2 CE: Iullus Antonius

1 comment February 14th, 2018 Headsman

On some undateable occasion in the second year of our Lord, Roman Emperor Augustus had his notorious daughter’s lover put to death.

Half-predator and half-prey in the incestuous Julio-Claudian family web, Iullus Antonius was the son of Augustus‘s great (and here, long-vanquished) rival Marc Antony, as well as the half-brother of Augustus’s discarded first wife.

Who fain at Pindar’s flight would aim,
On waxen wings, Iulus, he
Soars heavenward, doom’d to give his name
To some new sea.

Pindar, like torrent from the steep
Which, swollen with rain, its banks o’erflows,
With mouth unfathomably deep,
Foams, thunders, glows,

All worthy of Apollo’s bay,
Whether in dithyrambic roll
Pouring new words he burst away
Beyond control,

Or gods and god-born heroes tell,
Whose arm with righteous death could tame
Grim Centaurs, tame Chimaeras fell,
Out-breathing flame,

Or bid the boxer or the steed
In deathless pride of victory live,
And dower them with a nobler meed
Than sculptors give,

Or mourn the bridegroom early torn
From his young bride, and set on high
Strength, courage, virtue’s golden morn,
Too good to die.

Antonius! yes, the winds blow free,
When Dirce’s swan ascends the skies,
To waft him. I, like Matine bee,
In act and guise,

That culls its sweets through toilsome hours,
Am roaming Tibur’s banks along,
And fashioning with puny powers
A laboured song.

Your Muse shall sing in loftier strain
How Caesar climbs the sacred height,
The fierce Sygambrians in his train,
With laurel dight,

Than whom the Fates ne’er gave mankind
A richer treasure or more dear,
Nor shall, though earth again should find
The golden year.

Your Muse shall tell of public sports,
And holyday, and votive feast,
For Caesar’s sake, and brawling courts
Where strife has ceased.

Then, if my voice can aught avail,
Grateful for him our prayers have won,
My song shall echo, “Hail, all hail,
Auspicious Sun!”

There as you move, “Ho! Triumph, ho!
Great Triumph!” once and yet again
All Rome shall cry, and spices strow
Before your train.

Ten bulls, ten kine, your debt discharge:
A calf new-wean’d from parent cow,
Battening on pastures rich and large,
Shall quit my vow.

Like moon just dawning on the night
The crescent honours of his head;
One dapple spot of snowy white,
The rest all red.

Horace, celebrating Iullus Antonius‘s verse in verse. The latter’s verse has not reached posterity, though he was a well-regarded poet in his time.

Contrary to what one might expect, Augustus didn’t hold the kid’s parentage against him* and “not only granted him his life, but after honouring him with the priesthood, the praetorship, the consulship, and the governorship of provinces, had admitted him to the closest ties of relationship through a marriage with his sister’s daughter.” (Per Marcus Velleius Paterculus**)

But at some point Iullus took his relations rather too far for the old man by achieving the favors of Augustus’s only daughter, Julia — notorious of ancient scribes for her promiscuity and eventually destined to be murdered off when her crusty, cuckolded husband Tiberius attained the purple.

There is nobody party to this event that comes out the better for it; Augustus for his part really cemented his uptight prig reputation for the history books, and Tacitus censures him because in “[c]alling, as he did, a vice so habitual among men and women by the awful name of sacrilege and treason, he went far beyond the indulgent spirit of our ancestors, beyond indeed his own legislation.”

In the telling of Cassius Dio:

when [Augustus] at length discovered that his daughter Julia was so dissolute in her conduct as actually to take part in revels and drinking bouts at night in the Forum and on the very rostra, he became exceedingly angry. He had surmised even before this time that she was not leading a straight life, but refused to believe it. For those who hold positions of command, it appears, are acquainted with everything else better than with their own affairs; and although their own deeds do not escape the knowledge of their associates, they have no precise information regarding what their associates do. In the present instance, when Augustus learned what was going on, he gave way to a rage so violent that he could not keep the matter to himself, but went so far as to communicate it to senate. As a result Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, lying off Campania, and her mother Scribonia voluntarily accompanied her. Of the men who had enjoyed her favours, Iullus Antonius, on the ground that his conduct had been prompted by designs upon the monarchy, was put to death along with other prominent persons, while the remainder were banished to islands. And since there was a tribune among them, he was not tried until he had completed his term of office. As a result of this affair many other women, too, were accused of similar behaviour, but the emperor would not entertain all the suits; instead, he set a definite date as a limit and forbade all prying into what had occurred previous to that time. For although in the case of his daughter he would show no mercy, remarking that he would rather have been Phoebe’s father than hers, he nevertheless was disposed to spare the rest. This Phoebe had been a freedwoman of Julia’s and her accomplice, and had voluntarily taken her own life before she could be punished. It was for this that Augustus praised her.

* Iullus’s older brother was not so lucky, nor was Julius Caesar’s very dangerous son by Cleopatra.

** Worth noting: Velleius Paterculus says that Iullus died by his own hand rather than (as most other sources in antiquity give it) the executioner’s.

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Sometime around 19 AD: Some wicked priests of Isis (… allegedly)

Add comment October 28th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

October 28 marked the start on the Roman calendar of the Isia, a dayslong festival in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who enjoyed a wide following in the Roman Empire. (There’s a temple of Isis in the ruins of Pompeii.)

In recognition of the Isia, we’re unearthing an extremely dubious but suitably execution-related slander of the Isis cult by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus — who writes that at some unspecified date around 19 AD, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius in Rome, a freewoman named Ide and some priests from the cult of Isis were crucified for their role in a wacky conspiracy.

It is known from several ancient historians that followers of both Isis and Yahweh were banished from Rome at about this time, but the specific immediate causes are unclear. Both were “foreign” (and still more, eastern) religions, so might have come in for a bit of expedient demagoguery; the emperor Augustus, only five years dead at that point, had been down on Isis-worship in general thanks in part to his rival Cleopatra, who associated herself with the goddess.

Suetonius says that Tiberius “abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia.” Cassius Dio attributes the Jews’ punishment to their successful proselytizing; such a pattern also intermittently worried future emperors with respect to Isis, and could be consistent with the Senate’s decree that those who renounced their cult(s) could stay.

Josephus alone offers scandalous specific triggers for these expulsions in his twenty-volume Antiquities of the Jews, which covers the history of the Jewish people from Adam and Eve right up to the First Jewish-Roman War.*

There’s a different backstory for each community’s expulsion, according to Josephus — very much at pains to distinguish cases we today, and Josephus’s contemporaries, might naturally take to be connected. Both stories have a novelistic feel of collective punishment for particular crimes, but it’s noticeable that while the Jews’ fate is mildly attributed to a couple of individual criminals (already outcast by the Jews) defrauding a Roman convert who wanted to donate to the temple in Jerusalem, the Egyptian rite gets fabulously shown up as systematically corrupt and a menace to the honor of good Roman matrons.** Josephus is mining here an existing Roman stereotype of Isis-worship as a libertine cult, but he wrote Antiquities in about 93-94 CE, a time when Isis had waxed in the favor of the emperor Domitian as well as his predecessor Vespasian.

Second-century Roman statue of Isis, which can be seen in Rome’s Capitoline Museums

Per Josephus, Paulina, wife of Saturninus, was a wealthy married woman “of a beautiful countenance” and “great modesty,” and a devoted follower of Isis. Decius Mundus, a prominent Roman aristocrat, fell in love — or more like in lust — with her, and tried to seduce her. She rejected him. He offered her presents; she refused them. Finally he offered the staggering sum of 200,000 Attic drachmae for, as Josephus tactfully puts it, “one night’s lodging.” Paulina was outraged by his suggestion.

Despondent, Decius Mundus went home and declared his intent to starve himself to death. A freed slave in his household, a woman named Ide who was “skillful in all sorts of mischief,” couldn’t stand to watch him waste away like this and took pity on him. She could get Paulina to sleep with him, she promised, and she’d do it for the bargain rate of 50,000 drachmae, 75% off.

Knowing that Paulina could not be bought at any price, and also knowing of her devotion to the cult of Isis, Ide resorted to trickery: she went to two corrupt Isis priests and promised to split the 50,000 drachmae with them if they would help deceive the lady. They agreed, rejoicing at the prospect of being 25,000 drachmae richer.

The elder of the two priests went to Paulina with a stunning revelation: the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis had noticed her piety and fallen in love with her, and desired to spend a jackal-headed night with her.

Paulina, who in another era would probably have bought the Brooklyn Bridge and some oceanfront property in Arizona, was delighted by the news. She passed the message on to her husband, asking for permission to “sup and lie” with the God, and Saturninus, “full satisfied with the chastity of his wife,” agreed to share her.

So she want to the temple and had dinner with Anubis (who remained invisible and silent during the meal), then the priest escorted her to the bedroom, put out the lights and shut her in.

Whereupon Decius Mundus emerged from his hiding place and made sweet love to Paulina all night long in the dark, slipping away at dawn.

Whether he wore the jackal’s mask has not been recorded.

Paulina went home in a cloud of post-coital bliss, enraptured by her encounter with the god. She told her husband all about it, and all her friends, who weren’t sure whether to believe her. None of them challenged her, though, such was her reputation as a modest and religious woman.

Decius Mundus let her spread the story around for three days, then came to her and told her the truth, and laughed in her face. She may have rejected him while he was Mundus, he added maliciously, but she had sure liked him when she’d thought he was Anubis!

Furious and humiliated, Paulina tore her own clothes in hysterics when she realized what she’d done. She demanded Saturninus go complain to Tiberius about how she’d been treated, and her embarrassed husband complied.

Tiberius was not one of Rome’s nicer emperors, but he took ample action to avenge Paulina’s dishonor: he razed the temple of Isis to the ground, threw her statue into the river, and suppressed the cult. Lastly, Tiberius ordered that Ide and the Isis priests involved in the conspiracy be crucified.

But Decius Mundus? He got off lightly, merely being banished from Rome. Tiberius decided there were mitigating circumstances, namely that “what crime he had committed was done out of the passion of love.”

* Josephus himself was a rebel Galilean commander in this war; he was captured by the Roman general Vespasian when Josephus weaseled out of a group suicide pact as the Siege of Yodfat ended in a bloody rout. Taken as prisoner to his opposite number, Josephus boldly hailed Vespasian as future emperor. Vespasian did indeed achieve the purple, and pensioned Josephus as a house historian (and Roman citizen) under his own protection.

** See Horst Moehring, “The Persecution of the Jews and the Adherents of the Isis Cult at Rome A.D. 19,” Novum Testamentum, Dec. 1959.

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37: Some poor wretches, despite the death of Tiberius

3 comments March 16th, 2010 Headsman

The Roman Emperor Tiberius expired at Misenum on this date in 37 A.D.


The Death of Tiberius, by Jean-Paul Laurens. Tacitus records that the aged princeps was thought to have expired, to the great relief of all, when word came that he was reviving. “[Praetorian prefect] Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes.”

As Tiberius had been spending his last years terrifyingly purging Rome of alleged “traitors,” his death was met with some considerable relief. Great news: charismatic young prince Caligula is in charge now!

Anyway, despite the old man’s unpopularity and the manifest injustice of his treason trials, Tiberius’s death did not quite halt momentum of political butchery. Ever thus with bureaucracies.

According to Suetonius,

The people were so glad of his death, that at the first news of it some ran about shouting, “Tiberius to the Tiber,” while others prayed to Mother Earth and the Manes to allow the dead man no abode except among the damned. Still others threatened his body with the hook and the Stairs of Mourning, especially embittered by a recent outrage, added to the memory of his former cruelty. It had been provided by decree of the senate that the execution of the condemned should in all cases be put off for ten days, and it chanced that the punishment of some fell due on the day when the news came about Tiberius. The poor wretches begged the public for protection; but since in the continued absence of Gaius [Caligula] there was no one who could be approached and appealed to, the jailers, fearing to act contrary to the law, strangled them and cast out their bodies on the Stairs of Mourning. Therefore hatred of the tyrant waxed greater, since his cruelty endured even after his death.

But Tiberius’s cruelty didn’t endure too long after his death. Pretty soon, Caligula’s cruelty would have the stage all to itself and Tiberius survivors would be yearning for the good old days.

The History of Rome podcast covers Tiberius’s crazy years and the transition to Caligula here.

* It’s not completely explicit that it was on this same March 16 that news of the emperor’s death hit Rome; therefore, it’s conceivable that the drama described here played out on a subsequent date.

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39: Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, erotic poet

1 comment October 14th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date likely around early October* in 39 A.D., former Roman Consul Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus (not to be confused with Publius Cornelius Lentulus) was executed at the order of Caligula for his part in some sort of plot long lost to history.

In his public life, Gaetulicus was a Machiavellian politician connected to the fallen Praetorian Guard captain Sejanus (their kids were at one point engaged to be married). He evidently survived the post-Sejanus purge with an adroit bit of written diplomacy to the Praetorian’s patron-cum-executioner the Emperor Tiberius, tactfully pointing out that the Emperor had made the same errant choice of alliance. Thus did Gaetulicus retain both his head and his career.

After a decade milking his German province, and Tiberius shuffled off the mortal coil and young Caligula now ruling the empire, Gaetulicus seemingly** involved himself in something treasonable with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the latter a recent fave of Caligula and briefly his designated heir.

Or, if you credit scandal-mongering Roman historian Cassius Dio‘s description of the Emperor’s deadly northward road trip, he did it out of some whim of rivalry or opportunity for pecuniary advantage.

Gaius had now spent practically all the money in Rome and the rest of Italy, gathered from every source from which he could in any way get it, and as no source of revenue in considerable amount or practicable to collect could be found there, and his expenses were pressing him hard, he set out for Gaul, ostensibly because the hostile Germans were stirring up trouble, but in reality with the purpose of exploiting both Gaul with its abounding wealth and Spain also. However, he did not openly announce his expedition beforehand, but went first to one of the suburbs and then suddenly set out on the journey, taking with him many actors, many gladiators, horses, women, and all the other trappings of luxury. When he reached his destination, he did no harm to any of the enemy — in fact, as soon as he had proceeded a short distance beyond the Rhine, he returned, and then set out as if to conduct a campaign against Britain, but turned back from the ocean’s edge, showing no little vexation at his lieutenants who won some slight success — but upon the subject peoples, the allies, and the citizens he inflicted vast and innumerable ills. In the first place, he despoiled those who possessed anything, on any and every excuse; and secondly, both private citizens and cities brought him large gifts voluntarily, as it was made to appear. He murdered some men on the ground that they were rebelling, and others on the ground that they were conspiring against him; but the real complaint was one and the same for the whole people — the fact that they were rich. By selling their possessions himself, he realized far greater sums than would otherwise have been the case; for everybody was compelled to buy them at any price and for much more than their value, for the reasons I have mentioned. Accordingly, he sent also for the finest and most precious heirlooms of the monarchy and sold them off by auction, selling with them the fame of the persons who had once used them. Thus he would make some comment on each one, such as, “this belonged to my father,” “this to my mother,” “this to my grandfather,”, “this to my great-grandfather,” “this Egyptian piece was Antony’s, the prize of victory for Augustus.” At the same time he also explained the necessity of selling them, so that no one could persist in pretending to be poor; and thus he made them buy the reputation of each article along with the thing itself.

In spite of all this he did not secure any surplus, but kept up his customary expenditures, not only for other objects that interested him — exhibiting, for example, some games at Lugdunum — but especially for the legions. For he had gathered together two hundred thousand troops, or, as some say, two hundred and fifty thousand. He was acclaimed imperator by them seven times, as his whim directed, though he had won no battle and slain no enemy. To be sure, he did once by a ruse seize and bind a few of the foe, whereas he used up a large part of his own force, striking some of them down one at a time and butchering others then masse. Thus, on one occasion, when he saw a crowd of prisoners or some other persons, he gave orders in the famous phrase, that they should all be slain “from baldhead to baldhead.” At another time he was playing at dice, and finding that he had no money, he called for the census lists of the Gauls and ordered the wealthiest of them to be put to death; then, returning to his fellow-gamesters, he said: “Here you are playing for a few denarii, while I have taken in a good one hundred and fifty millions.” So these men perished without any consideration. Indeed, one of them, Julius Sacerdos, who was fairly well off, yet not so extremely wealthy as to become the object of attack on that account, was slain simply because of a similarity of names. This shows how carelessly everything was done. As for the others who perished, there is no need of my naming over most of them, but I will mention those of whom history requires some record. In the first place, then, he put to death Lentulus Gaetulicus, who had an excellent reputation in every way and had been governor of Germany for ten years, for the reason that he was endeared to the soldiers. Another of his victims was Lepidus, that lover and favourite of his, the husband of Drusilla, the man who had together with Gaius maintained improper relations with the emperor’s other sisters, Agrippina and Julia, the man whom he had allowed to stand for office five years earlier than was permitted by law and whom he kept declaring he would leave as his successor to the throne. To celebrate this man’s death he gave the soldiers money, as though he had defeated some enemies, and sent three daggers to Mars Ultor in Rome. He deported his sisters to the Pontian Islands because of their relations with Lepidus, having first accused them in a communication to the senate of many impious and immoral actions. Agrippina was given Lepidus’ bones in an urn and bidden to carry it back to Rome, keeping it in her bosom during the whole journey.

It’s a pity that the details of this affair, whatever they were, have been lost to history. The History of Rome podcast treats this episode among a review of Caligula’s gnarly reign

According to Post-Augustan Poetry, Gaetulicus

was consul in 26 A.D., and for ten years was legatus in Upper Germany, where his combination of firmness and clemency won him great popularity. He conspired against Caligula while holding this command, and was put to death. Pliny the younger speaks of him as the writer of sportive and lascivious erotic verse, and Martial writes of him in very similar terms. His mistress was named Caesennia, and was herself a poetess.

Only a fragment (which I have not been able to locate online) of a Latin verse describing Britain remains affirmatively attributed to this poet, though he is sometimes speculatively identified with the “Gaetulicus” to whom some epigrams in the Greek Anthology (or “Palatine Anthology”) are attributed e.g.

TO APHRODITE EUPLOIA

Guardian of the seabeach, to thee I send these cakes, and the gifts of
a scanty sacrifice; for to-morrow I shall cross the broad wave of the
Ionian sea, hastening to our Eidothea’s arms. But shine thou
favourably on my love as on my mast, O Cyprian, mistress of the bride-
chamber and the beach.

* Date ballparked by public sacrifices offered in Rome on October 27 “to mark the exposure of the evil plots of Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus against Gaius Germanicus.” (Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire, which speculates at some length on what the dimensions of a Gaetulicus plot might have been.)

** Though Lepidus was executed at about the same time, and Cassius Dio suggests a connection, it’s not completely clear that they conspired together. Since Cassius Dio (and Suetonius, who also connects them in Life of Claudius), wrote generations after the events themselves, we want for dependable information.

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31: Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard

14 comments October 18th, 2008 Headsman

Over the course of this day in 31, Lucius Aelius Seianus went from virtual master of the Roman Empire to strangulation at the order of the Senate.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius.

Known simply as Sejanus, he was of equestrian stock who rose to prefect the Praetorian Guard when Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Rome’s first citizen.

It was not yet the “infamous Praetorian Guard”. Sejanus would make it so: his were the institutional aggrandizement — long outliving Sejanus — that would position the Guard to arbitrate imperial succession; his the persecutorial internal policing that made it a swords-and-sandals Gestapo.

Sejanus maneuvered skillfully towards supreme power in Rome — and ruthlessly enough that he is suspected of having murdered Tiberius’s son and heir Drusus. Though the Emperor refused a dynastic marriage with Drusus’s widow that would have set Sejanus up for official succession, the Praetorian had the purple in all but name in the late 20’s when Tiberius decamped for the dissolution of Capri.

The usual sort of thing ensued: spies, informers, purges and political murders.

The Republic had been down this road before. After the peace of Augustus, it was a chilling preview of Imperial Rome’s coming attractions.

Unlike most of those, the Sejanus issue was ultimately resolved without civil war. Finally wise to his captain’s game, Tiberius snuffed out the threat in a single blow without bestirring himself from his island retreat by sending word to convoke Sejanus and the Senate to elevate the soldier to the tribunate … and having a letter there read which demanded the soldier’s arrest.

That august old body — “men fit to be slaves,” in Tiberius’s estimation — took it from there. Sejanus was summarily executed this very evening, his body torn apart by the mob, and a witch hunt for his lieutenants and supporters immediately began.

Nice coverage of Sejanus and Tiberius on the History of Rome podcast.

[audio:http://c1.libsyn.com/media/17332/58-_Partner_of_my_Labors.mp3]

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