1561: Cardinal Carlo Carafa, papal nephew

1 comment March 4th, 2012 Headsman

On this date* in 1561, the once-powerful Cardinal Carlo Carafa was put to death by strangulation in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — victim of deadly Vatican politics.

Fruit of a powerful Neapolitan noble house — it was a Carafa who stuck fig leafs on Michelangelo nudes — Carlo Carafa went out on campaign in the dynastic wars chewing up the peninsula in the 16th century. In some outlandish vindictive pique, he elevated an offense from a Spaniard into not only a reason to switch sides to the French, but a reason to do stuff like massacre Spaniards in a captured hospital. Class act all the way.

When the boy’s (similarly pro-French) Carafa clansman ascended St. Peter‘s throne as Pope Paul IV in 1555, Carlo Carafa beat his sword into a galero as the Catholic Church’s newest cardinal-nephew.**

In this capacity, he had the whip hand in Vatican foreign policy in the late 1550’s … until the growing reports of his reprobate lifestyle led Paul IV to demote him. Virulently anti-Protestant, the obnoxiously upright Paul had been preoccupied intensifying the Inquisition. He took personal umbrage once convinced of his relative’s unworthiness: “He had planned to make his reign the period of great reforms,” writes Kenneth Meyer Setton. “The corruption of Cardinal Carlo Carafa had made a travesty of his efforts.”

These travesties included rumors of the love that dare not speak its name. Poet Joachim du Bellay, according to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, made sport of ecclesiastical buggery in Les Regrets:

now you should mourn
handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity!
Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes:
Ascanio, whose face was handsomer
than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods

(Carafa had a plentiful menu of heterosexual scandals attributed, too. And other good stuff like starting an idiotic war of choice — with Spain, of course — that despoiled Church coffers and reversed the Vatican’s strategic interests.)

In such a state of disgrace — and more importantly, having been stymied in their anti-Spanish foreign policy — the Carafa house and faction was in line for something more serious than public humiliation when the disappointed octogenarian pontiff passed away later in 1559.

Upon the succession of a rival Medici pope, Pius IV, Carlo Carafa was hailed before a kangaroo court with his brother and partner-in-dissipation Giovanni on a rap sheet with every real and imagined indiscretion of their wild years.† Carlo was strangled and Giovanni Carafa beheaded.

Despite the nephews’ undoubted viciousness, their executions were basically about power and policy.

And though they had also screwed up policy, the next pope decided to look forward-backward, not backward-backward. In 1567, Pius V posthumously rehabilitated the naughty dead Carlo; today, you’ll find his now-vindicated remains interred at the family chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva cathedral.

“The people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”

Carafa

* Seems like the best-sourced date, albeit uncertain — as discussed in this biography.

** Cardinal-nephews are the etymological source of the word nepotism.

† Carafa’s defense attorney was the noble Marc’ Antonio Borghese, father of a then-prepubescent kid named Camillo who would grow up to be Pope Paul V.

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Feast Day of St. Anastasia

Add comment December 25th, 2011 Headsman

Christmas Day is all about that Jesus fellow, but for a break from the usual gold, frankincense, and myrrh, spare a thought for St. Anastasia of Sirmium — whose feast date and purported execution date December 25 also is. She’s the only Christian martyr with a Christmas celebration,* and an apt choice for the depth of winter since her name means “dawn” or “rebirth”.

Byzantine icon of St. Anastasia from the Hermitage, holding a vial that alludes to her antitoxin powers.

Centuries of namesakes have shared that moniker, like the youngest daughter of the executed Romanov family, on the basis of the Great Martyr’s having died during the persecution of Diocletian; though this circumstance scarcely makes her unique, no less a source than the Catholic Encyclopedia avers that the ancient martyrology linking her to St. Chrysogonus “is purely legendary, and rests on no historical foundations.” (It’s possible that multiple historical Anastasias were conflated into a single legendary person.)

Despite later generations’ ignorance of what this early keeper of the faith was really about, she became associated — again, possibly thanks to nothing more sharing the same name as the facility’s local Roman matron — with an early church in Rome, the “titulus sanctae Anastasiae.” Today ruined, this was an important church in the capital of the faith during late antiquity, and helped vault St. Anastasia into the first rank of holy intercessors. She’s even mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass.

Her celestial department protecting against potions and poisons has, today, a distinctly retro vibe about it; “the last remnant of the former prominence enjoyed by this saint and her church” is the Christmas Dawn Mass, likely the day’s most lightly-attended service at your local Catholic or Anglican parish, wherein Anastasia is invoked by name.


Cathedral of St. Anastasia in Zadar, Croatia, where the saint’s relics repose. (cc) image from Paradasos.

* In western Christendom only.

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1354: Cola di Rienzi, last of the Roman Tribunes

2 comments October 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*

“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”

So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)

And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.


This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.

Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.


Rienzi vows to obtain justice for his murdered brother, depicted in a pre-Raphaelite painting by the young William Holman Hunt.

Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.

What to do?

How about — overthrow the bastards?

Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.

For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.

“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”

The great humanist Petrarch, Rienzi’s contemporary, was smitten by the unfolding revolution.

But almost as soon as Rienzi’s republic began, the man fell: another invasion found the Roman in the street deaf to the alarm bells, and Rienzi fled.

“He was a dreamer rather than a man of action,” is the charge of the Catholic encyclopedia; excitable, injudicious, spendthrift, and prey to the “Asiatic” emoluments of his station.

This career alone would merit a remembrance, but Rienzi had a second act.


Richard Wagner’s first hit opera — though hard to come by in the wild nowadays — was Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (synopsis), from a libretto based on Bulwer-Lytton’s homage.

After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.

Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.

And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.

He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.

Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.

At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:

it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.

Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)

If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”


Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.

* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.

** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.

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1500: 18 thieves in Rome

Add comment August 27th, 2011 Headsman

Tourism is pretty essential to the Roman economy, and for as long as there have been dumb foreigners come to gawk, the Caput Mundi has supplied robbers alert to relieve them of their opes mundi.

And as it happens, that’s been for quite a long time. They don’t call it the Eternal City for nothing.


Ponte Sant’Angelo. (Hanged corpses not included.) The bridge was built by Emperor Hadrian in the early second century. (cc) image from Jimmy Harris.

On this date in 1500, a gang of 18 brigands were all hanged (Italian link) along Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo for their activities preying on traveling pilgrims.

One of those executed was an orderly at the nearby Ospedale S. Spirito, whose particular specialty was casing the infirmaries for weakened patients

This death penalty venue facing the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber saw plenty of traffic in its day. Bookending the other end of the 16th century, it would host the legendary execution of Beatrice Cenci.

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1800: Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover

2 comments June 18th, 2011 Headsman

It’s at dawn on this date in 1800 that the republican Mario Cavaradossi is shot at Castel Sant’Angelo in the climax of the Puccini opera Tosca.

This opera was adapted from the play La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou. That author does this site the considerable favor of exactly dating the action; a character at the end of Act 1, Scene 1 announces, “this evening, 17 June, a celebration at the Palazzo Farnese in honor of this victory.” The remaining story unfolds over that night and into the next morning.

En route to Marengo: Jacques-Louis David‘s heroic picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps comes from this campaign.

“This victory” worth the proposed palazzo party is the Austrian defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo during Bonaparte’s 1800 invasion of Italy.

But there’s a minor problem. Said seesaw battle went not to Austria but (decisively) to Napoleon, after a late French rally.

The action of Tosca takes place in a Rome which has received an initial, incorrect notice of Austrian victory. This is of particular import in the Eternal City because it’s under the temporary receivership of the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina, a virulent foe of the French Republic as befits a sister of Marie Antoinette.

(France-supported Italian revolutionaries had already deposed Maria Carolina once; the Corsican’s reappearance on her peninsula gave her good cause to fear that it would happen again.*)

At any rate, “Queen Caroline” and her husband Ferdinand were not above spilling blood to hold down the republican elements in Rome. Harold Acton pegged their harvest at “8,000 political prisoners … 105 were condemned to death, six of whom were reprieved.”

Our date’s fictional principal would reckon among those.

We meet him as a painter with subversively liberal inclinations, in love with the titular heroine as she with him — but opposed by police chief Scarpia: his profession is to pursue revolutionaries; his passion, to pursue Tosca.

Scarpia captures, and tortures, Cavaradossi for aiding an escaped official of the recently destroyed Roman Republic, and forces Tosca to yield herself to him in exchange for her lover’s life.** This is Tosca’s aria lamenting her position:

One thing: because Scarpia doesn’t want to be implicated in the release of a dangerous radical, he insists on a mock-execution in which the prisoner will appear to be shot and feign death, the better to spirit Cavaradossi away and on to happily-ever-after.†

And because Scarpia is a villain, he arranges for his rival’s “mock” execution to be not so mock after all … to the suicidal horror of Tosca.

Aaaaaand curtain.

There are scads more Tosca excerpts on YouTube. Here’s an Italian-English libretto, and here a handy summary.

* It would, in fact, happen again.

** Okay, to agree to yield herself to him. Tosca stabs Scarpia to death when he rises to collect her promised virtue.

† “In the manner of Count Palmieri,” Scarpia instructs his subaltern. If this is a reference to a real case, we are not aware of it; there was a royalist Marquis Palmieri executed in Naples in 1807 by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph.

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1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni

5 comments May 29th, 2011 Headsman

This site is occasionally prepared to stray outside its execution-anniversary beat to cover especially fascinating manifestations of the death penalty in history.

So for this date, we observe the anniversary not of a punishment, but of the crime itself: a capital homicide in the capital of the world that changed art forever.

NNDB summarizes Caravaggio as a “temperamental painter,” but a less generous interlocutor might prefer a descriptor like “lowlife.”

Painter, he certainly was.

Caravaggio’s pioneering realism and flair for the dramatic …


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Though the young painter on the make would hardly want for models of public decapitation in 16th century Rome, the gendered intimacy with the act invites consideration of Caravaggio’s likely attendance at the execution of Beatrice Cenci.

… made him a rock star on the canvas.

Though the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with suspicion, there were scudi enough to burst the coinpurse of a talent who could grace a chapel with awe-inspiring stuff like this:


Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted in 1601 for Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo.

However many souls his stark brushwork won for the Church, Caravaggio’s reverential fare belied the creator’s own distinctly profane pastimes: gambling, boozing, brawling, and whoring around. He needed the intervention of well-placed patrons to duck prosecution on several occasions.

May 29, 1606 finds our “temperamental” antihero encountering a wealthy scoundrel by the handle of Ranuccio Tomassoni and a problem that would outstrip any political pull the artist could muster.

Allegedly, the two met to settle a paltry tennis wager, although this may have been a cover story for a rivalry over a courtesan.*

On whatever pretext, the young hotheads fell into a melee. Caravaggio won … and Tomassoni bled to death from the gash his foe dealt to his femoral artery.**

Caravaggio now had mortal blood on his hands. Homicides were treated very harshly by the authorities. Caravaggio was about to have a price put on his head, and if he were caught, that head would be summarily removed from his body and hung on a public street. Allies of Ranuccio bent on revenge were likely to be after him as well. … Caravaggio, the celebrated Italian painter, was now a notorious wanted killer. (Source)

Condemned an outlaw by Pope Paul V — himself fruit of Rome’s Borghese family, great patrons of art in their own right — Caravaggio fled the Eternal City. His brilliance went with him, perhaps even amplified by the exile.

“The fall from grace was huge,” a curator of late Caravaggio works argued. “It had a profound impact. He started expressing the psychological essence of the stories he is telling.”

The painter and killer had four years left to him — an exile spent sleeping clothed and armed, forever looking over his shoulder. But what his jangled nerves could still spare for the canvas would help launch the baroque artistic epoch and still influences us today.

Flight, fancy, and fortune took Caravaggio to Malta and to Sicily, but the year or so he spent as Naples’ visiting genius would make his artistic legacy: that city’s succeeding generations of painters took enthusiastic inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan offerings — like a Seven Works of Mercy that must have carried a very personal meaning for the hunted man.

He was reportedly as arrogant and hot-tempered on the run as he had been in Rome, but Caravaggio’s art in exile also traces his desperate attempts to undo the consequences of his bad behavior.

Exploiting his apparent affinity for the sawing off of heads, Caravaggio rendered his own head in a severed state in at least two apparently penitential paintings during this vulnerable period.

This Salome with the Head of John the Baptist was made for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the latter had in 1608 booted Caravaggio from that island refuge:

While David with the Head of Goliath seems to have been created shortly before Caravaggio’s own death for the pope’s art-hounding “Cardinal Nephew” Scipione Borghese, in a bid to earn a pardon. Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the dead man, and Latin inscription “humility kills pride” on the Israelite hero’s sword, suggest an attempt to effect through his creative virtuosity his own execution in effigy.

That would be, at any rate, the only execution Caravaggio ultimately had to endure. He died in the summer of 1610 under unclear — and inevitably suspicious — circumstances while attempting to return to Rome.

A few biographical books about Caravaggio …

… and some Caravaggio art books

* Ranuccio Tomassoni was the pimp and lover of a prostitute named Fillide whom Caravaggio had painted years before, and become enamored of. This Fillide was also Caravaggio’s model for Judith in the arresting painting of the Biblical heroine in mid-decapitation above.

** Possibly, if you like the love triangle angle, in a botched attempt to castrate his rival.

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250: Pope St. Fabian

Add comment January 20th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 250 is the feast day and traditional martyrdom date for Pope (and Saint) Fabian(us).

“They say,” quoth ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, “that Fabianus having come, after the death of Anteros, with others from the country, was staying at Rome, and that while there he was chosen to the office through a most wonderful manifestation of divine and heavenly grace.”

For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honorable men were in the minds of many, but Fabianus, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove.

Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.

Fabian seems to have been a competent administrator and had the luxury of occupying St. Peter‘s throne during the lull in persecutions under the Roman Emperor Philip the Arab. If you like the highly speculative hypothesis that Philip was not merely sympathetic to Christians but actually a Christian himself,* then Pope Fabian is probably the guy who baptized him.

But uneasy is the head that wears the crown, and never more so than during Rome’s Third Century Crisis.

In due time, the ambitious Senator Decius toppled Philip, and implemented loyalty oathssacrifices to Roman’s pagan divinities.

Sacrifices, or else.

Fabian paid the piper for those years on easy street with Philip by refusing to make the requisite sacrifices and delivering himself to a demonstrative** martyrdom in January 250. A Greek epitaph — “Fabian, bishop and martyr” — has been discovered in the catacombs.

With the surly Decius hovering around to lop off the next Roman head bold enough to submit to a bishop’s cap, the papacy stood vacant for more than a year before (with Decius out of town on campaign — for good, as it turned out) said papacy made up for lost time when it was claimed by two men set at loggerheads by the persecutions themselves: the little-known caretaker Cornelius (the Church’s official successor) and Novatian (the schismatic antipope).

The always recommended History of Rome podcast deals with this period in episode 110.

* If Philip the Arab was Christian, then he would displace Constantine the Great as the realm’s first Christian ruler; the faithful might regard the transfer of that distinction as a downgrade.

** Edward Gibbon, much less impressed than the Church with Decius’s severity, notes that

[t]he martyrs, devoted to immediate execution by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been selected from the most opposite extremes. They were either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect; or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value …

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193: Didius Julianus, who bought the purple from the Praetorians

3 comments June 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 193, Didius Julianus lost the rulership of Rome for which he had paid so dearly.

And his life.

Julianus‘s path to these doleful pages begins with the assassination of the notorious Emperor Commodus at the end of 192.

That man’s successor, Pertinax, was a notable bust with the Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard whose status as the only military unit in Rome made it potential — and here, actual — kingmakers.

The Praetorians expected the payoff that had become customary for new executives, and when Pertinax proved less than liberal on that particular budget item, they turned right around and overthrew him.

To see that there would be no mistake the next time around, the Praetorians dispensed with the pretense and brazenly auctioned the purple.

Roman aristocrat and historian Cassius Dio was a witness to this hot mess.

Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, “Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?” And to Sulpicianus in turn, “Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?” Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.

Cassius Dio, Book 74

The ignoble achievement is the only thing Didius Julianus is now remembered for.

While Julianus and the Praetorian guard were conducting their damnable business in the capital, three Roman generals in the provinces claimed the throne for themselves.

For centuries the Roman legions had been scattered beyond the Italian peninsula as a hedge against military coups. But after decades of relative stability at the top,* Rome was about to get a bracing reminder of what civil war looked like.

Praetorians — a few cohorts worth of men not in fighting trim — were fine for bullying Senators, but in an outright civil war, they were no match for the legions. The Praetorian Guard’s power to arbitrate the succession was contingent upon the beneficiary’s capacity to cement his own legitimacy by commanding the loyalty of (most of) the state apparatus.

And it turned out that buying the sceptre on spqrBay was not the way to get folks to bend their knees to it.

Septimius Severus, the imperial claimant nearest to the capital, commenced a relentless and virtually unresisted march on Rome, co-opting the troop garrisons and towns as he swept down the peninsula and spurning Julianus’s desperate diplomatic entreaties.

Cassius Dio’s record of Julianus scrambling to defend Rome against Severus is full of black humor.

Julianus … caused the senate to declare Severus a public enemy, and proceeded to prepare against him. In the suburbs he constructed a rampart, provided with gates, so that he might take up a position out there and fight from that base. The city during these days became nothing more nor less than a camp, in the enemy’s country, as it were. Great was the turmoil on the part of the various forces that were encamped and drilling, — men, horses, and elephants, — and great, also, was the fear inspired in the rest of the population by the armed troops, because the latter hated them. Yet at times we would be overcome by laughter; for the Praetorians did nothing worthy of their name and of their promise, for they had learned to live delicately;** the sailors summoned from the fleet stationed at Misenum did not even know how to drill; and the elephants found their towers burdensome and would not even carry their drivers any longer, but threw them off, too. But what caused us the greatest amusement was his fortifying of the palace with latticed gates and strong doors. For, inasmuch as it seemed probable that the soldiers would never have slain Pertinax so easily if the doors had been securely locked, Julianus believed that in case of defeat he would be able to shut himself up there and survive.

In the end, Severus took Rome without striking a blow: the Praetorians switched sides again, and the Eternal City delivered itself from the one usurper to the other. Cassius Dio, again, in media res

the soldiers, convinced by letters of Severus that if they surrendered the slayers of Pertinax and themselves kept the peace they would suffer no harm, arrested the men who had killed Pertinax … We [the Senate] thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honours on Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?” He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.

(Actually, Julianus had killed someone: foreseeing that the Praetorians were liable to turn coat yet again, Julianus had the Praetorian prefect who sold him this lemon of an empire put to death for trying to cut a deal with Severus. Despite this negative feedback, the transaction took place on a strict no-refunds, no-exchanges basis.)

A harsh deal for Didius Julianus was a pretty good one for the Roman Empire. Septimius Severus cleaned up his other rival claimants, and ran the empire capably for the next generation.

Kick back with this review of the the dreadful interlude of Didius Julianus with episodes 98 and 99 of the enjoyable History of Rome podcast.

* “The period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,” in the judgment of Edward Gibbon.

** The Praetorians were also de-motivated because their promised donative had not been forthcoming.

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71 B.C.E.: The followers of Spartacus

1 comment May 15th, 2010 Headsman

… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.

-Plutarch, The Life of Crassus

On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.

The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.

His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.

Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.

The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”

Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.

But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.


Cursed field. The place of execution in ancient Rome. Crucified slave. (Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878)

He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)

Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”

The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.

This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.

* Okay, still a republic, if you like. But those days were fast coming to a close.

** Especially for modern leftist radicals; Marx and Che Guevara were both big fans; German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named their movement for Spartacus, and it was during Berlin’s “Spartacus Week” that they were murdered.

A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.

A few books about Spartacus

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37: Some poor wretches, despite the death of Tiberius

3 comments March 16th, 2010 Headsman

The Roman Emperor Tiberius expired at Misenum on this date in 37 A.D.


The Death of Tiberius, by Jean-Paul Laurens. Tacitus records that the aged princeps was thought to have expired, to the great relief of all, when word came that he was reviving. “[Praetorian prefect] Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes.”

As Tiberius had been spending his last years terrifyingly purging Rome of alleged “traitors,” his death was met with some considerable relief. Great news: charismatic young prince Caligula is in charge now!

Anyway, despite the old man’s unpopularity and the manifest injustice of his treason trials, Tiberius’s death did not quite halt momentum of political butchery. Ever thus with bureaucracies.

According to Suetonius,

The people were so glad of his death, that at the first news of it some ran about shouting, “Tiberius to the Tiber,” while others prayed to Mother Earth and the Manes to allow the dead man no abode except among the damned. Still others threatened his body with the hook and the Stairs of Mourning, especially embittered by a recent outrage, added to the memory of his former cruelty. It had been provided by decree of the senate that the execution of the condemned should in all cases be put off for ten days, and it chanced that the punishment of some fell due on the day when the news came about Tiberius. The poor wretches begged the public for protection; but since in the continued absence of Gaius [Caligula] there was no one who could be approached and appealed to, the jailers, fearing to act contrary to the law, strangled them and cast out their bodies on the Stairs of Mourning. Therefore hatred of the tyrant waxed greater, since his cruelty endured even after his death.

But Tiberius’s cruelty didn’t endure too long after his death. Pretty soon, Caligula’s cruelty would have the stage all to itself and Tiberius survivors would be yearning for the good old days.

The History of Rome podcast covers Tiberius’s crazy years and the transition to Caligula here.

* It’s not completely explicit that it was on this same March 16 that news of the emperor’s death hit Rome; therefore, it’s conceivable that the drama described here played out on a subsequent date.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Milestones,Power,Roman Empire,Strangled,Treason,Uncertain Dates,Wrongful Executions

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