Posts filed under 'Early Middle Ages'

906: Adalbert of Badenberg

Add comment September 9th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 906, Frankish noble Adalbert of Babenberg was done in by a feud.

Our setting is the German duchy of Franconia, in the remains of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire. That mighty polity had been dismembered by subdivisions split among rivalrous sons, so Franconia here falls within a third part of a third part — the Kingdom of Saxony.

This decomposition summoned all manner of scavengers to squabble over the meat, and Franconia “was divided into counties, or gauen, which were ruled by counts, prominent among whom were members of the families of Conradine and Babenberg, by whose feuds it was frequently devastated.”

The latter of these houses, Babenberg, was sired by one of the last great Carolingian commanders. Descendants of this notable line would become in time dukes in their own right, and the red-white-red triband of their family arms are the basis for the flag of modern Austria. The city of Bamberg grew up around their family stronghold of Babenberg Castle.

Around the turn into the 10th century, however, they were getting the rough end of the pineapple from the Conradines — who waxed in royal favor and regional power while the Babenbergs waned.

Adalhard of Babenberg, the older brother of this post’s principal, had been seized and beheaded by the Conradines in 903. Not to be out-feuded, our guy Adalbert gave battle to his rivals in 906, killing the enemy family silverback.*

He was in his own turn besieged in Theres until he surrendered to a safe conduct promised by Saxon King Otto the Illustrious — who was his own brother-in-law thanks to Otto’s marrying Adalbert’s sister back when the Babenbergs stood higher in the pecking order. So much for sentiment: as soon as Adalbert gave up the protection of his city walls, Otto had his head cut off.

* A guy named Conrad: hence, the Conradines.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Germany,History,Nobility,Power,Wartime Executions

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979: Gero, Count of Alsleben

Add comment August 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 979, a Saxon lord won a trial by combat at the cost of his head.

You’re not supposed to call this period the “Dark Ages” but it’s fair to say that our sources don’t throw a comprehensive illumination on the story.

Our date’s principal is a count named Gero, possibly/presumably the descendant of one Gero the Great who governed a vast eastern march of the Holy Roman Empire. Famous for his campaigns against the Slavs, the Great Gero is the historical personage behind the “Margrave Gere” character in the Nibelungenlied.

By our Gero’s generation, that vast eastern march had been fragmented into smaller territories, so he carried the same name with nothing like the same political muscle. The man who concerns us was Count of the town of Alsleben, in Saxony, and somehow he made an enemy of a knight named Waldo. What grievance did they have worth fighting about? This is one of those topics left un-lit for us by history, but as we shall see we might be entitled to guess that Gero was the guy in the wrong.

At any rate, the two fought a sanctioned judicial duel on August 11, 979, a date we have via several chroniclers taken by the remarkable event. In the course of the scrap, both antagonists gave like they got, but Waldo having stunned Gero with a blow stepped out of the lists and began unstrapping. We can perhaps picture him, smirking in peppermint-striped armor, pumping his gauntlets … but …

… well, Gero had also wounded Waldo about the neck in the melee, and that wound took lethal, albeit delayed, effect. Was it a subtle injury that left Waldo bleeding out internally, blissfully unaware of death stealing up on him? Or a vicious wedge-shaped gash that spat wheezing gore through his fingers as he tried to stanch it? Whatever it was, it was good enough: “as he refreshed himself, Waldo fell down dead,” the prince-bishop Thietmar noted. (Book 3, paragraph 9 of Thietmar’s Chronicle.)

Executed Today has previously skirted the strange (and strangely long-lasting) juridical enclave of judicial duels/trials by combat. The way this is supposed to work is, the dead guy is deemed owned and the living guy, however concussed he might be, is legally vindicated by prowess at arms.

Not so here. Emperor Otto II revealed the whole spectacle to have been a sham all along and decreed Gero’s death anyway. He was beheaded that very evening.

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Nobility,Wrongful Executions

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851: Saints Flora and Maria of Cordoba, militants

1 comment November 24th, 2019 Headsman

November 24, 851 was distinguished by the beheadings of Saints Flora and Maria of Cordoba.

These Christian denizens of Muslim Spain embraced their own martyrdoms by purposefully denouncing Islam before a Qadi. In Flora’s case, she qualified as an apostate by virtue of her Muslim father.

While in Cordoban prison being entreated by Islamic scholars to reconsider their path, they were admonished to militancy by another inmate, St. Eulogius, himself a future martyr in a like cause. Citing the example of courageous Biblical heroes like Esther, Elogius’s Exhortation to Martyrdom calls on the virgins not to shrink in the face of of their impending tribulations, even if they were to be threatened with rape.

Unfortunately we don’t have the voice of Flora and Maria, even at second-hand. Their actions certainly announce that they like Eulogius were not ecumenical where Islam was concerned. As Charles Tieszen notes in Christian Identity amid Islam in Medieval Spain Eulogius’s language in his confrontational epistle is determinedly martial, with much about arming oneself for battle with the enemy while calling Muhammad

“forerunner of the … possessed man, servant of Satan, full of lies and son of death and perpetual ruin.” Eulogius goes further, coupling his criticism of Islam and its Prophet with a condemnation of the wider Cordovan Christian community (nostra ecclesia), which in his opinion, approved of Islam by its silence. Accordingly, Flora and Maria must not recant upon their previous insults of Muhammad when they faced the qadi again. If they did, their recantations were to be equated with telling outright lies.

Likewise, any retreat by Flora and Maria was to be equated with Christians who remained silent when it came to passing judgment on Islam. In the end, Flora and Maria could do nothing but uphold their public decrials of Muhammad, for if they “… den[ied] having cursed their prophet, [they] will be cursed; and if [they] have not rejected what the Lord rejects, [they] will be guilty of double sin … And surely whomever we do not curse, on the contrary we bless, and whoever we do not reject, we admit in our fellowship as if we were befriending him.” Threats like these, as we have noted, were commonplace in martyrologies, especially texts that exhorted Christians to stay the course towards martyrdom. In the context of Muslim Cordova, it is difficult not to read the threats as a means for equating recanters with the enemy.

Eulogius lamented those Christians that so willingly accepted the presence of Muslims, their leadership, and their customs:

But we wretches, delighting in [Muslims’] crimes, rightfully condemn ourselves by the prophecies of the psalmist who says: “but they mingled with the gentiles and learned their works, they served their idols, and a scandal took place among them.” Oh, what agony, that we consider it a pleasure to be submitted to gentiles and we do not oppose carrying our yoke with the unfaithful. And thus, in our daily business, we participate in their sacrileges and desire their company more than, according to the example of Lot the patriarch, fleeing the territory of Sodom in order to save ourselves in the mountains.

The mid-9th century was an apogee of such militancy with a number of martyrs into the bargain … but the Christian community of Cordoba nevertheless remained submitted to the gentiles (pleasurably or otherwise) until 1236.

If a ready translation of the prelate’s text into English exists online I have not located it; flex your classical learning and peruse Documentum martyriale in Latin here or (adjacent a Danish translation) here.

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Entry Filed under: Al-Andalus,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Spain,Women

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889: Qin Zongquan, late Tang warlord

Add comment April 1st, 2019 Headsman

Tang Dynasty warlord Qin Zongquan was beheaded on this date in 889.

A military governor under Emperor Xizong, Qin made common cause with the rebel/usurper Huang Chao, who briefly established himself in the capital during the early 880s where he asserted himself as the Emperor of Qi. Huang was defeated and killed in 880, but his rebellion proved a mortal blow to the Tang, which succumbed by 907 to a transitional era of unstable dynasties and fractured, rivalrous kingdoms.

Qin Zongquan helped to assure that was so, by carrying on the insurrection after Huang’s death that kept China embroiled in civil war for the remainder of the decade, until a subaltern turned Judas and overthrew him for the benefit of the Tang. (Who by now had a new emperor themselves.) He’s said to have left onlookers in stitches with his last words shouted to the official orchestrating his beheading: “Minister, I, Qin Zongquan, was not committing treason. It was just that my faithfulness was not expressed well.”

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Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gallows Humor,History,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Soldiers,Treason

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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Entry Filed under: Borderline "Executions",Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures

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Feast Day of St. Cetteus

Add comment June 13th, 2017 Headsman

June 13 is the feast of St. Cetteus, patron of the Adriatic port city of Pescara.

This saint’s legends smudges the line between just-so story and real historical events, illustrating the Church martyrology’s great strength as a ready-made memorial of Christians’ trials down the years. In this case the suffering was less a religious persecution per se than the shame of being trod over by conquerors who installed themselves almost without opposition in the hollowed husk of Roman greatness and did as they pleased.

The Lombard incursion beginning in 568 in some ways signals the permanent sundering of east from west in the Roman world, for the Germanic invaders — a mixture of pagans and Arian heretics, no less — in time ousted Byzantium from the latter’s Italian holdings and meanwhile underscored the Roman Empire’s near-impotence in its ancestral homelands. “From Italy the emperors were incessantly tormented by tales of misery and demands of succor, which extorted the humiliating confession of their own weakness,” writes Gibbon. “The expiring dignity of Rome was only marked by the freedom and energy of her complaints: ‘If you are incapable,’ she said, ‘of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.'”

For the near term, it was a violent and unstable period; Lombard rulers assassinated and warred with one another as their hegemony devolved into a patchwork of feuding duchies, helping set the scene for the fractured medieval peninsula.

The perils of internal strife manifest in our martyr’s story; despite his eventual association with Pescara, his bishopric was inland at Amiternum and it was there, the story goes, that he was ordered drowned in 597 by a tyrannous Lombard warlord who mistakenly thought him a crony of his rival.

Tossed into the drink, the bish floated downstream to Pescara where a fisherman, recognizing the corpse’s ecclesiastical raiments without knowing exactly who wore them, buried him under the whimsical name “Peregrino”.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Drowned,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of Saint Eskil

Add comment June 12th, 2017 Headsman

June 12 is the feast date* of Saint Eskil, a martyr to the slow Christianization of Scandinavia.

Ol’ “God-kettle” was one of several missionaries known to have been dispatched in the 11th and 12th century from England to Sweden, a traffic in religious conversion across the North Sea crossroads to invert the centuries-past course of Vikingers who put so many British sanctuaries to the sack.

The Northmen realms were ripe to join Christendom but sagas touching the time describe an uneven transitional period where the new and old faiths jostled for primacy.

“Ingi was king for a long time, well-liked and a good Christian; he put down [pagan] sacrificing in Sweden and ordered all the people of the land to become Christian,” runs The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise** (available in pdf translation here), about King Inge the Elder.

But the Swedes had too strong a belief in the heathen gods and held to their ancient ways … the Swedes thought that King Ingi had infringed their rights under the ancient law of the land, when he found fault with many things that Steinkel his [Christian] father had let be; and at a certain assembly which the Swedes held with King Ingi they gave him the choice of two things, either to observe the ancient laws or else to give up his throne. Then King Ingi spoke, and said that he would not leave the true faith; whereat the Swedes cried out, and pelted him with stones, and drove him from the law-assembly.

Svein, the king’s kinsman, remained behind at that assembly, and he offered to make sacrifice for the Swedes if they would grant him the kingdom; all agreed to Svein’s offer, and he was accepted as king over all the Swedish realm. Then a horse was led forth to the assembly, hewn in pieces, and divided up for eating, and the sacrificial tree was reddened with its blood. Thereafter all the Swedes cast off the Christian faith, and sacrifices were instituted, and they drove King Ingi away; he departed into western Gautland. For three years Svein the Sacrificer was king over the Swedes.

King Ingi went with his own bodyguard and some followers, though it was only a small force … into Sweden; he rode by day and night and came upon Svein unawares in the early morning. They seized the house over their heads and set it on fire, and burnt all the company who were inside … Svein came out and was cut down. And so Ingi took the kingship of the Swedes anew, and restored the Christian faith; he ruled the realm till the day of his death.

The “Svein” referred to here is a gentleman whom the historians recall as Blot-Sweyn — “Sweyn the Sacrificer” — and this Norse answer to Julian the Apostate apparently enjoyed his interregnum authority in about the 1080s thanks to Inge’s disrespect of the old rites still honored at the ancient Temple at Uppsala.

The timeline of high statecraft is extremely sketchy, and Saint Eskil’s relationship to events doubly so. Commonly recalled as a victim of the Blot-Sweyn period, Eskil is first marked in the 1120s annals of another Anglo-Saxon monk abroad in Scandinavia, Aelnoth from Canterbury — “Eschillus of sacred memory” who succumbed evangelizing to the “barbarorum feritate.” That’s the whole of it, with nothing like a year or a regnal era to hang one’s hat upon. In the 13th century, with Christianity truly triumphant, a hagiography of Eskil greatly embroidered the martyrdom story and tied it to the land’s most notorious rearguard ruling unbeliever, featuring a cast of heathens so nonplussed at the monk’s interruption of their feast that, notwithstanding his show of divine miracles, Blood-Sweyn has him sentenced to immediate stoning.

The town of Eskilstuna bears his name (it used to just be “Tuna”).

* Though it’s been bumped to June 12 everywhere else, the feast is still marked on its original June 11 date in the diocese Strängnäs, where the saint was supposed to have attained his martyr’s crown. (Strängnäs Cathedral is supposed to mark the very spot of his fatal confrontation with the Aesir followers.)

** This saga’s narrative stretches from an outright legendary prehistory to the Middle Ages. The Ingi-Svein affair is its last episode, but its first locates a more Wagnerian milieu: “Sigrlami was the name of a king who ruled over Gardariki; his daughter was Eyfura, most beautiful of all women. This king had obtained from dwarves the sword called Tyrfing, the keenest of all blades; every time it was drawn a light shone from it like a ray of the sun. It could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it had always to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it. There was no living thing, neither man nor beast, that could live to see another day if it were wounded by Tyrfing, whether the wound were big or little …”

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Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Stoned,Summary Executions,Sweden,Uncertain Dates

831: St. Euthymius of Sardis, iconophile

Add comment December 26th, 2016 Headsman

This is the martyrdom date in 831 for the iconodule saint Euthymius of Sardis.

Euthymius was just a child when Byzantium’s century-long internal conflict over image-veneration wrote St. Stephen the Younger into the pages of this here blog way back in 764.

By the time Euthymius attained the bishopric of Sardis in the 780s, the Empress Irene was putting an end to her predecessors’ anti-icon campaigns, and Euthymius took part in the Second Council of Nicaea that made the new policy official.

Posterity has a difficulty measuring by way of scanty and partisan sources the true state of sentiments surrounding icons during this period but it’s a sure thing that for an empire besieged both west and east, religious questions connected inextricably to geopolitical ones. Irene’s shift towards embracing what iconoclasts saw as graven images spanned about a quarter-century which also coincided with humiliating reverses for Constantinople. Irene’s son was thrashed by the Bulgars to whom her treasury was then obliged to submit tribute; then Irene had that very son deposed and blinded. Irene was toppled in her turn by her finance minister but Emperor Nikephoros too was trounced in battle and his skull wound up as the Bulgar Khan’s ceremonial goblet.

Small wonder that when Leo the Armenian took power in 814 he reflected that

all the emperors, who took up images and venerated them, met their death either in revolt or in war; but those who did not venerate images all died a natural death, remained in power until they died, and were then laid to rest with all honors in the imperial mausoleum in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

For a prelate like Euthymius, this meant a return to the opposition benches. He’s reported to have been arrested and exiled twice in the ensuing years before finally being scourged to death in 824 at the behest of Leo’s successor; however, scholarship has better associated this event with the more vigorous anti-icon persecutions of Theophilus after 829. In 831, Arab forces devastated Cappadocia and also captured Panormos in Byzantine Sicily. In light of these reverses Theophilos discovered that an anti-iconoclast manifesto predicting the emperor’s imminent death had been circulated — so again the link between prestige abroad, sedition within, and those damned icons. Theophilus attributed the pamphlet to a pro-icon bishop named Methodius, who was a friend of Euthymius, and had both men arrested.

Imprisoned on the island of St. Andrew, near Constantinople in the Sea of Marmara, the two men were questioned about their associates by the postal logothete — probably Arsaber, the brother of [anti-icon future patriarch] John the Grammarian — who was accompanied by the chartulary of the inkpot Theoctistus. Euthymius seems to have mocked Theoctistus and would name only one of his visitors: Theoctista, the mother-in-law of both the logothete and the emperor!* Theophilus had both Euthymius and Methodius beaten soundly. While Methodius, who was just over 40, could endure it, the 77-year-old Euthymius died from his injuries on December 26 and became an iconophile martyr. The empress Theodora was reportedly so upset at Euthymius’s death that she told Theophilus that God would desert him for what he had done. (Source)

The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episode 103.

* Theoctista was an actual iconophile. Her house in Constantinople later became the Monastery of Gastria — and post-1453, a mosque.

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Entry Filed under: Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Early Middle Ages,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Religious Figures,Torture,Turkey,Whipped

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925: Feast Day of St. Pelagius

June 26th, 2016 Headsman

June 26 is the feast date and reputed martyrdom date of the legendary Cordoban Christian martyr Saint Pelagius.*

Truly a martyr for our times of interconfessional strife, Pelagius (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) is supposed to have been a Christian boy given as a hostage to the Moorish emir Abd-ar-Rahman III, one of the longest-reigning rulers of al-Andalus and a man whom historians now tend to view as a pragmatic and tolerant ruler.

That is certainly not the character in the Pelagius story: that caliph is a tyrannical lout who develops a pederastic infatuation with his young charge (13 years old when martyred) and lusts to conquer him both corporeally and spiritually.

Pelagius spurned all advances and refused inducements to apostatize until the frustrated Moor finally ordered him tortured and dismembered. The year was 925 or so.

He’s the subject of the Latin poem Passio Sancti Pelagii by the German poet Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (here it is, in Latin). Although she claimed to have obtained the account from an eyewitness to Pelagius’s martyrdom the story’s historicity is very much doubted today. Nevertheless, it has had obvious national-propaganda utility in the land venerating “St. James the Moor-slayer” and has conferred the Spanish version of his name (Pelayo) on a number locations in Spain and the former Spanish empire. Topically for our dark site, Pelagius is also the patron saint of torture victims.

* This saint has no connection to the ancient heresy of Pelagianism or the 4th-5th century British monk for whom it was named.

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Entry Filed under: Caliphate,Common Criminals,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Hostages,Martyrs,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Religious Figures,Spain,Summary Executions,Torture

845: The 42 Martyrs of Amorium

8 comments March 6th, 2016 Headsman

March 6 is the feast date of the 42 Martyrs of Amorium, the day in the year 845 when they submitted to the caliphate’s executioners in preference to conversion.

Though they were people of rank in their lifetimes, most of them are not known to posterity by name or even position. Devotionally, they govern no special sphere of intercession; iconographically, they have no special device. When depicted (itself unusual) it is simply as a gaggle of generic courtiers.*

It seems a fitting fate for mere individuals ground up between states and faiths; even so, their weedy tombs mark a fork on the path trod by Byzantium.

The 42 earned their martyrs’ crowns at the end of seven years’ imprisonment, so it is to the Byzantine war with the Abbasid Caliphate in 837-838 that we must return to unravel their story. This war was itself merely the resumption of a conflict that had been ongoing between the civilizations for two centuries since Arab conquerors emerged from the desert to found an empire.

With the connivance, encouragement, or cajoling of anti-caliphate rebel Babak Khorramdin, the young Byzantine emperor Theophilos broke four years of tense peace with destructive effect in 837, ravaging the Upper Euphrates.

“He captured and burned the fortress of Zapetra, putting to death the male population and carrying off the women and children,” John Bury wrote in A History of the Eastern Empire from the fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I. Upon his return to the mandatory official Triumph, “[t]roops of children with garlands of flowers went out to meet the Emperor as he entered the capital. In the Hippodrome he competed himself in the first race, driving a white chariot and in the costume of a Blue charioteer;** and when he was crowned as winner, the spectators greeted him with the allusive cry, ‘Welcome, incomparable champion!'” Because the one thing 200 years of engaging the Arabs in back-and-forth raids, counterattacks, and suits for peace had taught Byzantium was that victories would surely prove durable.

In truth this war was also politics by other means — domestic politics, that is.

Theophilos really did aspire to incomparable championhood of something far more important than the position of the frontier: in matters religious, he was a stringent iconoclast and he meant to win Christendom firmly over to this philosophy.

The century-old schism within the communion — pitting iconoclasts, like Theophilos, who condemned as idolatrous the veneration of religious imagery against iconophiles or iconodules who embraced it — itself likely owed much to the stunning march of Arab arms and the wound Caliphate success had inflicted on a state and faith that had formerly presumed itself hegemonic. It was certainly the case that Roman superstition† perceived in the battlefield results of imperial adherents to the rival icon’isms a going divine referendum. God says go with whichever icon policy starts beating Islam!

Well might the triumphant Theophilos preen, then — right before the fall, like the Good Book says. Gibbon charged that Theophilos “was rash and fruitless” and “from his military toils he derived only the surname of the Unfortunate.”

The caliph al-Mu’tasim counterattacked the Unfortunate ruthlessly in 838, invading Anatolia in two huge columns that converged on a major city, Amorium.‡ There, they penetrated the city’s walls and put her to the sack — slaughtering unnumbered thousands and carrying away most survivors as slaves, outrageously unmolested by the chastisement of any Byzantine army.


12th century illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes, an edition of the chronicle written by 11th century Greek historian John Skylitzes. The volume was produced in Sicily; it’s got “Madrid” in the name because that’s where the sole surviving copy of it resides today.

Byzantium might have been fortunate on this occasion that, before he could extend his conquest, al-Mu’tasim’s domestic politics promptly recalled him to the caliphate to deal with plots against his own throne. But the raid devastated the martial credibility of Theophilos the incomparable champion, and with it the credibility of iconoclasm. Nor can there have been much fortune reckoned by the thousands of prisoners marched out of the smouldering ruins of Amorium to the new Arab capital Samarra — among whom we find this post’s titular 42 martyrs.

They were, or at least seemed, the crown jewels among the captives, meaning the ones with cash value. Constantinople and Samarra would engage in periodic negotiations over the next several years to exchange them; the Caliphate’s insistence on obtaining for their return a treasure equal to the cost it had incurred to attack Amorium in the first place put an unbridgeable gap between the sides.

The nameless and rankless commoners among them went to their nameless destinies; undoubtedly their experience was cruel and many died or were killed, but for those who endured the tribulations there was a return to hearth and home in a prisoner exchange in 841.

For the VIPs, deliverance sank into the Mesopotamian mud.

Both Theophilos and al-Mu’tasim died in 842 and sometime around there the respective empires seem to have given up trying to resolve the impasse about the Amorium ransom. A few more years on with no apparent relief forthcoming from the annoyance of maintaining these now-useless prisoners of war, someone in Samarra decided to dispose of them with the ultimatum.

Their martyrs’ glory assured their afterlife in Byzantine religious propaganda. Yes, these two Christian sects had made martyrs of one another within the empire. But iconoclasm really hinged on one crucial argument fatally undone by the 42 martyrs: victory. The pro-icon emperors from 797 to 813 had been associated with retreat and humiliation;§ one had even been killed on campaign in the Balkans leaving the Bulgar king Krum to fashion the imperial skull into a ceremonial goblet. That the iconoclast rulers of the succeeding generation had at least stabilized the situation was their ultimate scoreboard taunt. Amorium dispelled that glow of providential favor, especially when followed by the years-long abandonment of that razed city’s noble hostages to the heathen dungeon.

Little could the monk Euodios know that his iconoclasm-tweaking hagiography of these martyrs would prove a redundant step.

The late Theophilos had only an infant son, so governance after his death fell to a regency led by the empress Theodora. Despite her dead husband’s scruples, Theodora didn’t mind an icon one bit, and restored icon veneration to a favor it would never again lose for the six centuries remaining to Byzantium.

* See for example the leftmost group on the second row in this image. (Located here)

** One of the principal charioteering teams/factions that had, centuries before, nearly overthrown Justinian and Theodora.

† Among the Romans themselves for whom supernatural causation was an assumed fact on the ground, superstitio had a more attenuated meaning, contrasting with religio. That is far afield for this post; I use the term here advisedly from a post-Enlightenment cosmology.

‡ Amorium is no more today: just a ruin buried under a village. But not because of this siege.

§ Charlemagne being crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 was also a gesture of disregard for a weakened (and at that moment, female-ruled) Byzantium, which dignified itself the Roman Empire despite having long since abandoned Rome itself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Caliphate,Early Middle Ages,Execution,God,History,Iraq,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Religious Figures,Soldiers

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