602: Emperor Maurice and all his heirs

Add comment November 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 602 (although some sources prefer November 23, but that’s close enough for ancient history) the 20-year reign of Byzantine Emperor Maurice came to a most unpleasant conclusion.

No gangster of love, Maurice made his bones (and other bones) as a military commander in a running war with the Sassanids unproductively engaged by the forgettable successors of Justinian.

So successful was the progress of his arms that Emperor Tiberius II Constantine married his daughter to Maurice and set him up as the official heir, a sage expedient considering that Roman commanders had once been known to take the succession into their own hands.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Maurice.

As a reward for his many victories in the field, Maurice got to take charge of a badly stumbling state: war both east and west (Maurice made peace with the Persians and brought the Slavs and Avars to heel in the Balkans), the intractable intra-Christian Monophysite controversy (Maurice extended a politic religious toleration), the bankruptcy of his state (Maurice cleaned up the reckless prodigality of his predecessors). For twenty years Maurice managed as well as anyone a very messy situation that in clumsier hands might easily have consumed the state entirely.

In the end this might be his legacy, for good and ill: a manager, not a visionary. Byzantium maybe doesn’t even survive without Maurice, but he was not fated to be familiar to posterity’s every schoolchild like Octavian Augustus — merely to lose his job to office politics.

Maurice, says Charles William Previte-Orton, “was a better judge of policy than of men.” And while the emperor “saw the dire need of economy,” he “forgot that the army did not” and so fatally disregarded “the ferment among the overtried soldiery.”

Maurice had already irritated his Dacian legions by refusing to pay an Avar ransom for their captured brethren — that fiscal rectitude thing, always a dangerous virtue to exercise in proximity to armed men. Now, he provocatively dialed back their pay and then tried to keep them beyond the frontier in Avar territory rather than retiring to home winter quarters.

The legions mutinied, thrusting a mere centurion named Phocas (or Phokas) to their fore. As Maurice commanded neither love nor fear in his home precincts, Constantinople itself yielded readily to the rebels while the enervated erstwhile emperor crossed the Bosphorus and there resigned to his fate not only himself but the several sons he had been designating to succeed him on thrones East and West. Gibbon:

Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. … The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: “Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.” And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant. The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea; their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience.

Maurice’s widow Constantina and his daughters were suffered to live, but only for a few years more: they too were eventually put to death for plotting. It was the perfect way to kick off a calamitous century for the Byzantines.

Phocas wore the purple from 602 to 610. Just guess how his term in office ended.

The History of Byzantium podcast covers Maurice’s rough go at the top in episode 34, 35, and 36.

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1808: Sultan Mustafa IV, by his brother

Add comment November 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1808, the former, and now deposed, Ottoman Sultan Mustafa IV was strangled at the command of his successor and brother.

The Ottoman Empire, once the very terror of western Christendom, entered the 19th century in a stagnation that had it well on its way to its way to “sick man of Europe” status.

Its fate would be defined by the political — and sometimes literal — battle between its entrenched interests and forward-looking reformers who struggled to restructure the empire for the challenges that lay ahead.

And at this point, it wasn’t only the Ottoman polity that had to fret for its survival. Its very namesake dynasty was in danger of extinguishing itself. There hadn’t been a male born to the House of Osman in twenty years, and in the events herein narrated, internecine conflict would winnow the Osmans down to their very last man.

Aggressive Progressive

Reform was the project of our principal’s predecessor, Selim. In the years around the turn of the century, Selim endeavored to get Turkey out of its wasteful foreign conflicts to gain maneuvering room for more urgent domestic projects.*

Chief among the many oxes Selim proposed to gore were the Janissaries, the Ottomans’ powerful and increasingly archaic military elite, much given to destructive use of their martial prowess in various factional conflicts within the Empire.

Possessive Regressive

The Janissaries deposed Selim in 1807, elevating his cousin — our man, Mustafa, a mere handmaiden of the hidebound. (His contemporaries in Europe more commonly transliterated the name “Mustapha”)

They didn’t kill Selim … just left him alive within the palace where armed men could find him in a pinch.

That pinch arrived in June in the form of Mustafa Bayrakdar, a reformist official who marched on Istanbul to overthrow the reactionary elements. As Bayrakdar took the city in hand, Mustafa desperately ordered the executions of Selim and of Mustafa’s own brother, Mahmud.

Selim was disposed of. Mahmud got tipped off, and the servants — most famously, a Georgian harem girl named Cevri Kalfa — helped him escape to the roof. Mustafa Bayrakdar ousted the ousters before anyone who meant Mahmud ill could find him.

Impressive Successive

That left Mahmud the only choice for Sultan, and he followed his brother’s own questionable policy of consanguinary clemency. Mustafa’s demotion back to crown prince after having once ordered the now-sultan’s death must have made for some awkward chit-chat around the family table.

It didn’t last long. The London Times of January 16, 1809 reported** that

[o]n the 14th of November, at day-break, the Janissaries were seen assembling from all quarters, and being reinforced by those who were in the vicinity of Constantinople, they … massacred all the partisans of the Grand Vizier that came in their way. The contest spread to eveyr street in Constantinople … On the 15th, the Janissaries assaulted the high walls of the Seraglio; and it was at this moment that the Grand Vizier, after causing the unfortunate Mustapha IV, who was a prisoner there, to be strangled, blew himself up in his own Palace with gunpowder, of which he purposely provided a large quantity before-hand, to prevent his falling alive into the hands of his enemies.

Sauce for the goose was sauce for Mustafa, and on this same desperate day when he lost Bayrakdar to a vault of gunpowder, Mahmud had his brother put to death. This maneuver left Mahmud the last surviving male Osman.

Passive Aggressive?

The legacies of this date were varied and ambiguous.

Mahmud II remained on the Ottoman throne for the next three decades, ample time to secure the Osman line.

The Janissaries returned to their barracks, chastened; Mahmud would destroy them after an attempted revolt in 1826.

But Mahmud too was chastened by the experience — or else, too encumbered by the apparatus of the state, or too cautious of his legacy before that heir appeared (it took years), or simply too unskillful — and his reformist vision proceeded haltingly until the very end of his life, even as breakaway nations continued to erode the Porte’s influence.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Palmer says of Mahmud,

Over a century and a half after his death, Mahmud II remains the most puzzling of the thirty-six Ottoman Sultans … Was he a despot or a reformer, a capricious betrayer of trust or a dedicated ruler of a vision, a muddler who plunged into disastrous wars or a shrewd statesman who preserved his Empire from rapacious neighbors? Should we think of him as the ‘Infidel Sultan’ who imposed European ways on the Islamic faithful, or as Mahmud Adli (‘Mahmud the Just’), like Turks today? The contrasts seem endless. Mahmud is one of history’s most enigmatic figures …

* Selim was sucked back into armed conflict by the Napoleonic wars.

** Though two months after the fact, the report is in media res, since it was transcribing German papers from mail dispatched out of the Ottoman capital on Nov. 16 when “the utmost confusion still prevailed there.”

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1926: Ziya Hursit and others for a plot against Ataturk

2 comments July 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1926, 15 people who had been sentenced to death only the day before for attempting to assassinate Turkish statesman Atatürk were hanged in Constantinople.

Ziya Hursit (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish), a former National Assembly delegate who didn’t see eye to eye with Atatürk, generally goes down as the ringleader in this affair.

Their object? To gun down the President during a visit to Izmir a few weeks previous. When interrogated, Hursit “admitted at the outset his intention to kill the President of the Republic.” (London Times, June 29, 1926)

Frictions with said President had been growing over the preceding months, as Atatürk broke the eggs to make the Turkish Republic’s omelet.

In early 1926, Mustafa Kemal also sought to bring the manner in which Turkish society was regulated into line with European countries. On 17 February 1926, the Turkish parliament approved a new civil code which was translated almost verbatim from the civil code in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. The changes it introduced included: granting Turkish citizens the right to choose their own religion, thus abolishing the previous prohibition on apostasy from Islam; officially recognizing only civil marriage ceremonies conducted by representatives of the civil authorities … outlawing polygamy; making divorce dependent on a decision of the courts; lifting the ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslims; and granting men and women equal inheritance rights.

The new Civil Code was followed by a battery of further legal reforms to try to bring Turkey into line with contemporary Europe. On 1 March 1926, parliament approved a new Penal Code, which was translated from the Italian Penal Code of 1889. A Code of Obligations was introduced on 22 April 1926, again based on the one in Swiss canton of Neuchatel. On 9 May 1926, parliament approved a new Commercial Code, which was largely based on German law.

(Source)

This first of the Turkish Republic’s political assassination attempts and arguably its last serious bid to reverse secularism licensed an efficient purge and further consolidation of power by Atatürk, who over the weeks ahead shattered the remnants of the Unionists and Progressive Republicans and settled in for essentially secure autocratic governance for the balance of his life.

The alleged conspirators in the hit — not all of them as eager as Hursit to avow responsibility over the two-plus weeks’ trial — were hanged at a couple different locations in the former capital this date, bearing placards damning them for “attempting to assassinate our President, Mustapha Kemal Pasha, who is the saviour of Turkey’s honour.” One of them had a botched execution with a broken rope and a do-over.

(The quote is from the London Times dispatch about the executions, printed July 15, 1926. This story gives the figure of 15 hanged; it appears to me that the correct number that date was either 13 or 14, with two additional death sentences handed down in absentia. It was, in any event, more death sentences than the public prosecutor himself had demanded (11) in the case.)

* The city wasn’t renamed Istanbul until 1930.

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1919: Mehmed Kemal, for the Armenian genocide

3 comments April 10th, 2010 Headsman

Ninety-one years ago today,* the tottering Ottoman Empire hanged one of its officials in Istanbul for his role in the mass slaughter of its Armenian minority during the First World War.

Kemal Bey’s hanging in Bayezid Square occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Here, on its last legs, the remains of a sultanate splintered apart in the war instituted tribunals for wartime offenses by the Young Turks who had run the government during the war — a sop to the British occupying forces making worrying noises about international trials for much bigger fish.

Much testimony at the trial pointed to the governor’s fervor for massacres; an Armenian priest who survived the slaughter later wrote that a Turkish officer had told him that Kemal “made a vow on the honor of the Prophet: I shall not leave a single Armenian alive in the sanjak of Yozgat.”

A response to the New York Timesreport of the hanging noted that “his part was that of an executioner. The originators of the plan to exterminate the Armenians were primarily Enver, Tallat, and Djemal.”

These “Three Pashas” who had driven Ottoman policy during the war had fled abroad. They would be condemned to death in absentia, and though none would hang, neither would they outlive Mehmed Kemal by as much as four years.

They were among the many unpunished perpetrators of the slaughter hunted down by Armenian assassins. The latter two were avenged by Operation Nemesis; Enver Pasha died in battle in Tajikistan during the Russian Civil War.

Though overshadowed in historical import by those three, our day’s principal is distinguished as the first person executed for “crimes against humanity.”

This novelty, combined with the trial’s victor’s-justice character, were immediately controversial, and remain so in the fraught politicking around the genocide. (This genocide-denialist paper describes, on page 13, the rowdy funeral scene that erupted the next day, also attested** by annoyed British officials.)

Events would soon outstrip these tribunals and lay waste to all parties’ plans for the Ottoman carcass, incidentally leaving the Armenian issue permanently unresolved.

The month after Mehmed Kemal swung, western allies went one dismemberment too far by backing the irredentist Greek state’s landing at Smyrna — an intervention that was to backfire catastrophically for the Greeks, and help birth the Turkish Republic.

* A few secondary sources say April 12 rather than April 10, but the earlier date appears much better attested.

** e.g., a diplomatic note cited in The Burning Tigris, p. 337: “Not one Turk in a thousand will think that any other Turk deserves to be hanged for massacring Christians.”

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1818: Abdullah ibn Saud, last ruler of the first Saudi state

3 comments December 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1818, the last ruler of the first state established by the Al Saud who rule the modern state of Saudi Arabia lost his head to the Ottoman Sultan.

The Ottoman state and its (largely independent) vassal Egypt begged to dispute the Wahhabi tribe’s authority in the Arabian peninsula (and its proclivity for raiding Ottoman caravans) and made war on the House of Saud throughout the 1810’s.

The Battle of ad-Dir’iyah in 1818 settled the matter, with our day’s principal Abdullah I surrendering to the Egyptian general Ibrahim Pasha.

We pick up the action from the third-hand, well-after-the-fact reports of the London Times. This, printed on Jan. 16 1819 under the “German Papers” heading:

FROM THE TURKISH FRONTIERS, DEC. 16.

The last victory over the Wechabites puts an end to the war at once. Ibrahim Pacha, who commanded the Turkish army, sends the captive Abdallah to Constantinople, but he first had his head shaved, and all his teeth pulled out.

On Feb. 6, the Times channeled the Dutch and Flanders mail:

Intelligence from Constantinople, dated the 24th December, states, that the Chief of the Wechabites, Abdallah, and his Iman, were brought prisoners into that capital on the 16th of the same month. After being led, in chains, through the principal streets, they were taken to prison and put to the torture. On the following morning, they were brought before the Sultan and beheaded. Their naked bodies were exposed during three days, and then delivered to the populace.

In addition to Abdullah himself, this affair finished off the city of Diriyah as a Saudi capital.

But of course, the Saud and their state were just getting started.

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1463: David of Trebizond and his heirs

1 comment November 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1463, the last regal claimants of Byzantium’s last successor state were executed in Constantinople.

They were, by this time, two years deposed from actual power. David of Trebizond (aka David Comnenos) had inherited the enclave“empire” clinging to the Black Sea coast in 1459, and proved himself “a fit agent for consummating the ruin of an empire.”

Specifically, he cleverly set about needling the overwhelming Turkish power on his borders by vainly attempting to stir up another Crusade, and refused to pay the Mohammedan tribute.

Having recently reduced the impregnable fastness of Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror handily availed this provocation to overrun Trebizond.

David and kin made out okay by this calamitous extinction of the Byzantine candle, negotiating in the summer of 1461 an arrangement to settle in Adrianople under the sultan’s protection (and monitoring).

Two years later, David was reportedly caught plotting against the keeper of his gilded cage once more, and Mehmed had the former Emperor, his sons, a nephew and a brother-in-law beheaded, neatly extinguishing the last people with any lineal claim the late Greek imperium.

Theodore Spandounes, a Venetian of Byzantine refugee stock writing in the early 16th century,* claims this was a set-up by Mehmet, “ravenously thirsting for Christian blood,” and that the Komnenoi were given the chance to convert to Islam and atoned their poor statecraft with holy martyrdom.

Furthermore,

Mehmed confiscated all the property of the imperial family of Trebizond and condemned the Empress [Helen Kantakouzene or Cantacuzene] to pay 15,000 ducats within three days or be executed. Her servants, who were Mehmed’s prisoners in Constantinople, worked from dawn to dusk to raise the money and paid it … [but] she had no desire to remain in this world; and, clad in sackcloth, she who had been accustomed to regal finery, refused to eat meat any more and built herself a hovel covered in straw in which she slept rough. Mehmed had decreed that no one was to bury the bodies under pain of death. They were to be left for the dogs and ravens to devour. But the sainted Empress secretly acquired a spade and with her own delicate hands as best she could dug a trench in her hut. All day long she defended the corpses against the animals and at night she took them one by one and gave them burial. Thus did God give her the grace to bury her husband and her sons; and a few days later she too died.

* And writing, it should be observed, with the polemical intent of persuading western powers to go fight the Ottomans.

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1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople

5 comments June 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Ottoman Grand Vizier Çandarli Halil Pasha (or Chandarly) was put to death, the first time anyone holding that office had suffered such a fate.

In Istanbul, Halil Pasha tower — part of the siegeworks used to take Constantinople — overlooks Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named for the man who ordered Halil Pasha’s death.

It was a stunning fall for the man who had presented himself in the sultan’s council just six days before to argue for discontinuing the seven-week-old Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople.

This siege would succeed, on May 29, in conquering the second Rome, and it may have been Halil Pasha‘s longstanding opposition to this project so glorious for the rising Ottomans that cost him his life.

Or, something else; we are obliged to speculate. Other possible factors include:

  • Halil Pasha’s enormous personal wealth, which made his family both a potential rival and a source of confiscated revenues badly needed by the state.
  • Personal rivalry with the sultan now known as Mehmed the Conqueror, whom Halil Pasha had deposed in the former’s childhood in favor of his retired father when exigencies of state required a more experienced hand.
  • A generation gap with the sultan’s younger advisors. Both Ottoman and Christian sources recorded charges that he was in league with Byzantium’s defenders; even if not true in a literally treasonous sense, the veteran statesman had relationships with Christians through Constantinople and (as evidenced by his opposition to the siege) likely had more to lose than to gain from Mehmed’s aggressive foreign policy.

Especially in the last respect, Chandarly Halil Pasha’s death turned over a leaf in Europe’s complex relationship with the rising Turks. And among those inclined to view a clash of civilizations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the May 29, 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople rates as a day just as weighty for the fate of the world as for that of Halil Pasha himself.

A highly recommended digression: Lars Brownworth’s coverage in the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast of that empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI — who died with his boots on the day Constantinople fell, “the empire as his winding-cloth.”

[audio:http://download.12byzantinerulers.com/16-Constantine-XI.mp3]

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1182: Maria of Antioch

Add comment December 17th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date thought to be around the end of 1182, the mother of the Byzantine emperor was strangled to death in Constantinople on her adolescent son’s authority.

In signing his mother’s death warrant, 13-year-old Alexios II signed his own … and that of his dynasty.

The progeny of a nearby Crusader principality, Maria of Antioch was dynastically married to Alexios’ dad, Manuel I.

Two realms separated by a common religion, Orthodox Byzantium’s relationship with western Crusaders was fraught at best, and it was about to get a lot testier. Maria’s Latin heritage went over like a lead balloon in the Greek empire.

When her husband died in 1180, the widow was left in a tenuous position as the unpopular regent of a child-emperor in a political snakepit.

In short order, Andronikos I Komnenos, after a lifetime of scheming, got his mitts on the throne two years after he’d been obliged to grovel in chains before Maria’s husband to be allowed a peacable retirement.

Some retirement.

Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates narrates Andronikos’s ruthless divide-and-conquer path to the purple.

Having thus slaughtered those whom he had been most eager to seize, Andronikos bided his time to assail others; some he delivered over to prison, some he condemned to banishment, and some he utterly destroyed in various ways. Those few who remained were anxious to go along with the majority and to reverse their former course. They changed their minds like the unstable planets and offered their necks to Andronikos to be tread underfoot, revolving around him as their axis, and so Andronikos hastened to bring about the ruin of the empress. After leveling several accusations against her, he finally charged her with treason and convened a court sympathetic to his cause with judges certain to condemn, not try, the wretched woman. The empress, who had attempted to enlist the help of her sister’s husband, Bela [III], the king of Hungary, writing him letters and tempting him with grand promises to ravage the lands around Branicevo and Belgrade, was led away to a cramped dungeon near the Monastery of Saint Diomedes. There she was grossly reviled by the guards as the butt of their jokes, and, pining with hunger and thirst, she was haunted by a vision of the executioner standing on her right where his edge would cut most surely. Andronikos’s ferocity did not abate even a whit. In the words of David, he perceived trouble and wrath and hastened to deliver her over to death, annoyed by the fact that she was still numbered among the living. Ere long he again assembled the justices who mete out injustice and whose right hand is the right hand of iniquity. He inquired as to what punishment the laws decree for traitors of cities and provinces, receiving in hand a written judgment sentencing such criminals to death, his assault against the empress went unchecked. When these lawless men raised their voices and shouted aloud as they cast their votes that this ill-starred woman must depart this life, a decree condemning her to death was immediately signed by her son, the emperor, written as though with a drop of his mother’s blood.

Elected to carry out this loathsome and unholy deed were Andronikos’s firstborn son Manuel and the sebastos George, the brother of Andronikos’s wife. Both men recoiled from their selection in disgust and contemned the emperor’s decree, declaring that they had not concurred earlier in the empress’s execution and that their hands would remain guiltless of such defilement; now, even more so, they could not endure to see her innocent body broken. This unexpected reply struck Andronikos like a thunderbolt. He continually twisted the hairs of his beard around his fingers, his eyes were filled with fire, and, shaking his head up and down, he repeatedly pitied himself and was greatly troubled that he did not have friends who delighted in blood and were eager to commit murder at the nod of his head. Holding his rage in check, like a hot-blooded horse champing at the bit or like smoke wrapping itself around a flame, he quenched his unremitting anger and postponed the execution. A few days later he condemned the ill-starred empress to a wretched death by strangulation. The sentence was carried out under the supervision of Constantine Tripsychos, who held the office of hetairarch, and the eunuch Pterygeonites … And she, who was the sweet light and a vision of beauty unto men, was buried in obscurity in the sand of the nearby shore (O Sun, who didst look down upon this defilement, and Thou, O Word of God, who art without beginning, how inscrutable is thy forbearance!). The bloodthirsty soul of Andronikos exulted at this, for with the extermination of Manuel’s family, with the imperial garden laid waste, he would reign as sole monarch over the Roman empire and hold sway with impunity.

The next year, Andronikos dispensed with the charade and had the young Alexios strangled, too.

A much worse fate awaited Andronikos himself not long after, with still less able successors to follow him … sending the Byzantine Empire into a calamitous tailspin that would see Constantinople sacked by those antagonistic western Crusaders within a generation.

Update: Maria’s German Wikipedia page pegs her execution date at August 27, 1182, citing Detlev Schwennike, Europäische Stammtafeln Band II, Tafel 177, Verlag Stargardt, Marburg, 1984.

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472: Anthemius, twilight emperor of Rome

1 comment July 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 472, one of the last “twilight emperors” of the western Roman Empire — and the last of any conspicuous ability — was beheaded by his rebellious general Ricimer.

Here in Rome’s dying days, the dangerous, centuries-old game for the purple was played with the twist of political triangulation with barbarian kings who had set up permanent shop within the old empire’s borders.

Maybe it was his closet paganism, or his Greek patrician breeding, or the way he slung his toga — whatever it was, Anthemius didn’t have the knack for winning them over.

Born and reared in Constantinople, Anthemius was being groomed for succession in the relatively less treacherous eastern empire when his royal patron (and father-in-law) suddenly got gangrene and died.

The Alan commander who held military power in the east wasn’t into Anthemius, so he got the Al Gore treatment and Leo I got the laurels. Interestingly, although barbarian tribes were establishing themselves as the power behind the throne — and this was even more true in the west — they were not yet prepared to assert the imperial majesty in their own names. That last feeble cultural bulwark, however, would not hold out much longer.

Leo “rewarded” Anthemius for taking it all in stride by appointing him emperor of the perilous west. (He also rewarded the kingmaking barbarian chieftain by having him murdered. “Leo the Butcher,” he’s called.)

That pissed off legendary Vandal king Genseric (or Gaiseric, or Geiseric), who had sacked Rome in 455 and settled into a long career lucratively plundering the Mediterranean. And with good reason: Leo’s idea was for the two emperors jump Genseric.

Now, before this time Leo had already appointed and sent Anthemius as emperor of the west, a man of the senate of great wealth and high birth, in order that he might assist him in the Vandalic war. And yet Gaiseric kept asking and earnestly entreating that the imperial power be given to Olybrius, who was married to Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian, and on account of his relationship well-disposed toward him, and when he failed in this he was still more angry and kept plundering the whole land of the emperor. (Procopius)

That war was a debacle and left Genseric merrily raiding Italy, but Anthemius’ real problem was domestic: his new realm had its own Germanic commander who also preferred to pick his own emperors, and he took an instant dislike to the foreign ponce. Anthemius and Ricimer managed a brief detente, during which the new guy tried to take Gaul back from the Visigoths (no dice), but the two fell to fighting in 472. After a brief siege, Ricimer overran Rome and set up in Anthemius’ place that Genseric-favored Olybrius (who would last all of 39 days).

Anthemius took refuge in one of Rome’s churches — either St. Peter’s or Santa Maria in Trastevere — where he was betrayed, and beheaded by (naturally) Ricimer’s Burgundian nephew.

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532: Hypatius and Pompeius, for Byzantine sports riots

4 comments January 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 532, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had two nephews of a former emperor executed for participating, however unwillingly, in the Nika riots.

Early in Justinian‘s reign, chariot-racing factions comprised mobs unruly enough to put any modern football hooligan into traction. Riots were a periodic feature of the sport.

The historian Procopius, who is our guide to this day’s events, describes a type the modern reader will recognize:

The Empress Theodora‘s cool head famously saved the day — and the empire — when her husband was ready to bolt. “May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty … as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.”

They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their “faction” …

When the clubs were pitted against each other, the civic disturbance rated a mere annoyance. But early in 532, they came into an unexpected alliance — around, it should be said in this venue, hangings meted out to their respective partisans — and outright revolt erupted at a race on January 13. Instead of chanting their respective factional slogans, a common cry of Nika! — “Victory!” — heralded a week of mayhem that nearly ended the great Byzantine prince’s era when it had hardly begun.

This day’s victims were nephews of a former Byzantine emperor, and their lot in the affair was an unlucky one. The suspicious Justinian cast them out of the palace quite against their will, for they feared exactly what in fact came to pass: the mob proclaimed Hypatius emperor and thrust him involuntarily — he had to be physically pried from the desperate resistance of his wife — into treason.

It was an old vintage in the Roman tradition, as Edward Gibbon reflected in reviewing the perverse structural logic of civil war during an earlier era of the western empire:

[I]f we examine with candour the conduct of these usurpers, it will appear that they were much oftener driven into rebellion by their fears than urged to it by their ambition … If the dangerous favour of the army had imprudently declared them deserving of the purple, they were marked for sure destruction; and even prudence would counsel them to secure a short enjoyment of the empire, and rather to try the fortune of war than to expect the hand of an executioner.

For a few hours, the throne stood in danger. Justinian mulled flight; his remarkable wife held him steady — and on January 18, their generals trapped the rioters in the Hippodrome and slaughtered some 30,000 of them.

Back to Procopius:

[T]he populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat … the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed.

Hypatius and his brother were taken alive but disposed of on this day, by which time their deaths were but a drop in a bloodbath.

[T]he emperor commanded the two prisoners to be kept in severe confinement. Then, while Pompeius was weeping and uttering pitiable words (for the man was wholly inexperienced in such misfortunes), Hypatius reproached him at length and said that those who were about to die unjustly should not lament. For in the beginning they had been forced by the people against their will, and afterwards they had come to the hippodrome with no thought of harming the emperor. And the soldiers killed both of them on the following day and threw their bodies into the sea. The emperor confiscated all their property for the public treasury, and also that of all the other members of the senate who had sided with them. Later, however, he restored to the children of Hypatius and Pompeius and to all others the titles which they had formerly held, and as much of their property as he had not happened to bestow upon his friends. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.

Bad luck for Hypatius and Pompeius proved a blessing for posterity (and Turkey’s contemporary tourist trade): riot-devastated space near the Hippodrome was appropriated by Justinian to build the magnificent Hagia Sophia basilica.

This gripping affair is narrated in greater depth in an installment of Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast series:

[audio:http://www.12byzantinerulers.com/audio/07-Justinian-Part_1.mp3]

… and in gripping detail by the History of Byzantium podcast.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Early Middle Ages,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Rioting,Summary Executions,Treason,Turkey

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