628: Khosrau II, Sassanid emperor

On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.

Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.

Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.

Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.

The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, coming near the brink of outright destruction under continuous Persian pummeling. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”

The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.

The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.

The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.

Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:

  • The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
  • The (defunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
  • The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.

* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.

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869 or 870: St. Edmund the Martyr

This is the feast date and martyrdom date of middle ages English king Edmund the Martyr.

Stained glass of Edmund the Martyr from Our Lady and the English Martyrs church in Cambridge. (cc) image from Laurence OP

This acute ruler of the East Angles, the last native East Anglian king, was stomped in battle by the marauding norsemen under Ivar the Boneless and his less interestingly-named brother Ubbe Ragnarsson.

These two were sore about their father Ragnar Lodbrok, who had shipwrecked in England — maybe East Anglia, maybe elsewhere — and allegedly been thrown into a snakepit.

According to the hagiographic account, these Danish heathens attempted to force Edmund to renounce Christianity. Edmund demurred.

Then those wicked men bound Edmund, and shamefully insulted him, and beat him with clubs, and afterwards they led the faithful king to an earth-fast tree, and tied him thereto with hard bonds, and afterwards scourged him a long while with whips, and ever he called, between the blows, with true faith, on Jesus Christ; and then the heathen because of his faith were madly angry, because he called upon Christ to help him. They shot at him with javelins as if for their amusement until he was all beset with their shots, as with a porcupine’s bristles, even as Sebastian was.

The martyr-king’s body was ultimately interred at the aptly-namd Bury St. Edmunds. This locale thereafter became a major, and lucrative, pilgrimage spot in Britain.

Edmund himself became the patron saint of England until he was supplanted just before the Norman invasion by omnibus patron saint George. As George had nothing to do with England, there’s been some latter-day push to revert the honor to the native king.

So far, no dice.

Update: Jamie that killjoy at the British History Podcast puts it in 869 and rebuts the notion that there was any execution at all, here.

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1327: Adso’s lover in The Name of the Rose

On an unspecified date presumably around early December of 1327 — the timeframe is approximated by action’s story’s commencing on “a beautiful morning at the end of November” — the Inquisition burns the nameless peasant lover of the narrator in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.

Adso of Melk is apprenticed to the scientific-minded William of Baskerville — a deliberate allusion to Sherlock Holmes — when the monk is dispatched to an Italian monastery to sniff about for heresy.

The Name of the Rose unfolds a labyrinthine murder mystery around a literal labyrinth (a maze-like library) as William and Adso fight crime and the superstitious dogmatism of the Church. Well … William fights these things. Young Adso mostly comes along for the ride and keeps the action signposted for the reader with his cluelessness.

As a teenage boy, Adso has his own demons to confront.

During their short stay at the monastery, Adso has a chance, and scorching, sexual encounter with a peasant girl from the lands owned by the monks. This subplot intersects with a relentless Inquisitor — the real-life historical figure Bernard Gui* — in pursuit of refugee Dolcinians and other heretical types who were actually running around northern Italy at this time.

The long and short of it is that the girl is condemned to the stake as a sorceress on ridiculous circumstantial evidence that the reason-favoring duo is in no position to repel, and that Gui is eager to trump up further to politically muscling Dolcinian-friendly monks.

The very watchable 1986 cinematic adaptation of the novel, starring Sean Connery as Brother William and Christian Slater as Adso, takes some liberties with Eco’s text on the matter of the girl.

In the novel, her execution happens “off-camera” but with a numbing certitude; it’s an evil in the world that no protagonist can prevent, and Adso just has to get used to the idea.

I was tempted to follow her … William, grim, restrained me. “Be still, fool,” he said. “The girl is lost; she is burnt flesh.”

Directly after convicting the girl for witchcraft, and nabbing two heretical monks in the process, Gui departs the convent towards the papacy’s then-residence at Avignon for a gratifying show trial. The monks are the real prize; Brother William prophesies that the girl

will be burned beforehand, along the way, to the edification of some Catharist village along the coast. I have heard it said that Bernard is to meet his colleague Jacques Fournier (remember that name: for the present he is burning Albigensians, but he has higher ambitions), and a beautiful witch to throw on the fire will increase the prestige and the fame of both.

The smitten Adso is heartbroken over this cruelty.

“So the cellarer was right: the simple folk always pay for all, even for those who speak in their favor … who with their words of penance have driven the simple to rebel!”

The only sure thing was that the girl would be burned. And I felt responsible, because it was as if she would also expiate on the pyre the sin I had committed with her.

I burst shamefully into sobs and fled to my cell, where all through the night I chewed my pallet and moaned helplessly, for I was not even allowed — as they did in the romances of chivalry I had read with my companions at Melk — to lament and call out the beloved’s name.

This was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.

The film indulges a happier and very implausible fate for Adso’s hot little number: in this version, the executions take place on-site at the monastery, and other peasants riot, murder the Inquisitor, and free our oblate’s muse. Hey, in a work that’s all about faith, why not a little deus ex machina?

Warning: Spoilers The Name of the Rose is a detective story, and the clips below intercut the execution scene with the mystery’s big reveal. Don’t watch them if you want to approach the film or the book without knowing how it all plays out.

The movie’s softhearted approach has the benefit of allowing a more cinematic and literal presentation of Adso’s choice between the life of the mind/soul and the life of the flesh. The clip below is spoiler-safe, since you already know which one he chooses.

To geek out on this book’s complex tapestry of allusions, you could do worse than this archived study guide.

* Played by F. Murray Abraham in the film. Gui wrote a notable tract on examining heretics; dust off your Latin to read it on Google books here, or get the gist with this English-translated excerpt.

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1178 B.C.E.: Penelope’s suitors, by Odysseus

On this date in 1178 B.C.E., according to some enterprising astronomers, the Greek hero Odysseus returned home to Ithaca from a 20-year absence and slaughtered the suitors who had taken up lodgings in his palace.

The date was asserted in 2008 based on astronomical clues in the text of Homer’s Odyssey.

This sort of putative historical specificity extracted from what could as well be read as literary devices — e.g., an eclipse — for a literary episode might gratify an advocate of “the higher naivete”, but the reader is well entitled to doubt.

Similarly, and more specifically for this venue, is the problem of whether the summary justice exacted by a Bronze Age chieftain meets the definition of an “execution”. This dubious case is resolved here by the unique subject matter.

Crafty quasi- (or altogether) mythical hero Odysseus (aka Ulysses), having left a generation before for the decade-long Trojan War which he finally resolved with the famous Trojan Horse strategem, then spent the next decade wandering about the sea en route to his home island.

When he gets there, he finds that 108 ill-mannered suitors have moved in, dissipated his fortune in merrymaking, and have ceaselessly dogged his faithful wife (and presumed widow) Penelope to remarry one of them.*

Together with his now-grown son Telemachus, Odysseus punishes them terribly .

“Dogs, did you think that I should not come back from Troy? You have wasted my substance, have forced my women servants to lie with you, and have wooed my wife while I was still living. You have feared neither God nor man, and now you shall die.”

They turned pale with fear as he spoke, and every man looked round about to see whither he might fly for safety, but Eurymachus alone spoke.

“If you are Ulysses,” said he, “then what you have said is just. We have done much wrong on your lands and in your house. But Antinous who was the head and front of the offending lies low already. It was all his doing. It was not that he wanted to marry Penelope; he did not so much care about that; what he wanted was something quite different, and Jove has not vouchsafed it to him; he wanted to kill your son and to be chief man in Ithaca. Now, therefore, that he has met the death which was his due, spare the lives of your people. We will make everything good among ourselves, and pay you in full for all that we have eaten and drunk. Each one of us shall pay you a fine worth twenty oxen, and we will keep on giving you gold and bronze till your heart is softened. Until we have done this no one can complain of your being enraged against us.”

Ulysses again glared at him and said, “Though you should give me all that you have in the world both now and all that you ever shall have, I will not stay my hand till I have paid all of you in full. You must fight, or fly for your lives; and fly, not a man of you shall.”

The suitors fight back, and most of the resulting deaths occur in the fray. But it’s about as one-sided as the contest on any proper scaffold.

As eagle-beaked, crook-taloned vultures from the mountains swoop down on the smaller birds that cower in flocks upon the ground, and kill them, for they cannot either fight or fly, and lookers on enjoy the sport — even so did Ulysses and his men fall upon the suitors and smite them on every side. They made a horrible groaning as their brains were being battered in, and the ground seethed with their blood.

And if many of the doomed die with their boots on, there are at least a couple of specific instances that clearly have a summary-execution character.

Leiodes then caught the knees of Ulysses and said, “Ulysses I beseech you have mercy upon me and spare me. I never wronged any of the women in your house either in word or deed, and I tried to stop the others. I saw them, but they would not listen, and now they are paying for their folly. I was their sacrificing priest; if you kill me, I shall die without having done anything to deserve it, and shall have got no thanks for all the good that I did.”

Ulysses looked sternly at him and answered, “If you were their sacrificing priest, you must have prayed many a time that it might be long before I got home again, and that you might marry my wife and have children by her. Therefore you shall die.”

With these words he picked up the sword that Agelaus had dropped when he was being killed, and which was lying upon the ground. Then he struck Leiodes on the back of his neck, so that his head fell rolling in the dust while he was yet speaking.

The minstrel Phemius, whose services had been procured by force, has better luck pleading for clemency when Telemachus intervenes before Odysseus can give him the chop. But the explorer’s son has no use at all for twelve corrupt handmaids who have abetted the suitors’ predations. I like this version in the chilling verse form quoted by Dr. Samuel Haughton in an 1866 paper on hanging that weirdly goes on to produce the physics necessary to demonstrate the intuitively obvious point that this must have required the main rope to anchor to pillars between each suspended noose, rather than all twelve on a single line.

…leading forth
The women next, they shut them close between
The lofty wall and scullery, narrow, straight,
And dreadful, whence no prisoner might escape.
Then, prudent, thus Telemachus advised:
 The death of honour would I never grant
To criminals like these, who poured contempt
On mine and on my mother’s head, and lay
By night enfolded in the suitors’ arms.
 He said, and noosing a strong galley rope
To a huge column, led the cord around
The spacious dome, suspended so aloft,
That none with quivering feet might reach the floor.
As when a flight of doves entering the copse,
Or broad-winged thrushes, strike against the net
Within; ill rest, entangled, there they find;
So they, suspended by the neck, expired
All in one line together. Death abhorred!
With restless feet awhile they beat the air,
Then ceased.

On whatever date imagined, or strictly as fiction, this whole bloodbath fixes the climax of one of seminal works of the western literary canon.

The excerpts quoted here are from the Internet Classics Archive; multiple versions of both The Odyssey and The Iliad are available on Gutenberg.org … they’ve even done The Odyssey as a TV miniseries.

* This site claims that there’s at least one alternate tradition in which the famously virtuous Penelope — wasn’t.

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Feast Day of St. Sebastian

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

Sebastian In Art

Martyrdom — dying for the sake of one’s religious beliefs — has been one of the defining aspects of Christian self-understanding since at least about 100 CE, when the Book of Revelation was composed. Only a few systematic persecutions of Christians can be even minimally documented, but the idea that Christians suffer and even die for their faith — at the hands of the Jewish establishment, or the Roman authorities, or, today, secular humanists — is absolutely central to Christian identity for many Christians.

One of these ancient periods of persecution for which there is some historical evidence is in the late third and early fourth centuries, around the time of the Emperor Diocletian. On this day in 287, according to tradition, Diocletian martyred Saint Sebastian, at the time an officer in the Praetorian Guard.

The story goes that Sebastian’s Christianity was unknown to the Emperor until Sebastian balked at his job of executing Christians who refused to offer a libation to the emperor (a god, according to the emperor cult of the time). Indeed, Sebastian went so far as to encourage two Christians martyrs in their faith, and to convert several others. Upon hearing of all this, Diocletian ordered Sebastian tied to a tree and shot to death with a firing squad of the ancient sort: bows and arrows.

This, then, is how Sebastian is best known and most commonly represented: as a beautiful youth tied to a tree or a pillar and pierced with arrows.

Like the martyr Saint Catherine, however, whose iconic imagery is also a form of execution* survived by the saint, Sebastian was riddled with arrows and left for dead but did not die. He was rescued by St. Irene, who nursed him back to health. He lived until he heckled the Emperor sometime later, at which point Diocletian had him beaten and, making certain he was dead, threw him into a privy.

The truth is that we know next to nothing of the historical Sebastian. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a very short article that says mainly that. But this has not diminished his importance or cultural prominence, and he has quite the account in the Golden Legend.

Sebastian walks in a solid tradition of military martyrs, including St. George and St. Martin of Tours, and is like George a patron saint of soldiers. Interestingly, while George was also martyred, George is typically represented in strength, slaying a dragon, while Sebastian is represented (again, like Catherine) at an ostensibly powerless moment that is simultaneously his nadir as a human and his pinnacle as a saint.

The image has fascinated artists (and writers) for millennia, including most especially Renaissance Italian artists and early modern artists from all over Europe. Botticelli painted Sebastian twice, but perhaps the single most famous painting is that of Andrea Mantegna, who painted the saint three times. The fame of these paintings may be due in part to the way in which they typify the conception of the saint and his representation as a complex icon of fantastic vulnerability and strength, suffering and fortitude, and with striking homoerotic potential (perhaps having to do with the complex relationship between pain and pleasure), which is more fully realized in, for example, Botticelli’s earlier work or in Guido Reni’s painting.

More recently, St. Sebastian has a cameo in the video for REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which seems to be very much about the hazards of being young and gay in a heteronormative culture.

There is no more or less reason to think that Sebastian himself was gay than to think that he was in the Praetorian Guard, from Gallia Narbonensis, or even, really, that he was martyred. But he has been an important icon in what we might call gay culture since at least the Italian Renaissance, and it’s not clear that it matters whether he was gay any more than it matters whether or not he even existed.

* The breaking wheel, which is said to have shattered at her touch.

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