On an uncertain date perhaps around late July of 321,* the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had his son and also his wife mysteriously put to death.
It’s mysterious because besides execution, Constantine had a damnatio memoriae passed over his former family to bury any record of their sins in Time’s obscurity. These edicts didn’t always work … but in this case, if there were any who dared to record what happened, that illicit account did not survive its journey from antiquity.
But it was surely a shocking scandal in its time.
Crispus was Constantine’s first-born son and very much in the father’s favor. He was the child of a wife or concubine named Minervina. In 307, Constantine put this woman aside to make a more politically expedient marriage to Fausta, the daughter of Diocletian‘s retired-now-unretired co-emperor Maximian who with his son Maxentius held sway in Italy at that moment of the Roman Tetrarchy‘s ongoing collapse.**
Although Crispus didn’t offer his dad much in this situation by way of family alliances, Constantine kept him in his favor — by all appearances grooming him as an heir. Call it paying it forward: as a young man, Constantine himself had been in a similar position when his father Constantius dumped Constantine’s peasant mother in favor of an imperial marriage. That moment might have strangled a world-historic career before it even began, but Constantius instead chose to keep Constantine on the paternal cursus honorum.
So it went with Crispus — for a while.
In 317, Constantine, now emperor in the western part of the empire,† made Crispus into his Caesar; the boy ruled in Gaul and Germania for several years, thrashing barbarian tribes as he ought. Dad, meanwhile, was maneuvering towards victory over his eastern opposite number Licinius, with Crispus contributing an important naval victory in 324.
The young man (in his twenties at this time; his precise year of birth is uncertain) seemed on his way to a scintillating future.
Bronze coin from the mint of Rome depicting Crispus.
Things went pear-shaped suddenly in 326 when his father had him executed without any kind of warning that survives in the scant records available to us — and not only Crispus, but also Constantine’s own wife, that Fausta whose marriage might have threatened the boy’s status.
We don’t know why but the rumor as trafficked by the much later Byzantine historian Zosimus suggests a possible Parisina and Ugo scenario: “He put to death his son Crispus, styled Caesar, on suspicion of debauching his mother-in-law Fausta, without any regard to the ties of nature … [and] causing a bath to be heated to an extraordinary degree, he shut up Fausta in it, and a short time after took her out dead.”
It is down to conjecture what one ought to make of this nth-hand scandal-mongering; for impugning someone’s character one can hardly do better than an incest accusation. The story does appear to fit the few available facts, however, and Fausta was much closer in age to Crispus than to Constantine. It might also be noteworthy that three of Fausta’s sons went on to become Emperor and one daughter Empress but none of them ever rehabilitated mom.
Damned memory be damned, Crispus was rediscovered during the Renaissance and favored with several dramatic renditions embellishing the young man as a tragic hero, often with speculation that he was wrongly condemned to Constantine’s everlasting shame.‡ The events surrounding Crispus’s death being almost entirely obscured, writers could really go nuts with it; for example, Sir Walter Scott‘s Count Robert of Paris (set in Constantinople during the Crusades) features the story of an entirely fictitious penance built into subsequent Byzantine execution rituals by a remorseful Constantine:
But the death-blow had no sooner struck the innocent youth, than his father obtained proof of the rashness with which he had acted. He had at this period been engaged in constructing the subterranean parts of the Blacquernal palace, which his remorse appointed to contain a record of his paternal grief and contrition. At the upper part of the staircase, called the Pit of Acheron, he caused to be constructed a large chamber, still called the Hall of Judgment, for the purpose of execution. A passage through an archway in the upper wall leads from the hall to the place of misery, where the axe, or other engine, is disposed for the execution of state prisoners of consequence. Over this archway was placed a species of marble altar, surmounted by an image of the unfortunate Crispus — the materials were gold, and it bore the memorable inscription, TO MY SON, WHOM I RASHLY CONDEMNED, AND TOO HASTILY EXECUTED. When constructing this passage, Constantine made a vow, that he himself and his posterity, being reigning Emperors, would stand beside the statue of Crispus, at the time when any individual of their family should be led to execution, and before they suffered him to pass from the Hall of Judgment to the Chamber of Death, that they should themselves be personally convinced of the truth of the charge under which he suffered.
* Approximate times around the spring and summer of 326 have been proposed by various authors based on the very vague allusions of ancient sources. This author argues that numismatic evidence permits a more precise triangulation. Constantine in 326 journeyed from his new capital in the east to Rome: an imperial mint traveled with him, striking coins as it went — and some of those coins show Crispus. His presence on coins from various stops of this journey indicates that Crispus must have been alive as the procession reached Rome on July 21, 326, but the Caesar vanishes from them, and from history, immediately thereafter.
** The History of Rome Podcast narrates this period, with Constantine’s rise into political relevance in episode 130.
† The Tetrarchy was still tetrarching along pending Constantine’s victory over all: the system featured separate senior emperors East and West each dignified Augustus, and each Augustus had a junior fellow-emperor and heir titled Caesar. Constantine was Augustus of the West, and Crispus was a Caesar.
‡ Fausta tends to get somewhat shorter shrift than her putative lover. Crispus’s presence in the literary culture would appear to make him the namesake of the Boston American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. African-descended men in North America often carried Roman names, though “Crispus” was by no means a common one.
On this date in 1783, Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru — cousin and successor to the famed indigenous rebel Tupac Amaru II — was tortured to death in Cusco.
After Tupac Amaru’s execution in May 1781, the rebellion he had kindled fell south to present-day Bolivia and fought on furiously. Diego Cristobal succeeded his kinsman in authority, and with the (unrelated, but allied) Tupac Katari could briefly command vast territories that demanded bloody Spanish reconquest over hostile terrain. “Twenty years after these events,” one 19th century chronicle reports, “This writer saw the plains of Sicasica and Calamaca, for an extent of fourteen leagues, covered with heaps of unburied human human bones, lying in the places where the wretched Indians fell, to bleach in the tropical sun.”
By early 1782, Tupac Katari had followed Tupac Amaru to the Spanish scaffold and the indigenous resistance they had led was broken into so many bleaching bones. Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru availed himself of an amnesty promised by Viceroy Agustin de Jauregui to bring the rebellion to a formal close. Diego Cristobal even lived for some months thereafter in peace.
But if Spain’s viceregal authorities ever had the least intent of keeping that guarantee long term, they were set straight by the mother country once the treaty was circulated back home: “no faith is due to pledges made to traitors,” the crown directed. Surely in this perfidy there is also the implied regard of fear; had Cusco fallen to Tupac Amaru’s siege in 1781, the whole history of the New World could have changed. To leave unmolested the royal family of this martyred champion would have courted more danger than an empire ought.
So in March 1783, a Spanish sweep arrested not only Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru but around 100 other members of his family and their households, pre-emptively on allegations of a fresh conspiracy. Though it was left to Diego to suffer the most extreme bodily fate, extirpation of his line was the intent, and other Tupac Amaru kin were dispossessed of property, deported, and forbidden the use of their costumes and titles as their subjects — Spain’s subjects — were forbidden their arms.
A ghastly account of Diego Cristobal’s sentence and execution is available in Spanish here: “to be dragged through the streets to the place of execution and there his flesh torn with hot pincers and then hanged by the neck until dead; afterwards to be dismembered and his head carried to Tungasuca, his arms to Lauramarca and Carabaya, his legs to Paucartambo and Calca, and the rest of his corpse set up in a pillory on the Caja del Agua, forfeiting all his property to the confiscation of His Majesty.”
On or around this date in 535,* the Ostrogothic queen Amalasuntha was put to death in the Italian lake island of Martana (You can also find her name rendered Amalasountha and Amalaswintha.)
The Roman-educated princess had inherited rulership of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, a successor state to the lately fallen Roman Empire, from its redoutable founder Theodoric. Technically the crown had passed to Amalasuntha’s 10-year-old kid; ruling as regent in a perilous situation, mom cultivated an alliance with the Byzantine emperor Justinian.
Her son took to boozing and carousing and died as a teenager, so Amalasuntha sought a new male imprimatur for her reign by the expedient of marrying a wealthy cousin, Theodahad. Though the nuptial deal had been for Theo to butt out of actual governance, he immediately strove to convert his power from titular to actual and became his wife’s deadliest rival — and then clapped her in prison. From the History of the Wars of Byzantine scribbler Procopius:
Theodahad, upon receiving the supreme power, began to act in all things contrary to the hopes she had entertained and to the promises he had made. And after winning the adherence of the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her — and they were both numerous and men of very high standing among the Goths — he suddenly put to death some of the connections of Amalasuntha and imprisoned her, the envoys not having as yet reached Byzantium. Now there is a certain lake in Tuscany called Vulsina, within which rises an island, exceedingly small but having a strong fortress upon it. There Theodatus confined Amalasuntha and kept her under guard.
A Roman diplomat named Peter had already been dispatched by this time from the court of Constantinople to do some routine statecraft with the Goths, and he learned of the surprise reshuffling of power when he met Theodohad’s envoys on the road.
Procopius says — or does he? — that Byzantium tried to twist the Goths’ shaggy arms in support of their matronly ally, but could not prevail against the vengeance of the deposed queen’s foes.
When the Emperor Justinian heard these things, he formed the purpose of throwing the Goths and Theodahad into confusion; accordingly he wrote a letter to Amalasuntha, stating that he was eager to give her every possible support, and at the same time he directed Peter by no means to conceal this message, but to make it known to Theodatus himself and to all the Goths. … Now when Peter arrived in Italy, it so happened that Amalasuntha had been removed from among men. For the relatives of the Goths who had been slain by her came before Theodahad declaring that neither his life nor theirs was secure unless Amalasuntha should be put out of their way as quickly as possible. And as soon as he gave in to them, they went to the island and killed Amalasuntha, — an act which grieved exceedingly all the Italians and the Goths as well. For the woman had the strictest regard for every kind of virtue … Theodahad, such was his stupid folly, while still holding the slayers of Amalasuntha in honour and favour kept trying to persuade Peter and the emperor that this unholy deed had been committed by the Goths by no means with his approval, but decidedly against his will.
The “stupid folly” helped to trigger Justinian’s war against the Goths, which resulted in Byzantium’s conquest of Italy and (temporary) reunification of the empire. It also led Amalasuntha’s son-in-law Vitiges to depose and murder Theodahad in his own turn: just another turn of the wheel among backstabbing aristocrats.
Speaking of which: despite the pious good faith Procopius presents for Byzantium in his history above, his gossipy Secret History rewrites the story to attribute Amalsuntha’s fall not to the Ostrogoths’ internal political rivalries but to a catty assassination by Byzantine empress Theodora, whose low-born origin shows through here in murderous insecurity:
At the time when Amalasuntha, desiring to leave the company of the Goths, decided to transform her life and to take the road to Byzantium, as has been stated in the previous narrative, Theodora, considering that the woman was of noble birth and a queen, and very comely to look upon and exceedingly quick at contriving ways and means for whatever she wanted, but feeling suspicious of her magnificent bearing and exceptionally virile manner, and at the same time fearing the fickleness of her husband Justinian, expressed her jealousy in no trivial way, but she schemed to lie in wait for the woman even unto her death. Straightway, then, she persuaded her husband to send Peter, unaccompanied by others, to be his ambassador to Italy. And as he was setting out, the Emperor gave him such instructions as have been set forth in the appropriate passage, where, however, it was impossible for me, through fear of the Empress, to reveal the truth of what took place. She herself, however, gave him one command only, namely, to put the woman out of the world as quickly as possible, causing the man to be carried away by the hope of great rewards if he should execute her commands. So as soon as he arrived in Italy — and indeed man’s nature knows not how to proceed in a hesitant, shrinking way to a foul murder when some office, perhaps, or a large sum of money is to be hoped for — he persuaded Theodahad, by what kind of exhortation I do not know, to destroy Amalasuntha. And as a reward for this he attained the rank of Magister, and acquired great power and a hatred surpassed by none.
On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.
Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.
Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.
The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.
Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.
As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.
Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.
Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.
Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.
A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.
For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.
Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.
The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.
And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)
In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.
We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.
Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.
Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*
Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.
In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:
The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)
Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.
* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.
Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.
But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.
Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.
Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.
But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.
Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”
Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.
The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.
Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …
But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.
As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.
So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.
** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus cried upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.
† Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.
On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.
Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.
Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.
Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.
The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, coming near the brink of outright destruction under continuous Persian pummeling. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”
The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.
The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.
The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.
Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:
The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
The (defunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.
* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.
May 4, 1471 was the date of one of England’s most pivotal battles, Tewkesbury.
Tewkesbury was the last great victory in the War of the Roses for the House of York, and it must have seemed to contemporaries like the last victory Yorkists would ever need. The “kingmaker” Warwick was dead from a previous battle that April; the Lancastrian claimant Henry VI was imprisoned by the Yorkists, who would murder him before the month was out; and Henry’s heir apparent, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, was put to death immediately after Tewkesbury.
Young Edward of Westminster had been stewing these past several years — until the aforementioned Kingmaker swung to his side — in exile in France, trying to finagle a way to rally the Lancastrian cause. Like many a teenager he was prone to nursing bilious fantasies of revenging himself on people, as the Milanese ambassador wrote in 1467.
This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads* or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.
“Peace” would not be the watchword of the abortive Lancastrian restoration attempt.
Shortly after returning to England, Edward had word of Warwick’s defeat. But having taken the trouble to come all this way from France, he still plowed ahead into the desperate stand at Tewkesbury. Edward had no experience at all in battlefield command.
When the Lancastrian lines broke at Tewkesbury, a disordered rout fled towards nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. The nobles who reached it would hole up there claiming the privilege of sanctuary … for just two days, at which point the victorious Yorkist King Edward IV had them arrested and put to swift execution, sanctuary be damned. (The abbey had to close to re-purify.)
Prince Edward didn’t even make it that long. There are varying accounts of his death at Tewkesbury suggesting a summary execution scenario of some kind.
In one version, the Duke of Clarence overtook him in flight. Clarence having himself briefly supported the rebellion before he returned to the Yorkist side, he’s supposed to have immediately beheaded the youth in a paroxysm of demonstrative loyalty.
Prince Edward was taken as he fled towards the towne, by Sir Richard Crofts, and kept close … After the field was ended, proclamation was made, that whosoever could bring forth prince Edward alive or dead, should have an annuity of a hundred pounds during his life, and the princes life to be saved, if he were brought forth alive. Sir Richard Crofts, nothing mistrusting the kings promise, brought forth his prisoner prince Edward, being a faire and well proportioned young gentleman; whom when king Edward had well advised, he demanded of him, how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realm with banner displayed.
Whereunto the prince boldly answered, saying; “To recover my fathers kingdom and heritage, from his father and grandfather to him and from him after him to me lineally descended.” At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some say) stroke him with his gauntlet; whom incontinently, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas Grey marquess Dorset,** and William lord Hastings that stood by, suddenly murdered: for the which cruel act, the more part of the doers in their latter days drank of the like cup, by the righteous justice and due punishment of God.
Shakespeare dramatized this (considerably more dramatic — if admittedly less execution-like) version in Henry VI, Part 3.
Lancaster’s very dim (circa 1471) fortunes would ultimately be rescued in the 1480s by the grandson of a beheaded Welsh courtier — who won the throne as Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty.
* Edward as a seven-year-old was alleged to have been given the authority by his mother to decide what fate should befall the knights who had not successfully protected Henry VI from capture. Edward decreed their beheading.
On this date in 1975, Sisowath Sirik Matak was executed with his aides by the Khmer Rouge.
As a young royal in French-administered Cambodia, Sirik Matak had had a shot to be selected as king in 1941. Instead, that dignity went to Norodom Sihanouk — and with it, Sihanouk would later charge, Sirik Matak’s lifelong resentment.
Sihanouk the “god-king” dominated the ensuing decades of Cambodian politics, and he kept Sirik Matak well away from domestic influence throughout the 1960s by shunting him off to a series of overseas diplomatic appointments. But the arch-conservative Sirik Matak’s longtime ally Lon Nol became Prime Minister in 1969 and took Sirik Matak on as his chief aide.
Sihanouk’s complex political career had by this time seen him abdicate the kingship as well as the Prime Ministership. Now he was head of state under the title “Prince” but by the end of the Sixties his power was faltering: an alliance with China yielded little as that country navigated the turbulent Cultural Revolution, while the Vietnam War next door fed into a Cambodian Civil War, too. (Sihanouk permitted the North Vietnamese to use bases in Cambodia.)
On March 18, 1970, Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a bloodless coup — but it was Sirik Matak who orchestrated the move. There’s even an account that says Sirik Matak forced a wavering Lon Nol at gunpoint to go through with it.
The United States strongly supported the regime change, which was not exactly a portent of its success. Prince Sihanouk might be gone, but he did not take Cambodia’s civil conflict with him; arguably, his ouster intensified it, for Sihanouk was far more popular with the peasantry than the new, Washington-backed leaders. The existing secret bombing campaign the U.S. was directing at North Vietnamese refuges in Cambodia vastly intensified, becoming a campaign against the Khmer Rouge that outlasted the Vietnam War itself. Tens of thousands of people died under those bombs, and millions more were made refugees — and the insurgency only multiplied.
The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide … the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent …
[T]he bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas … scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
Within a few years, the capital fell to the growing insurgency. The U.S. offered asylum to the leaders of Cambodia’s collapsing government; many accepted it, but many others refused. Preferring near-certain execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (his name was already published on the movement’s list of “seven traitors”) Sisowath Sirik Matak reproached his U.S. patrons in a letter to the American ambassador declining evacuation.
Dear Excellency and friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.
As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.
But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.
Please accept, E
Just days into the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Phnom Penh, the Communists forced the French embassy to hand over Sirik Matak and a number of aides who had taken temporary refuge there. They were summarily executed (apparently by shooting) at the old Cercle Sportif swimming pool — a site that has since become the location of the new U.S. embassy.
* Taylor Owen has mapped the known U.S. bombing sorties into Cambodia; he discusses that project, and the ways the bombing impacted the Khmer Rouge, here.