c. 415 B.C.E.: The men of Melos

Add comment February 9th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in the winter of 416-415 B.C.E., the island of Melos surrendered to an Athenian siege during the ruinous Peloponnesian War.

Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.

This ghastly event is covered by ThucydidesHistory. Thucydides’ account of the diplomatic negotiation between the mighty Athenians and the hopelessly outmuscled Melians is the subject of the Melian dialogue — a timeless classic of philosophy and statecraft.

The Athenians’ coldly realistic position — and their ultimate disposition of their conquest — is summed up in the wonderful epigraph, “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” (And numerous variations of this translation.)

As the reigning naval power, Athens (at war with a league led by its rival, the land power Sparta) had decided that an independent and neutral Melos would no longer be in the offing. The Melian dialogue pits Athens’ ultimatum to Melos to submit and save itself, against the Melians’ vain attempt to assert the justice of their cause; likewise, it is the dialogue of an imperial order against a holdover independent city-state from a fading era.

It’s a riveting read. The excerpts below are from this public-domain translation; there are others here and here.

Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no flue words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.

Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.

Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.

Athenians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?

Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.

Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?

Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.

Over and over the Melian envoy is dismayed by his visitors’ indifference to the moral high ground. Frustrated of any concession, he resolves his embattled city to embark upon the remote hope of resistance in preference to voluntary servitude — leading the Athenians to part with this chilly sentiment:

You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honour which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonour were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honour too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonour than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honour if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision,

Athens wasn’t kidding.

Finding no traction with the Melian delegation, the greater power immediately besieged Melos. Thucydides recounts the Melians’ subsequent fate:

So the summer ended.

In the following winter the Lacedaemonians had intended to make an expedition into the Argive territory, but finding that the sacrifices which they offered at the frontier were unfavourable they returned home … About the same time the Melians took another part of the Athenian wall; for the fortifications were insufficiently guarded. Whereupon the Athenians sent fresh troops, under the command of Philocrates the son of Demeas. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.


On top of everything else, the Athenian sack put an end to the production of Melian reliefs. (The island still had the glory of the Venus de Milo to look forward to, however.)

If there was a consolation for the scattered remains of the ruined Melian polis, it was that Athens’ cruel imperial hubris led it just months later to launch a catastrophic invasion of Sicily.

That defeat helped turn the Peloponnesian War decisively against Athens. Just eleven years after overrunning Melos, haughty Athens itself surrendered to a Spartan siege.

Thucydides, an exiled former Athenian general, deploys the classical dialogue form to great effect; his own perspective on the various arguments advanced in the Melian debate is difficult to discern with confidence. Clearly, however, it’s a topic of great interest to Thucydides, as his account dwells repeatedly on the conundrums touching justice and international relations: he’s one of the first intellectuals to explore what’s now thought of as the “realist” view of foreign policy. Compare the Melian Dialogue, for instance, to the Athenian demos‘s Mytilenian Debate; or, to the Plataean speech making a Melos-like appeal to the powerful Spartans.* And in one early passage, private Athenians appeal to Sparta and Corinth not to commence on war against the hegemony of Athens with words similar to those later used at Melos: “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. Up till the present moment you, too, used to think that we were; but now, after calculating your own interest, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong. Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”

At any rate, Thucydides’ proud city-empire would never recover from the inglorious fall inflicted by this war. The result was a fourth-century power vacuum which the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great eventually rose to fill.

* Thucydides also reports the Athenians hoisted by their own realpolitik when, in the Sicilian invasion, they attempt to appeal to Camarina for support. That city spurns the appeal, fearing subjugation should expansionist Athens prevail, and the revenge of their overwhelmingly powerful neighbor Syracuse otherwise.

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399 BCE: Socrates

2 comments May 19th, 2013 Headsman

It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.

Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.

For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE


“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”

The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.

All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.

Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.

Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.

Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:

  • the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
  • the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.

Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be—you know my errand. Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant prepare some.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry—there is time enough.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; but I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and 118upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.

A few books about the death of Socrates

* The Phaedo places Socrates’ trial on the day after Athens consecrated a ritual boat for its annual pilgrimage. (This was supposed to be the very boat that the hero Theseus had sailed back after defeating the minotaur in time immemorial, and the Athenians maintained it for centuries in a seaworthy state to make ceremonial voyages to the island of Delos, a sanctuary for Theseus’s patron Apollo. This is also the very conveyance in question in the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, a philosophical conundrum proceeding from the question of whether the thing was still “Theseus’s ship” if every single component of it had been replaced in the intervening years.) Anyway, Theseus aside, that mention of the consecration gives us Mounichion 7 on the confusing lunisolar Attic calendar for the trial of Socrates.

During the ship’s sacred voyage, Athens was to remain ritually “cleansed.” This condition included not conducting any executions. A date for the death of Socrates is established by Xenophon and Seneca reporting that the boat returned after 30 days — which was about twice as long as ordinarily required, but the archaic craft was very vulnerable to bad weather. 30 days is an eminently doubtable nice round number, but where ancient dates are concerned, we takes what we can gets.

“Counting inclusively, as was then the custom, Socrates died on Thargelion 6, which is the very day recorded for his birth,” notes Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. It’s possible that Socrates’s birthday became associated with Thargelion 6 because Thargelion 6 was associated with Socrates via his execution … but Thargelion 6 became known as man’s execution date. It also happened to be the Athenian festival “Thargelia” (and the day before Plato’s Thargelia 7 birthday).

There are other dates out there. In particular, a number of easily accessible pages claim that the hemlock was downed on May 7, 399. I’m not positive, but it appears to me that this might have originally been arrived at by counting 30 days exclusively from Mounichion 7 to reach Thargelion 7, then noticing that Thargelion typically began sometime in May, and smushing together “May” and “7” from alien calendars … after which it’s been repeated on the basis of previous source’s authority. If there’s better support for this date than I infer, I welcome correction.

For my part, I’ve dated this entry based on the astounding Hellenic Month Established Per Athens calendar, specifically its dates for Thargelion of the 1st year of the 95th Olympiad. Thargelion 6 corresponded to May 18/19, says HMEPA — Greek days began at sundown — and since Socrates died at the end of daylight, just before sunset, that’s a Gregorian May 19th. Again, though, all this is built upon a chain of questionable inferences based on a few questionable passing remarks from just a couple of ancient sources. In the end, one just can’t know for sure.

** Plato reports in the Apology Socrates characterizing himself as such this way — “a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” by his stings — bequeathing to us the evocative metaphor.

† Find these essential execution-related dialogues here, here, or here, or just the highlights here.

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1937: Jan Sten, Stalin’s tutor

1 comment June 19th, 2011 Headsman

Anyone who has ever had an unedifying experience of pedagogy ought to be able to sympathize with Jan Sten, the Marxist philosopher once hired to tune up Joseph Stalin’s intellectual credentials and who on this date in 1937 was purged by his former pupil.

This account of Sten’s unfortunate (though hardly atypical) fate comes from the archive of Sten’s personal friend, one Yevgeny Frolov and is printed in Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.

Hardly anyone knew Stalin better than Sten. Stalin, as we know, received no systematic education. Without success Stalin struggled to understand philosophical questions. And then, in 1925, he called in Jan Sten, one of the leading Marxist philosophers of that time, to direct his study of Hegelian dialectics. Sten drew up a program of study for Stalin and conscientiously, twice a week, dinned Hegelian wisdom into his illustrious pupil. (In those years dialectics was studied by a system that Pokrovsky had worked out at the Institute of Red Professors, a parallel study of Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.) Often Sten told me in confidence about these lessons, about the difficulties he as the teacher, was having because of his student’s inability to master Hegelian dialectics. Jan often dropped in to see me after a lesson with Stalin, in a depressed and gloomy state, and despite his naturally cheerful disposition, he found it difficult to regain his equilibrium. Sten was not only a leading philosopher but also a political activist, an outstanding member of the Leninist cohort of old Bolsheviks. The meetings with Stalin, the conversations with him on philosophical matters, during which Jan would always bring up contemporary political problems, opened his eyes more and more to Stalin’s true nature, his striving for one-man rule, his craft schemes and methods for putting them into effect … As early as 1928, in a small circle of his personal friends, Sten said: “Koba will do things that will put the trials of Dreyfus and of Beilis in the shade.”This was his answer to his comrades’ request for a prognosis of Stalin’s leadership over ten years’ time. Thus, Sten was not wrong either in his characterization of Stalin’s rule or in the time schedule for the realization of his bloody schemes.


Komar and Melamid‘s ironic 1981-1982 Stalin and the Muses travesties sycophantic Socialist Realism exaltations of Uncle Joe, like these. (More by K&M)

Sten’s lessons with Stalin ended in 1928. Several years later he was expelled from the party for a year and exiled to Akmolinsk. In 1937 he was seized on the direct order of Stalin, who declared him one of the chiefs of the Menshevizing idealists.* At the time the printer had just finished a volume of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that contained a major article by Sten, “Dialectical Materialism.” The ordinary solution — and such problems were ordinary in those years — was to destroy the entire printing. But in this case the editors of the encyclopedia found a cheaper solution. Only one page of the whole printing was changed, the one with the signature of Jan Sten. “Dialectical Materialism” appeared over the name of M.B. Mitin, the future academician and editor in chief of Problems of Philosophy, thus adding to his list the one publication that is really interesting. On June 19, 1937, Sten was put to death in Lefortovo prison.

Seen in that light, a hostile review on RateMyProfessors.com doesn’t sound so bad at all.

* Menshevizing idealism — here’s an official Soviet definition from the 1970’s — was among Stalin-era “polemical by-words for philosophical heresy.” (Robert Tucker, “The Rise of Stalin’s Personality Cult,” The American Historical Review, Apr. 1979)

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277: Mani, dualist

2 comments February 26th, 2011 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date, that the prophet Mani — he of Manichaeism — underwent his Passion at the hands of the Sassanid Empire in a Gundeshapur prison.

The actual date of this event is an Aramaic (lunar) date whose year is unrecorded, so it attaches only uncertainly to the Julian calendar. (2 March 274 is another possibility, as are other dates in the mid-270s.)

Perhaps more to the point for this blog is that Mani’s “crucifixion” as celebrated by his followers was a literary exultation: the 60-year-old died in prison after 26 days in chains, maybe even sooner than his captors had intended. After Mani “rose [from his body] to the residences of his greatness [in] the heights, and he met his shape,” the Sassanids decapitated the corpse to make the whole scene more properly resemble the awful majesty of an offended sovereign.

But even as merely a metaphorical “execution,” Mani’s martyrdom merits mention.

Born into a Judaic-Christian sect, Mani (also known as Manes) experienced a conversion, went east for enlightenment, and returned with a syncretic theology of a good spirit world and an evil material one — and east-meets-west twist, in other words, on gnosticism, rooted in both Christianity and Buddhism. (And Zoroastrianism, dominant in Persia at this time — to Mani’s ultimate grief.)

This seems like the sort of thing that someone ought to have revived in California in the 1970’s.


Shrine of Mani as Buddha in Quanzhou, China.

Alas, though it once spanned the Eurasian landmass all the way to China, Manichaeism today is extinct except for its linguistic remnant … the word “manichean”.

Most of us won’t do so well as to thrust our fame into the dictionary, but Mani’s shape-in-the-heights can’t be altogether satisfied with this word’s connotation of jejune, black-and-white dualism — as in a “Manichean struggle with a single overarching enemy called terrorism”.

The man wrote his own holy book, after all, and it’s a bit more elegant than the likes of neoconservative foreign policy.

the first precept for hearers is this: …they shall not kill …, [and] they shall forgive those creatures who provide them with meat for food so that they do not kill them as if they were evil people. But dead flesh of any animals, wherever they obtain it, be it dead or slaughtered, they may eat …

And the second precept for hearers is that they shall not be false and they shall not be unjust to one another … he shall walk in truth. And a hearer shall love [another] hearer in the same way one loves one’s own brother and relatives, for they are children of the living family and the world of light.

And the third precept is that they shall not slander anybody and not be false witnesses against anybody of what they have not seen and not make an oath in falsehood in any matter …

-From the Shabuhragan (pdf)

Now is that so bad?

Manichaeism found favor (though not a conversion) with the broad-minded and long-reigning king Shapur I. (Shapur is most famous in the West as the Persian ruler who captured the Roman emperor Valerian.)

But one of Shapur’s less impressive heirs was persuaded by the sectarian Zoroastrian priesthood — for whom the Manicheans were an upstart rival — to bust Mani.

It seems they were able to make use of the prophet’s distaste for war to question his patriotism. Some things never change.

The founder’s laying down his life hardly slowed the faith’s growth; instead, it prospered as one of the more successful entrants in the confusing late-antiquity hustle and bustle of competing cults. Dualism was a hot mystical trend literally from ocean to ocean, and nobody proselytized it like Mani’s followers.

“In its Manichaean form,” observes Johannes van Oort, “Gnosticism once was a real world religion.”

Had it stayed that way, there’d be endowed chairs of Manichean gnosticism at every university and politicians conspicuously rubbing shoulders with Manichean clergy and Major League sluggers with WWMD bracelets. Instead, it’s a metonym for naivete. Them’s the breaks.

In the West, at least, the lost sect’s unflattering reputation comes by way of no less a personage than St. Augustine of Hippo.

You know what they say about the zeal of converts? Well, Augustine used to know Manichaeism from the inside.


St. Augustine Sacrificing to a Manichaean Idol, 15th century painting by an unknown Flemish master.

After spending his twenties as an enthusiastic Manichean, the future Church Father (re)converted to orthodox* Christianity and turned on his former philosophy with vehemence.

His Confessions denounces a Manichean bishop with whom he once had an unsatisfying audience — “Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil.” That association might very well be the etymological root of that great literary devil-bargainer Dr. Faust.

One could, at the minimum, follow a thread from Augustine’s establishment anti-dualism to the Middle Ages practice of calling any dualistic heresy — Bogomilism, Catharism, whatever — “Manichean”, and the intertwining of those forbidden gnostic traditions with Christendom’s devil mythology.


Medieval image of St. Augustine confounding devilish heresies.

At the same time, Augustine’s philosophy draws much of its enduring appeal from that very dualism, absorbed at such a formative age that the writer late into life was still repelling Christian colleagues’ accusations of immutable Manichaeism — “like an Ethiopian can not change his skin, nor the leopard his spots.” Augustine’s City of God proceeds from opposing that virtuous spiritual metropolis to the corruption of the City of Man.**

Moreover, Johannes van Oort concludes,

Nowhere in the early church before 400 does there appear to be such a tender and appealing piety, along with such a prominent place given to the Christ, except for Augustine and the Manichaean writings … In some essential features of Augustine’s spirituality we may perceive one of the most important channels through which the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism has exercised a lasting influence on western culture.

* Manichaeism, at least in the North African context where Augustine engaged it, is probably best thought of as one of the competing strands within the Christian community rather than a rival religious edifice. (Gnosticism’s capacity to syncretize with varying spiritual traditions has always been essential to its appeal.) Manicheans themselves insisted that they were secta, within Christianity, not schisma, like the pagans.

** Augustine had particular cause to be down on the prospects of the City of Man: at the time of writing, Rome had just been sacked by the Visigoths.

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1674: The Chevalier de Rohan and Franciscus van den Enden

Add comment November 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1674, the former Grand Huntsman of France was beheaded in Paris for conspiring to betray Normandy during the Franco-Dutch War.

Your basic debt-mired noble and court cad, the Chevalier de Rohan (French Wikipedia link) through an accomplice “intimated that Normandy was very much dispos’d to a revolt, & that if hee would send a fleet with 6 thousand men, & armes for twenty thousand, with necessaries for sieges & two million of livres, that there was a greate man who would engage himself upon the assurance of thirty thousand crownes pension …”

The correspondence was discovered and Rohan arrested, but his role in the plot was sufficiently anonymized that even an absolutist state didn’t have the goods to convict him. Meanwhile, Rohan’s accomplice was hunted to ground and killed in Rouen during the attempt to arrest him.

This left the authorities in the position, common to every cop show and not a few real-life cases, of requiring a confession from the accused to proceed at all. Rohan’s friends realized this too, and tried desperately to warn him against self-incrimination.

Persons attached to the chevalier de Rohan went every evening round the Bastile, crying through a speaking trumpet, “La Tuanderie is dead, and has said nothing;” but the chevalier did not hear them. The commissioners, not being able to get any thing from him, told him, “that the king knew all, that they had proofs, but only wished for his own confession, and that they were authorized to promise him pardon if he would declare the truth.” The chevalier, too credulous, confessed the whole. Then the perfidious commissioners changed their language. They said, “that with respect to the pardon, they could not answer for it: but that they had hopes of obtaining it, and would go and solicit it.” This they troubled themselves very little about; and condemned the criminal to lose his head. He was conducted on a platform to the scaffold, by means of a gallery raised to the height of the window of the armoury in the arsenal, which looks towards the little square at the end of the Rue des Tournelles. He was beheaded on November 27, 1674.

It is hoped that, should the reader ever become a person of police interest, s/he will recall from Rohan’s example that inspectors do not have suspects’ best interests in mind.

A couple of other nobles also lost their heads along with our chevalier.

Hanged for his trouble was Franciscus van den Enden (English Wikipedia page | Dutch), the elderly Dutchman — and accused Dutch agent — who recruited these toffs for the purpose of seizing Le Havre.

Van den Enden is an interesting, perhaps underappreciated, radical intellectual of secular-democratic persuasion (he attracted the suspicion of atheism, and his Vrye Politijke Stellingen made an unabashed case for democratic government). He’s best known for being a schoolmaster of philosopher Baruch Spinoza; W.N.A. Klever, in an October 1991 paper in the Journal of the History of Philosophy (“A New Source of Spinozism: Franciscus Van den Enden”) traces the connections between the philosophy of the master and that of the pupil and rather dramatically argues that

Van den Enden must be considered as a kind of “Proto-Spinoza.” … He was the hidden agent behind Spinoza’s genius … [t]he origin of Spinoza’s anomalous philosophy.

A variety of (untranslated) references to the “Proto-Spinoza” from 17th century correspondence are available here.

Those inclined more towards geopolitics than philosophy might enjoy Victor Magagna’s podcast lecture on the great-power calculus driving France’s conflict with the Netherlands — which, as we have noticed in these pages, claimed the life of the longtime Dutch leader Johan de Witt.

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1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1603: Not Tommaso Campanella

Add comment January 8th, 2010 Headsman

The wise were forced to live as the mad were accustomed, in order to shun death, such that the greatest lunatic now possesses the royal burdens. The wise now lived alone with their wisdom, behind closed doors, applauding only in public the others’ mad and twisted caprices.

-Tommaso Campanella

On this date in 1603, freaky-deaky Dominican philosopher Tommaso Campanella drew a life sentence — avoiding execution by dint of a painfully convincing performance of insanity.

Campanella had some problematically heterodox notions about the sun (namely, that it was going to consume the earth) and everything under it, and had had a recent scrape with the Inquisition.

What really got him in trouble was trucking with a Calabrian conspiracy to overthrow Spanish domination, apparently a product of the monk’s millenarian anticipation of a sort of proto-communist revolution.

Campanella was a strange guy, but this was quite a far-out plot.

As Joan Kelly-Gadol writes in this fine tome,

This took place, let it be noted, after he had written two works advocating a Papal monarchy for Italy and the world and two works promoting the interests of the Spanish Empire also in Italy and throughout the world.

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Once the conspiracy was betrayed,

Campanella was imprisoned … in the Castel Nuovo, one of the principal fortresses in which the Spaniards maintained a military garrison. He was arraigned before the civil tribunal for rebellion and before the ecclesiastical tribunal for heresy. His “examination” which began in January 1600 was gruesome. He claimed innocence in his first interrogation before the civil tribunal, was thrown into a dungeon, actually a cleft in the bedrock of the Castle, to remain there for seven days. Then followed torture. He “confessed,” admitting that he preached about the coming political upheaval but denying that he was part of a conspiracy to bring it about …

His desperation at this point can be gauged by the fact that by April of 1600 he began to feign madness. The ecclesiastical action against him began now, and he persisted in this attitude of insanity through three interrogations, including an hour of torture … On the fourth and fifth of June 1601, he was subjected to the cruel torture of “the vigil” to test whether his insanity was genuine. This was the usual torture of the rope, suspending the body of the victim by his tied hands over a blade which cut into his flesh whenever he yielded to the strain of holding himself in the air; but the vigil refined this cruelty by continuing it for forty hours. Campanella endured the ordeal without breaking.

And it wasn’t just a feat of toughness to beat the torturer at his own game, impressive as it is on those terms alone: Campanella pulled off a genius gambit exploiting the Inquisition’s own legal machinery to duck the separate capital charges he faced in civil and ecclesiastical court.

Joseph Scalzo’s “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”,* an academic paper that reads like a thriller, narrates Campanella’s “dangerous competition” with his persecutors.

In fine: on Easter Sunday 1600,** as he was approaching conviction and condemnation in his state trial for treason, Campanella began his insanity ploy, successfully forcing a delay in that case and initiating his separate church trial for heresy.

Then, by remaining stubbornly committed to what most of his examiners believed was a charade, Campanella won … by forcing them to inflict that juridically determinative 40-hour “vigil” torture.

the jurisprudence of the time accorded torture so much force, such as to annul all other proofs and “to purge circumstantial evidence”; if the torture had been vigorous and unusual. The accused came, all the more to avail himself of the result obtained, according to the scholarship of the criminologists most in vogue. Thus, Campanella had judicially to be regarded as insane, although everyone was persuaded that he probably simulated insanity. The consequence, in the tribunal of the Holy Office, was not indifferent: He was a “relapsed heretic,” and even if repentant, he would have been disgraced and consigned to the secular court of justice, which would have executed him; being mad, he could no longer suffer condemnation, and in the circumstance in which he might already have been condemned, he would have been spared the death penalty, to reason and repent.

(this is Scalzo’s quotation of Luigi Amabile, an Italian who wrote the book on Campanella; I have been unable to find the Amabile original online.)

Home free.

Having reached this judicial safe haven, Campanella soon — in fact, according to the man who tortured him, literally on the walk from the vigil back to his cell — resumed a recognizable rationality.

He’d languish in prison until 1626 (a few years after he got out, he had to flee to France), but he made the most of it. Campanella wrote his magnum opus, the utopian City of the Sun, while awaiting his sentence in 1602. A number of other works on a wide array of subjects — science, philosophy, theology, political governance (he returned to giving the Spanish empire supportive advice), a vigorous defense of Galileo — were also composed during his 27 years under lock and key.

Campanella’s visionary anticipation of radical egalitarianism would, like Thomas More‘s, help shape the utopian literary genre. But Campanella’s take, while still a theocratic one, lent itself to distinctly more subversive interpretation.†

For example, this Brezhnev-era Soviet essay‡ (unearthed and translated by Executed Today friend and sometime guest-blogger Sonechka) decants the Dominican’s heretical notions into Marxist orthodoxy.

How many times were the communists denounced by their enemies for this “commonality of wives”! Scientific communism, certainly, is not responsible for the figments of a monk like Campanella. But it is instructive to penetrate his logic. It is not commodification or dehumanization that hides behind Campanella’s “commonality of wives”. The women of the “City of Sun” have the same rights as men … The “commonality of women” is equivalent to the “commonality of men” on the basis of mutual equality. That is why, though [we are] decisively rejecting this type of family-free communism, it is necessary to consider who stands on the higher moral grounds — Campanella’s woman, alien to deceit and pretense, or a false bourgeois woman, whose lot in life is adultery and legalized prostitution.

Ultimately, this wild man not only got the high moral ground: he got to die in bed. Once in a while, we get a happy(ish) ending.

So although it actually has nothing to do with Tommaso, “La Campanella”“Little Bell”, a Paganini violin concerto — allows us here at this blog (in common with our day’s hero) an atypically soothing* denouement.

* Joseph Scalzo, “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990)

** Campanella’s Easter 1600 madness was initiated only a few weeks after fellow intellectual omnivore Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy up the road in Rome. Strictly coincidence.

† Since so much of Campanella’s work was produced while the author was under duress — fighting capital charges, applying for clemency and release — it remains disputable just which parts of it can be taken to represent his real beliefs.

‡ L. Vorob’ev. “Utopija i dejstvitelnost”. (“Utopia and Reality”) in Utopicheskij roman XVI-XVII vekov (Utopian Novel of XVI-XVII century); Series “Biblioteka vsemirnoj literatury”, Khudozhestevnnaja literature, Moscow, 1971, p. 19.

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Feast Day of Boethius

4 comments October 23rd, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

Today is the feast day of Neoplatonic philosopher and Christian theologian Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius), author of The Consolation of Philosophy, and according to tradition martyred in 524 or 525, or possibly 526, by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric.

Well, maybe.

We know roughly as much about why Boethius was killed as when or how. We do know that he came from a line of prominent Romans (including a couple of popes back there, depending on who you count as “pope”), was himself consul in 510, and his sons were rather astonishingly joint consuls in 522. At that time he moved up to Ravenna accepting an appointment at Theodoric’s court as the Master of Offices, something like the equivalent of chief of staff, managing the work of Theodoric’s officers.

But then things went horribly wrong.

There is a long tradition, going back at least to the eighth century, regarding Boethius as having been executed for maintaining the Catholic faith against the Arian Theodoric. While Theodoric was probably paranoid about spies representing the Catholic eastern emperor-in-waiting Justinian (who would, in fact, later “reconquer” the Italian peninsula), and Boethius claims in the Consolation that he was hated for being smarter than everyone else, the truth is probably that he was caught up in the usual machinations of an imperial court.

A member of the Senate was accused of treasonably conspiring with Justinian’s predecessor Justin I against Theodoric. Boethius defended the accused (apparently the only person to do so, although the charges were surely trumped up), and in the Consolation, Boethius says he was only defending the Senate (implying that the accusations were meant to undermine the authority of the Senate by challenging its loyalty to the king).

In any event, the sources we have say that Boethius was condemned by the Senate (who appear to have thrown him under the bus) without being able to speak in his own defense. After an indeterminate time of imprisonment, he was executed.

It was while he awaited death that he wrote his most famous and arguably most influential work, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A few of the many editions of The Consolation of Philosophy available. Others are available free at Project Gutenberg (here, here and a Latin one here), as is a podcast version.

Boethius’ translations of and commentaries on ancient Greek philosophy were the only such texts available in Europe for much of the Middle Ages, but the Consolation was translated and widely read even outside of the philosophical circles in which his other work was so important.

Written in the form of Menippean satire (alternating verse and prose) as a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, the Consolation is Boethius’s attempt to think through and make sense of the sad state of his affairs.


Boethius and Philosophy, by Mattia Preti.

Ultimately, it was both the universal nature of the problem (why are these horrible things happening to me?) and the compelling way in which he tackled the problem (a combination of Plato, Aristotle, and Stoicism) that have made this text so widely read and imitated.

There is no way in this space to do justice to the Consolation, which addresses the very idea of philosophical discourse (“would you like us to clash together our arguments, for perhaps out of a conflict of this kind some beautiful spark of truth my fly out?”), the nature of time and God’s perspective outside of time, the difference between providence and fate, and the nature of and way to the Good itself.

But the gist of Boethius’s argument about the sufferings of the good person maybe be quickly summarized. In short, Boethius has forgotten his true nature, which never changes, and gotten caught up in the things of this world, which come and go. If he but remembers himself, he will have something no injustice, no turning of the wheel of fortune, can take away from him. And as for the unjust and the evil, they also have their “reward”:

But since goodness confers on each man his reward, he will only lack it when he has ceased to be good. [ . . . Now] since the good itself is happiness, it is clear that all good men are made happy for this reason, that they are good. But those that are happy, it is agreed, are gods; and therefore that is the reward of good men, which no time can lessen, no man’s power diminish, no man’s wickedness obscure, to become gods. These things being so for good men, no wise man can doubt either of the punishment inseparable from evil men; for since good and evil, and also punishment and reward, are directly opposite to one another, what we see added in the case of the good man’s reward must necessarily be reflected in an opposite manner in the evil man’s punishment. As therefore goodness itself is the reward for good men, so for wicked men wickedness is itself the punishment.

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1570: Aonio Paleario, Italian religious reformer

July 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date, Antonio della Pagliara was hanged across the Tiber from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome for heresy.

The present-day view from the square where Paleario is thought to have been put to death, over the Ponte Sant’Angelo’s span across the Tiber to the Vatican’s imposing citadel.

Better known as Aonio Paleario (English Wikipedia entry | the considerably deeper Italian), the humanist scholar grew into his intellectual career just as Martin Luther’s doctrine was shaking Christendom.

Paleario’s positions were dangerously — and at length, fatally — close to Protestantism. He counted himself a humanist, a great admirer of Erasmus, who from the Low Countries managed to hold his critical positions without running afoul of the Catholic Church.

This would prove an increasingly difficult trick as the century unfolded … especially in the pope’s back yard.

Paleario’s most particular offenses were to take what amounts to the Lutheran side on the primacy of scriptural text over ecclesiastical tradition, and of salvation through Christ alone without the Church’s intermediation. (He also denied Purgatory.)

Since the Italian academic also cottoned to the Protestant-humanist critique of clerical corruption, he pitched Martin Luther and John Calvin on the notion of convening a Christendom-wide ecclesiastical council to reconcile competing sects. He seems to have wanted to reconcile the reformist current of humanism still within the Catholic tradition, and that of those critics who had broken, perhaps not yet irrevocably, with Rome.

The effort ultimately foundered. Instead, the curia-approved Council of Trent formulated a Roman Catholic doctrine that insured the permanent schism with Protestantism.

The Counter-Reformation was on. Still, with contending theologies — and contending polities — afoot in the Italian quiltwork plus his own towering reputation as the greatest orator in Italy, Paleario was able to find protectors and carry on. He taught in Siena, Lucca and Milan for more than three decades, surviving two bouts with the Inquisition before a Rome in crackdown mode finally pinned a heresy rap on him.

By that time, the septuagenarian didn’t much bother to fight it.

If your Eminences have so many credible witnesses against me, there is no need to give yourselves or me any further trouble … Judge, therefore, and condemn Aonio; satisfy my adversaries, and fulfil your office.

The office was fulfilled consuming the old man in flames, but they did extend the favor of hanging him (and apparently exposing the corpse for several days) first.

A book uncertainly attributed to Paleario, Beneficio di Criso (The Benefit of Christ’s Death) is available free at Google Books.

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1302: Dante Alighieri condemned

5 comments March 10th, 2008 Jeffrey Fisher

(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On this day in 1302, the governing commune of the city of Florence condemned to death Dante Alighieri, statesman, philosopher, and above all, poet. Arguably the greatest mind of his generation, Dante is most famous for his authorship of the Divine Comedy, relating his journeys through, successively, hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Born in 1265 to a noble family of Florence that, while not the city’s most prominent family, had already seen several of his ancestors banished as a result of political turmoil, Dante could hardly have avoided becoming embroiled in public life had he even wanted to. In brief, a long-running struggle between pro-imperial (the so-called Holy Roman Empire) and pro-papal factions was finally won by the pro-papal forces, known as the Guelphs. Two decisive battles in 1289 established both Florence’s independence (particularly from their old nemesis, Pisa) and the rule of the Guelphs, Dante’s own party.

Dante is likely to have taken part in those battles and was active in city politics in the following decade, culminating in a turn in 1300 as prior (one of six key counsellors to the city, serving a two-month term). Florence prided itself on a tradition of democratic rule going back to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1250.

Persona Non Grata

Giotto painted Dante prior to his exile — the oldest portrait of Dante known.

Unfortunately, by the time Dante took on the priorate, the old rivalries had reshaped themselves into new factions eerily parallel to their predecessors: the so-called “Black” Guelphs, who aligned themselves with the Pope (as of 1294, Boniface VIII), and “White” Guelphs, who took a more moderate political stance and saw themselves as defending an independent Florence from the Pope and his allies (namely, the Blacks).

Things got so bad that, at the time of Dante’s priorate, the city’s ruling body banished leaders of both sides in an effort to stabilize the city. The pope took the opportunity to send emissaries to Florence on the pretext of negotiating a peace. After more than a year of this maneuvering, the commune sent Dante and two others to have words with Boniface in Rome in 1301.

The Pope “invited” Dante to stay in Rome while his companions returned to Florence to try to bring the commune around. In the meantime, the Pope’s key man had got himself into Florence and helped the Blacks take power, whereupon they confiscated properties and levied fines.

Dante was ordered to appear before a tribunal to answer for his alleged crimes. When he did not show up, he was banished to two years of exile, permanently banned from holding city office, and ordered to pay a further fine of some five thousand florins–a staggering sum–within three days. When that did not happen, either (Dante was apparently in Siena, a short ways from Florence, when he heard this news), the commune confiscated all of his goods and condemned him to death by burning should he ever return.

Fortunately, there were others in Italy at the time who had more sense, but Dante spent the rest of his life–almost another twenty years–wandering from city to city with his sons. He was excluded from an amnesty in 1311, and when he refused the terms of another in 1315, his death sentence was not only reaffirmed, but extended to include his sons. Despite all this, he still held out hope of returning to Florence to be crowned as poet, declining to be so crowned in Bologna as little as a year or two before he died.

Art in Exile

It was over the course of that time in exile that Dante composed his political and philosophical works, together with what must be considered his single greatest contribution to letters, the three-volume Divina Commedia.

There is no way to do justice to any of these works, much less all of them, but in the present context it is worth noting that in three key works — the Commedia (Dante’s title is this simple), Il Convivio (or The Banquet), and De Monarchia (On Monarchy) — Dante develops a serious, even strikingly modern, religious political philosophy.

In contrast to many of his religious contemporaries, taking issue with the great St. Augustine even as he espouses positions derived from Thomas Aquinas, Dante argues in favor of a strong central secular authority, specifically an emperor, and even more particularly, that this authority should be understood by Christians as co-equal with, not subordinate to, the spiritual authority of the Church: “two suns,” he says, rather than the sun and the moon (which merely reflects the light of the sun).

Indeed, he held out an almost messianic hope for the return of an emperor who would restore peace and order. He even wrote public letters to the Emperor Henry VII requesting that he restore justice in Florence (and this is surely a factor in the commune’s treatment of him with respect to amnesty). When Henry died before accomplishing these things, much of Dante’s hope for imperial cohesion died along with him.

(Consider this Open Yale Courses podcast series for more Dante appreciation.)

He Knew Beatrice All Along

It would be nothing short of travesty to write anything of this length about Dante and not mention Beatrice, the love of his life from the age of nine, when he first laid eyes on her, to the day he died in exile. Beatrice, who only spoke to Dante once and who died an early death, directly inspired his poetic-explicatory work, the Vita Nuova (New Life), an exemplar of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) movement in poetry. As a character in the Commedia, Beatrice sends Virgil to rescue Dante from a dark forest in the Inferno, and guides him through the spheres of Heaven in Paradiso.

“Dante and Beatrice in the Constellation of Gemini and the Sphere of Flame”, one of William Blake‘s (uncompleted) series of watercolors illustrating Dante’s magnum opus.

Despite two decades of exile, Dante never gave up hope of returning to Florence in his lifetime, and clearly hoped (perhaps “expected” is more accurate) to be united with his other true love in the next. His body remains in Ravenna, where he died and was buried in 1321.

Florentines wish they could have him back.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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