Sometime around 19 AD: Some wicked priests of Isis (… allegedly)

Add comment October 28th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

October 28 marked the start on the Roman calendar of the Isia, a dayslong festival in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who enjoyed a wide following in the Roman Empire. (There’s a temple of Isis in the ruins of Pompeii.)

In recognition of the Isia, we’re unearthing an extremely dubious but suitably execution-related slander of the Isis cult by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus — who writes that at some unspecified date around 19 AD, during the reign of Emperor Tiberius in Rome, a freewoman named Ide and some priests from the cult of Isis were crucified for their role in a wacky conspiracy.

It is known from several ancient historians that followers of both Isis and Yahweh were banished from Rome at about this time, but the specific immediate causes are unclear. Both were “foreign” (and still more, eastern) religions, so might have come in for a bit of expedient demagoguery; the emperor Augustus, only five years dead at that point, had been down on Isis-worship in general thanks in part to his rival Cleopatra, who associated herself with the goddess.

Suetonius says that Tiberius “abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia.” Cassius Dio attributes the Jews’ punishment to their successful proselytizing; such a pattern also intermittently worried future emperors with respect to Isis, and could be consistent with the Senate’s decree that those who renounced their cult(s) could stay.

Josephus alone offers scandalous specific triggers for these expulsions in his twenty-volume Antiquities of the Jews, which covers the history of the Jewish people from Adam and Eve right up to the First Jewish-Roman War.*

There’s a different backstory for each community’s expulsion, according to Josephus — very much at pains to distinguish cases we today, and Josephus’s contemporaries, might naturally take to be connected. Both stories have a novelistic feel of collective punishment for particular crimes, but it’s noticeable that while the Jews’ fate is mildly attributed to a couple of individual criminals (already outcast by the Jews) defrauding a Roman convert who wanted to donate to the temple in Jerusalem, the Egyptian rite gets fabulously shown up as systematically corrupt and a menace to the honor of good Roman matrons.** Josephus is mining here an existing Roman stereotype of Isis-worship as a libertine cult, but he wrote Antiquities in about 93-94 CE, a time when Isis had waxed in the favor of the emperor Domitian as well as his predecessor Vespasian.

Second-century Roman statue of Isis, which can be seen in Rome’s Capitoline Museums

Per Josephus, Paulina, wife of Saturninus, was a wealthy married woman “of a beautiful countenance” and “great modesty,” and a devoted follower of Isis. Decius Mundus, a prominent Roman aristocrat, fell in love — or more like in lust — with her, and tried to seduce her. She rejected him. He offered her presents; she refused them. Finally he offered the staggering sum of 200,000 Attic drachmae for, as Josephus tactfully puts it, “one night’s lodging.” Paulina was outraged by his suggestion.

Despondent, Decius Mundus went home and declared his intent to starve himself to death. A freed slave in his household, a woman named Ide who was “skillful in all sorts of mischief,” couldn’t stand to watch him waste away like this and took pity on him. She could get Paulina to sleep with him, she promised, and she’d do it for the bargain rate of 50,000 drachmae, 75% off.

Knowing that Paulina could not be bought at any price, and also knowing of her devotion to the cult of Isis, Ide resorted to trickery: she went to two corrupt Isis priests and promised to split the 50,000 drachmae with them if they would help deceive the lady. They agreed, rejoicing at the prospect of being 25,000 drachmae richer.

The elder of the two priests went to Paulina with a stunning revelation: the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis had noticed her piety and fallen in love with her, and desired to spend a jackal-headed night with her.

Paulina, who in another era would probably have bought the Brooklyn Bridge and some oceanfront property in Arizona, was delighted by the news. She passed the message on to her husband, asking for permission to “sup and lie” with the God, and Saturninus, “full satisfied with the chastity of his wife,” agreed to share her.

So she want to the temple and had dinner with Anubis (who remained invisible and silent during the meal), then the priest escorted her to the bedroom, put out the lights and shut her in.

Whereupon Decius Mundus emerged from his hiding place and made sweet love to Paulina all night long in the dark, slipping away at dawn.

Whether he wore the jackal’s mask has not been recorded.

Paulina went home in a cloud of post-coital bliss, enraptured by her encounter with the god. She told her husband all about it, and all her friends, who weren’t sure whether to believe her. None of them challenged her, though, such was her reputation as a modest and religious woman.

Decius Mundus let her spread the story around for three days, then came to her and told her the truth, and laughed in her face. She may have rejected him while he was Mundus, he added maliciously, but she had sure liked him when she’d thought he was Anubis!

Furious and humiliated, Paulina tore her own clothes in hysterics when she realized what she’d done. She demanded Saturninus go complain to Tiberius about how she’d been treated, and her embarrassed husband complied.

Tiberius was not one of Rome’s nicer emperors, but he took ample action to avenge Paulina’s dishonor: he razed the temple of Isis to the ground, threw her statue into the river, and suppressed the cult. Lastly, Tiberius ordered that Ide and the Isis priests involved in the conspiracy be crucified.

But Decius Mundus? He got off lightly, merely being banished from Rome. Tiberius decided there were mitigating circumstances, namely that “what crime he had committed was done out of the passion of love.”

* Josephus himself was a rebel Galilean commander in this war; he was captured by the Roman general Vespasian when Josephus weaseled out of a group suicide pact as the Siege of Yodfat ended in a bloody rout. Taken as prisoner to his opposite number, Josephus boldly hailed Vespasian as future emperor. Vespasian did indeed achieve the purple, and pensioned Josephus as a house historian (and Roman citizen) under his own protection.

** See Horst Moehring, “The Persecution of the Jews and the Adherents of the Isis Cult at Rome A.D. 19,” Novum Testamentum, Dec. 1959.

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509 B.C.E.: The Sons of Brutus

Add comment August 21st, 2013 Headsman

August 21 is the harvest-time feast of Consualia, honoring the Roman god of grain storage, Consus.

We mark on this occasion the legendary capital punishment inflicted by Lucius Junius Brutus when he was consul of the ancient Roman Republic upon two rebels — his own sons, Titus and Tiberius.

The great Brutus had been one of the leaders of the revolt that expelled Rome’s last king, Lucius Tarquinius — reputedly after the king’s son raped Lucius’s kinswoman Lucretia. (Brutus was also Tarquin’s nephew.)

Upon completing his coup, Brutus immediately summoned the populace to swear an oath that no king would ever rule Rome again. So potent was the civic memory of this event that even centuries later when the Republic was well gone, Rome’s emperors dared not appropriate such an incendiary title as “King”.

But that was for a later time, after the winners wrote the history.

The exiled Etruscan king, subsequent Romans’ eternal watchword for tyranny, got the boot about 510 B.C.E., and in 509 was still hanging about looking for an opportunity to re-seat his dynasty. The plot he hatched is known as the Tarquinian conspiracy, and Brutus, to his grief, would discover that his own children had adhered to it. The statesman’s willingness to put his own flesh and blood to death for the security of Rome would long stand as a parable of manful patriotism.

Our account here is from Livy (line breaks have been added for readability), and the excuse to approximate this undated execution to summer’s harvest-time is bolded therein.

liberty was well nigh lost by treachery and fraud, a thing they had never apprehended. There were, among the Roman youth, several young men of no mean families, who, during the regal government, had pursued their pleasures without any restraint; being of the same age with, and companions of, the young Tarquins, and accustomed to live in princely style.

Longing for that licentiousness, now that the privileges of all were equalized, they complained that the liberty of others has been converted to their slavery: “that a king was a human being, from whom you can obtain, where right, or where wrong may be necessary; that there was room for favour and for kindness; that he could be angry, and could forgive; that he knew the difference between a friend and an enemy; that laws were a deaf, inexorable thing, more beneficial and advantageous for the poor than the rich; that they allowed of no relaxation or indulgence, if you transgress bounds; that it was a perilous state, amid so so many human errors, to live solely by one’s integrity.”

Whilst their minds were already thus discontented of their own accord, ambassadors from the royal family come unexpectedly, demanding restitution of their effects merely, without any mention of return. After their application was heard in the senate, the deliberation on it lasted for several days, (fearing) lest the non-restitution might be a pretext for war, and the restitution a fund and assistance for war. In the mean time the ambassadors were planning different schemes; openly demanding the property, they secretly concerted measures for recovering the throne, and soliciting them as if for the object which appeared to be under consideration, they sound their feelings; to those by whom their proposals were favourably received they give letters from the Tarquins, and confer with them about admitting the royal family into the city secretly by night.

The matter was first intrusted to brothers of the name of Vitellii and those of the name of Aquilii. A sister of the Vitellii had been married to Brutus the consul, and the issue of that marriage were young men, Titus and Tiberius; these also their uncles admit into a participation of the plot: several young noblemen also were taken in as associates, the memory of whose names has been lost from distance of time. In the mean time, when that opinion had prevailed in the senate, which recommended the giving back of the property, and the ambassadors made use of this as a pretext for delay in the city, because they had obtained from the consuls time to procure modes of conveyance, by which they might convey away the effects of the royal family; all this time they spend in consulting with the conspirators, and by pressing they succeed in having letters given to them for the Tarquins. For otherwise how were they to believe that the accounts brought by the ambassadors on matters of such importance were not idle?

The letters, given to be a pledge of their sincerity, discovered the plot; for when, the day before the ambassadors set out to the Tarquins, they had supped by chance at the house of the Vitellii, and the conspirators there in private discoursed much together concerning their new design, as is natural, one of the slaves, who had already perceived what was going on, overheard their conversation; but waited for the occasion when the letters should be given to the ambassadors, the detection of which would prove the transaction; when he perceived that they were given, he laid the whole affair before the consuls. The consuls, having left their home to seize the ambassadors and conspirators, crushed the whole affair without any tumult; particular care being taken of the letters, lest they should escape them.

The traitors being immediately thrown into chains, a little doubt was entertained respecting the ambassadors, and though they deserved to be considered as enemies, the law of nations however prevailed.

The question concerning the restitution of the tyrants’ effects, which the senate had formerly voted, came again under consideration. The fathers, fired with indignation, expressly forbad them either to be restored or confiscated. They were given to be rifled by the people, that after being made participators in the royal plunder, they might lose for ever all hopes of a reconciliation with the Tarquins. A field belonging to them, which lay between the city and the Tiber, having been consecrated to Mars, has been called the Campus Martius. It happened that there was a crop of corn* upon it ready to be cut down, which produce of the field, as they thought it unlawful to use, after it was reaped, a great number of men carried the corn and straw in baskets, and threw them into the Tiber, which then flowed with shallow water, as is usual in the heat of summer; that thus the heaps of corn as it stuck in the shallows became settled when covered over with mud: by these and the afflux of other things, which the river happened to bring thither, an island was formed by degrees. Afterwards I believe that mounds were added, and that aid was afforded by art, that a surface so well raised might be firm enough for sustaining temples and porticoes.

After plundering the tyrants’ effects, the traitors were condemned and capital punishment inflicted. Their punishment was the more remarkable, because the consulship imposed on the father the office of punishing his own children, and him who should have been removed as a spectator, fortune assigned as the person to exact the punishment.

Young men of the highest quality stood tied to a stake; but the consul’s sons attracted the eyes of all the spectators from the rest of the criminals, as from persons unknown; nor did the people pity them more on account of the severity of the punishment, than the horrid crime by which they had deserved it.

“That they, in that year particularly, should have brought themselves to betray into the hands of Tarquin, formerly a proud tyrant, and now an exasperated exile, their country just delivered, their father its deliverer, the consulate which took its rise from the family of the Junii, the fathers, the people, and whatever belonged either to the gods or the citizens of Rome.”

The consuls seated themselves in their tribunal, and the lictors, being despatched to inflict punishment, strip them naked, beat them with rods, and strike off their heads. Whilst during all this time, the father, his looks and his countenance, presented a touching spectacle, the feelings of the father bursting forth occasionally during the office of superintending the public execution.


Bummer: Jacques-Louis David‘s 1784 painting, Lictors Bring Home the Sons of Brutus.

This Brutus was an ancestor of the Brutus who helped assassinate Julius Caesar, and that later et tu, Brutus is commonly represented as having been convinced to turn against his friend and patron by, in part, the example of his legendary namesake.

O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.

-Cassius to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2)

* “Corn” meaning not American maize, of course — which was not available before the Columbian exchange — but the word’s earlier meaning of whatever was the local grain: wheat, barley, and millet in Rome’s case. (The word corn derives from the Latin granum.)

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998: Crescentius the Younger

Add comment April 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 998, Crescentius the Younger was beheaded in Rome.

In the abject Eternal City, sacked and scattered and plucked of its glories, even the title of Roman Emperor now belonged to a line of absentee Germans — “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” as Voltaire would later put it. But empire enough to push around the likes of Rome.

Rivalry between imperial and anti-imperial factions will write the city’s history for centuries to come. In the late 10th century, the 28-year-old emperor Otto II died unexpectedly, elevating his three-year-old son Otto III.

Anti-imperial Romans moved to capitalize on the turmoil, and Crescentius the Younger (his dad had the same name) raised himself up as the master of the city.

He was fruit of the the Crescentii family,* who attained their first rank in Roman politics a century before thanks to the propitious concubinage of a woman named Theodora and “her equally infamous daughters Marozia and Theodora, [who] filled the See of Peter with their paramours, their sons, and grandsons, who surpassed each other in vileness and wickedness of every kind.” (Johann Heinrich Kurtz) The fulminations of scribes against these libidinous, Machiavellian women** would eventually suggest to the history discipline one of its all-time best periodizations, the pornocracy. Sticks and stones, love: their lineage cast a long shadow on the Tiber throughout the 10th century.

Our guy Crescentius took the title Patricius Romanorum and bossed the town for a number of years in the late 980s and early 990s. There wasn’t much the Holy Romans and their boy-emperor could do about the scion of pornocrats.

But by 996, Otto III was all grown up to age 16, and marched down the Italic boot to set things straight in the Caput Mundi.

Temporarily cowed, Crescentius had to accept the appointment of Otto’s guy, Pope Gregory V, who then generously begged off an intended sentence of banishment for Crescentius, in the interests of comity.

Crescentius thanked the new pope, once Otto left town, by running Gregory out of Rome and setting up his own antipope and himself once more as big man on Campo Vecchio. Rome could not hope to match blows with the Germans, so the big idea here for Crescentius was to deliver his city to Byzantine protection; to this end, his antipope was Greek. Constantinople, however, was by this time much too weak in Italy for Crescentius to entertain realistic hope of success.

This in turn led Otto to re-invade in 997-998, and re-depose Crescentius, who retreated to the Castel Sant’Angelo. While Crescentius holed up there, his antipope was blinded, mutilated, and degraded out of the clergy, driven backward on an ass (literally ass-backward!) through the streets to the derision of the mob.† Certain of his control, the emperor set about restoring his authority while the friendless Patricius Romanorum and his followers cooled their heels in their dead-end fortress for two months.

Exactly how Crescentius came to die is sunken into the Tiber’s murky waters: was he lured from his redoubt by promise of royal clemency, or did he crawl to Otto to beg it? More probable is that the nigh-impregnable edifice was simply reduced over time until the Germans nigh-impregnated it; one version of the upstart’s end has him summarily executed on the battlements, his body thrown down into the moat below only to be dredged up and hung upside down on Monte Mario.

* Here’s an attempted family tree (pdf). They would evolve into the Crescenzi.

** Gibbon speculated that this period of female domination of the papacy might have lived on in popular memory as the medieval legend of Pope Joan.

† But not executed, more’s the pity for me.

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1565: Benedetto Accolti, would-be papal assassin

Add comment January 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1565, three men who schemed to assassinate Pope Pius IV were put to public death at the Capitol.

Detail (click for the full painting) of Parnassus by Raphael, the Vatican’s “Raphael Rooms”. According to Jonathan Unglaub,* this figure is the then-acclaimed, today-obscure poet Bernardo Accolti, our failed assassin’s great-uncle.

Pius was a pope of the counter-reformation; it was he who brought the Council of Trent to its conclusion.

And though generally noted for his moderation (and his enthusiasm for building), he was not above striking heads from shoulders. Upon his ascension a few years prior he had dealt harshly with the nephews of his predecessor.

Accolti hailed from a prominent Florentine noble family; his father and namesake was a scheming cardinal.

Young Benedetto, clearly, could scheme a little himself, since he roped several buddies (Italian link) into a plot to murder the pontiff. In December 1564, they presented themselves at a papal audience, but apparently got cold feet. One of their number, a Cavalier Pelliccione, ratted the lot of them out before they could muster their nerve a second time: the good cavalier might have been motivated by having possession of treasonably pre-written letters to be sent to various dignitaries upon the pope’s violent deposition.

Pelliccione accordingly skated with a pardon, but two co-conspirators were sent to the galleys for life.

Benedetto Accolti, Antonio Canossa, and Taddeo Manfredi were dragged to the Capitol on January 27 and put to the gruesome public butchery — “like cows” — of the mazzolatura.

There are several resources that claim the plot was among Catholic ultras who found Pius a little on the heretical side. This Italian encyclopedia entry attributes to the astrologically-inclined Accolti a more nutty-prophetic ambition of a “papa angelico” who would unify Christendom.

Maybe he should have just exercised a little patience. Pius IV died in December 1565.

* Jonathan Unglaub, “Bernardo Accolti, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ and a New Portrait by Andrea del Sarto,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 149, No. 1246, Art in Italy (Jan., 2007).

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69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

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1661: The effigy and books of Giuseppe Francesco Borri

Add comment January 3rd, 2013 Headsman

Alchemist, prophet, and dashing Italian rogue, the Jesuit-educated Giuseppe Francesco Borri (English | Italian) was burned on this date in 1661.

Luckily, he was hundreds of kilometers away.

A Milanese noble by birth, Borri was studying in Rome when he experienced a vision and started expounding a mystical theology decidedly not acceptable to Catholic orthodoxy.

That Mary’s mother was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the Madonna was a goddess. That, with the limitless proceeds of the philosopher’s stone, he’d bankroll a spiritual army under the wings of the archangel St. Michael.

The charismatic young prophet began attracting quite a following — including the eccentric Swedish Queen Christina, then hanging around Rome after her abdication and indulging her own taste for alchemy — and was soon obliged to flee Rome for Milan, and then Milan for Switzerland, with the Inquisition at his heels. (He’s supposed to have left behind the occult markings that adorn the Porta Alchemica.)

While the heresiarch was safe abroard, the Roman Inquisition went ahead with its business without him. It was ruled that Borri was

to be punished as a heretic for his errors, that he had incurred both the ‘general’ and ‘particular’ censures, that he was deprived of all honour and prerogative in the Church, of whose mercy he had proved himself unworthy, that he was expelled from her communion, and that his effigy should be handed over to the Cardinal Legate for the execution of the punishment he had deserved.

Nothing daunted, the “executed” Borri set up as a doctor, scientist, astrologer, and alchemist in northern Europe — Strasbourg, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Throughout the 1660s his alchemical arts attracted the patronage of royalty as well as an endless stream of ailing patients and curious hangers-on. Borri even claimed to have accomplished the feat of transmuting a base metal into gold, which magical product can still be seen at a Danish museum.


Borri’s alchemy gold.

In a way, he did: the guy became fabulously wealthy. And he never stopped promulgating his cabalistic spiritual theorems.

Unfortunately his Danish patron died in 1670, and while en route to his next gig in Turkey he was arrested in Hapsburg territory and handed over the papacy. Borri was not put to death bodily, but spent the remainder of his life imprisoned in Rome, finally dying in the Castel Sant’Angelo in 1695.

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1868: Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti, by the Papal guillotine

1 comment November 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1868, Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti were guillotined in Rome.

Theirs was a passion of the Risorgimento, the 19th century drive to unify as a single nation the peninsula’s quiltwork of minor kingdoms, duchies, and city-states.

Following the Third Italian War of Independence, this had largely been accomplished … with the notable exception of the Papal States surrounding Rome. You can hardly have Italy without the Eternal City.

So national liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi gathered a force under the slogan Roma o morte and prepared to march … while Pope Pius IX began receiving reinforcements from the sympathetic French emperor Napoleon III.

Inside Rome, Monti and Tognetti prepared a little morte of their own. Intending to mount a fifth-column uprising to coincide with the arrival of Garibaldi’s army, the two detonated a couple barrels of gunpowder under the Serristori barracks, killing 23 French zouaves and four Roman civilians. (All links in this paragraph are Italian.)


Kablamo.

Unfortunately for the bombers, no general rising ensued, and the Papal and French armies subsequently repulsed Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana on Nov. 3, 1867 — extending the papal enclave’s lease on life only slightly, but just enough to deal with Monti and Tognetti.

Their fate at the hands of the civil and religious authorities (one and the same, at this time), is dramatized in the 1977 Italian film In Nome Del Pap Re. (This Google books freebie purports to relate their final days.)

The triumph, such as it was, was short-lived for the Papal States: these were the very last executions by guillotine in Rome; the Papal States polity as a whole had time for only two more executions in its history before the Italian nationalist army completed the risorgimento by capturing Rome in 1870.

The two are memorialized in a celebratory ode by Giosue Carducci.

PER GIUSEPPE MONTI E GAETANO TOGNETTI
MARTIRI DEL DIRITTO ITALIANO

I
Torpido fra la nebbia ed increscioso
Esce su Roma il giorno:
Fiochi i suon de la vita, un pauroso
Silenzio è d’ogn’intorno.

Novembre sta del Vatican su gli orti
Come di piombo un velo:
Senza canti gli augei da’ tronchi morti
Fuggon pe ‘l morto cielo.

Fioccano d’un cader lento le fronde
Gialle, cineree, bianche;
E sotto il fioccar tristo che le asconde
Paion di vita stanche

Fin quelle, che d’etadi e genti sparte
Mirar tanta ruina
In calma gioventù, forme de l’arte
Argolica e latina.

Il gran prete quel dì svegliossi allegro,
Guardò pe’ vaticani
Vetri dorati il cielo umido e negro,
E si fregò le mani.

Natura par che di deforme orrore
Tremi innanzi a la morte:
Ei sente de le piume anco il tepore
E dice – Ecco, io son forte.

Antecessor mio santo, anni parecchi
Corser da la tua gesta:
A te, Piero, bastarono gli orecchi;
Io taglierò la testa.

A questa volta son con noi le squadre,
Né Gesù ci scompiglia:
Egli è in collegio al Sacro Cuore, e il padre
Curci lo tiene in briglia.

Un forte vecchio io son; l’ardor de i belli
Anni in cuor mi ritrovo:
La scure che aprì ‘l cielo al Locatelli
Arrotatela a novo.

Sottil, lucida, acuta, in alto splenda
Ella come un’idea:
Bello il patibol sia: l’oro si spenda
Che mandò Il Menabrea.

I francesi, posato il Maometto
Del Voltèr da l’un canto,
Diano una man, per compiere il gibetto,
Al tribunal mio santo.

Si esponga il sacramento a San Niccola
Con le indulgenze usate,
Ed in faccia a l’Italia mia figliuola
Due teste insanguinate. –

II
E pur tu sei canuto: e pur la vita
Ti rifugge dal corpo inerte al cuor,
E dal cuore al cervel, come smarrita
Nube per l’alpi solvesi in vapor.

Deh, perdona a la vita! A l’un vent’anni
Schiudon, superbi araldi, l’avvenir;
E in sen, del carcer tuo pur tra gli affanni.
La speme gli fiorisce et il desir.

Crescean tre fanciulletti a l’altro intorno,
Come novelli del castagno al piè;
Or giaccion tristi, e nel morente giorno
La madre lor pensa tremando a te.

Oh, allor che del Giordano a i freschi rivi
Traea le turbe una gentil virtù
E ascese a le città liete d’ulivi
Giovin messia del popolo Gesù,

Non tremavan le madri; e Naim in festa
Vide la morte a un suo cenno fuggir
E la piangente vedovella onesta
Tra il figlio e Cristo i baci suoi partir.

Sorridean da i cilestri occhi profondi
I pargoletti al bel profeta umìl;
Ei lacrimando entro i lor ricci biondi
La mano ravvolgea pura e sottil.

Ma tu co ‘l pugno di peccati onusto
Calchi a terra quei capi, empio signor,
E sotto al sangue del paterno busto
De le tenere vite affoghi il fior.

Tu su gli occhi de i miseri parenti
(E son tremuli vegli al par di te)
Scavi le fosse a i figli ancor viventi,
Chierico sanguinoso e imbelle re.

Deh, prete, non sia ver che dal tuo nero
Antro niun salvo a l’aure pure uscì;
Polifemo cristian, deh non sia vero
Che tu nudri la morte in trenta dì.

Stringili al petto, grida – Io del ciel messo
Sono a portar la pace, a benedir –
E sentirai dal giovanile amplesso
Nuovo sangue a le tue vene fluir…

In sua mente crudel (volgonsi inani
Le lacrime ed i prieghi) egli si sta:
Come un fallo gittò gli affetti umani
Ei solitario ne l’antica età.

III
Meglio così! Sangue dei morti, affretta
I rivi tuoi vermigli
E i fati; al ciel vapora, e di vendetta
Inebria i nostri figli.

Essi, nati a l’amore, a cui l’aurora
De l’avvenir sorride
Ne le limpide fronti, odiino ancora,
Come chi molto vide.

Mirate, udite, o avversi continenti.
O monti al ciel ribelli,
Isole e voi ne l’oceàn fiorenti
Di boschi e di vascelli;

E tu che inciampi, faticosa ancella,
Europa, in su la via;
E tu che segui pe’ i gran mar la stella
Che al Penn si discovria;

E voi che sotto i furiosi raggi
Serpenti e re nutrite,
Africa ed Asia, immani, e voi selvaggi,
Voi, pelli colorite;

E tu, sole divino: ecco l’onesto
Veglio, rosso le mani
Di sangue e ‘l viso di salute: è questo
L’angel de gli Sciuani.

Ei, prima che il fatale esecutore
Lo spazzo abbia lavato,
Esce raggiante a delibar l’orrore
Del popolo indignato.

Ei, di demenza orribile percosso,
Com’ebbro il capo scuote,
E vorria pur vedere un po’ di rosso
Ne l’òr de le sue ruote.

Veglio! son pompe di ferocie vane
In che il tuo cor si esala,
E in van t’afforza a troncar teste umane
Quei che salvò i La Gala.

Due tu spegnesti; e a la chiamata pronti
Son mille, ancor più mille.
I nostri padiglion splendon su i monti,
Ne’ piani e per le ville,

Dovunque s’apre un’alta vita umana
A la luce a l’amore:
Noi siam la sacra legion tebana,
Veglio, che mai non muore.

Sparsa è la via di tombe, ma com’ara
Ogni tomba si mostra:
La memoria de i morti arde e rischiara
La grande opera nostra.

Savi, guerrier, poeti ed operai,
Tutti ci diam la mano:
Duro lavor ne gli anni, e lieve omai
Minammo il Vaticano.

Splende la face, e il sangue pio l’avviva;
Splende siccome un sole:
Sospiri il vento, e su l’antica riva
Cadrà l’orrenda mole.

E tra i ruderi in fior la tiberina
Vergin di nere chiome
Al peregrin dirà: Son la ruina
D’un’onta senza nome.

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1489: Domenico Gentile and Francesco Maldente, Bull-shitters

Add comment October 19th, 2012 Headsman

From Pope Alexander VI and his court: extracts from the Latin diary of Johannes Burchardus (line breaks added for readability):


On the Sunday night, 15th September, 1489, Signor Domenico Gentile of Viterbo, apostolic writer, Francesco Maldente, canon of Forli and Conrado, also Battista of Spell, notary of the Apostolic Camera, Lorenzo Signoretto, writer in the Register of Bulls, and Bartolommeo Budello, procurator of the Penitentiary, were successively taken and detained in the Castle of San Angelo on a charge of forging apostolic letters.

The Lord Domenico aforesaid confessed that he had forged about fifty apostolic letters or bulls, containing various matters, in the following way: The Lord Francesco would discover matters to be despatched and agree with the parties upon the sum which they were to pay after the despatch of letters. When the agreement had been made and a bank named by the party for paying the sum agreed upon to be paid when the letters were presented to the bank, then he would despatch one that was expected, or some matter that would pass easily through all the offices by the royal way.

When this was done, the Lord Domenico aforementioned washed out all the writing of the bull, or that part which he did not want, with a certain fluid, restored the paper with flour and stiffened it again. Afterward he wrote on it the matter concerning which Francesco had agreed with the party, leaving in the bull the names of the rescribendary, computators, and other officials.

More often he changed the stamp, and put on another, according to the nature of the matter. He also used different inks. That with which he wrote the first matter to be despatched in the proper way was made of gum or some other material, but was certainly indelible. But the other, which he used to write over the bull that had been erased, was ordinary ink. In this way they gave forged bulls to the parties.

Within about two years they had despatched divers matters, for example, dispensations to one or two benefices for Friars of the Orders of Mendicants, unions of many benefices to the incomes of certain abbots with permission to rule these in an order changeable at pleasure, a dispensation for a certain priest of the Diocese of Rouen, who had married a wife, to the effect that he might lawfully keep her and many others for which they had received sometimes a hundred, two hundred, two hundred and fifty, and two thousand ducats, as is related in the process instituted against them.

The said Francesco also made confession, and on Sunday, the 18th of October, at about nine in the evening, they both were led from the castle aforementioned to the Castle of Soldano, and before they reached that place they believed they were condemned to death. For the auditor of the Camera, the Bishop of Cesena, and the Lord Bartolommeo Deolpito, first apostolic notary and governor of the city, who in their official capacity had prosecuted them, told the said Francesco that if he named his fellow accomplices our Most Holy Lord would be pleased to bestow the office of abbreviator upon him and set him at liberty, and he believing that he would do this accused the above named and several others.

On behalf of the Lord Domenico, his father who had attended our Most Holy Lord in the first illness of his pontificate, and his two brothers interceded most earnestly with the cardinals and other influential men in the city for his life. But no one could prevail upon our Most Holy Lord. So, after they had been established in the said castle, they were told that they were to die on the morrow; and therefore were bidden to take heed to the salvation of their souls, and priests were sent to them to hear their confession and strengthen them in the faith.

On Monday, the 19th of October, 1489, there was a consistory and the auditor of the Camera aforesaid with the governor came to the Castle of Soldano where they passed definite sentence against the said Domenico and Francesco, degraded them, deprived them of office and emoluments, and handed them over to the secular court.

Then mass was celebrated in the said castle, at which the said Domenico and Francesco were present, and at the close they received the holy communion from the hands of the celebrant; after this they were led to the Piazza di San Pietro, where a platform had been erected in a space not far from the lowest step, four rods long, three wide, and one high, or thereabouts.

There the said Francesco who was a priest was robed in full vestments in the usual way. Then the summary of the case was read by the notary, Antonio of Paimpol. After the reading of it, Francesco was degraded and given over to the secular court into the hands of Ambrosino, the apparitor.

After he had been given over, Domenico who had only the first tonsure was robed in a surplice and degraded from that rank by the Father Pietro Paolo, Lord Bishop of Santa Agata, who vested himself in stole and cope upon the platform, and put on in front a plain alb over the rochet. After his degradation Domenico was given over to the court and the said apparitor.

Their heads were not shaved otherwise than they had been before, nor were they stripped of the clothes in which they came from the castle, because of their office and because such was the pleasure of the Bishop of Cesena, the auditor.
After this the aforesaid having been degraded were placed upon a chariot which stood ready there, Domenico on the right and Francesco on the left.

In front of them were seated a friar of the Order of Minors, their confessor, in accordance with the observance in parts of France, and another of the society of the Misericordia who held a crucifix and was robed in the garb of that society with his face covered. Behind the degraded ones were erected two rods, and to the top of them cords were fastened, on which were hung four of the bulls despatched and forged by them.

In this way they were conducted by the Bridge of San Angelo past the Castle of Soldano and hard by the house of the Cardinal of Ascanio, past the Hospital of the Germans, close to the house of the Lord Falco by the Pario straight to another street, thence by the bridge to the Campo dei Fiori, where near the corner by the steps and the Taberna Vacca, so-called, the place of execution had been prepared in the form of a hut, having a wooden pillar erected in the center, and surrounded by piled-up faggots. To the upper part of the column had been fixed two ropes. Below the ropes two stools were placed upon the ground for the accused and another on the other side of the column for the lictor, and around the shed outside many piles of logs.

When the aforementioned degraded persons reached the said place of execution, they got down from the cart, and entered the hut, where in the guise and clothes in which they were brought there, they ascended the two stools prepared for them.

The lictor put ropes upon their neck of which they were scarcely conscious, for the confessor and the other friar who bore the crucifix were continually strengthening them in Christ. When the ropes had been placed in position, the lictor’s assistants drew away the stools from beneath their feet and thus they were hanged and gave up the ghost.

After they were dead they were taken down from the pillar, stripped to their shirts and placed in a sitting position upon the said stools, propped against the pillar, and bound to the column with the chain beneath their arms. Then the fire was kindled and their bodies burned. The lictor heaped up the logs many times until after the hour of vespers, that the bodies might be entirely consumed, and thus the fire lasted until the following morning.

On the following day, about the hour of vespers, ashes, in which many of the bones were still found, were collected by certain of the society of Misericordia with a broom, placed in a sack in a new chest, and with the cross and the usual procession was borne by the said society to the church appointed for the purpose and buried.


As shockingly impious as the forgery of papal bulls sounds (and was), this sort of fraud was very much a thing. Papal bulls were never confined to only grand matters, but issued for all sorts of everyday reasons. In a world where nobody could shoot an email to the Holy See to confirm this or that declaration, a document blazoned with the papal keys which asserted some local monastic prerogative or personal perquisite could be law for a good long time.

(In maybe the most notorious case, the penultimate Count of Armagnac obtained a forged papal dispensation permitting an incestuous marriage to his sister.)

Innocent VIII, born Giovanni Battista Cibo, is scarcely the most egregiously disreputable cleric* of the age — the guy after him was a Borgia, after all — and as may be seen from today’s entry had a care for at least the public relations debacle of particularly flagrant abuses.

But as a Renaissance pontiff, Innocent had a brood of illegitimate children and a view of St. Peter’s Throne as a seat for nakedly worldly ambition — marrying, for instance, one son to the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici in a deal that also obtained a cardinal’s hat for a Medici relation who in time would become Pope Leo X. Wholesale ecclesiastical corruption, including the market in bulls-to-order, was simply part of this world; Domenico and Francesco notwithstanding, Innocent did little to tame it.

The Florentine priest Savonarola first rose to prominence thundering against (and supposedly predicting the death of) this guilty Innocent. But that later Medici pope Leo X would in a few decades’ time meet the more serious challenge to ecclesiastical corruption. When that day came, Martin Luther initially suspected that the papal bull Leo X issued denouncing Luther’s theses might be … a forgery. (The reformer even published a short 1520 manifesto to that effect, “Against the New Bull forged by Eck“.)

* Innocent may be best known as the guy who fired up the coming age of wholesale witch persecutions.

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1944: Pietro Caruso, fascist chief of police

3 comments September 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Pietro Caruso was shot to death by a firing squad for his reign as the head of police in fascist Rome.

Renowned for his sadism towards the enemies of Mussolini, Caruso was most infamous for his role rounding up Italians* for a Nazi mass-execution just months before — the Ardeatine Massacre.

Subject of the first war crimes trial in Allied-occupied Italy, Caruso almost wasn’t around long enough to make this blog: an angry mob invaded the courtroom where he was tried just days earlier, attempting to lynch him.

Authorities managed to safeguard the war criminal, but the mob sated its bloodlust by grabbing another fascist who had turned state’s evidence and was all set to testify against Caruso until he was hauled out and drowned in the Tiber.

Apparently they didn’t need his evidence anyway.

The war, of course, was not yet over … and in northern Italy’s ongoing fascist enterprise, the blackshirts conducted retaliatory executions to retaliate for executing Caruso for retaliatory executions.

* Caruso’s defense: the Nazis had demanded 80 prisoners of him for this reprisal execution. Caruso moderated it to 50. David Broder would have approved.

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897: Pope Stephen VII, Cadaver Synod convener

Add comment August 25th, 2012 Headsman

“The papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”

-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

In August 897 or so, the deposed Pope Stephen VII (or VI*) was executed (or just murdered) in prison by strangulation.

Details, you see, are thin on the ground here in the so-called Dark Ages. Rome has come down a bit in the world.

“The ruins of Rome,” quoth Gibbon,

presented the sad image of depopulation and decay: her slavery was a habit, her liberty an accident; the effect of superstition, and the object of her own amazement and terror. The last vestige of the substance, or even the forms, of the constitution, was obliterated from the practice and memory of the Romans; and they were devoid of knowledge, or virtue, again to build the fabric of a commonwealth. Their scanty remnant, the offspring of slaves and strangers, was despicable in the eyes of the victorious Barbarians. As often as the Franks or Lombards expressed their most bitter contempt of a foe, they called him a Roman;

“and in this name,” says the bishop Liutprand, “we include whatever is base, whatever is cowardly, whatever is perfidious, the extremes of avarice and luxury, and every vice that can prostitute the dignity of human nature.”

While the popes of the 10th century would really set that prostituted standard with the period known as the “pornocracy”, Stephen VI(I) makes everybody’s bad popes lists with one of the papacy’s all-time embarrassing events: the Cadaver Synod.

The pontiff at this point is no global media celebrity but an ensemble character captive to the the disreputable politics of a shrunken, malarial borough. Stephen’s predecessor Formosus had been one of the city’s “Carolingian” faction backing the withering remains of Charlemagne’s once-great line.

At loggerheads with the Italian Spoleto family claiming the Holy Roman Emperor title for the anti-Carolingians, Formosus had invited an illegitimate Frankish scion to roll down the Italian peninsula and take it from them — which is exactly what happened.

Two months after Formosus crowned this Carolingian, Arnulf by name, as “Augustus” in Rome, Formosus died while Arnulf was on his way back to Bavaria … putting the Spoletos back in charge. After a brief interregnum papacy, the Spoleto-backed anti-Carolingian prelate Stephen ascended St. Peter‘s throne.

The factional conflict was approaching civil war. Stephen’s Cadaver Synod (or in the equally evocative Latin, Synod horrenda) was a singular show of power against the Carolingians.

About January of 897, the pope had Formosus’s corpse exhumed and creepily propped up in its vestments on a throne at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. There, before a reluctant clerical conclave, the rotting remains of Formosus** were subjected to a kangaroo prosecution personally conducted by Pope Stephen. As Robert Browning described it in a digressive passage of The Ring and the Book,

And at the word the great door of the church
Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,
The body of him, dead, even as embalmed
And buried duly in the Vatican
Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.
They set it, that dead body of a Pope,
Clothed in pontific vesture now again,
Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.

For frightful was the corpse-face to behold,—
How nowise lacked there precedent for this.


Pope Formosus and Stephen VII (aka Stephen VI), by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870

After the possibly-nuts Stephen had his fill of ranting at the mortal remains, he declared his foe “convicted” and condemned the body to the dissevering of its three right-hand blessing-fingers — symbolic of the damnatio memoriae the synod would pass upon the ex-pope, revoking the decrees and undoing the ordinations that hand had wrought in life. Formosus in his various parts was tossed into the Tiber.

While this macabre spectacle lives forever in the papal annals, Stephen didn’t live out the year: his enemies overthrew him that summer and had him summarily put to death, declaring the Synod horrenda‘s judgment reversed in the process.

In the event, the matter would be settled the old-fashioned Roman way: in the streets.

Despite the loss of their leader, [Stephen’s] party remained active and elected a certain Cardinal Sergius as pope, simultaneously with the election of a candidate by the opposite faction.

But, in a sudden burst of violence, Sergius and most of his followers were chased out of the city … Over the next twelve months, four more popes scrambled onto the bloodstained throne, maintained themselves precariously for a few weeks — or even days — before being hurled themselves into their graves.

* Between VI and VII, it depends on whether you count a short-lived 8th century Stephen in the list of Stephens; the popes at this time weren’t using regnal numbering themselves. Since the Catholic Encyclopedia’s roster of popes goes with VII, we will as well.

** Ironically, “Formosus” is Latin for “handsome”. It’s too bad he wasn’t “Pope Mephitis“.

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