25: Aulus Cremutius Cordus

Add comment February 9th, 2020 Tacitus

(Thanks for the guest post to Roman Senator and historian Tacitus. It originally appeared in Book IV, Chapter 34 of his Annals, and concerns the undated death of a historian some 30 years before Tacitus’s birth, Aulus Cremutius Cordus — accused of treasonable historying during the oppressive reign of Tiberius.)

In the year of the consulship of Cornelius Cossus and Asinius Agrippa, Cremutius Cordus was arraigned on a new charge, now for the first time heard. He had published a history in which he had praised Marcus Brutus and called Caius Cassius the last of the Romans. His accusers were Satrius Secundus and Pinarius Natta, creatures of Sejanus. This was enough to ruin the accused; and then too the emperor listened with an angry frown to his defence, which Cremutius, resolved to give up his life, began thus: —

Then is there one Cremutius
Cordus, a writing fellow, they have got
To gather notes of the precedent times,
And make them into Annals; a most tart
And bitter spirit, I hear; who, under colour
Of praising those, doth tax the present state,
Censures the men, the actions, leaves no trick,
No practice unexamined, parallels
The times, the governments; a profest champion
For the old liberty.

-The Sejanus character from the 1603 Ben Jonson play Sejanus His Fall. Shakespeare himself appeared in this play when it was performed; however, it was not performed for long and its author was menaced by the Privy Council … seemingly because authorities believed that it “tax[ed] the present state” of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean politics as veiled comment on purged English elites like the Earl of Essex or Walter Raleigh.

It is my words, Senators, which are condemned, so innocent am I of any guilty act; yet these do not touch the emperor or the emperor’s mother, who are alone comprehended under the law of treason. I am said to have praised Brutus and Cassius, whose careers many have described and no one mentioned without eulogy. Titus Livius [Livy], pre-eminently famous for eloquence and truthfulness, extolled Cneius Pompeius in such a panegyric that Augustus called him Pompeianus, and yet this was no obstacle to their friendship. Scipio, Afranius, this very Cassius, this same Brutus, he nowhere describes as brigands and traitors, terms now applied to them, but repeatedly as illustrious men. Asinius Pollio‘s writings too hand down a glorious memory of them, and Messala Corvinus used to speak with pride of Cassius as his general. Yet both these men prospered to the end with wealth and preferment. Again, that book of Marcus Cicero, in which he lauded Cato to the skies, how else was it answered by Caesar the dictator, than by a written oration in reply, as if he was pleading in court? The letters of Antonius, the harangues of Brutus contain reproaches against Augustus, false indeed, but urged with powerful sarcasm; the poems which we read of Bibaculus and Catullus are crammed with invectives on the Caesars. Yet the Divine Julius, the Divine Augustus themselves bore all this and let it pass, whether in forbearance or in wisdom I cannot easily say. Assuredly what is despised is soon forgotten; when you resent a thing, you seem to recognise it.

Of the Greeks I say nothing; with them not only liberty, but even license went unpunished, or if a person aimed at chastising, he retaliated on satire by satire. It has, however, always been perfectly open to us without any one to censure, to speak freely of those whom death has withdrawn alike from the partialities of hatred or esteem. Are Cassius and Brutus now in arms on the fields of Philippi, and am I with them rousing the people by harangues to stir up civil war? Did they not fall more than seventy years ago, and as they are known to us by statues which even the conqueror did not destroy, so too is not some portion of their memory preserved for us by historians? To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.

He then left the Senate and ended his life by starvation. His books, so the Senators decreed, were to be burnt by the aediles; but some copies were left which were concealed and afterwards published. And so one is all the more inclined to laugh at the stupidity of men who suppose that the despotism of the present can actually efface the remembrances of the next generation. On the contrary, the persecution of genius fosters its influence; foreign tyrants, and all who have imitated their oppression, have merely procured infamy for themselves and glory for their victims.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Other Voices,Roman Empire,Starved,Treason,Uncertain Dates

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1612: John Selman, Christmas cutpurse

Add comment January 7th, 2012 Headsman

400th death-day congratulations go to John Selman, a brass-balled nimblefingers who was hanged on this date in 1612 for stealing … at Whitehall … on Christmas … in the presence of the king. And, Selman himself added in his scaffold confessional, “in the time of divine Service, and the celebration of the Sacred Communion.” That’s like hitting for Stuart England’s malefaction cycle.

This common thief had tried to blend among the ermine-clad set at church with a black-velvet cloak getup, but drawn enough suspicion to be nabbed with a 40-shilling purse he’d brazenly boosted from a nobleman‘s retainer.

Francis Bacon, one of Selman’s judges, affected a suitably hyperbolic indignation at the effrontery of it all: “The first and greatest sinne that ever was committed was done in Heaven. The second was done in Paadise, being Heaven upon Earth, and truly I cannot chuse but place this in the third ranke.” Tens of thousands of human beings in the judge’s immediate ambit — England, Europe — had been slaughtering one another to the glory of God for the past century when Bacon said that. He’d surely give Nancy Grace a run for her money.

Then as now crime moved copy, and if the realm’s lord magistrates were ready to measure this guy up against Beelzebub, one can readily imagine the woodblock tweets he sent a-flying among the hoi polloi. Selman’s audacious escapade relieved his last days’ dread with the gift of celebrity. Writers scrambled to churn out Selman-tinged copy, like these inevitable ballads.

With hands and eyes to heaven,
all did in reverence stand:
While I in mischife used mine eye,
and my accursed hand,
Now was my mischiefe ripe.
my villanyes full growne,
And now the God in secret knew it.
did make it open knowne.

Hopefully God got a cut of the action from these writers. Talk about a Christmas gift for a scribe.

No less a personage than Ben Jonson hastily wrote Selman into his Twelfth Night masque Love Restored as “the Christmas Cutpurse”: this debuted the same night the real Selman made his last peace with God and man awaiting the next day’s hanging on the road to Charing Cross. (After all this Christmas reverence, they piously held off on the hanging until the full twelve days of Christmas had elapsed.)

Selman’s 15 minutes apparently took years to run, because Jonson went back to the same inspiration for 1614’s Bartholomew Fair — perhaps basing the character of Ezekiel Edgworth on Selman.

At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions,
‘Tis daily their practice such booty to make;
Yea under the gallows, at executions,
They stick not the stare-abouts’ purses to take;
Nay, one without grace, at a better place,
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face.
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse,
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse?
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv’d by thy nurse,
Than live to be hang’d for cutting as purse.

“A Caveat for Cutpurses” from Bartholomew Fair

Jonson sure got that right: under Selman’s own gallows-tree this day, “one of his quality (a picke-pocket I meane) even at his execution, grew master of a true mans purse, who being presently taken, was imprisoned, and is like the next sessions to wander the long voiage after his grand Captaine Mounsier Iohn Selman.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Theft

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