Monday, May 16, 2005


A Head on a Platter

Mark 6.17-29 (cf. Matthew 14.3-12):
For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.

And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.

And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.
A charger (Greek pinax) is a platter or dish.

Although not mentioned in the commentaries available to me (Henry Barclay Swete on Mark, Vincent Taylor on Mark, William Barclay on Mark and Matthew, Alan Hugh McNeile on Matthew), there is a remarkably similar episode from the life of Lucius Quinctius Flaminius, consul in 192 B.C., expelled from the Senate by Cato the Censor in 184 B.C.

Like Herod, Lucius ordered a prisoner beheaded at a dinner party to gratify the whim of a favorite. The story appears in Cicero, Livy, and Plutarch.

Cicero, On Old Age 12.42 (tr. William Armistead Falconer, Cato is speaking):
It was a disagreeable duty that I performed in expelling Lucius Flaminius from the senate, for he was a brother of that most valiant man, Titus Flaminius, and had been consul seven years before; but I thought that lust merited the brand of infamy. For, when in Gaul during his consulship, at the solicitation of a courtesan at a banquet, he beheaded a prisoner then under condemnaton for some capital offence.

While his brother, my immediate predecessor, was censor, Lucius escaped punishment, but Flaccus and I could by no means approve of conduct so flagrant and abandoned, especially when to his crime against an individual he added dishonour to the state.

Livy 39.42-43 (tr. Henry Bettenson):
But from Cato's censorship there are extant a number of bitter speeches against those whom he removed from their seat in the Senate, or whom he deprived of their horses, and among these the most impressive by far is the attack on Lucius Quinctius; indeed, if he had delivered this speech as an accuser before the passing of censure instead of as a censor after it had been passed, not even his brother Titus Quinctius, had he been censor, would have been able to retain Lucius in the Senate.

Among other charges, he reproached him for his connection with Philippus the Carthaginian, an expensive and notorious prostitute whom he had induced, by holding out the promise of enormous gifts, to leave Rome, and join him in his province of Gaul. This boy, according to Cato, used often to upbraid the consul, in the course of playful raillery, because he had been taken away from Rome just before the gladitorial games, to display his compliance with his lover's demands.

Now it so happened that when they were having a dinner party, that a Boian notable, accompanied by his sons, had come to the Romans as a deserter; and that he wished for an interview with the consul so as to obtain his protection in person. He was brought into the tent, where he began to address the consul through an interpreter.

While the Boian was speaking. Quinctius said to his catamite: 'Since you missed the gladitorial show, would you like now to see this Gaul dying?' When the boy nodded, not really taking him seriously, the consul, at the nod of his prostitute, drew his sword, which was hanging above his head; and first he struck the head of the Gaul while he was still speaking, and then, as he tried to escape, imploring the protection of the Roman people and of those present, he ran him through.

Valerius Antias, not having read Cato's speech, gave credence to a tale circulated anonymously; he relates another version of the incident, which is, however, a similar story of lust and cruelty. Antias describes a dinner party at Placentia, to which Flaminius had invited a notorious woman whom he loved to distraction. At this party at Placentia, the consul was boasting to the harlot, telling her, among other things, about his severity in the administration of criminal justice and recounting how many people he had in custody, under sentence of death, whom he was going to behead.

The woman, reclining below him, then remarked that she had never seen anyone beheaded and she would very much like to witness an execution. On this the indulgent lover, we are told, ordered one of the unfortunates to be hauled before him, and chopped off his head.

Whether the act was performed as the censor described in his accusation, or as Valerius reports it, it was certainly a savage atrocity -- the sacrifice of a human victim as an amusement for a wanton harlot reclining on the bosom of a consul, with the victim's blood bespattering the table; and this in the midst of drinking and feasting, where, by custom, libations should be poured to the gods, and prayers offered for their blessing!

Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder 17.2-4 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
There was a youth who, ever since his boyhood, had been the favourite of Lucius. This youth Lucius kept ever about him, and took with him on his campaigns in greater honour and power than any one of his nearest friends and kinsmen had. He was once administering the affairs of his consular province, and at a certain banquet this youth, as was his wont, reclined at his side, and began to pay his flatteries to a man who, in his cups, was too easily led about.

"I love you so much," he said, "that once, when there was a gladiatorial show at home, a thing which I had never seen, I rushed away from it to join you, although my heart was set on seeing a man slaughtered." "Well, for that matter," said Lucius, "don't lie there with any grudge against me, for I will cure it."

Thereupon he commanded that one of the men who were lying under sentence of death be brought to the banquet, and that a lictor with an axe stand by his side. Then he asked his beloved if he wished to see the man smitten. The youth said he did, and Lucius ordered the man's head to be cut off.

This is the version which most writers give of the affair, and so Cicero has represented Cato himself as telling the story in his dialogue "On Old Age." But Livy says the victim was a Gallic deserter, and that Lucius did not have the man slain by a lictor, but smote him with his own hand, and that this is the version of the story in a speech of Cato's.

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