Feast Day of Saint Pigmenius

Add comment March 24th, 2019 Headsman

March 24 is the feast date of Saint Pigmenius, the patron saint of pigmen.

In the hagiography, Pigmenius was a Christian scholar who numbered among the instructors of the young royal relative destined to switch back to paganism and become reviled of Christians as the Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Fleeing the new order, Pigmenius headed to Persia and as the Roman martyrology recounts it, there

he lived four years and went blind. After four years he was addressed in a dream vision by the Lord Jesus Christ, saying: “Pigmenius, return to Rome, and there you will regain your sight.” Getting up the following morning, he had no fear, but immediately got into a ship and came to Rome. After four months, he entered the city; he began to ascend the hill on the Via Salaria with a boy, feeling his way with a cane. And behold, Julian the emperor, travelling in his golden robes, saw Pigmenius from afar; recognizing him, he ordered him to be summoned. When he had been brought, Julian said to Pigmenius: “Glory be to my gods and goddesses that I see you.” Pigmenius replied: “Glory to my Lord, Jesus Christ, the crucified Nazarene, that I do not see you.” In a rage, Julian ordered him to be thrown off a bridge into the Tiber.

So he got to dunk on the emperor, before he got dunked by the emperor.*

However, this book (French) makes the interesting argument that the fourth century Pigmenius was a reinvention of a 1st century Roman saint of similar name, to whom subsequent legends attributed a fictitious eastern sojourn.** “It is this ‘orientalization’ of Pigmenius that connected it to the time of Julian,” runs the argument. For, once Julian’s death in battle in those precincts made the East an overwhelming shadow in Roman minds, “Julian’s story melded somehow with the legends which ran over the distant lands where it had unfolded and the oriental traditions, were ‘Julianized'” — Pigmenius’s among them.

* As the editor of this martyrology remarks in a footnote, this snappy retort was actually borrowed by the hagiographer from stories of Maris, Bishop of Chalcedon, to whom is attributed a similar exchange:

Julian: Thy Galilean God will not heal thy sight.

Maris: I thank God for depriving me of the power of beholding thy face.

** Comparable, the author claims, to the Persian excursions of Saint Cyriacus.

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1803: Antonio Lavagnini, impiccato e squartato

Add comment February 5th, 2019 Headsman

Antonio Lavagnini, impiccato e squartato in Zagarola li 5 febbraio 1803, per aver grassato un uomo avendogli levato 27 paoli.

Antonio Lavagnini hanged and quartered in Zagarola February 5, 1803, for having robbed a man of 27 paoli.

-From the journal of prolific Italian executioner Mastro Titta.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Italy,Papal States,Public Executions,Theft

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1453: Stefano Porcari

Add comment January 9th, 2019 Edward Gibbon

(Thanks to the estimable historian Edward Gibbon for this guest post on the humanist Stefano Porcari, who aspired to follow the revolutionary trail of the previous century’s great tribune of the people Cola di Rienzi … and did follow Rienzi’s fate. Compare with the account of Machiavelli in History of Florence, who remarks that “though some may applaud his intentions, he must stand charged with deficiency of understanding; for such undertakings, though possessing some slight appearance of glory, are almost always attended with ruin.” -ed.)

It is an obvious truth, that the times must be suited to extraordinary characters, and that the genius of Cromwell or Retz might now expire in obscurity.

The political enthusiasm of Rienzi had exalted him to a throne; the same enthusiasm, in the next century, conducted his imitator to the gallows.

The birth of Stephen Porcaro was noble, his reputation spotless: his tongue was armed with eloquence, his mind was enlightened with learning; and he aspired, beyond the aim of vulgar ambition, to free his country and immortalize his name.

Spirto gentil, che quelle membra reggi

Gentle spirit, that rules those members
in which a pilgrim lives,
a brave lord, shrewd and wise,
now you have taken up the ivory sceptre
with which you punish Rome and her wrongdoers,
and recall her to her ancient ways,
I speak to you, because I see no other ray
of virtue that is quenched from the world,
nor do I find men ashamed of doing wrong.
I don’t know what Italy expects or hopes for,
she seems not to feel her trouble,
old, lazy, slow,
will she sleep forever, no one to wake her?
I should grasp her by the hair with my hand.

I’ve no hope she’ll ever move her head
in lazy slumber whatever noise men make,
so heavily is she oppressed and by such a sleep:
not without the destiny in your right hand,
that can shake her fiercely and waken her,
now the guide of our Rome.
Set your hand to her venerable locks
and scattered tresses with firmness,
so that this sluggard might escape the mire.
I who weep for her torment day and night,
place the greater part of my hopes in you:
for if the people of Mars
ever come to lift their eyes to true honour,
I think that grace will touch them in your days.

Those ancient walls the world still fears and loves
and trembles at, whenever it recalls
past times and looks around,
and those tombs that enclose the dust
of those who will never lack fame
until the universe itself first dissolves,
and all is involved in one great ruin,
trust in you to heal all their ills.
O famous Scipios, o loyal Brutus,
how pleased you must be, if the rumour has yet
reached you there, of this well-judged appointment!
I think indeed Fabricius
will be delighted to hear the news!
And will say: ‘My Rome will once more be beautiful!’

And if Heaven cares for anything down here,
the souls, that up there are citizens,
and have abandoned their bodies to earth,
pray you to put an end to civil hatred,
that means the people have no real safety:
so the way to their temples that once
were so frequented is blocked, and now
they have almost become thieves’ dens in this strife,
so that their doors are only closed against virtue,
and amongst the altars and the naked statues
they commit every savage act.
Ah what alien deeds!
And no assault begun without a peal of bells
that were hung on high in thanks to God.

Weeping women, the defenceless children
of tender years, and the wearied old
who hate themselves and their burdened life,
and the black friars, the grey and the white,
with a crowd of others troubled and infirm,
cry: ‘O Lord, help us, help us.’
And the poor citizens dismayed
show you their wounds, thousand on thousands,
that Hannibal, no less, would pity them.
And if you gaze at the mansion of God
that is all ablaze today, if you stamped out
a few sparks, the will would become calm,
that shows itself so inflamed,
then your work would be praised to the skies.

Bears, wolves, lions, eagles and serpents
commit atrocities against a great
marble column, and harm themselves by it.
Because this gentle lady grieves at it,
she calls to you that you may root out
those evil plants that will never flower.
For more than a thousand years now
she has lacked those gracious spirits
who had placed her where she was.
Ah, you new people, proud by any measure,
lacking in reverence for such and so great a mother!
You, be husband and father:
all help is looked for from your hands,
for the Holy Father attends to other things.

It rarely happens that injurious fortune
is not opposed to the highest enterprises,
when hostile fate is in tune with ill.
But now clearing the path you take,
she makes me pardon many other offences,
being out of sorts with herself:
so that in all the history of the world
the way was never so open to a mortal man
to achieve, as you can, immortal fame,
by helping a nobler monarchy, if I
am not mistaken, rise to its feet.
What glory will be yours, to hear:
‘Others helped her when she was young and strong:
this one saved her from death in her old age.’

On the Tarpeian Rock, my song, you’ll see
a knight, whom all Italy honours,
thinking of others more than of himself.
Say to him: ‘One who has not seen you close to,
and only loves you from your human fame,
tells you that all of Rome
with eyes wet and bathed with sorrow,
begs mercy of you from all her seven hills.’

-Verse no. 53 from this English translation of Petrarch

The dominion of priests is most odious to a liberal spirit: every scruple was removed by the recent knowledge of the fable and forgery of Constantine’s donation; Petrarch was now the oracle of the Italians; and as often as Porcaro revolved the ode which describes the patriot and hero of Rome, he applied to himself the visions of the prophetic bard.

His first trial of the popular feelings was at the funeral of Eugenius the Fourth: in an elaborate speech he called the Romans to liberty and arms; and they listened with apparent pleasure, till Porcaro was interrupted and answered by a grave advocate, who pleaded for the church and state.

By every law the seditious orator was guilty of treason; but the benevolence of the new pontiff [Pope Nicholas V -ed.], who viewed his character with pity and esteem, attempted by an honorable office to convert the patriot into a friend.

The inflexible Roman returned from Anagni with an increase of reputation and zeal; and, on the first opportunity, the games of the place Navona, he tried to inflame the casual dispute of some boys and mechanics into a general rising of the people.

Yet the humane Nicholas was still averse to accept the forfeit of his life; and the traitor was removed from the scene of temptation to Bologna, with a liberal allowance for his support, and the easy obligation of presenting himself each day before the governor of the city.

But Porcaro had learned from the younger Brutus, that with tyrants no faith or gratitude should be observed: the exile declaimed against the arbitrary sentence; a party and a conspiracy were gradually formed: his nephew, a daring youth, assembled a band of volunteers; and on the appointed evening a feast was prepared at his house for the friends of the republic. Their leader, who had escaped from Bologna, appeared among them in a robe of purple and gold: his voice, his countenance, his gestures, bespoke the man who had devoted his life or death to the glorious cause.

In a studied oration, he expiated on the motives and the means of their enterprise; the name and liberties of Rome; the sloth and pride of their ecclesiastical tyrants; the active or passive consent of their fellow-citizens; three hundred soldiers, and four hundred exiles, long exercised in arms or in wrongs; the license of revenge to edge their swords, and a million of ducats to reward their victory. It would be easy, (he said,) on the next day, the festival of the Epiphany, to seize the pope and his cardinals, before the doors, or at the altar, of St. Peter’s; to lead them in chains under the walls of St. Angelo; to extort by the threat of their instant death a surrender of the castle; to ascend the vacant Capitol; to ring the alarm bell; and to restore in a popular assembly the ancient republic of Rome.

While he triumphed, he was already betrayed.

The senator, with a strong guard, invested the house: the nephew of Porcaro cut his way through the crowd; but the unfortunate Stephen was drawn from a chest, lamenting that his enemies had anticipated by three hours the execution of his design.

After such manifest and repeated guilt, even the mercy of Nicholas was silent. Porcaro, and nine of his accomplices, were hanged without the benefit of the sacraments; and, amidst the fears and invectives of the papal court, the Romans pitied, and almost applauded, these martyrs of their country. But their applause was mute, their pity ineffectual, their liberty forever extinct; and, if they have since risen in a vacancy of the throne or a scarcity of bread, such accidental tumults may be found in the bosom of the most abject servitude.

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984: Pope John XIV

Add comment August 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 984, the deposed Pope John XIV* was killed in prison.

Pietro Canepanova was his name by birth, and Bishop of Pavia was his rank when elected.

The papacy’s political axis in these prostrated times was the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. The Saxon emperor Otto II had given years of exertion to projecting imperial power over Rome and the Holy See, which although much weaker than the empire lay spatially at the fringes of effective imperial influence. The upshot was a fractious curial snakepit directed at any given moment by Otto’s degree of proximity and attention.**

John’s death, whose circumstances aren’t known with certainty,† was a sort of tragic middle act for the empire’s Roman project.

A decade before, the imperial-backed pontiff Benedict VI had been overthrown and murdered by a rival, known to history as Antipope Boniface VII. Boniface was backed by a Roman patrician family known as the Crescentii — rivals to Otto in our story.

The Boniface/Crescentii usurpation required Otto’s Italian hand to seize the city, and Boniface legged it for Constantinople with as much of the Vatican treasury as he could stuff into his chasuble. Behind, in his cloud of dust, the Germans installed a new guy, Benedict VII.

When Benedict died in 983, Otto was personally knocking about Italy,‡ so he popped into Rome to guarantee John XIV’s succession. But the pestilential atmosphere was not merely figurative in these parts, and a malaria outbreak killed Otto within days. His unexpected death left the succession to a three-year-old son, Otto III … which meant a period of ebbing imperial muscle as felt by remote marches like Italy. John XIV had lost his protection.

Still hanging around all this while, Antipope Boniface VII jumped at the opportunity to mount St. Peter’s throne once more and invaded Rome with the support of Byzantium and of the Crescentii, sending Pope John to the dungeons of Sant’Angelo where he was quietly offed.

Boniface’s own reign is largely obscure to posterity but it can’t be considered successful given that at his death in July 985, “the body of Boniface was exposed to the insults of the populace, dragged through the streets of the city, and finally, naked and covered with wounds, flung under the statue of Marcus Aurelius.”

Still, the Crescentii held the whip hand for years … until little Otto III grew up and returned to Rome in the 990s with a vengeance.

* Fun papal trivia: owing to some confusion in Middle Ages scriptoria, it was for a time erroneously believed that our Pope John XIV in fact compassed two different and very short-lived Popes John — “Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis” (the second). As a result, the regnal numbering for this particular name went all wonky and eventually skipped an increment: a pope took the name John XXI in 1276 mistakenly thinking himself to be the 21st of that name, even though the previous John (more than 200 years before — the span during which the numbering goof entered the parchments) was John XIX. There has never been a Pope John XX.

** Although the players are different, the situation reminds of the circumstances around the Cadaver Synod a century prior — when the imperial instigator in question was Charlemagne’s waning Carolingian dynasty.

† He might have been starved to death, or strangled, or poisoned, or indeed slain via almost any means convenient to the new pope’s goons. The probability that the death was ordered by the new pope qualifies this borderline case for consideration as an “execution.”

‡ He was campaigning against the Byzantines and the Saracens to extend imperial power to southern Italy and Sicily.

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1515: Gio Batta, on the Capitoline Hill

Add comment July 13th, 2018 Headsman

You’ll not find the single execution (and its accounting of fees) that forms the very slim hook for this post until the very end of an extensively bloody tour of Renaissance and Early Modern Rome’s execution topography. This unauthorized appendix to your Rome tourism guide comprises excerpts of the public domain volume The Roman Capitol in Ancient and Modern Times, by Emmanuel Rodocanachi.


THE TARPEIAN MOUNT OR MOUNT CAPRINO.

In the Middle Ages nothing survived of what had constituted the splendour of the Tarpeian Mount of antiquity. Here and there only were a few scattered shafts of columns lying, a few sides of walls that had fallen, a few vestiges of foundations, while the other end of the Capitoline Mount was becoming the centre of municipal life, and a church, that of S. Maria Aracoeli, adorned it. Furthermore, this portion of the hill was soon chosen as the public execution place. In a chronicle of the thirteenth century, relating the legend of Pope Filigato (996 [sic]), we read: “… idcirco usque adhuc nullus papa venire vult in montem tarpeium ad arcen Urbis Romae scilicet in Capitolium ubi iste Johannes tormenta sustinuit. Ibi itaque semper ferebantur sententiae mortis contra sceleratos et contra adversarios Romanorum.”

To this spot the name platea of spianata was given, in translation of the word area, area capitolina (as opposed to arx), which had formerly designated it. This explains why the place of execution was often so called. Fra Montreale, who was condemned to death by Rienzo, was led “a lo piano” to be executed there. His head was cut off near the ruins of a tower.

The spot appointed for executions is fixed with accuracy by a curious document. In 1385, Giordanello degli Ilperini or Alberini, a nobleman of the Monti quarter, was cast into the prisons of the Capitol. Fearing the rage of the lords bannerets, furor presentium dominorum banderentium,” and not wishing to die without a will, he drew one up, forthwith, in the great hall where the assemblies of the people were held. Among other dispositions, he required his heirs to spend two florins in having a figure painted “ad imaginem gloriosissime virginis Marie,” in front of the gibbet and place of execution, “ante furcas et locum iustitie.” And, in fact, the figure was painted beneath the portico of a granary belonging to the Maffei family, in a spot indicated by Infessura thus: “in una costa di muro appresso santa Maria delle grazie di sotto a Campidoglio a piedi lo monte.” Thenceforward, criminals had a sight that consoled them in their last moments.

The custom of hanging people in this place was continued in the fifteenth century. In the Diario di Antonio Petri (1407) is the expression: “In loco iustitiae, videlicet in plano Capitolii.” The gallows is clearly visible in the Sienna plan. Somewhat later, documentary allusions become more frequent. An Act dated in 1457 bears on it: “in loco qui dicitur Monte Arpetio (Tarpeio) sive lo piano inter hos fines … ab alio via per quam itur ad furcas.” In another document, dated in 1473, and referring to the settling of a boundary, the following passage occurs: “ab alio tenet locus iustitiae qui dicitur lo piano.” This same document informs us that, behind the palace of the Conservators, lay a garden belonging to them, part of which exists to-day, while the other has been taken into the Caffarelli palace, which, at present, is the German embassy.

Executions were witnessed by the Senator. It was a duty incumbent on his office. He took up his position at the window in the palace situated in the southern tower. This window, as previously said, was ornamented in 1413 by the Senator Nicola of Diano.

Among the celebrated executions which took place on the gibbet of Mount Caprino was that of the accomplices of the Chevalier Stefano Porcari, who himself was hanged from the battlements of St. Angel’s castle in 1453. His accomplices were nine in number; and eight of them were hanged together. In 1490, a man accused of trying to poison Pope Innocent VIII, at the instigation of the Sultan of Constantinople, was beaten to the ground, on the ordinary execution place, by blows on his head with a club; then he was struck on the chest and stomach with an iron-covered fist, after which he was drawn and quartered. Hangings were numerous; in 1507, there were seven. The gibbet continued to be used in this spot until 1550, when the improvements that were undertaken in the surroundings brought about its suppression. Thenceforward, criminals were hanged on the Giudea square, at the entrance to the Ghetto.


A high gallows towers over Rome’s Piazza Giudia in this 1752 engraving by Giuseppi Vasi.

On occasion, use was made, as a prison, of the ruins standing on this potion of the hill, perhaps of some pits that will be spoken of further. Under the pontificate of Innocent III, the Romans confined their prisoners of war there.

The neighbouring quarters, suffering from the presence of the gibbet, remained deserted and neglected. Goats browsed in them, which soon caused the hill to receive the name of Mount Caprino, a name that it retained for a long time. The locality was almost a jungle. Gregory XIII, having remade, in 1582, the road that led to it, was justified in having inscribed on a stone that still exists in the Via di Monte Tarpeio these words: “Hinc ad tarpejam sedem et capitolia ducit. Pervia nunc olim silvestribus horrida dumis …”


The Piazza del Campidoglio atop Capitoline Hill, where beheadings took place. This is a view of its condition prior to Michelangelo’s 16th century makeover of the place, which changed it into this …
EXECUTIONS IN THE CAPITOLINE PALACE.

Whilst hangings took place on the gibbet of Mount Caprino, the beheadings were carried out on the Square of the Capitol [Piazza del Campidoglio -ed.], and even inside the palace. If Fra Montreale was beheaded at the foot of the Mount Caprino tower, it was by way of compromise, since he was considered as much a malefactor an an “enemy of the people” as a prisoner of war. Usually, executions in the Capitol took place on the great staircase, near the lion. It was there that, on the 3rd of March, 1398, the conspirators were beheaded who had attempted to re-establish the power of the bannerets, destroyed by Pope Boniface IX.

In the fifteenth century, executions were frequent. In 1405, Paolo Maracini, Giovanni Gnafri, and Motta were beheaded in the Capitol. In 1406, Antonio Carola was beheaded there also, as well as Giovanni Colonna, Jacovo de Nepi, “miles libertatis,” Ricardo Sanguineis, rebels against Pope Gregory XII. In 1497, Galleotto de Normanis was “decollatus, de mane, hora consueta, in loco institiae Capitolii, tanquam proditor Urbis.” Sometimes the execution was carried out in the evening: “De sero, hora completorii, fuit capta uxor Cole Cancellarii de Reg. Columne ac etiam Paulus de Cancellariis … omnes tanquam proditores Urbis et ducti per mercatum ad Capitolium et martirazti.” Before each execution, the condemned person had his sentence read to him, in the great hall of the Capitol. The bell rang thrice, and, at the third peal, he was put to death. In certain cases, the bell was not run; but this, as previously said, was when the execution was considered to be a murder. Occasionally the execution was inside the palace. We read that Lello Capocci was decapitated “Intus in palatio Capitolii ad pedem secunde columne ubi tenetur ratio.” The Square of the Capitol was also used as a place to expose criminals. Cardinal Vitelleschi shut up in three wooden cages, which were set there for the people to mock at, a triplet of thieves who had stolen the precious stones adorning the reliquary wherein were kept, at the church of St. John Lateran, the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. The thieves were subsequently executed on the Square of the Lateran.

Now and again, hangings took place from the windows or arcades of the Capitoline loggia. On the 19th of December, 1458, Bernardo della Rosa was hanged from the window of the great staircase. At that time, however, hangings were not frequent. Infessura complains of it: “In Capitolio nulla vel saltem rara executio corporalis fit, nisi quod per curiam domini vicecamerarii aliqui nocte suspenduntur et mane suspensi reperiuntur apud turrim Nonae sine nomine et sine causa: et hoc ordine vivitur hodie in Urbe sedente Innocentio octavo” (1489).

EXECUTIONS IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY.

The hangings that Infessura, in his time, regretted were so few, as was seen in the previous chapter, were not long before they began again; and numerous ones took place on the Capitol during the sixteenth century, and in the few yers prior to it.

In the single year of 1497 were hanged from the windows of the Capitol: Matteo di Andrea, Francesco di Giacomo, Pietro Santi, Giordano della Scarpa. At the same time, hangings were also carried out on the gibbet of Mount Caprino.*

The expenses of executions were generally paid by the Governor, who deducted the necessary sums from the money furnished by fines, taxae maleficiorum. Under the date of the 13th of July, 1515, the executioner received three julii (about a hundred sols) for cutting off the head of a male servant, Gio. Batta; he received, besides, a salary of three gold ducats a month. The price paid for hangings was the same as for decapitations, three julii. It cost no more to have the criminal burned, after he had been hanged. However, it would seem that compensation was made for the wood, the chains, and the scaffold, when the criminal had been burned alive. Eighteen carlins were paid for the execution of a forger; and, for floggings, the executioner charged six carlins.

* A footnote here in the original helpfully explains that the executions referenced in this section come from “Archiv di Stato, Archivio di s. Giovanni Decollato, Busta XXIV. vol. 2″: “This brotherhood’s mission was to assist criminals; a regular register was kept of the executions at which the brethren of the order had been present.”

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

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

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Some books about Elagabalus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

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

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

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

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1415: Lello Capocci, schism victim

1 comment October 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Lello Capocci was beheaded at Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

Capocci in a sense was a casualty at second remove of Europe’s “Western Schism”, the awkward 40-year era (here entering its twilight) when the Catholic world divided into two and then three rival papal claimants.

The Schism’s opening up in the first place owed a little to the viperous politics of Capocci’s Rome, to which ancient capital the papacy had in 1377 been returned from its Avignon exile by the last clearly legitimate pope, who then promptly died.

Having been deprived of the papacy for the best part of a century, the Roman populace raised a violent clamor for the College of Cardinals to anoint a Roman successor. (The Avignon popes had all been Frenchmen.)

In a confused conclave echoing with the din of a riot at the doors, the cardinals settled on the Archbishop of Bari, who was not one of their number,* as a compromise candidate whom the French cardinals could live with. This man, now dignified Urban VI, was an Italian … but not a Roman; he was, indeed, a subject of Rome’s resented neighbor Naples. He also turned out upon closer examination by the cardinals who elected him blindly to be a bit of a prick, when for instance “the very next day after his coronation he gave offence to many Bishops and Prelates, who were sojourning in Rome … When, after Vespers, they paid him their respects in the great Chapel of the Vatican he called them perjurers, because they had left their churches. A fortnight later, preaching in open consistory, he condemned the morals of the Cardinals and Prelates in such harsh and unmeasured terms, that all were deeply wounded.” (Source)

Piqued at this arriviste threatening them over their simoniacal predilections, the cardinals popped over the nearby town of Anagni and expressed their buyers’ regret by electing a different guy pope. This completely irregular action was justified by the curia on the grounds that the rude Roman mob had stampeded the initial decision.

So now you’ve got two guys, Urban VI and Clement VII (the latter resuming residence at Avignon, where much of the papal bureaucracy still stood) both claiming to be pope. In the official church history, Urban rates as the legitimate pope and Clement as the illegitimate antipope but this situation had no precedent: it was the very same body that had elected each man and, despite their mutual excommunications, there was no doctrinal controversy dividing them. Small wonder that it befuddled and infuriated contemporaries.

Once commenced, the two opposing “obediences” proved nigh impossible to reconcile and initiated rival successions — Urban giving way to Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII in Rome; Clement to Benedict XIII in Avignon. In 1409, a church council tried to resolve the schism by vacating the existing papal claims and naming Alexander V pope. Unfortunately, neither the Roman nor the Avignon claimant had signed up for the plan, so this blunder forked the schism into a third obedience.

And it is this moment that brings us in roundabout fashion to our man, a very minor figure from the standpoint of posterity: the Roman noble Lello Capocci (Italian link).

Locally in the Eternal City, the Avignon pope didn’t much feature but the Roman pope and the third guy (not the short-lived Alexander but his successor John XXIII**) were simultaneously rivals of one another, and (as would-be rulers of the church) rivals of the Neapolitan crown for power in Rome.

Although the Capoccis were traditionally adherents to the papal authority in this scrum, the Schism had finally come to its endgame in 1415 when the Council of Constance successfully deposed all the claimants to St. Peter’s throne.† The papacy would stand vacant for two years, although the cardinal legate of the fugitive John XXIII still governed unsteadily from the Castel Sant’Angelo — and it appears that amidst a disordered situation Capocci treated with the nearest potential guarantors of stability. (The short-lived but frightening-for-aristocrats popular revolution of Cola di Rienzi would still have been in living memory for a few old-timers.) He had his head cut off for attempting to betray the city to Naples, which would indeed regain sway in Rome … but not until a couple of years later.

* Nothing in canon law says the pope has to be a cardinal first, or even a member of the clergy, but that’s the way it works in practice now: Urban VI is still the most recent pope to have been selected from outside the College of Cardinals. (The Young Pope will be the next.)

** The antipope John XXIII — who refused to submit to the Council of Constance and “was brought back a prisoner: the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest” (Gibbon) — made the regnal name “John” radioactive for centuries of subsequent popes, notwithstanding its popularity among the laity; it was thought an adventurous choice in 1958 when a newly elected pontiff — a great reformer of the church, as it would prove — made bold enough to announce himself Pope John XXIII.

† We would be remiss on a site such as this not to add that this is also the council that invited under safe conduct, and then perfidiously condemned and burned, the Bohemian reformer/heretic Jan Hus.

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1553: Giovanni Mollio, Italian reformer

Add comment September 5th, 2016 Headsman

Franciscan reformer and theologian Giovanni Mollio was burned in Rome as a heretic on this date in 1553.

We have a tricky job to get a fix on Protestants in Italy during the 16th century, but it’s still peculiar that Mollio enjoys a lengthy entry on the German Wikipedia page and none whatsoever on its Italian sister.

A professor most recently at Bologna, Mollio appears to have taken interest in reforming ideas from his earliest appointments in the 1520s at Brescia and Milan — which makes the fact that he survived so long in the environs of Catholicism’s Caput Mundi a remarkable circumstance in itself. He spurned friends’ entreaties to flee into exile in the 1530s and instead obeyed a summons to Rome to justify the dangerous doctrines he espoused, like justification by good works and not venerating holy images.

“I am ready and willing to suffer not only torment and torture, but also for my Lord Jesus Christ’s sake to be burnt alive,” he declared on that occasion. Fortunately for Mollio, Pope Paul III was at this point only beginning to feel out the Vatican’s response to Luther and Calvin, and the Counter-Reformation had not yet begun in earnest; Mollio was gave an erudite defense to much curial chin-stroking, was admonished on some points, and booted from the Bolognese faculty. He retired to Naples where he joined the circles of heretical elites orbiting Juan de Valdes, whose number would in time contribute several martyrs.

Valdes was more a humanist interested in reforming the Church than a schismatic looking to break for it but the space for such distinctions was rapidly narrowing. Valdes died (no martyrdom) in 1541, and tolerance for his friends’ subversive salons did not long outlive him.

By 1543 Mollio really did go on the run. But he never made it out of Italy, which would probably have been the necessary condition for dying in bed at an advanced age.

Florence clapped him in its castle dungeon for four years until influential friends finally got him released to the custody of a Ravenna abbot; once that sanctuary lapsed he was detained by the papal legate for a time, although again released and watchfully permitted to continue teaching and preaching.

This outsized toleration came to an abrupt end with the death of Pope Paul III in 1549. Paul’s successor Julius III meant to be the hammer of the heretics, and soon had Mollio brought in chains to Rome. He could not be moved to recant during many months’ imprisonment.

On September 5, 1553, Mollio, a Perugian named Giovanni Teodori (also known as Tisserano), and a number of others accused of heresy faced public trial by the Inquisition in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Only Mollio and Teodori refused to recant.

Permitted to defend himself, Mollio scalded the cardinals seated to judge him — and in Italian, so that everyone present would understand it.

As for you, cardinals and bishops, if I were satisfied that you justly obtained that power which you assume to yourselves, and that you had risen to your eminence by virtuous deeds, and not by blind ambition and the arts of profligacy, I would not say a word to you.

But since I see and know on the best grounds, that you have set moderation, and honesty, and honour, and virtue at defiance, I am constrained to treat you without ceremony, and to declare that your power is not from God but the devil.

If it were apostolical, as you would make the poor world believe, then your doctrine and life would resemble those of the apostles. When I perceive the filth and falsehood and profaneness with which it is overspread, what can I think or say of your church, but that it is a receptacle of thieves and a den of robbers?

What is your doctrine but a dream, — a lie forged by hypocrites?

Your very countenances prolaim that your belly is your god. Your great object is to seize and amass wealth by every species of injustice and cruelty. You thirst without ceasing for the blood of the saints.

Can you be the successors of the holy apostles, and vicars of Jesus Christ — you who despise Christ and his word, who act a if you did not believe that there is a God in heaven, who persecute to the death his faithful ministers, make his commandments of no effect, and tyrannize over the consciences of his saints?

Wherefore I appeal from your sentence, and summon you, O cruel tyrants and murderers, to answer before the judgment seat of Christ at the last day, where your pompous titles and gorgeous trappings will not dazzle, nor your guards and torturing apparatus terrify us. And in testimony of this, take back that which you have given me!

And so saying, Mollio flung across the flagstones the penitential candle that he had been made to bear with the rest of the accused.

The furious judges ordered Mollio and Teodori too put to immediate death, and they were promptly dragged from the church to the Campo de’ Fiori and consumed at the stake.

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1825: Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari, carbonari

Add comment November 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1825, alleged carbonari plotters Angelo Targhini and Leonidas Montanari were guillotined by Papal executioner Mastro Titta.

This excommunicate revolutionary secret society was spending the 1820s — a decade in-between revolutions — harrying the restored crowned heads of Italy and France with assassination plots.

It was accordingly much-harried in its own turn, to the repeated profit of this grim chronicle.

The pair we feature today were casualties of all that cloak-and-dagger, specifically the latter.

The story (Italian link) goes that the Carbonari became convinced (correctly) that one of their number, a Filippo Spada, was informing against them; thereupon, our Angelo Targhini — very much the impressionable young zealot — was tasked with stabbing the turncoat to death in an alley. The victim, known familiarly as “Spontini”, survived the attack. Montanari, a physician, was one of the first on the scene but arriving policemen perceived that the “treatment” he was applying to the victim was actually deepening his wounds, and seized him as a conspirator.

Montanari admitted nothing of the kind and was accused solely on the impressions of police plus the information of another informant. But he was in no position to impeach this information because it was a secret court of the automcratic Pope Leo XII that condemned both men for treason — solicitous of neither defense nor appeals.

In his diaries, as detailed here as ever, the headsman Mastro Titta reports receiving death threats. Security on the Piazza del Popolo, “thick with people, as I never saw her,” in Titto’s words, was extremely tight — but no public disturbance or carbonari raid disturbed proceedings. That was left only to the prisoners, who declined to receive the sacrament of confession or acknowledge themselves assassins.

“All attempts to persuade them to repent came to nothing,” Titta laments. “They invariably replied only: ‘We have no account to render to anyone. Our God plumbs the fathoms of our conscience.'”

The young men are the subjects of the 1969 Luigi Magni film Nell’anno del Signore.

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90: Cornelia, Vestal Virgin

1 comment June 9th, 2015 Headsman

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.

Alexander Pope

June 9 in ancient Rome was the festival of the Vesta, the acme of the Vestalia festival extending until June 15.*

We hope this hearth-goddess will accept the homage Pluto‘s emissaries here propose to pay her most famous servants, the Vestal Virgins.

An ancient order of priestesses reaching back to Rome’s mythical founding period, perhaps even rooted in Rome’s matriarchal Etruscan predecessors, the Virgins by the time of the classical era numbered six — selected from among candidate girls aged 6 to 10 who would be whisked away from their families to serve for thirty years.

Vestal Virgins enjoyed great prestige and a number of social prerogatives (they had the power to pardon condemned prisoners, among other things). In exchange, they were tasked with maintaining Rome’s favor with her temperamental gods by tending diligently to the city’s most cherished religious observances.


The remains of the House of the Vestals on the Roman Forum ((cc) image from Milos Kravcik.) Here’s a reconstructed view of what the residence might have looked like in its glory.

From the moment of their selection, Vestal Virgins became a sort of personification of Rome itself — Rome’s civic virtue; Rome’s standing with the gods. Rome and the Vestals, joined by the sacred eternal hearth-flame whose perpetual kindling was the virgins’ chief ceremonial duty, drew succor from one another. Pliny wrote that they “have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City” — but Rome’s greatness, too, was attributed to the citizenry’s dutiful maintenance of the Vestals through the centuries.

For such an empyreal creature to indulge the fleeting pleasures of the flesh was quite beyond question. Vesta, said Ovid,

was always unable to tolerate men.
What wonder if a virgin delights in virgin servants,
And only allows chaste hands to touch her sacred relics?
Realize that Vesta is nothing but living flame,
And you’ll see that no bodies are born from her.
She’s truly a virgin, who neither accepts seed
Nor yields it, and she loves virgin companions.

But over the centuries, not all of Vesta’s servants kept that same hard line on unchaste hands** — and in so doing risked punishment by an unusual execution of living burial. Even defiled Vestals were inviolate in their persons: their blood could not be shed, and the hands of the common executioner could not touch them. They had to be dispatched without direct violence, by immuring them alive under the earth. (Not so their seducers: getting busy with a Vestal Virgin would cost a man as many strokes of a scourge as required to kill him.)

Back to Ovid:

Now sacred flames you shine brightly under Caesar’s rule:
The fire on the Ilian hearths is there, and will remain,
It won’t be said that under him any priestess disgraced
Her office, nor that she was buried alive in the earth.
So the unchaste die, being entombed in what they
Have violated: since divine Earth and Vesta are one.

We have no specific calendar dates to go with any of these, but the British Museum antiquarian G.H. Noehdon compiled the available information about Vestals’ executions at some length in this public domain text:

a subterraneous chamber or cell of small dimension was formed, into which you descended from above. There were placed in it a couch or bed, a burning lamp, and a few necessaries of life, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. It would have been impious, according to Plutarch, to destroy by hunger, a life that had been consecrated by the most holy rites. The wretched victim, it is to be imagined, chiefly perished by suffocation. For the cell was closely shut, and overlaid with earth, as soon as she was descended.

The whole proceedings were terrific. The delinquent was conveyed to that place of horror in a litter, so fastened up and covered from without, that not even a sound or groan could escape from it. She was thus carried through the market-place, while the people, in fearful silence, made way, and followed speechless, impressed with the awe of this frightful ceremony. No sight, says Plutarch, could be more shocking, nor was there ever a day at Rome more gloomy and sorrowful.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Execution of a Vestal Virgin, by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger.

Per Noehdon, the oldest case on record was of one Pinaria, executed for impurity under Tarquin the Elder. A Vestal named Minucia suffered the same fate in the 4th century BCE; two more, Opimia and Floronia, were condemned in the 3rd century, though one committed suicide in preference to immurement. Dionysius of Halicarnassus attributes a plague to the incontinence of the Vestal Urbenia, and its abatement to her punishment. Cassius Dio credits no fewer than three Vestals with execution for unchastity in 114 BCE — but one can hardly fail to note that this is a period of deepening class tension in Rome in the aftermath of the Gracchi. One wonders if carnal indulgences were merely a pretext to purge Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia for the wrong factional alignment.

Probably the best-attested and best-known Vestal Virgin executed was Cornelia, the Virgo Maxima (chief Vestal) entombed by order of the notorious tyrant Domitian. (Domitian had also executed three other Vestals some years prior.) Pliny the Younger recorded her going to her death effecting (as did her purported lover) a persuasive mien of indignant innocence.

Domitian generally raged most furiously where his evidence failed him most hopelessly. That emperor had determined that Cornelia, chief of the Vestal Virgins, should be buried alive, from an extravagant notion that exemplary severities of this kind conferred lustre upon his reign.

Accordingly, by virtue of his office as supreme pontiff, or, rather, in the exercise of a tyrant’s cruelty, a despot’s lawlessness, he convened the sacred college, not in the pontifical court where they usually assemble, but at his villa near Alba; and there, with a guilt no less heinous than that which he professed to be punishing, he condemned her, when she was not present to defend herself, on the charge of incest, while he himself had been guilty, not only of debauching his own brother’s daughter, but was also accessory to her death: for that lady, being a widow, in order to conceal her shame, endeavoured to procure an abortion, and by that means lost her life.

However, the priests were directed to see the sentence immediately executed upon Cornelia. As they were leading her to the place of execution, she called upon Vesta, and the rest of the gods, to attest her innocence; and, amongst other exclamations, frequently cried out, “Is it possible that Caesar can think me polluted, under the influence of whose sacred functions he has conquered and triumphed?” Whether she said this in flattery or derision; whether it proceeded from a consciousness of her innocence, or contempt of the emperor, is uncertain; but she continued exclaiming in this manner, til she came to the place of execution, to which she was led, whether innocent or guilty I cannot say, at all events with every appearance and demonstration of innocence. As she was being lowered down into the subterranean vault, her robe happening to catch upon something in the descent, she turned round and disengaged it, when, the executioner offering his assistance, she drew herself back with horror, refusing to be so much as touched by him, as though it were a defilement to her pure and unspotted chastity: still preserving the appearance of sanctity up to the last moment; and, among all the other instances of her modesty, “She took great care to fall with decency.”

Celer likewise, a Roman knight, who was accused of an intrigue with her, while they were scourging him with rods in the Forum, persisted in exclaiming, “What have I done? — I have done nothing.”

The Vestal Virgins were finally suppressed (and their eternal flame quenched) by the Christian emperor Theodosius, in 394.†

A few years later, Rome was sacked for the first time in 800 years.

* There are mixed accounts as to whether June 9 or June 7 was the first day of the Vestalia, but the 9th was unquestionably the most important.

** Legend has it that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were sons of a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia: again, this tradition could well be the refracted memory of Etruscan priestesses, or princesses, or both. The man who was to kill these unholy offspring instead took pity on them and cast them adrift on the Tiber — and that’s how they ended up being famously suckled by wolves.

† Eliminating pagan holdovers was a great sport in this period for Rome’s now-Christian emperors. Theodosius also ended the Olympic Games; his son Honorius got rid of gladiatorial combat.

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!