1354: Cola di Rienzi, last of the Roman Tribunes

1 comment October 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*

“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”

So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)

And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.


This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.

Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.


Rienzi vows to obtain justice for his murdered brother, depicted in a pre-Raphaelite painting by the young William Holman Hunt.

Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.

What to do?

How about — overthrow the bastards?

Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.

For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.

“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”

The great humanist Petrarch, Rienzi’s contemporary, was smitten by the unfolding revolution.

But almost as soon as Rienzi’s republic began, the man fell: another invasion found the Roman in the street deaf to the alarm bells, and Rienzi fled.

“He was a dreamer rather than a man of action,” is the charge of the Catholic encyclopedia; excitable, injudicious, spendthrift, and prey to the “Asiatic” emoluments of his station.

This career alone would merit a remembrance, but Rienzi had a second act.


Richard Wagner’s first hit opera — though hard to come by in the wild nowadays — was Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (synopsis), from a libretto based on Bulwer-Lytton’s homage.

After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.

Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.

And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.

He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.

Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.

At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:

it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.

Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)

If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”


Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.

* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.

** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Famous,Heads of State,History,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Papal States,Pelf,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions

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1794: The last cart of the Terror, not including the Marquis de Sade

July 27th, 2008 Headsman

July 27th, 1794 — the 9th of Thermidor, year II — is inscribed in history as the day Robespierre fell, when a parliamentary coup d’etat between the right and the remnants of the parties he had destroyed shouted him down as he readied the National Convention for his next purge.

This scene from the multinational bicentennial epic La Revolution Francaise conflates the events of 8 Thermidor — when Robespierre delivered a menacing two-hour address but provoked outcries by failing to name the deputies he implicated in “conspiracy” — and 9 Thermidor, when Robespierre’s lieutenant Saint-Just was shouted down from the podium and Robespierre ended up staggering through the benches appealing against the imprecations of his colleagues as his arrest is decreed.

Even as the month of Thermidor’s eponymous epochal event was unfolding, the daily gears of Revolutionary justice were turning: the usual haul of unfortunates condemned, including seven women from the previous day’s batch of Saint Lazare prison conspirators who had pled their bellies to buy a day.

That day was one day too little.

Stanley Loomis is overtly hostile to the Revolution, but his middlebrow sensibilities are well-tuned for the pathos of the scene:

Indifferent to the storms that were raging in the Convention, the Revolutionary Tribunal continued to go about its implacable business with cold efficiency. The arrest of its President [the Robespierrist Rene-Francois Dumas (the link is French), who was taken in the courtroom] startled no one. Since its inception that court had been witness to too many dramas to be astonished any further. Dumas quietly departed; the trials continued. Forty-two prisoners were sentenced to death. By four o’clock their hair had been cut and they were ready to be sent on their way. But Samson, aware of disturbances in the St. Antoine quarter of the city, suggested to [prosecutor] Fouquier[-Tinville] that the executions be deferred until the morrow.*

“Justice must take its course,” snapped the Public Prosecutor. “Do your work.”

And so the last “batch” lumbered off in the direction of the Faubourg St. Antoine and the Place de la Nation. With the exception of the Princesse de Monaco, they were nearly all obscure and humble members of the petite bourgeoisie. Hanriot, waving his sabre, conducted the procession to the place of execution. By seven o’clock that evening, as the minutes of the military escort poignantly show, the unfortunate victims, who had been so close to deliverance, had all been executed.

Henriot proceeded directly from his escort service to the Convention to liberate Robespierre for the night’s brief pitched battle against the Convention, and here we take our leave of them, for now. We shall meet both of them on the scaffold tomorrow.

Not on the wagon** with the Princess of Monaco was a man whom Loomis would have pitied rather less.

The bloated, penniless 54-year-old fruit of an ancient noble house, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade had, in the most recent chapter of his astounding career, navigated the Revolution in the improbable guise of a proletarian section head and revolutionary tribunal judge, until his own arrest late the previous year.

This day, de Sade’s name was on a list of prisoners to be seized from Madelonnettes Prison — “Sade, former count, captain of Capet’s guards in 1792, has corresponded with enemies of the republic,” it said — which he had occupied until a recent transfer to Picpus, a monastery converted into a prison adjacent to the guillotine’s place at the Place de la Nation. Whether the result of another of the many bureaucratic snafus we’ve witnessed this week or a well-placed bribe from his friend and/or mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet, the guards were in the wrong place, didn’t find him, and didn’t care to dig any further.

Three months later, he was — for the last time in his life — a free man.

One could hardly say that the Revolution made the author of Justine the man he so (in)famously was — but having lived within sight of the blade that might any day be called upon to chop off his own head, and the entire tableau of the years preceding, left their impression. Hundreds of bodies from the Terror were stuffed in the unpropitious clay of the makeshift jail’s yards under de Sade’s cell. “Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King,” he wrote a friend.

According to Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, Revolutionary France would inexorably influence his subsequent work,

strangely mixing real memories with very Sadean embellishments … Plots, betrayals, denunciations, beheadings: these fictional motifs and Sadean phantasies are linked with the reality and the imaginary of the Revolution.

Good for what ails you.

* Sanson’s diaries — a memoir of the family business constructed by the famous executioner’s grandson — leave off before the events of Thermidor and suggest that the hecatombs of the Terror were taking their toll on the aging headsman. Other accounts of this day have the tumbrils stopped in the streets by clemency-inclined onlookers, only to be forcibly extricated by Henriot.

** Also not (really) on the cart: the fictional occultist Zanoni, who is beheaded in this batch in the novel of the same title by legendary awful writer Edward George “it was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,France,Freethinkers,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Participants,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Treason,Women

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