1810: Tommaso Tintori, the first guillotined in Rome

3 comments February 28th, 2010 Headsman

It’s easy enough to accuse the Catholic Church of being behind the times.

But this date two hundred years ago found it in the criminological progressive vanguard (just ask Lord Byron!), conducting Rome’s first beheading by guillotine, that brave new instrument of egalitarian execution.

Okay, granted: it wasn’t the ecclesiastical authorities but the French occupiers who introduced the guillotine, as was their wont.

But when the Papal States were restored a few years later, after the Napoleonic Wars, the vicars of Christ were enlightened enough to keep this efficient device (and its sunk capital cost) around … at least as one option among the restored traditional sentences of hanging, quartering, and the local specialty, mazzolatura.

Biographical details of our milestone criminal are scarce on the ground, but we have his name, date of execution, and crime — omicidio — courtesy of the Italian list kept by the famed executioner Mastro Titta.

Seguono Le Giustizie Eseguite Nel Nuovo Edifizio Per Il Taglio Della Testa Nel Governo Francese.

106. Tommaso Tintori, reo di omicidio, li 28 febbraio 1810.

As one might guess, that “106” means that the prolific Titta had already notched 105 official kills in his 14 years as executioner prior to the guillotine. He would run his career total north of 500.

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104 B.C.E.: Jugurtha

1 comment January 1st, 2010 emperorhadrian

(Thanks to Daily Kos diarist “emperorhadrian” for licensing this guest post, originally published on that site June 24, 2007. -ed.)

The Jugurthine War was a key war in the final century of the Roman Republic.

Like the Americans in Iraq, Rome assumed that their war against Jugurtha, King of Numidia (a nation in north Africa), would be a cakewalk. They believed that Numidia was a nation of savages with a bizarre religion. They assumed that their own “shock and awe” attacks by the superior legions would decapitate and destroy the “evil doer” Jugurtha. They believed that in order to liberate the Numidians of their primitive ways, they had to impose the civilized will of the Roman state on this backward nation. Rome never expected that the Numidians would wage an insurgent war against their Roman occupiers. This war ended up dragging on for almost a decade. And in the end, it showed the depravity of the ruling party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimate party), which was sending the Roman Republic on its way to tyranny, empire and ruin.

In 148 BC, the King of Numidia, Masinissa, died. The Roman proconsul, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, had been given authority by Masinissa to divide Masinissa’s estate. He divided it between Masinissa’s three sons, Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastarnable. Soon after, Gulussa and Mastarnable died, leaving Micipsa as the sole King of Numidia. Around the year 134 BC, Micipsa sent Jugurtha (who was Masinissa’s grandson, but the son of another Numidian) to Spain with Scipio Aemilianius. Scipio was fighting the Celtiberians, who lived in a part of what is now Spain. Jugurtha was able to raise an army to help Scipio. Because of the valor of Jugurtha and his army at the Siege of Numantia, Scipio was able to win his war against the Celtiberians.

While fighting for Rome, Jugurtha worked alongside his future enemy, Gaius Marius. Jugurtha not only learned the superior Roman style of fighting, but he also learned of Rome’s weakness for money and thus bribery. Jugurtha described Rome as “urbem venalem et mature perituram, si emptorem invenerit” (“a city for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should ever find a buyer”). When Jugurtha returned to Numidia, Micipsa adopted Jugurtha, and decided to include Jugurtha in his will.

After the fall of Numantia, Jugurtha returned home with a letter from Scipio addressed to his uncle; in it, the commander praised Jugurtha’s exploits and congratulated Micipsa for having “a kinsman worthy of yourself, and of his grandfather Masinissa” (Sallust Iug. 9). On this recommendation the king formally adopted Jugurtha and made him co-heir with his own children

In 118, Micipsa died. He left his kingdom to Jugurtha and his two natural sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. Shortly after Micipsa’s death, Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed. Adherbal fled to Rome. The Roman Senate sent a commission to Numidia to make peace. Jugurtha bribed the Romans on the commission, and thus the commission gave the better regions of the kingdom to Jugurtha.

In 113 BC, Jugurtha took his army and cornered Adherbal in his capital city of Citra. According to Sallust, Adherbal had the support of the people, but Jugurtha had the support of the best soldiers. A Roman Commission was sent to Numidia to forge a new peace. Jugurtha then bribed the Romans on this commission. The Romans thus allowed Jugurtha to storm Citra, and slaughter Adherbal and his supporters. Because Jugurtha slaughtered a number of Italian business people (including Roman Equites, or “Knights“), the Roman senate declared war on Jugurtha.

The Roman Senate sent an army under the command of the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to fight Jugurtha. Bestia decisively defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha bribed Bestia, and thus was given unusually favorable terms. The Roman Senate viewed the favorable terms with suspicion, so it summoned Jugurtha to Rome. When Jugurtha arrived in Rome, he bribed two Tribunes, who thus prevented him from testifying. While in Rome, Jugurtha attempted to have his cousin and rival Massiva assassinated. Because of this, he was expelled from the city and returned to Numidia.

In 110 BC, the Roman Senate sent the praetor Aulus Postumus Albinus (who was the cousin of a consul for that year) to defeat Jugurtha. Because Jugurtha bribed key Romans involved in Albinus’ army (who then betrayed Albinus), Albinus was defeated.

The Roman Senate then sent the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus to fight Jugurtha. At the Battle of the Muthul, a young Roman officer named Gaius Marius helped to reorganize Metellus’ legions, which then defeated Jugurtha. But Jugurtha was defeated because he forced his army to retreat before it could suffer heavy losses. The Romans did suffer their own heavy losses. Jugurtha disbanded his army, and had his soliders mount an insurgency to fight the Roman occupiers.

Marius returned to Rome. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of the war under Metellus, the Roman Military Assembly (one of the two Roman legislative assemblies, similar to the US Senate) appointed Marius consul (the Military Assembly, not the senate, appointed consuls). The Roman consuls had similar powers as the US President. The consulship was the highest constitutional office, and the consuls had imperium powers, which allowed them to command armies and conduct wars. The senate didn’t want Marius to be consul, because at this time it was dominated by an ultra-conservative republican party of aristocratic elites known as the Optimates. Marius belonged to the party that opposed the Optimates, the Populares. Partly because the senate didn’t like Marius, and partly because of the increasing difficulty Rome was having in recruiting armies, Marius was forced to raise his own army.

The capture of Jugurtha, from this French history of the Jugurthine War.

Marius took his army to Numidia to fight Jugurtha. But while Marius had been raising his army, Jugurtha allied with his father-in-law, Bocchus, the King of Mauretania. Marius defeated Jugurtha and Bocchus in several key battles. But much like with the American occupation in Iraq, Jugurtha’s strategy of insurgency warfare against the occupiers rendered all conventional victories irrelevant. Marius was playing a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how many times the Numidians were defeated, Jugurtha’s insurgents would regroup and keep fighting. It became clear that because of this, Rome could not defeat Jugurtha.

Marius sent his young Quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to Bocchus. Sulla bribed Bocchus, and told him that Bocchus would be given a part of Numidia if he would betray Jugurtha. Bocchus then decided to give Jugurtha to Sulla. Sulla took Jugurtha to Rome, where Jugurtha was strangled in the Tullianum in Rome after marching in Marius’ January 1, 104 B.C. Triumph.


The Triumph of Marius (1729) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The inscription in Latin reads “The Roman people behold Jugurtha laden with chains”.

The Jugurthine War was over. But in the process, several problems were exposed that would cause Rome serious pain in the future. Republicans in this country love to tell us that money in politics is harmless free speech. But as we saw in the Roman Republic during the Jugurthine War, money can be very corrupting. Rome almost lost the war because of money in politics, and the susceptibility of public officials to bribery.

In addition, this war saw the rise of two Romans who would play a key role in the events that directly preceded the fall of the Roman Republic. The first Roman made famous through this war was Gaius Marius. Gaius Marius would later hold the Roman Consulship an unconstitutional 7 times in 21 years (constitutionally, a Roman had to wait 10 years before being reelected consul).

The second Roman made famous through this war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla and Marius would fight an unconstitutional civil war with each other several years after this war had ended. Sulla would illegally march his troops on Rome, and unconstitutionally legalize the mass killing of Marius’ supporters. Marius’ supporters in the senate would unconstitutionally prevent Sulla from fighting a war during one of Sulla’s consulships. Sulla would eventually seize absolute power for himself. Sulla would be the first Roman to be Dictator in almost 150 years. He would also be the first Roman in history to hold the dictatorship without the traditional six month term limit.

As dictator, Sulla would illegally change the Roman constitution to make himself and his party (the ultra-conservative republican Optimates) even more powerful. And most importantly, Sulla would set the example (of civil war on Romans, and then the seizing of absolute power) that the future tyrant Gaius Julius Caesar would follow.

In the end, the actions taken by key players in the war against Jugurtha would be repeated in the final destruction of the Roman Republic. The future triumvir Pompey would unconstitutionally hold multiple consulships in a short period of time. Crassus, another future triumvir, would illegally bribe politicians to get his way. And the future tyrant Julius Caesar would bribe, unconstitutionally hold the consulship, and become dictator for life (as Sulla had done). It was Caesar’s actions in this regard, as well as the similar actions of his adopted son and heir, Gaius Octavius (later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the Emperor Augustus) that would once and for all destroy the Roman Republic, and create the Roman Empire.

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
2. Moving naked over Acheron
3. Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
4. Marius and Jugurtha together,
5. one tangle of shadows.

6. Caesar plots against India,
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding,
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary
10. and acquire a Roman religion;

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
12. Marius and Jagurtha together.
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail,
14. bearing ancestral lares and images;
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness,
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed;
17. The perfumed cloths shall be absent.
18. A small plebeian procession.
19. Enough, enough and in plenty
20. There will be three books at my obsequies
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius, Canto VI by Ezra Pound

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1624: Marco Antonio de Dominis, posthumously

5 comments December 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1624, the recently-deceased body of unscrupulous Croatian prelate Marco Antonio de Dominis was burned at Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, along with all his manuscripts.

Hypothesizing

As a precocious young man Dominis taught mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy; in 1611, he produced a scientific treatise on the formation of rainbows through light refraction, De radiis visus et lucis. A century later, Isaac Newton would write* in Opticks that

it is now agreed upon, that this Bow is made by Refraction of the Sun’s Light in drops of falling rain. This was understood by some of the Antients, and of late more fully discover’d and explain’d by the famous ANTONIUS DE DOMINIS Archbishop of Spalato.**

More opportune was his advocacy of a moon-induced tide, which idea his contemporary Galileo erroneously scorned.†

Though he makes a “great men of Croatian science” list, the scientific dabblings are not what the man was chiefly known for.

Apostatizing

A caricature of Dominis made an appearance, around the time of the man’s bodily demise, in Thomas Middleton’s play A Game at Chess, as the “fat bishop” who switches sides from black to white and back.

And that’s the man’s legacy, in a nutshell.

Elevated to Bishop of Senj, and then Spalato, he got the Inquisition after him and raised dust for England and the Anglican church in 1616.

They called you great-bellied-Doctour, made fat under Antichrist; and some there were also that sayd, that before you ranne away from the Pope, you got your owne Neece with child, and that feare to be punished for it, made you trudge away with your great load of flesh in such hast.

John Floyd

In Albion the absconded archbishop settled into a fine tenured appointment on the king’s dole to denounce the papists like only a convert can do. As A Game at Chess would indicate, he also earned fame for his avarice and gluttony, and who knows how many other deadly sins.

The rep for opportunism grew when Dominis defected back to Holy Mother Church upon the election of an old intimate as Pope Gregory XV. His well-worn welcome in England as anti-papal vituperator had, too, become complicated by the progress of the proposed Spanish Match to wed Prince Charles to Europe’s leading Catholic monarchy — an ultimately abortive project, but nearing the acme of its fortunes at the time Dominis returned to Italy.

(The Spanish Match is the protracted political and diplomatic dance whose progress A Game at Chess allegorically tells. Dominis arranged his return to the Catholic fold through the Spanish ambassador in England, making the former a fit character for the playwright to project the double-dealing and skullduggery of the rivals’ negotiations.)

Theosophizing

Unfortunately for our unprincipled Renaissance man, Gregory himself yielded up the ghost almost immediately and left the Church in the hands of the aggressive Urban VIII. (Urban is the guy who forced Dominis’s old tidal rival Galileo to retract heliocentrism.)

Dominis — who seems to have been an ecumenical guy, maybe just a fancy way of saying he could accommodate any doctrine amenable to his ambition‡ — was evidently still trafficking with the unorthodox even after he returned, recanted, and renounced. (Renunciation in English | Latin).§

One contemporary reportedly said of Dominis

he was a malecontent knave when he fled from us, a railing knave while he lived with you, and a motley parti-coloured knave now he is come back.

The Inquisition imprisoned Dominis, and his death in Castel Sant’Angelo was not sufficient to end heresy proceedings against such as he left behind.

[H]is body was put into a well-pitched coffin, and that into another greater than it … until such time as the cause of the said Archbishop, still depending, should be determined by the Sacred Congregation; that according to their sentence, whatever justice did require, might be done upon him.

The sentence being framed and ready to be put in execution, the said body was … taken the twentieth of this present month of December, forth from the convent where it was left, and carried to the church of Minerva, and there laid upon a table in an eminent place, together with his picture and a little sack of books which he had printed; and where it stood all the night.

The next morning … the most illustrious and most reverend lods cardinals, supreme inquisitors, with many others … proceeded unto a definitive sentence, which was, to declare him unworthy of the favour of the Holy See apostolic, to deprive him of all his honour, benefit, or dignity, confiscate his goods, and give him over to the secular powers, as de facto they then gave him over, that he and his picture, together with the books he had written, should be burned …

INSCRIPTIO

MARCUS ANTONIUS DE DOMINIS,

LATE ARCHBISHOP OF SPALATRO,

Most impiously bent his style against the Church of God, which had extraordinarily well deserved of him; having wounded her and stabbed her through, he so left her without cure, and wretchedly betook himself to the English altars, that thence the swine might the more securely gruntle against the Pope and Catholics. Returning home again, but no convert, his apostatic spirit he forsook not. He died (and the voice of a penitent man would he had not uttered) impenitent. (Source)

* Dominis is still today sometimes credited as the first to explain both primary and secondary rainbows, in preference to Descartes, who nailed them 20 years later. According to The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, that gave far too much credit to Dominis for either originality or accuracy, and may have been written intentionally to undercut Descartes. (R.E. Ockenden made the same claim about Newton’s exaggeration in “Marco Antonio de Dominis and His Explanation of the Rainbow” in the not-exactly-current Dec. 1936 Isis).

Maybe Newton explicator and Executed Today guest blogger Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square blog could refract some light on this.

** Spalato, i.e., Split, the scenic Dalmatian city where the great Roman Emperor Diocletian famously retired to tend his cabbages.

† “Lately,” Galileo sniffed, “a certain prelate has published a little tract wherein he says that the Moon, wandering through the sky, attracts and draws up toward itself a heap of water which goes along following it.” As cited in Understanding the Heavens: Thirty Centuries of Astronomical Ideas from Ancient Thinking to Modern Cosmology.

There’s an interesting treatment of Galileo’s stubborn adherence to a wrong idea about the tides in a history-of-ideas context in “Galileo’s Claim to Fame: The Proof That the Earth Moves from the Evidence of the Tides,” by W. R. J. Shea in The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1970)

‡ Though he’s frequently read as a mere trimmer, it’s possible to give Dominis a much more sympathetic take. King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom argues that

it is difficult to explain his movements on this basis alone. Both in his journey to England and in his journey to Rome he took great risks, and in both cases gave up a reasonably secure position for one much less certain. Hacket, in the late seventeenth century, saw him not only as a place-seeker but as a man obsessed with an idea: “He lived and died with General Councils in his Pate, with Wind-Mills of Union to concord Rome and England, England and Rome, Germany with them both, and all other Sister-Churches with the rest, without asking leave of the Tridentine Council.” … [he] died for an ecumenical ideal which is only now, perhaps, beginning to be understood and appreciated … [and his] move [back to Rome] was the desperate attempt of a lonely, egotistical, and gifted man to find personal and spiritual fulfillment and, at the same time, to help to restore unity and coherence to a Europe being torn apart by religious conflict and war.

§ The Catholic Encyclopedia has Dominis re-relapsing when his pension expired along with Pope Gregory.

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1749: Antonio Camardella

1 comment September 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1749, an unrepentant Antonio Camardella was hanged in Rome’s Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo (Italian link).

Camardella offed prelate Donato Morgigni for stiffing him in a business arrangement, and repelled all sanctimonious summons to contrition. When a priest mounted the scaffold with him to make one last go of it, verse has it, Camardella insisted on dying impenitent, crying “vendetta!” even as he dropped.

Dannato fu alle forche un delinquente
Per preticidio, detto Camardella.
Un santo fratacchion ch’era assistente
Dichiarollo per anima rubella,
Perche egli morir volle impenitente.
Invano a pentimento ei lo rappella,
Vendetta grida il reo, ne altrui da retta;
Penzolon cade e grida ancor vendetta.

This devil-may-care display of ferocity evidently made an impression on the denizens of a city still ruled by the papacy: they were still talking about it a century later, when Roman sonneteer Giuseppe Gioachino Belli anachronistically situated him on the scaffold with Belli’s own contemporary, renowned executioner Mastro Titta.

This pairing (written in the Roman dialect) of iconic criminal with iconic headsman, observed by our youthful narrator and his father, makes for a vivid scene of coming-of-age in an Eternal City where the Catholic Church extends ritual control over both life and death.

Il giorno che impiccarono Camardella
Io mi ero appena cresimato.
Mi sembra adesso, che il padrino al mercato
mi comprò un pupazzo e una ciambella.
Mio padre prese poi il carrozzino
Ma prima volle godersi l’impiccato:
E mi teneva in alto sollevato
Dicendo: “Guarda la forca quant’è bella!”
Nello stesso istante al condannato mastro Titta
Applicò un calcio nelle terga, e papà a me
Uno schiaffone alla guancia destra.
“Prendi”, mi disse, “e ricordati bene
Che questa stessa fine è destinata
A mille altri che sono migliori di te.”
The day they hanged Camardella
I had just been confirmed.
It seems to me now that my godfather took me to the market
I bought myself a top and a sweet roll.
My father then took the buggy
But first he wanted to enjoy the hanging:
He lifted me up high
Saying, “See how beautiful the gallows!”
Suddenly Mastro Titta struck the condemned
A kick in the rear, my father struck me
A slap to the right cheek.
“Take it,” he said, “and remember well
That this same fate is destined
A thousand others who are better than you.”

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Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

[flv:http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/video/flv/1610/jc7.flv 440 330]

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly and tirelessly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

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1817: Three criminals in Rome, as witnessed by Lord Byron

5 comments May 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1817, the day before he left his Roman holiday for Venice, Lord Byron saw three criminals beheaded at the Piazza del Popolo.

He wrote all about it in his correspondence with John Murray.

The day before I left Rome* I saw three robbers** guillotined. The ceremony — including the masqued priests; the half-naked executioners; the bandaged criminals; the black Christ and his banner; the scaffold; the soldiery; the slow procession, and the quick rattle and heavy fall of the axe; the splash of the blood, and the ghastliness of the exposed heads — is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence. Two of these men behaved calmly enough, but the first of the three died with great terror and reluctance, which was very horrible. He would not lie down; then his neck was too large for the aperture, and the priest was obliged to drown his exclamations by still louder exhortations. The head was off before the eye could trace the blow; but from an attempt to draw back the head, notwithstanding it was held forward by the hair, the first head was cut off close to the ears: the other two were taken off more cleanly. It is better than the oriental way, and (I should think) than the axe of our ancestors. The pain seems little; and yet the effect to the spectator, and the preparation to the criminal, are very striking and chilling. The first turned me quite hot and thirsty, and made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close, but determined to see, as one should, see every thing, once, with attention); the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things grow indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me as a horror, though I would have saved them if I could.

— Venice, May 30, 1817

* The date is not stated directly in Byron’s missive, but his movements are known in some detail — for instance, this timeline.

** According to the notes of executioner Mastro Titta, the three criminals “‘decapitati’ al Popolo, per omicidi e grassazioni” this day were Giovanni Francesco Trani, Felice Rocchi and Felice De Simoni.

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1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr

12 comments February 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.

A figure of ridicule in the 17th century, Bruno got this statue at the site of his execution in the 19th — when the world finally began to catch up with him.

A Dominican inductee in his teens, Bruno was cast out of the order for his heterodoxy.

There followed a lifetime seemingly always on the run, with each successive safe harbor turned against his pantheistic principles and abrasive personal manner.

Bruno has been understood with hindsight to have grasped, fleetingly, the world-upending implications of the Copernican system. In “a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe,” Bruno intuited modern cosmology — wherein both earth and sun were merely heavenly bodies among many others, situated in an infinite universe that did not revolve around them.

More than that, he intuited the expanse of philosophical, scientific and spiritual inquiry that would follow from that idea’s comprehensive destruction of the medieval order, centuries ahead of his time.

That little of Bruno’s own scientific work has withstood the test of time, and other scientific contemporaries did not sympathize with him, enables a hostile source like the Catholic Encyclopedia to sniff that

the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system.

These latter traits are precisely the reason for his reclamation by Age of Reason deists.

[audio:http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/tapestry_20100425_31274.mp3]

But the sixteenth century had no place for him.

This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham.

Bruno fled Italy for Geneva, where he was soon excommunicated by Calvinist authorities, and thence to France, impressing King Henri III before wearing out his welcome. He spent time in England and Lutheran Germany, running afoul of each new host with his radical ideas, his contempt for the dead hand of Aristotelianism, and his decided want of tact.

He returned at last to Italy and these pages, perhaps counting on the Venetians’ historic rivalry with the papacy in accepting a sponsorship in the maritime republic. There the Inquisition clapped him in irons and shipped him to Rome where for unclear reasons he spent six-plus years imprisoned before facing trial as a heretic.

“Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Refusing all opportunity to recant, Bruno was led to the stake this morning gagged against any last outrages against St. Peter’s throne, and the friar who recorded Bruno’s unyielding end — famously mythologized in turning away from the proffered crucifix — could hardly have thought he was writing Bruno’s heroic epitaph as a martyr to the spirit of critical inquiry and passionate dissent.

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

That end serves as the climax to the forgettable 1973 Italian flick Giordano Bruno.

Sole bird of the sun, thou wandering phoenix!
That measurest thy days as does the world
With lofty summits of Arabia Felix.
Thou art the same thou wast, but I what I was not:
I through the fire of love, unhappy die;
But thee the sun with his warm rays revives;
Thou burn’st in one, and I, in every place;
Eros my fire, while thine Apollo gives.
Predestined is the term of thy long life;
Short span is mine,
And menaced by a thousand ills.
Nor do I know how I have lived, nor how shall live,
Me does blind fate conduct;
But thou wilt come again, again behold thy light.

-From Bruno’s esoteric The Heroic Enthusiasts, available on gutenberg.org

A few recent books about Giordano Bruno

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Papal States,Public Executions

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31: Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard

14 comments October 18th, 2008 Headsman

Over the course of this day in 31, Lucius Aelius Seianus went from virtual master of the Roman Empire to strangulation at the order of the Senate.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in I, Claudius.

Known simply as Sejanus, he was of equestrian stock who rose to prefect the Praetorian Guard when Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Rome’s first citizen.

It was not yet the “infamous Praetorian Guard”. Sejanus would make it so: his were the institutional aggrandizement — long outliving Sejanus — that would position the Guard to arbitrate imperial succession; his the persecutorial internal policing that made it a swords-and-sandals Gestapo.

Sejanus maneuvered skillfully towards supreme power in Rome — and ruthlessly enough that he is suspected of having murdered Tiberius’s son and heir Drusus. Though the Emperor refused a dynastic marriage with Drusus’s widow that would have set Sejanus up for official succession, the Praetorian had the purple in all but name in the late 20’s when Tiberius decamped for the dissolution of Capri.

The usual sort of thing ensued: spies, informers, purges and political murders.

The Republic had been down this road before. After the peace of Augustus, it was a chilling preview of Imperial Rome’s coming attractions.

Unlike most of those, the Sejanus issue was ultimately resolved without civil war. Finally wise to his captain’s game, Tiberius snuffed out the threat in a single blow without bestirring himself from his island retreat by sending word to convoke Sejanus and the Senate to elevate the soldier to the tribunate … and having a letter there read which demanded the soldier’s arrest.

That august old body — “men fit to be slaves,” in Tiberius’s estimation — took it from there. Sejanus was summarily executed this very evening, his body torn apart by the mob, and a witch hunt for his lieutenants and supporters immediately began.

Nice coverage of Sejanus and Tiberius on the History of Rome podcast.

[audio:http://c1.libsyn.com/media/17332/58-_Partner_of_my_Labors.mp3]

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Italy,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Strangled,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns

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46 B.C.E.: Vercingetorix the Gaul

2 comments September 19th, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date around this time — sort of — in 46 B.C.E., the Gallic chief Vercingetorix was marched as Julius Caesar’s star captive in Rome, then strangled in prison.

A nobleman who in the course of things would have been destined for that class of domestic elites bought off by Rome for orderly management of conquered provinces, Vercingetorix instead mounted a massive and effective semi-guerrilla resistance. A few months after Caesar had declared “Mission Accomplished” and Gaul at peace, it rose in arms … and, as Vercingetorix rolled out a scorched-earth defense, in flames.

Julius Caesar, then serving a long and lucrative career as Governor of Gaul, managed only with difficulty — and staggering bloodshed — to pacify the province at the Battle of Alesia. It was a signal military engagement in the development of the Roman Empire, cementing Roman power in Gaul for centuries to come.

The wily barbarian’s revolt and the very serious danger it posed to Caesar’s ambitions are the subject of a five-part BBC documentary.

Vercingetorix’s allegedly theatrical surrender to Caesar essentially ended the Gauls stubborn, centuries-long resistance to Roman dominion.


Reddition de Vercingétorix à Alésia – Christophe Lambert
Uploaded by EvivaEuropa

Yes, that’s the Highlander, Christopher Lambert, playing the French Braveheart version of barbarian heroism in Druids. HBO’s series Rome went with a less romantic version:

Either way, the once-intractable province became the bastion from which Caesar would overthrow the foundering Roman Republic.

Political rivals in the capital for whom Caesar’s Gallic campaign was nothing to celebrate denied Caesar a ceremonial Triumph and maneuvered to check the ambitious general. When the conflict came to a head in 49 B.C.E., Caesar’s bold move from the provincial borders of Gaul into Italy — crossing the Rubicon — ignited civil war in Rome.

Vercingetorix languished in Roman chains all along, until Caesar finally mopped up his enemies in the field and returned to Rome, where he celebrated an extravagant quadruple Triumph for his various military achievements.

As described by Appian,

when he returned to Rome he had four triumphs together: one for his Gallic wars, in which he had added many great nations to the Roman sway and subdued others that had revolted; one for the Pontic war against Pharnaces;* one for the war in Africa against the African allies of L. Scipio, in which the historian Juba (the son of King Juba), then an infant, was led a captive. Between the Gallic and the Pontic triumphs he introduced a kind of Egyptian triumph, in which he led some captives taken in the naval engagement on the Nile.** Although he took care not to inscribe any Roman names in his triumph (as it would have been unseemly in his eyes and base and inauspicious in those of the Roman people to triumph over fellow-citizens), yet all these misfortunes were represented in the processions and the men also by various images and pictures, all except Pompey, whom alone he did not venture to exhibit, since he was still greatly regretted by all. The people, although restrained by fear, groaned over their domestic ills, especially when they saw the picture of Lucius Scipio, the general-in-chief, wounded in the breast by his own hand, casting himself into the sea, and Petreius committing self-destruction at the banquet, and Cato torn apart by himself like a wild beast. They applauded the death of Achillas and Pothinus, and laughed at the flight of Pharnaces.

It is said that money to the amount of 60,500 silver talents was borne in the procession and 2822 crowns of gold weighing 20,414 pounds, from which wealth Caesar made apportionments immediately after the triumph, paying the army all that he had promised and more. Each soldier received 5000 Attic drachmas, each centurion double, and each tribune of infantry and perfect of cavalry fourfold that sum. To each plebeian citizen also was given an Attic mina. He gave also various spectacles with horses and music, a combat of foot-soldiers, 1000 on each side, and a cavalry fight of 200 on each side. There was also another combat of horse and foot together. There was a combat of elephants, twenty against twenty, and a naval engagement of 4000 oarsmen, where 1000 fighting men contended on each side. He erected the temple to Venus, his ancestress, as he had vowed to do when he was about to begin the Battle of Pharsalus, and he laid out ground around the temple which he intended to be a forum for the Roman people, not for buying and selling, but a meeting-place for the transaction of public business, like the public squares of the Persians, where the people assemble to seek justice or to learn the laws. He placed a beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess, which stands there to this day. He caused an enumeration of the people to be made, and it is said that it was found to be only one half of the number existing before this war.

War is hell.

At the Gallic triumph, Vercingetorix — by far the most fearsome enemy Caesar had to display vis-a-vis a five-year-old child and the sister of his lover — was at last the center of attention again for a day. Still defiant, he was marched through the Eternal City, then strangled at the Tullianum, or Mamertine Prison.

But which day? The bare fact is that we just don’t know, but this one has more than the typical imprecision that characterizes dating ancient events. This footnote on a page about Egyptian royalty grapples with the timing.

Suetonius gives us that his Triumphs were celebrated

four times in one month, each Triumph succeeding the former by an interval of a few days.

Since Cassius Dio claims that Caesar dedicated the Temple of Venus (datable to late September of 46) on the last day of the last Triumph, that presumably makes September the “one month” of the various celebrations.

That’s about as close as it gets, but even “September” comes with a caveat. During his few months in Rome between campaigns, Caesar accomplished a frenetic civil agenda (it helps to be dictator). Perhaps none is of such recognizable consequence for posterity as reform of the wacky solar-lunar hybrid Roman calendar — and 46 B.C.E. was the very year he implemented it.

Disdaining incrementalism, Caesar tackled the mess the Roman calendar had become at once, by stuffing the year 46 up to 445 days. As a result, 365 days after the execution of Vercingetorix was not September of 45, but July (or possibly June) — and those months are sometimes given for the dates of Caesar’s Triumphs on this basis. Since Caesar actually won his decisive battle in April of 46 B.C.E. and returned to Rome that July, the potential for confusion multiplies: if you’re not accounting for the exceptional calendar, July Triumphs appear initially plausible.

It is here that one beholds the essential subjectivity behind a putatively mechanistic device like a calendar: if Vercingetorix was executed in spring or summer, was he executed in September?

Whenever it was that he was throttled in the Mamertine, Vercingetorix did not go quietly. If his cause of resistance to Roman authority was doomed for the time being, the eternal allure of rebellion — and, as the Gallic lands later germinated France, the proto-nationalism of his cause — secured him his own symbolic immortality.


Napoleon III, with his complex relationship to the Gallic and Italic dreams of another age, was just the man to put up this statue of Vercingetorix where the barbarian was thought to have made his last stand. Its inscription reads:

La Gaule unie
Formant une seule nation
Animée d’un même esprit,
Peut défier l’Univers.

* The speedily resolved Pontic War gave us Caesar’s “veni, vidi, vici”.

** It was at the Egyptian triumph that Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe was marched, though she was not executed afterwards.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guerrillas,Heads of State,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Strangled,Uncertain Dates

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1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide

14 comments September 11th, 2008 Headsman

On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.

Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.

This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.

But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.

Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.

So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.

(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)

Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.

You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.

And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:

It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.

While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.

And he had this charming painting of her to boot:

Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”

This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)

From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.

Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:

It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.

He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.

* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.

** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Italy,Mazzolatura,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Papal States,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,The Supernatural,Torture,Women,Wrongful Executions

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