16. Defeated Mongol Enemies Were Guests of Honor at a Final Feast Celebrated Over Their Still-Living Bodies
The Mongols’ reputation for cruelty and bloodthirstiness was well deserved. While those who chose to surrender immediately often found the Mongols to be decent rulers, woe betide those who resisted. It is estimated that the wars of Mongol conquest might have killed up to 60 million people. One thing that Mongols enjoyed was to make examples out of their defeated foes. On May 31, 1223, the Mongols led by Subutai and Jebe defeated and annihilated their Kievan Rus and pursuers.
Things went from bad to worse for the captured enemy commanders when the Mongols decided to celebrate their victory by throwing a feast and to dine over their bodies of their captives. By the banks of the Kalka River, captured enemy commanders were bound and laid on the ground. A huge board was then placed atop their bodies, over which the victors sat to eat, drink, and celebrate their triumph. As the victors roistered, the vanquished were slowly crushed and suffocated to death beneath them.
15. A Good Soldier Who Became Better Known for His Final Words Than for His Distinguished Career
John Sedgwick (1813 – 1864) was born into a family of American Revolutionary War veterans, including one grandfather who had served as a general alongside George Washington. Sedgwick became a respected and competent Union general and corps commander during the Civil War. His kindliness and paternal affection, combined with concern for his soldiers’ well-being, won him the love of his men and the nickname “Uncle John”. Unfortunately, he is more widely remembered for his ironic final words than for his solid military career.
Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837 and was commissioned as an artillery officer. He served ably, and was still in uniform when the Civil War broke out in April 1861. He was given command of a cavalry regiment, and by August 1861, was promoted to command his own brigade in the Army of the Potomac. By February 1862, was in charge of his own division. He fought bravely in the Peninsula Campaign and was wounded two times during the Seven Days Battles.
At the Battle of Antietam, John Sedgwick was sent on a poorly planned charge, and his division was shot to pieces. He lost 2200 men, and was struck by three bullets. When he recovered from his injuries and returned to duty, he was promoted to command his own corps. He won early success with his Sixth Corps during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but the battle ended in a Union defeat. During the Overland Campaign in 1864, he led his corps in the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 9th, 1864, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, as Sedgwick positioned his artillery, his troops came under sniper fire and grew jittery.
He chided his men for their timidity under single bullets, and wondered how they would react when they confronted the massed enemy on the firing line, and faced full volleys. The men were ashamed, but continued to flinch. So Uncle John Sedgwick continued with what became his final words: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dista…“. That was when his pep speech was interrupted by a sniper bullet that hit him in the face beneath his left eye, and killed him instantly. He was the highest-ranking Union general killed on a battlefield in the Civil War.
Unlike Karl Marx, an extreme atheist, this entry for memorable final words belongs to Hugh Latimer (circa 1487 – 1555), who was extremely religious. An English Protestant bishop, his staunch refusal to budge from his religious beliefs got him burned at the stake by Queen Mary, during her campaign to restore England to Catholicism. Her father, King Henry VIII, had taken England out of the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from Mary’s mother. So he broke with Rome, established the Church of England, and appointed himself it’s head.
Hugh Latimer graduated from Cambridge University, was elected a fellow of its Clare College in 1510, and became a Catholic priest in 1515. However, he switched to Protestantism in 1524 and became a zealous advocate and defender of his new faith. He gained renown as a Protestant preacher and was appointed a bishop by Henry VIII in his newly formed Church of England. Although he had established a new church, Henry VIII kept many doctrines and practices of Catholicism. When the king refused to adopt Protestant reforms, Latimer resigned in protest.
Henry VIII was succeeded on the throne by his underage son, Edward VI, who was staunchly Protestant. Hugh Latimer regained royal favor, was appointed court preacher, and became the young king’s chaplain. However, Edward died young and without issue, and was succeeded by his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic who viewed Protestantism as a heresy, and was determined to restore England to Catholicism. Early in her reign, she had prominent Protestants such as Latimer imprisoned and tried for heresy. Latimer, along with fellow bishop Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was tried for heresy in Oxford in 1555. He was convicted when he refused to renounce his faith, and was sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Latimer was chained to the stake alongside Ridley. When the flames were lit, Ridley cried out in agony. Latimer sought to comfort him even as he himself was consumed by fire, and uttered his final words through the smoke and flames: “be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.” It could be argued that the candle still burns. Queen Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism failed. When she died in 1558, she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, and England has been Protestant ever since.
11. A Pirate Who Became Famous Because of Who He Knew, Not What He Did
John Rackham, better known as Calico Jack (1682 – 1720), is one of the best-known pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy. That is not because he was particularly successful – compared to other famous pirates, his career was middling and his accomplishments mediocre. Instead, his fame rests upon his association with more successful pirates; his venality and backstabbing which stood out even in a profession built on venality and backstabbing; and because his first mate designed the Jolly Roger flag. Most importantly, he became known because his crew included two famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and because of Anne Bonny’s final words to him.
Rackham was nicknamed Calico Jack because of the colorful calico clothes he favored. He was the quartermaster aboard the pirate sloop Ranger in 1718, when she encountered a French man of war twice her size, and the pirate captain, choosing discretion over valor, fled. Rackham and the crew decried what they viewed as cowardice, and soon thereafter they voted the captain out of the command. In his place, the pirates elected Calico Jack. As captain, he specialized in plundering small vessels engaged in coastal trade but fell upon larger ships when the opportunity presented itself.
In 1719, John Rackham, AKA Calico Jack, accepted a royal pardon, renounced piracy, and was commissioned by the governor of the Bahamas to hunt pirates. However, a love triangle that involved Anne Bonny grew complicated, and the duo stole a slip and slipped out of the Bahamas. That voided Rackham’s recent pardon. In October 1720, a pirate hunter chanced upon Rackham’s ship at anchor, while Calico Jack and most of his men were too drunk to offer effective resistance. The only fight was made by the women, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who offered fierce resistance before they were finally subdued.
Captured, Calico Jack was tried and convicted of piracy and was sentenced to death by hanging. His lover, spared the noose after “pleading her belly” – she was pregnant – had little sympathy for him. When he grew maudlin as he bade her goodbye before his execution, Bonny’s final words to him were brutal: “if you had fought like a man, you would not hang now like a dog!” He was hanged on November 18, 1720, and his corpse was displayed from a gibbet at the entrance to Port Royal, Jamaica, in an inlet known thereafter as Rackham’s Cay.
Gaius Octavius (63 BC – 14 AD), known to history as Augustus Caesar or just plain Augustus, was Rome’s first emperor. He was born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand-uncle launched his grand-nephew into public life and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies when his grand-uncle was assassinated in 44 BC.
When he returned to Italy, he learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager, and Cicero, one of Rome’s chief elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him. As he quipped, he would “raise, praise, then erase” the young man.
While everybody underestimated Octavius, he paid for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity and wooed Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. When Octavius secured a military force under his command, Cicero’s faction sought the young man’s aid. They bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius got the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.
He then double-crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony and joined him in a power-sharing dictatorship. They then exacted a terrible revenge upon their foes with the launch of a massive purge that executed thousands of opponents, actual and suspected, including Cicero. Next, they went after Julius Caesar’s assassins and defeated them in a final battle. Octavius and Antony then swore friendship, sealed the bargain with the marriage of Antony and Octavius’ sister, and divided the Roman Empire. Antony was given the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.
In Egypt, Mark Antony fell in love with Cleopatra, married her, and abandoned Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated decisively in 31 BC. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces and brought the entire Roman Empire under his control. Octavius then reorganized the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. The result was a century of chaos and bloodshed until the reins were taken by Octavius, whom the Senate granted the honorific “Augustus”.
In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy. He inaugurated a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity. He held supreme power in the Roman world from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. Comparing the role he had to play as emperor to the theater, Augustus’ final words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.
To come up with defiant final words against tyranny and oppression while at death’s door is badass. Then there is shouting defiance against tyranny and oppression while the oppressive tyrant’s noose is around one’s neck type of daring, which takes things to another level. Stjepan Filopivic managed to pull off the latter in World War II, when he shouted to a gathered crowd “Death to fascism! Freedom to the people!” with a Nazi noose around his neck. They were his final words on earth, just a split second before his execution.
Stjepan Filipovic was a Croatian who was born in 1916 in what became Yugoslavia after World War I. He left home when he was sixteen-years-old, and got a job as a metalworker. In 1937, he joined the local workers’ movement and became an activist member. He was arrested for political activity and was sentenced to a year in jail. His time behind bars only served to further radicalize him, and upon his release in 1940, he joined the Communist Party. He was radicalized even further when Germany invaded and conquered Yugoslavia in 1941.
Stjepan Filipovic volunteered to join the partisan resistance against the Nazi occupiers, and he was posted to a guerrilla unit near Valjevo, in today’s Serbia. He was given responsibility for recruitment and for weapons supplies, excelled in his duties, and showed significant promise. Between that and conspicuous daring, he rose to command an entire partisan battalion by the end of 1941. However, he was captured by the Nazis in February 1942, and was sentenced to be publicly hanged in Valjevo’s town square. At death’s door, Stjepan Filipovic had the courage and presence of mind to seize the moment and defy his captors during his final seconds on earth.
Atop the gallows, and with the hangman’s noose around his neck, Filipovic daringly thrust his hands in the air and struck a dramatic pose that was captured on camera. He urged the gathered crowd to continue the struggle against the Nazi oppressors and their Yugoslav collaborators, and cried out just before he was hanged: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” It was a preexisting partisan slogan, and Filipovic’s martyrdom helped popularize it. After the war, Filipovic was designated a national hero of Yugoslavia. A monumental statue was erected in Valjevo in his honor, replicating his Y-shaped pose in an artistic rendition reminiscent of a Goya painting.
4. The Well-Named Spiller of Blood Was the First to Feast Atop the Bodies of Defeated Enemies
As seen above, the Mongols had feasted over the still-living bodies of defeated Rus and Cuman commanders after the Battle of Kalka River in 1223. However, that was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate. Such a ghoulish mode of celebration seems to have been pioneered by the first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754). Nicknamed Al Saffah (“Spiller of Blood” – a well-earned nickname), he feasted atop the bodies of his foes after he defeated and displaced the Ummayad Dynasty as Caliphs.
Al Saffah had initiated a revolt against the Ummayads and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could get his hands on. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and 80 surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. It turned out to be their final meal. Al Saffah had them seized, stabbed, covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs, then sat down and bade other guests join him in a feast as the dying Ummayads writhed beneath them.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian (9 – 79 AD), was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus in an unremarkable village named Falacrinae, northeast of Rome. He hailed from a relatively comfortable but otherwise undistinguished family without pedigree, of the equestrian class – the second of the property-based classes of ancient Rome, that ranked below the senatorial class. His ancestors included a common legionary who went on to become a centurion, a debt collector, and a small-scale money lender with a clientele of barbarians.
Vespasian rose from his humble origins to become emperor of Rome and found the Flavian Dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire for three decades. A self-made man, he entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune, and steadily rose through its military and civilian positions. His first big break came during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when he displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and won the esteem of Emperor Claudius. That led to a consulship, but he displeased Claudius’ wife, and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
2. Vespasian Transformed the Year of the Three Emperors Into the Year of the Four Emperors
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Emperor Claudius’ death, and won favor with his successor, Nero. His restored career was derailed, however, when he fell asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Things got so bad for Vespasian that he was forced to become a muleteer to make ends meet. His fortunes revived when he was appointed to suppress the Jewish Rebellion in 67 AD, and he was busily engaged in that when Nero was forced from power and driven to suicide in 68.
In the subsequent scramble for power, rival governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession. By April of 69, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian reasoned why not four? He secured support in the Roman east, then declared himself emperor and sent his forces to Rome. By year’s end, his armies had triumphed, and won a final victory that secured the Empire for Vespasian. His rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program.
1. This Emperor’s Final Words Were Wholly in Character
Vespasian had a reputation for wit and amiability. As emperor, he seldom stood on ceremony, but cultivated a blunt and even coarse mannerism, and was given to forthright speech. He never forgot his origins and resisted the temptation to put on airs to which most Roman emperors succumbed. One of his revenue-raising schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. His son and designated heir took him to task for that and argued that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta.
In response, Vespasian held a coin beneath his son’s nose and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson with the statement: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb. Vespasian’s final words were in line with his character. Starting with Julius Caesar, who was declared a god after his assassination, Roman emperors who died in good repute were deified after death. When he felt the end nearing 79 AD, Vespasian, in a final illustration of a lifelong penchant for not taking himself too seriously, joked just before he drew his last breath: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading