Posts filed under 'Uncertain Dates'

Feast Day of St. Apronian the Executioner

Add comment February 2nd, 2020 Headsman

This gentleman is far from antiquity’s most distinguished Christian martyr, but a site such as Executed Today can scarcely omit the sacrifice of one Saint Apronian the Executioner, who we learn was

Executioner for imperial Rome. He was a witness at the trial of Saint Sisinnius who was charged with Christianity in the persecutions of Diocletian. Sisinnius’ statement of his faith converted Apronian. He was martyred soon after.

Many other translations make him not executioner but notary; the Roman Martyrology from which these versions derive marks him as Commentariensis — a prison-keeper.

So there’s a good chance that “executioner” here is a bit of dramatic exaggeration. That said, while ancient Rome had plenty of executions, they wouldn’t necessarily be conducted by a single executioner as we imagine the office from subsequent European history. Depending on the rank of the accused (notably citizen vs. not), the location of the proceedings (Rome vs. provinces), and the prevailing climate, capital punishments might be handled by various civic entities or bodies of armed men.

The office of carnifex, literally “flesh-render” or “butcher”, had the brief to torture and execute slaves and foreigners; evidently, there are hints that this dishonorable position might also be held by a prison warden. Perhaps this is the basis for linking Saint Apronian to the gig.

Despite the distinctive (albeit not unique) professional attribution, Apronian is not the patron saint of executioners. In fact, there is no such sacred patronage, although searches for same turn up this jam:

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,God,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of the Talavera Martyrs

Add comment October 27th, 2019 Headsman

The gorgeous Basilica de San Vicente* in Avila, Spain is dedicated to a trio of Christian martyrs whose feast day today is.


(cc) inage from David Perez.

The Romanesque masterpiece was begun about 1175, when the relics of three Diocletian martyrs — Saint Vicente and his sisters Sabina and Cristeta — were translated from the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza. (In the present day, the relics reside in the church’s high altar.)

Panels in the basilica relay for the illiterate medieval audience their stock martyrdom tale of these faithful siblings: tortured on wooden crosses before having their heads graphically smashed under wooden beams.


Vicente, Sabina, and Cristeta, the martyrs of Talavera, along with St. Anthony (16th century painting).

* The church’s full official name is Basilica de los Santos Hermanos Mártires, Vicente, Sabina y Cristet.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Crushed,Disfavored Minorities,God,Gruesome Methods,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Spain,Torture,Uncertain Dates,Women

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Feast Day of St. Maurice

Add comment September 22nd, 2019 Headsman

September 22 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Maurice, and of the legendary all-Christian Theban Legion which he commanded.

This legion raised from Egypt is supposed to have converted en masse to Christianity, and suffered the persecution of Diocletian when it was deployed to Gaul and there refused to sacrifice to pagan gods or harass local Christians. The hagiography — and the earliest source is Eucherius of Lyon, a century and a half after the supposed events — holds that the legion stood a decimation to punish its fidelity, and then another, and then another … and then finally they dispensed with the fractional increments and killed the entire remaining 72.9% of them.

Ancient Christian martyrologies of course boast quite a few soldiers but in their day, from late antiquity all the way to Early Modern Europe, Maurice and the Theban Legion had star treatment on the relic-and-pilgrimage circuit. Many bygone political concerns adopted Maurice as a patron: Burgundy, the French Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, and their successors the Holy Roman Emperors; the House of Savoy; the Lombard kingdom; and of course such cities as Saint-Maurice, Switzerland, St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Notably, Maurice has been depicted as black since the refurbishment of the Magdeburg cathedral in the mid-1200s, when a piece of statuary (still surviving today) marks an apparent pivot from previous white Maurices perhaps reflecting Europe’s contact with Ethiopian Christians facilitated by the Crusades.

Whatever the reason, the black Maurice quickly became the dominant image in Germanic central Europe, which in turn redounded to a reputation as “the first black saint”. For that reason, Maurice is a seminal figure in European artistic representation of black Africans.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Egypt,Execution,France,God,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of St. Genesius

Add comment August 25th, 2019 Headsman

“I love acting. It is so much more real than life.”

Oscar Wilde

August 25 is the feast date of Saint Genesius of Rome.

He’s the patron of actors and to judge by his career he was the earliest and greatest pioneer of the Method.

The story with Genesius, and as usual for early Christians we have more of hagiography than historicity, is that during the persecutions of Diocletian, the very pagan St. G. was tasked with caricaturing a Christian convert on stage. As a fellow thespian poured a “baptism” over him, Genesius was bathed instead by the Holy Spirit and actually converted, right on the spot — preaching to the infuriated emperor,

I came here today to please an earthly Emperor but what I have done is to please a heavenly King. I came here to give you laughter, but what I have done is to give joy to God and his angels. From this moment on, believe me, I will never mock these great mysteries again. I now know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God, the Light, the Truth and the Mercy of all who have received his gift of baptism. O great Emperor, believe in these mysteries! I will teach you, and you will know the Lord Jesus Christ is the true God.

Diocletian had him tortured and beheaded instead.

Apart from actors, Genesius also accepts petitions from the whole gamut of jesters and caperers including clowns, comedians, dancers and musicians. Also lawyers.

There is a Fraternity of St. Genesius, recently developed to support Catholics working in theater and cinema. Theaters bear his name in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Sydney, Australia.

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Entry Filed under: Actors,Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,God,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,The Supernatural,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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1800: The slave Abram, property of John Patterson

2 comments August 19th, 2019 Headsman

The hanging, and then posthumous beheading and head-spiking, of the Virginia slave Abram lacks any firmer primary date than the signature given this Richmond newspaper report that was later widely reprinted in the young United States. (Our text here hails from the Hartford, Conn. American Mercury, September 18, 1800.)


A HORRID MURDER.

Capt. John Patterson, Inspector at Horsley’s Warehouse in the town of Dinguidsville and county of Buckingham, was lately murdered in a cruel manner by Abram, a negro man slave, the property of the said Patterson.

The circumstances of this atrocious deed is in substance thus related by the wretch who perpetrated it; being his confession at the time he was apprehended — repeated immediately after his trial and condemnation, and on the morning of his execution.

Says he —

In consequence of some punishment inflicted on me by my master for some misdemeanor of which I was guilty, a considerable time prior to the fatal catastrophe, I ever after meditated his destruction: On the evening in which it was effected, my master directed me to set off home (about seven miles distant from the warehouse, where I generally attended) and carry a hoe which we used at the place, I sat [sic] off, and was determined to dispatch him that night, after proceeding some distance I concluded to way-lay him having the hoe in possession, accordingly, I lay on or behind a log, convenient to the road on which my master was to pass, and fell into a slumber; after waiting there a considerable time, I heard the trampling of horses’ feet; I concluded therefore my master was near; I got up and walked forwards; my master soon overtook me, and asked me [it being then dark] who I was; I answeredAbram; he said he thought I had been gone from town long enough to have been further advanced on the road; I said, I thought not, I spoke short to him, and did not care to irritate him; I walked on however; sometimes by the side of his horse, and sometimes before him.

In the course of our travelling an altercation ensued; I raised my hoe two different times to strike him; as the circumstances of thep laces suited my pupose, but was intimidated; when I came to the bridge (across a small stream) I thought that place favorable to my views, but seeing a light, and some people at a house a little distant from thence I resisted the impulse. When I came to the fatal spot, being most obscured by the loftiness of the trees, I turned to the side of the road; my master observed it, and stopped; I then turned suddenly round, lifted my hoe, and struck him across the breast: the stroke broke the handle of the hoe; he fel; I repeated my blows; the handle of the hoe broke a second time; I heard dogs bark, at a house which we passed, at a small distance; I was alarmed, and ran a little way, and stood behind a tree, ’till the barking ceased: in running, I stumbled and fell; I returned to finish the scene; I began, and on my way picked up a stone, which I hurl’d at his head, face, &c. again and again and again, until I thought he was certainly dead — and then I went home.

The body was found the next morning: the features so defaced, the body so mangled, that it was with difficulty his person could be recognized — a scene too shocking for human sight. Capt. Patterson was a man universally esteemed. He was a tender husband, an affectionate brother, a mild master, a kind neighbour, a faithful officer, in short, he possessed every quality that constitutes the good citizen, and an amiable member of society.

P.S. After the cruel monster, who sacrificed the life of so worthy a character to his revenge was hanged, his head was struck off and exhibited on a pole about 24 feet high, in view of the warehouse where he was usually employed.

Buckingham, 19th Aug. 1800.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Uncertain Dates,USA,Virginia

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Feast Day of St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)

Add comment June 2nd, 2019 Headsman

June 2 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Erasmus of Formia.

If a real historical figure, Erasmus of Formia was a martyr from the persecutions of Diocletian, but the most sure thing about him is that his legend has accumulated like barnacles a variety of “spurious” myth and folklore. It’s an agglomeration that reached a critical mass sufficient to elevate him to the ranks of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christendom’s roster of popular big-time intercessors.

He was supposedly a Syrian who landed in Italy as a prelate; there’s a St. Erasmus of Antioch who might either be the same guy in his previous guise or a completely different fellow whose conflated feats explain how Erasmus (of Formia) was both a bishop and a hermit. Oddly enough the Roman Martyrology doesn’t even say that he was put to death for the faith, for Erasmus “was first scourged with leaded whips and then severely beaten with rods; he had also rosin, brimstone, lead, pitch, wax, and oil poured over him, without receiving any injury. Afterwards, under Maximian, he was again subjected to various most horrible tortures at Mola, but was still preserved from death by the power of God for the strengthening of others in the faith. Finally, celebrated for his sufferings, and called by God, he closed his life by a peaceful and holy end.”

Later legends do much him much better for drama and Executed Today eligibility, crediting him with a gory disemboweling death. It’s possible that this association proceeds from Erasmus’s official patronage of sailors: it is he who is the namesake of St. Elmo’s Fire, the electric blue light that gathers to a ship’s mast during a storm,* and his nautical portfolio made his iconographic device the windlass, a winch-and-rope crank that devotees have found suggestive (since so many saints are depicted carrying the instruments of their own martyrdoms) of a device for spooling a man’s intestines. Over time, execution by mechanical evisceration became by popular consensus the passion of Saint Elmo.

“This is one example,” writes Rosa Giorgi in Saints in Art “where imagery influenced hagiography.”


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1694-1697).


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Nicolas Poussin (1628).


Central panel of a triptych of Saint Erasmus’s martyrdom by Dieric Bouts (before 1466).

For wincingly obvious reasons, he’s also the saint to call on for any variety of abdominal distress, from stomach and intestinal maladies to the pangs of birth.

* And also a Brat Pack film.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Disemboweled,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Torture,Uncertain Dates

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Feast Day of Saint Mocius

Add comment May 11th, 2019 Headsman

May 11 is the feast date in the Orthodox confession* of Saint Mocius or Mucius, Hieromartyr of Amphipolis, Macedonia.

Mosaic image of Mocius from the Greek monastery of Hosios Loukas. (cc) image from Hans A. Rosbach.

A hieromartyr is someone who was clergy when he died for the faith; Mocius, as a Christian presbyter, rallied his flock against a public festival for the wine-god Bacchus, allegedly destroying an icon of that hedonic deity.

Since this occurred during the anti-Christian crackdown under the Emperor Diocletian, Mocius got what what was coming to him from this behavior although not until they were able to take him to Byzantium for beheading: attempts to punish him by fire and by throwing him to wild animals were divinely interdicted.

He’s not to be confused with the quasi-mythical Gaius Mucius Scaevola, a hero of Rome’s Etruscan Wars whose legendary steel in the face of execution in the Etruscan camp — “Watch so that you know how cheap the body is to men who have their eye on great glory,” he declared as he thrust his right hand into a brazier without flinching in pain — led his astonished enemies to release him instead. “Scaevola”, meaning “lefty”, is the honorary cognomen his countrymen bestowed upon him thereafter; the feat has inspired later harm-seeking imitators ranging from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Friedrich Nietzsche to Paul Atreides.

* Catholics mark the feast on May 13.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,By Animals,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Macedonia,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Uncertain Dates

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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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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Drowned,Execution,Famous Last Words,God,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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