Assassination at Asculum

March 13 2008

91 BC. The theatre at Asculum, what is now Ascoli Piceno in the Marche.

The Roman conquest of Italy in the fourth and third centuries had led to a collection of alliances between Rome and the Italian cities and communities, on terms more or less favourable to the cities. The allies were nominally independent, but Rome had the right to demand tribute money and a certain number of soldiers from them. By the second century BC, they were supplying between half and two-thirds of the soldiers in the Roman armies. Roman citizenship had not yet been granted to the inhabitants of most of them. The Roman government had virtual control over their foreign policy, including their interaction with one another.

In exchange for these exactions, the allies or socii – Toynbee calls them Confederates – had by tradition received a portion of the booty and lands taken in the course of Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean world. When Roman politicians redirected these profits to enrich Rome alone in the second century BC, the allies protested, and war followed: the so-called Social War (91-88 BC). Asculum was one of the first communities to rebel.

On the eve of this war, citizens and confederates sat at close quarters in the theatre.

Translation by Toynbee from Diodorus.

There happened to be a round of performances and the theatre was full of Roman citizens who had turned up as spectators, when an artist was assassinated [by one of the confederates] […] while actually performing on the stage, because his acting was supposed to be out of keeping with the gravity of the crisis.

One assumes that the actor who was killed was a citizen, a Roman, but he could have been a confederate. His fellow-actor, Saunio, whom we are about to meet, and who feared in turn for his life, had, Toynbee says in a footnote, the “Latin franchise”. This was “the highest class of Confederate status, which carried with it some of the privileges of citizenship”.

In a moment the mask of festivity revealed the grim features of war; there was an agony of panic; and then Fortune came to the rescue with a piece of comic relief, in the shape of the humourist Saunio. This personage, who held the Latin franchise, possessed an extraordinary gift for drollery. He could not only make people laugh when he talked, but the slightest wriggle of his body fetched a smile from his audience without his having to speak a word. There was something about his personality that was irresistible, and any Roman audience might be relied upon to give him a tremendous reception. The Confederates determined to deprive the Romans of this innocent enjoyment by killing the poor producer of it; but happily Saunio saw what was in the wind and, although his unfortunate fellow artist had only been murdered a moment before, he promptly walked on to the stage and started to do a turn: “Ladies and gentlemen, here is luck! Well cut, Sir! All is well that begins badly, I hope. You know, I am not a Roman, but one of yourselves. I travel all round Italy, but I never see the last of Roman pussy with her nine tails. What do I travel in? My own humble gifts. And what am I after? A good time for you. That is what I call salesmanship. You wouldn’t hurt the world’s little swallow? I nest in all your houses and nobody minds me. That is my privilege. Kindly pass over the bird of passage. Supposing you didn’t, I am sorry to think how sorry you would be” – and so on and so forth, keeping them amused and in fits of laughter with the running fire of his patter, until he had coaxed them out of their ugly temper by his irresistible charm and felt himself out of danger.

I suppose you had to be there …

The outcome of the Social War was the law of L Julius Caesar, who proposed and carried the Lex Julia during his consulship. The law offered full citizenship to all Latin and Italian communities which had not revolted. It offered the option of citizenship to communities, not to individuals. Each community had to pass the law, most likely by a vote in assembly, before it could take effect. But it was also possible under the Lex Julia for citizenship to be granted as a reward for distinguished military service in the field.

The Lex Julia was followed by a supplementary statute, the Lex Plautia Papiria, which stated that a registered male of an allied state could apply for Roman citizenship by presenting himself to a Roman praetor within sixty days of the passing of the law. This statute enabled inhabitants of towns disqualified by the Lex Julia to apply for citizenship if they desired.

The right of a Roman citizen to vote was limited by the requirement of physical appearance in Rome on voting day. After 88 BC candidates regularly paid the expenses (at least partially) of their supporters who travelled to Rome in order to vote.


In the modern world, theatres, inside or out, were perfect places for assassinations. No longer, since those who govern us no longer go to the theatre – which itself cannot be good for society.

We all know about Lincoln.

At midnight on March 16 1792, a masked ball took place at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Gustav III had arrived earlier that evening to attend a dinner in the company of friends. During the dinner, he received an anonymous letter that contained a threat to his life. He chose to ignore it and, after dining, left his rooms to take part in the masquerade. On entering, he was surrounded by Jacob Johan Anckarström and his co-conspirators Claes Horn and Adolf Ribbing. The king was easily spotted: the silver breast star of the Order of the Seraphim glowed on his cape. The conspirators wore black masks and accosted him in French with the words: “Bonjour, beau masque!” Anckarström fired a pistol into the left side of his back. The King jumped aside, crying in French: “Ah! Je suis blessé, tirez-moi d’ici et arrêtez-le!” He was carried back to his quarters, and the exits of the Opera were sealed. The conspirators were arrested and confessed. The king’s wound became infected and on March 29 he died, his last words being: “Jag känner mig sömning, några ögonblicks vila skulle göra mig gott.” The story is the basis of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

On May 15 1800, as George III sat in the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane for a performance of Colley Cibber’s She Would and She Would Not, a man in the pit fired a pistol at him during the playing of the national anthem. The king turned to Queen Charlotte and said: “It’s only a squib. We will not stir. We’ll stay the entertainment out.” The would-be assassin called out: “God bless your Royal Highness; I like you very well; you are a good fellow.” The King came forward to show that he had not been hurt and “les cris de joie de God save the King” rang out, as the Queen told her brother. Sheridan, the manager, advised the King to leave his box in case another shot was fired, but the King peered calmly round the house through his opera-glass.

An actress came onto the stage and announced: “I have the pleasure to tell you the man is in custody.” The assassin, James Hadfield, had been suffering from religious delusions: see a Comment below this post. At the end of the play, the king had his usual doze in the box before the commencement of the farce.

On February 13 1820 the Duc de Berry, the younger son of Charles X and Marie-Thérèse de Savoie was stabbed and mortally wounded by a Bonapartist fanatic, Louis Pierre Louvel, when leaving the opera house in Paris. He weas helping his pregnant wife, Caroline Ferdinande Louise, the daughter of Francis I of the Two Sicilies, into a carriage.

On the evening of January 14 1858, as Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie were on their way to the theatre in the Rue Le Peletier, the precursor of the Opéra Garnier, to see Rossini’s William Tell, Felice Orsini, an Italian revolutionary, and his accomplices threw three bombs at the imperial carriage. The first landed among the horsemen in front of the carriage. The second wounded the animals and smashed the carriage glass. The third landed under the carriage and seriously wounded a policeman who was hurrying to protect the occupants. Eight people were killed. Napoleon and Eugénie were unhurt, proceeded to the performance and appeared in their box. Orsini escaped, wounded on the right temple and stunned. He returned to his lodgings, where police found him the next day. He was guillotined a few weeks later. The bombs had been made in England.

On September 14 (Old Style September 1) 1911, the Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin attended a performance, in the presence of the Tsar and his family, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan at the Opera House in Kiev. Stolypin had travelled to Kiev without his bodyguards, defying police warnings and refusing to wear his bullet-proof shirt. A young man in evening dress, Dmitri Bogrov, produced a gun and shot him twice, once in the arm and once in the chest. Bogrov was both a leftist radical and an agent of Okhranka, a secret police force and extended body-guard for the Tsar. (Rimsky’s fairy-tale world had collided with twentieth-century violence just as Rimsky’s spirit was encountering the twentieth century in the living person of Igor Stravinsky. … Had the opera begun? Did Bogrov enter Stolypin’s box or was the shot fired across the auditorium?) The wounded Stolypin stood up from his chair, carefully removed his gloves, and unbuttoned his jacket, unveiling a blood-soaked waistcoat. He sank down and shouted “I am happy to die for the Tsar”, motioning to the Tsar in his royal box to withdraw to safety. Tsar Nicholas remained in his position and Stolypin blessed him with a sign of the cross.

Stolypin died four days later. The following morning, the Tsar knelt at his hospital bedside and repeated the words “Forgive me”. Bogrov was hanged ten days after the assassination, and the judicial investigation was halted by order of Tsar Nicholas II. This led to suggestions that the assassination had been planned not by leftists, but by conservative monarchists who were afraid of Stolypin’s reforms and his influence on the Tsar, though this has never been proved. This might have been the reason for the Tsar’s penitence, if the hospital story is true. The first line of Stolypin’s will read “Bury me where I am assassinated.”

For other strange events in Greek and Roman theatres, go to


Cimmerian darkness (Hispalis?)

Ephesus, c AD 57

See also

Dominus Illuminatio Mea (Hippodrome in Constantinople)

Athens, c AD 52-53 (Areopagus at Athens)

Carabas and the mob (Gymnasium in Alexandria)

Kaisarion (Gymnasium in Alexandria)

The passage above is identified by Toynbee as

DIODORUS: Library of Universal History: ed. by C. Müller, Paris, 1844, Didot, Vol, II; and by L. Dindorf, Leipzig, 1868, Teubner, Vol. V: Book XXXVII, fragment 12

The translation by Toynbee is in

Introduction and translations, Greek Civilization and Character, The Self-Revelation of Ancient Greek Society, Dent, 1924 (I have referred to an American edition, but anglicised the spelling)

6 Responses to “Assassination at Asculum”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Why does the would-be assassin of George III (the shot missed, but was not just a squib) call him Royal Highness? I took that statement (but not the whole paragraph) from the Wikipedia article about Hadfield. Its reference is “Eigen, J.P. (1995). Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-doctors in the English Court. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-06289-3.” I’ll assume Eigen and the Wikipedia author are correct: the man was delusional, after all.

    He had been struck eight times on the head with a sabre at the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794, serving under the Duke of York, before being captured by the French. He was acquitted on grounds of insanity, but Parliament speedily passed the Criminal Lunatics Act (1800) to provide for the indefinite detention of insane defendants. So the incident has a place in medical and legal history. Wikipedia: “Hadfield was detained in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the rest of his life save for a short period when he escaped. He was recaptured at Dover attempting to flee to France and was briefly held at Newgate Prison before being transferred to the new criminal facility at Bethlem. He died there of tuberculosis.”

    Perhaps Hadfield was thinking of his old commander, who would have been His Royal Highness. Was his shot one of revenge, cowering behind deference?

  2. […] Assassination at Asculum […]

  3. […] Assassination at Asculum […]

  4. […] Strange events in ancient theatres July 20, 2008 Ephesus Cimmerian darkness Athens, c AD 52-53 Ephesus, c AD 57 Carabas and the mob Kaisarion (the Alexandrian Gymnasium) Assassination at Asculum […]

  5. davidderrick Says:

    June 24 1894. Marie François Sadi Carnot, President of the French Third Republic, was stabbed to death in his carriage by an Italian anarchist, Sante Geronimo Caserio, while on his way to a theatre in Lyon. He had come to visit an Exhibition of Arts, Sciences and Industries and had just attended a banquet in his honour at the Chamber of Commerce. It was the anniversary of the Battle of Solferino.

    Caserio jumped onto the step of the carriage and plunged his dagger into Carnot’s chest. Italian restaurants and cafés were subsequently sacked. Caserio was executed by guillotine in Lyon at 5 am on August 16. In front of the guillotine, he exclaimed “Coraggio cugini – evviva l’anarchia!” (“Courage, cousins – long live anarchy!”).

    Compare Orsini above.

  6. […] an old post about assassinations in […]

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