made, no one offered to draw his sword, with a view of delivering the beloved and compassionated Prince. When this disgraceful procession had passed through every part of Dehli, the poor prisoner was shut up in one of his own gardens, called Haidarabad.

Aureng-Zebe was immediately made acquainted with the impression which this spectacle produced upon the public mind, the indignation manifested by the populace against the Pathan, the threats held out to stone the perfidious man, and with the fears entertained of a general insurrection. A second council was consequently convened, and the question discussed, whether it were more expedient to conduct Dara to Gwalior, agreeably to the original intention, or to put him to death without further delay … it was ultimately decided that Dara should die, and that Sipah-Shikoh should be confined in Gwalior. At this meeting Raushanara Begam [Dara and Aurangzeb’s sister] betrayed all her enmity against her hapless brother, combating the arguments of Danishmand Khan, and exciting Aureng-Zebe to this foul and unnatural murder….

The charge of this atrocious murder was intrusted to a slave of the name of Nazir, who had been educated by Shah-Jahan, but experienced some ill-treatment from Dara. The Prince, apprehensive that poison would be administered to him, was employed with Sipah Shikoh in boiling lentils, when Nazir and four other ruffians entered his apartment. ‘My dear son,’ he cried out, ‘these men are come to murder us!’ He then seized a small kitchen knife, the only weapon in his possession. One of the murderers having secured Sipah Shikoh, the rest fell upon Dara, threw him down, and while three of the assassins held him, Nazir decapitated his wretched victim. The head was instantly carried to Aureng-Zebe, who commanded that it should be placed in a dish, and that water should be brought. The blood was then washed from the face, and when it could no longer be doubted that it was indeed the head of Dara, he shed tears, and said, ‘Ai Bad-bakht! Ah wretched one! let this shocking sight no more offend my eyes, but take away the head, and let it be buried in Humayun’s tomb.’


That’s not the way to get a-head! Aurangzeb contemplates his fratricidal trophy. Via dara-shikoh.blogspot.com, which has many other illustrations of Dara’s career.

Dara’s daughter was taken that same evening to the saraglio, but afterwards sent to Shah-Jahan and Begam-Sahib; who begged of Aureng-Zebe to commit the young Princess to their care. Dara’s wife, foreseeing the calamities which awaited her and her husband, had already put a period to her existence, by swallowing poison at Lahor. Sipah Shikoh was immured in the fortress of Gwalior; and soon after these tragical events Javan Khan was summoned before the council, and then dismissed from Dehli with a few presents. He did not escape the fate, however, which he merited, being waylaid and assassinated in a forest, within a few leagues of his own territory. This barbarian had not sufficiently reflected, that though tyrants appear to countenance the blackest crimes while they conduce to their interest, or promote a favourite object, they yet hold the perpetrators in abhorrence, and will not scruple to punish them when they can no longer be rendered subservient to any iniquitous project.

The cultured Dara cuts a charismatic figure for posterity, and given that the Mughal Empire fell into precipitous decline after Aurangzeb — opening the way for British colonization — some can’t help wondering whether India’s destiny could have been entirely different had Dara successfully followed his father to the throne.

* September 9 on the Gregorian calendar; the equivalent Julian date of August 30 is also commonly reported.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,India,Mughal Empire,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1622: Sultan Osman II

1 comment May 20th, 2017 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2017: Seven in Kuwait, including a sheikh

3 comments January 25th, 2017 Headsman

A sheikh, and six others much less exalted hanged this morning in Kuwait.

Garnering most of the headlines, Sheikh Faisal Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah — the first Kuwaiti royal ever put to death — shot an equally royal nephew dead in 2010.

He was one of only two actual Kuwaitis among the seven hanged; the population of the oil-rich Gulf emirate is more than half comprised of foreign nationals at any given time. The other Kuwaiti was a woman, Nasra al-Enezi, who vengefully set fire to a wedding tent when her husband took a second wife. More than 50 people reportedly died in the blaze.

The Philippines was exercised over the fate of its national, Jakatia Pawa — a domestic worker condemned for stabbing her employer’s adult daughter to death. Kuwait is the sixth-largest destination for the vast expatriate labor sector known as Overseas Filipino/a Workers (OFWs).

An Ethiopian maid, unnamed in the press reports that I have been able to find, was also convicted of murder, as were two Egyptians. The seventh to go to the scaffold today was a Bangladeshi man condemned for a non-fatal kidnapping and rape.

Human rights organizations were naturally aghast, with Human Rights Watch denouncing the mass hanging — on the heels of capital punishment resumptions in Jordan and Bahrain — as part of an “alarming trend in the region for countries to return to or increasingly use the death penalty.”

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Kidnapping,Kuwait,Mass Executions,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,Royalty,Women

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