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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1393: The Muzaffarids, by Timur

1 comment May 22nd, 2010 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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406: Radagaisus the Barbarian

4 comments August 23rd, 2009 dogboy

Rome in the 5th Century was a difficult place for the general populace. The Roman Empire was at the front end of its long decline, and with its partitioning in 395 on the death of Theodosius I, a series of invasions was to follow that would shake confidence in the leadership of the Empire.

Possible etymological connection to the possibly proto-Slavic barbarian horde: hypothetical Slavic god Radegast lends his gnarly visage to a Czech beer — and maybe to a Tolkein character.

Much of the activity in Rome at the time was tied to the young Visigoth King Alaric. Alaric initially invaded the Eastern Roman Empire, but he was met with resistance in Greece. During negotiations, the de facto head of the Western Roman Empire,* Stilicho, who has been claimed by some sources to have been born a Visigoth, marched on the Goths and prepared to engage in what likely would have been Alaric’s downfall.

According to accounts, Stilicho was called out of the neighboring province of Illyricum, and Alaric, now unencumbered of the prospect of a Western reinforcement, marched through Greece.

But Stilicho would not sit still, and in 397, he brought his army against the Goths and forced them into a difficult spot in the mountains of Pholoe, in the southern prefecture of Illia. Alaric slipped away,** moving his forces north and setting his sights on the Western Roman Empire, starting in northeastern Italy, in 400 AD.

While Stilicho was engaged on this eastern front, the Ostrogoths, led by the commander Radagaisus, prepared for their own invasion. While history is uncertain as to how the series of events transpired, it is clear that Stilicho bested Alaric at Pollentia and Verona and, because of a budding camaraderie with the defeated commander, enjoyed a few years’ respite from the Gothic invaders. Which was useful, because the Roman army had shrunken to a point where even small defeats were extremely costly to the Empire.

So it was that, when Radagaisus invaded Italy in 405, Stilicho had nearly all his army in place. Radagaisus marched with 100,000 people (likely) to 400,000 people (highly unlikely), though a relatively small percentage of these were thought to be armed. His trail of terror displaced uncounted Romans as Radagaisus made his way through northern Italy.

Finally, at the start of the 406 campaign, Stilicho had mustered sufficient forces to assault the invaders. As Radagaisus blockaded Florence, Stilicho amassed his regulars and, fortified also with recalled frontier soldiers, massacred the opposition. The battle was decisive, with the Roman army starving out the invading hordes, and Radagasius apparently quickly losing control of his loose band of warriors.

Whether he was turned on by his own men, or whether the Romans simply overran their enemies after a period of famine, Radagasius eventually fled the battlefield and was captured at one of Stilicho’s outposts. On 23 August 406, the man who called himself King Radagasius was beheaded.† Many of his soldiers defected to the Roman army — joining a long line of conscripts from conquered people — and his supporting band was scattered or enslaved.

Like Alaric, Radagasius has sometimes been indicated as King of the Goths, but his history is a little more murky than that. Radagasius (or Rhodogast, or Radegast, depending on the source) issued from northern Germany before making his march. He had united several tribes under his banner, but he could hardly be said to rule any region. And because of the remoteness of Ostrogoth territories and the limited written history on the region, it’s difficult to assess his true nature.

* Stilicho was protector of the underage Honorius, who has been regarded as weak and incompetent. Honorius died in 423, long after Stilicho was murdered.

** Alaric and Stilicho may have been conspiring at this point: Stilicho again claimed to have been recalled from the battlefield, but, owing to their common heritage and their later connections in defense of the Empire, it’s thought that Stilicho was actively recruiting Alaric for military service in defense of Rome.

† “The death of the royal captive, who was ignominiously beheaded, disgraced the triumph of Rome and of Christianity,” sniffed Edward Gibbon.

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284: Aper, by Diocletian

6 comments November 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date* in 284, one of Rome’s greatest emperors claimed the purple by summarily executing his rival before the approving army in Anatolia.

The Emperor Diocletian christened his reign with a bit of scaffold theatricality, but he might have been the real perp.

For half a century, the Roman Empire had waded through crisis. In its political manifestation, a parade of forgettable emperors had marched through the throne room, each to be assassinated, overthrown, or otherwise disposed of by some equally forgettable aspirant en route to a similarly unenviable end.

At length, out of this unpropitious bunch, rose one Diocles, a low-born Dalmatian of classical education whose martial gifts saw him rise through the legions. His opportunity came when the emperor Carus, barely a year on from succeeding his assassinated predecessor, died on campaign against Persia allegedly struck by lightning (quite possibly a euphemism for something more dagger-like), leaving his son Numerian in charge.

As the army meandered back to the friendly confines, Numerian secluded himself in his litter. And after a while, the litter started to stink.

Sometime on the journey, he’d been secretly killed — but by whom?

The principals this day are our leading suspects. (And it’s a little mystifying in either case just what was gained by leaving the body hidden so long.) We turn to Gibbon to narrate what must have been a riveting — not to mention definitive — proceeding adjudicating between them a few kilometers past Nicomedia (moder Izmit, Turkey) towards Chalcedon (now the Kadikoy district of Istanbul).

A general assembly of the army was appointed to be held at Chalcedon, whither Aper was transported in chains, as a prisoner and a criminal. A vacant tribunal was erected in the midst of the camp, and the generals and tribunes formed a great military council. They soon announced to the multitude that their choice had fallen on Diocletian, commander of the domestics or body-guards, as the person the most capable of revenging and succeeding their beloved emperor. The future fortunes of the candidate depended on the chance or conduct of the present hour. Conscious that the station which he had filled exposed him to some suspicions, Diocletian ascended the tribunal, and raising his eyes towards the Sun, made a solemn profession of his own innocence, in the presence of that all-seeing Deity. Then, assuming the tone of a sovereign and a judge, he commanded that Aper should be brought in chains to the foot of the tribunal. “This man,” said he, “is the murderer of Numerian;” and without giving him time to enter on a dangerous justification, drew his sword, and buried it in the breast of the unfortunate praefect.** A charge supported by such decisive proof was admitted without contradiction, and the legions, with repeated acclamations, acknowledged the justice and authority of the emperor Diocletian.

Though there isn’t any direct evidence of it, posterity is entitled to suspect on grounds of means, motive and opportunity, that the eventual beneficiary of Numerian’s demise — the emperor henceforth known as Diocletian — was its true author.

Whether obtained by fair means or foul, Diocletian put the laurels of state to good use, stabilizing government by introducing the “Tetrarchy” — the rule of the empire’s eastern and western halves by two emperors (“Augusti”) each aided by a “Caesar” who was also the heir apparent.

Diocletian’s two decades in power before his anomalous voluntary retirement constitute a watershed in the late history of Rome, and not only because the cycle of imperial assassinations and civil war took a welcome generation-long hiatus.

Although he’s also remembered for initiating the last major persecution of Christians, his administration set the stage for the rise of Constantine the Great, the Galilean’s first imperial champion. Constantine’s father was one of the original tetrarchs, the Caesar of the west.

And in the longer term, Diocletian’s division of the empire between east and west would sow the seed of the later separation of Byzantium and Rome, and the corresponding division in the Christian world. No surprise, then, that the first ruler profiled in Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast is this date’s executioner:

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More audiophilia about Diocletian and the tetrarchs in this lecture from Isabelle Pafford’s UC-Berkeley course on Roman history. (The first 6:45 or so consists of class business and carryover from previous lectures.)

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* As with much in the ancient world, sourcing is tenuous, and there is some scholarly debate over whether the events in this post should be ascribed to November 20, or to November 17, or to September 17, or to some other date. Since this blog, notwithstanding its title, embraces the occasional execution whose date is uncertain, I am prepared to wave aside textual uncertainty in the interest of a ripping good story.

** According to the Historia Augusta, Diocletian had a superstitious reason to carry out this bloodthirsty act personally.

This story my grandfather related to me, having heard it from Diocletian himself. “When Diocletian,” he said, “while still serving in a minor post, was stopping at a certain tavern in the land of the Tungri in Gaul, and was making up his daily reckoning with a woman, who was a Druidess, she said to him, ‘Diocletian, you are far too greedy and far too stingy,’ to which Diocletian replied, it is said, not in earnest, but only in jest, ‘I shall be generous enough when I become emperor.’ At this the Druidess said, so he related, ‘Do not jest, Diocletian, for you will become emperor when you have slain a Boar (Latin: Aper).’ ” … It is now well known and a common story that when he had killed Aper, the prefect of the guard, he declared, it is said, “At last I have killed my fated Boar.” My grandfather also used to say that Diocletian himself declared that he had no other reason for killing him with his own hand than to fulfill the Druidess’ prophecy and to ensure his own rule. For he would not have wished to become known for such cruelty, especially in the first few days of his power, if Fate had not impelled him to this brutal act of murder.

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

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408: Stilicho, whose execution let in the barbarians

3 comments August 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Sixteen hundred years ago today, the general whose talents were the last bulwark against barbarian conquest of the Western Roman Empire submitted for the sake of civil peace to execution at the hands of a callow boy-emperor.

The half-Vandal patrician Stilicho comes to the notice of posterity late in the reign of Theodosius the Great, the last Roman to rule both Eastern and Western Empires. At Theodosius’s death in 395, his two sons ascended the separate thrones.

Honorius, a 10-year-old child, took the purple in the west and somehow held it for 28 lackluster years that saw Rome’s long erosion finally set the realm on the slide into collapse.*

An apt commander, Stilicho had held Visigoth king Alaric at bay in two invasions of Italy (the crucial Battle of Pollentia stanched the first).


Stilicho and his wife Serena, with their child: two were executed, one was murdered.

Distrusted because of his part-barbarian parentage — and hated by the still-significant pagan community for burning the Sibylline Books — Stilicho’s service never made him popular. Because Alaric had escaped his battlefield defeats, it was whispered that Stilicho had connived with him … and Stilicho’s alliance of his legions with Alaric against other barbarians in Illyrium and Burgundy only heightened the suspicions.

We have little reliable basis to judge the possible truth of these accusations; the fundamental fact was that Rome no longer exercised its accustomed hegemony, and its principals needed to balance interests, cut deals and allocate scarce resources in ways that would have been unthinkable a century or two before.** The army itself was mostly barbarian; Alaric himself had once been a Roman officer.

In the story as related by Zosimus — a later Byzantine historian, a pagan famously abusive towards Christians and elsewhere critical of Stilicho, here softening his stance as he turns to savage his executioners — a wormtongued advisor got the ear of the still-youthful emperor and turned him against the general who was holding back the cataclysm.

Stilicho … was not conscious of any ill intention either against the emperor or the soldiers, [but] Olympius, a native of the vicinity of the Euxine sea, and an officer of rank in the court-guards, concealed under the disguise of the Christian religion the most atrocious designs in his heart. Being accustomed, because of his affected modesty and gentle demeanor, to converse frequently with the emperor, he used many bitter expressions against Stilicho, and stated that he was desirous to proceed into the east, from no other motive than to acquire an opportunity of … placing the empire in the hands of his own son, Eucherius. … Olympius, accustoming himself to visit the sick soldiers, which was the master-piece of his hypocrisy, dispersed among them, likewise, similar insinuations. … they were excited almost to madness … then dispersing themselves about the city, killed as many of the magistrates as they could lay hands on, tearing them out of the houses into which they had fled, and plundered all the town. … The tumult continued till late in the night, and the emperor fearing lest any violence should be committed against his own person also, for which reason he withdrew. … There likewise perished so great a number of promiscuous persons as is beyond all computation.

When intelligence of this reached Stilicho, who was then at Bononia, he was extremely disturbed by it. Summoning, therefore, all the commanders of his confederate Barbarians, who were with him, he proposed a consultation relative to what measures it would be most prudent to adopt. It was agreed with common consent, that if the emperor were killed, which was yet doubtful, all the confederated Barbarians should join together, and fall at once on the Roman soldiers, and by that means afford a warning to all others to use greater moderation and submissiveness. But if the emperor were safe, although the magistrates were cut off, the authors of the tumult were to be brought to condign punishment. Such was the result of the consultation held by Stilicho with his Barbarians. When they knew that no indignity had been offered to the person of the emperor, Stilicho resolved to proceed no further in punishing or correcting the soldiers, but to return to Ravenna. For he reflected both on the number of the soldiers, and that the emperor was not steadfastly his friend. Nor did he think it either honourable or safe to incite Barbarians against the Roman army.

It came to a bad end, Stilicho nobly refusing the prospect of his allies upholding his cause by arms:

Stilicho being therefore filled with anxiety concerning these circumstances, the Barbarians who were with him were very desirous of putting in force their former resolutions, and therefore endeavoured to dissuade him from the measures which he afterwards thought proper to be adopted. But being unable to prevail with him, they all determined to remain in some place until they should be better apprized of the emperor’s sentiments towards Stilicho, … In the meantime Olympius, who was now become master of the emperor’s inclination, sent the imperial mandate to the soldiers at Ravenna, ordering them immediately to apprehend Stilicho, and to detain him in prison without fetters. When Stilicho heard this, he took refuge in a Christian church that was near, while it was night. His Barbarians and his other familiars, who, with his servants, were all armed, upon seeing this expected what would ensue. When day appeared, the soldiers, entering the church, swore before the bishop that they were commanded by the emperor not to kill Stilicho, but to keep him in custody. Being brought out of the church, and in the custody of the soldiers, other letters were delivered by the person who brought the first, in which the punishment of death was denounced against Stilicho, for his crimes against the commonwealth. Thus, while Eucherius, his son, fled towards Rome, Stilicho was led to execution. The Barbarians who attended him, with his servants and other friends and relations, of whom there was a vast number, preparing and resolving to rescue him from the stroke, Stilicho deterred them from the attempt by all imaginable menaces, and calmly submitted his neck to the sword. He was the most moderate and just of all the men who possessed great authority in his time. … he never conferred military rank for money, or coverted the stipend of the soldiers to his own use. … In order that no studious person, or astrologers, may be ignorant of the time of his death, I shall relate that it happened in the consulship of Bassus and Philippus, during which the emperor Arcadius submitted to fate, on the twenty-second day of August.

This date is the end of the line for Stilicho, but hardly the end of the troubles that laid him low. A spasm of mob violence against barbarians on the peninsula ensued; the executed general’s son was among those murdered. Teutons, many of them Roman soldiers, in turn flocked to the banner of Alaric, who promptly swarmed into the enfeebled Italian lands and for the first time in 800 years sacked Rome.

Romans knew just who to blame: Stilicho’s widow, who was herself executed at the order of the Senate. In Gibbon’s relating:

The first emotions of the nobles, and of the people, were those of surprise and indignation, that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim. Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny, which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated, or overawed, by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of his guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitude were astonished to find, that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately produce the retreat of the Barbarians, and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity, and at length the horrid calamities of famine.

Alaric made out quite a lot better.

* Such, at least, is the conventional assessment of Honorius. For a take friendlier to the emperor (and less so to Stilicho), see here.

** Stilicho, incidentally, called home the second-last legion of Roman troops from Britain for use closer to home, and the island’s remaining Roman presence was cut off by barbarian incursions into Gaul during his lifetime … setting that island on its independent way (into, if you like, the Arthurian age); Honorius would later answer a plea for help from those lands with a note to the effect of, “good luck on your own.”

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1425: Parisina Malatesta and Ugo d’Este, for incest

Add comment May 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1425, the Marquess of Ferrara had his wife and son beheaded for an incestuous affair, along with a courtier who had kept their secret.

The “incest” was social rather than sanguinary: the lovers were not related. Like many a Renaissance despot, Niccolò III d’Este produced a multitudinous assortment of illegitimate children and underaged dynastic wives. Small wonder, one might think, that the 14-year-old (at her marriage) Parisina Malatesta (the link is to her Italian Wikipedia page) should come to prefer the attentions of the Duke’s eldest bastard Ugo (one year her junior) to those of a spouse more than twenty years older.

Awww.

Still, the affair has its curious aspect, apart from the obvious. The Duke was on that timeless monarchical quest for legitimate male issue; Parisina Malatesta would bear him two surviving daughters and a son who died in infancy during her teenage years.

One can hardly fail to think of that more renowned decapitated queen of the next century Anne Boleyn. Like Anne, Parisina lost her head to an incest allegation after a few years’ failure to give her husband an heir.

The need for specifically legitimate succession, however, was somewhat less pressing in tightly run Ferrara than early Tudor England. As the oldest illegitimate son, Ugo himself had a chance to succeed by his father’s appointment — in fact, the second illegitimate son Leonello ultimately did just that. For this reason, Ugo and Parisina — the latter threatening to supplant the former with a legitimate child of her own — might have been natural rivals, and there is some hint of initial enmity between the two. One wonders if there might not have been a twist of obscured courtly skullduggery about this day’s bloody climax.

In any event, interlocutors have preferred the personal aspect, and little wonder. The Marquess played his part by being stricken with anguish and remorse for his ruthless treatment of a favored son, possibly aided by a general reaction of horror among most contemporaries.*

Retold in later years as scandal (though never with much sympathy for the marquess**) its Byronic potential as tragic love story was eventually seized by, well, Lord Byron. His “Parisina” gives us two true hearts in the flower of youth crushed by the cruel weight of their unjust world … although he found it more apt to conclude with only the boy losing his head while the wail of his lover signals a more ambiguous fate.

With all the consciousness that he
Had only passed a just decree;
That they had wrought their doom of ill;
Yet Azo’s† age was wretched still.
The tainted branches of the tree,
If lopped with care, a strength may give,
By which the rest shall bloom and live
All greenly fresh and wildly free:
But if the lightning, in its wrath,
The waving boughs with fury scathe,
The massy trunk the ruin feels,
And never more a leaf reveals.

Mascagni also adapted it for the opera in 1913 — a legendarily tiresome four-hour affair. One review’s famous recommendation (apt enough for the subject as well as the performance) was “Cut, cut, cut!”

* The Marquess was less troubled about his wife, and promulgated a decree imposing like punishment for any other wife guilty of such a crime. The sentence was actually carried out upon a magistrate’s wife.

** Gibbon tut-tutted the affair, simultaneously helping circulate it anew:

Under the reign of Nicholas III, Ferrara was polluted with a domestic tragedy. By the testimony of a maid, and his own observation, the Marquis of Este discovered the incestuous loves of his wife Parisina, and Hugo his bastard son, a beautiful and valiant youth. They were beheaded in the castle by the sentence of a father and husband, who published his shame, and survived their execution. He was unfortunate, if they were guilty: if they were innocent, he was still more unfortunate; nor is there any possible situation in which I can sincerely approve the last act of the justice of a parent.

† Niccolo is “Azo” in the poem, for metric convenience. The House of Este had produced a number of lords named Azzo over the preceding centuries.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ferrara,History,Italy,Nobility,Scandal,Sex,Women

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532: Hypatius and Pompeius, for Byzantine sports riots

4 comments January 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 532, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had two nephews of a former emperor executed for participating, however unwillingly, in the Nika riots.

Early in Justinian‘s reign, chariot-racing factions comprised mobs unruly enough to put any modern football hooligan into traction. Riots were a periodic feature of the sport.

The historian Procopius, who is our guide to this day’s events, describes a type the modern reader will recognize:

The Empress Theodora‘s cool head famously saved the day — and the empire — when her husband was ready to bolt. “May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty … as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”

They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction” …

When the clubs were pitted against each other, the civic disturbance rated a mere annoyance. But early in 532, they came into an unexpected alliance — around, it should be said in this venue, hangings meted out to their respective partisans — and outright revolt erupted at a race on January 13. Instead of chanting their respective factional slogans, a common cry of Nika! — “Victory!” — heralded a week of mayhem that nearly ended the great Byzantine prince’s era when it had hardly begun.

This day’s victims were nephews of a former Byzantine emperor, and their lot in the affair was an unlucky one. The suspicious Justinian cast them out of the palace quite against their will, for they feared exactly what in fact came to pass: the mob proclaimed Hypatius emperor and thrust him involuntarily — he had to be physically pried from the desperate resistance of his wife — into treason.

It was an old vintage in the Roman tradition, as Edward Gibbon reflected in reviewing the perverse structural logic of civil war during an earlier era of the western empire:

[I]f we examine with candour the conduct of these usurpers, it will appear that they were much oftener driven into rebellion by their fears than urged to it by their ambition … If the dangerous favour of the army had imprudently declared them deserving of the purple, they were marked for sure destruction; and even prudence would counsel them to secure a short enjoyment of the empire, and rather to try the fortune of war than to expect the hand of an executioner.

For a few hours, the throne stood in danger. Justinian mulled flight; his remarkable wife held him steady — and on January 18, their generals trapped the rioters in the Hippodrome and slaughtered some 30,000 of them.

Back to Procopius:

[T]he populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat … the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed.

Hypatius and his brother were taken alive but disposed of on this day, by which time their deaths were but a drop in a bloodbath.

[T]he emperor commanded the two prisoners to be kept in severe confinement. Then, while Pompeius was weeping and uttering pitiable words (for the man was wholly inexperienced in such misfortunes), Hypatius reproached him at length and said that those who were about to die unjustly should not lament. For in the beginning they had been forced by the people against their will, and afterwards they had come to the hippodrome with no thought of harming the emperor. And the soldiers killed both of them on the following day and threw their bodies into the sea. The emperor confiscated all their property for the public treasury, and also that of all the other members of the senate who had sided with them. Later, however, he restored to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius and to all others the titles which they had formerly held, and as much of their property as he had not happened to bestow upon his friends. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.

Bad luck for Hypatius and Pompeius proved a blessing for posterity (and Turkey’s contemporary tourist trade): riot-devastated space near the Hippodrome was appropriated by Justinian to build the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica.

This gripping affair is narrated in greater depth in an installment of Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast series:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

… and in gripping detail by the History of Byzantium podcast.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Early Middle Ages,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Rioting,Summary Executions,Treason,Turkey

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