In the early nineteenth century, southern Italy suffered greatly from the raids of small gangs of bandits who would descend from their hideouts in the mountains of Calabria and Abruzzi to rob travelers and to loot the villages. The authorities seemed unable to squelch the bands of thieves and protect the people, and only the vendettas and feuds between gangs themselves prevented the outlaws from uniting as one force to wreak greater havoc. Then, in 1816, a man named Ciro Annunchiarico (d. 1818) became southern Italy's greatest nightmare when he claimed the power of Jupiter, father of the gods of Imperial Rome, and successfully brought the bandit gangs into a single striking force, leading them to rob, pillage, and burn under the banner of the skull and crossbones and the motto, "Sadness, Death, Terror, and Mourning."
By 1817, Annunchiarico commanded 20,000 members of the secret society of the Decided Ones of Jupiter the Thunderer. The men were divided into camps of 300 to 400 members, and squadrons of 40 to 60. The society was structured along military lines and strict discipline was enforced. If Ciro Annunchiarico had so desired, he could easily have led an open revolution against any state government in southern Italy. But Annunchiarico, who claimed that the might of the great god Jupiter flowed through his body, was more interested in personal aggrandizement than in political opportunities.
Annunchiarico was the son of wealthy parents who had entered the priesthood and who had seemed destined for a fruitful career in the Roman Catholic Church. The many tasks faced by a common parish priest had little attraction for him, however, and he preferred the life of a country gentleman on the family estate. Neither did the young priest respect his vow of celibacy, and he seduced a young woman who was engaged to Giovanni Montolesi, the son of a wealthy merchant. When Montolesi learned of the affair, he sought out Annunchiarico and reproached him for bringing shame to the priesthood and dishonor to his fiancee. Without a word in his defense, Annunchiarico drew a dagger from his belt and stabbed Montolesi in the heart. Then, from his bizarre perspective, Annunchiarico declared that the man whom he had murdered had insulted him and the entire Roman Catholic priesthood, so he swore a blood-feud against the entire Montolesi family, ambushing and murdering 13 of 14 members in the next few months. Understandably, Annunchiarico was eventually pursued by the authorities and fled with some friends into the mountains to become outlaws.
As a youth, Annunchiarico had gained a reputation for scholarship and high intelligence. As the leader of a small band of brigands who favored a life of luxury above that of living in spartan hideouts, he developed a plan to combine the people's love and respect of the priesthood with their fear of secret societies. Boldly summoning the other bandit chiefs in the mountains to a meeting, Annunchiarico eloquently convinced them that they should unite as one to resist the soldiers that were constantly being sent out to hunt them down. While the chiefs were deciding just who it was among them who should lead the newly united force, Annunchiarico appeared in the full regalia of the priesthood and announced that he would celebrate the Mass. As the chiefs all kneeled to receive his blessing, such an attitude of obeisance signaled their acquiescence to his leadership. And at the same time that he was celebrating the Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, Annunchiarico informed all of the assembled outlaws that the spirit of Jupiter, the ancient father of the gods, had passed into his person and commanded him to form a new order, the Decided Ones of Jupiter.
In a brief period of time, numerous independent bands of thieves and murderers became a single secret society. And when word spread of the alleged supernatural powers of their leader, Ciro Annunchiarico, now known as Jupiter the Thunderer, men flocked to the mountains to join the lodges of the Decided Ones. In order to facilitate the rapid dispersal of his legendary abilities, Annunchiarico secretly used men who resembled him to serve as his doubles, dressed in priestly robes exactly like his, so it would appear that Jupiter the Thunderer could lead raids in several different places at the same time. He also had his personal bodyguard outfitted in devilish costumes, complete with horns and tails, to perpetuate the belief that he had the power to command and control demons. Neither any of his men nor any of the villagers dared to speak a word against Annunchiarico for fear that an invisible demon lurking nearby would report such an abuse and bring retribution upon them. And then there were reports of his terrible thunderbolts, which he was said to be able to hurtle at his enemies just as Jupiter had flung the deadly bolts in ancient times. When Annunchiarico informed the village clerics that he had now achieved divinity and that only he could celebrate Mass, they all immediately ceased their local celebrations lest they be struck down.
Small bands of soldiers sent against the Decided Ones were quickly annihilated. In 1818, a force of 1,000 regular troops under the command of General d'Octavio were sent into the mountains to arrest Annunchiarico and to destroy his band of outlaws. The superstitious recruits were so fearful of the mighty Jupiter that they permitted Annunchiarico to enter their camp at night and to place a dagger at the throat of their general. Annunchiarico decreed his mercy, but warned the general and the 1,000 men that if they ever dared again to violate his mountains, his thunderbolts would be certain to kill them all. General d'Octavio and his troops were gone at first light the next morning.
When the authorities realized that any army conscripted from southern Italy would hold Annunchiarico in the same kind of superstitious awe as the local populace, they hired a force of 1,200 German and Swiss mercenaries under the command of an Englishman, General Church. Strangely enough, the approach of these battle-hardened veterans of the Napoleonic wars affected Annunchiarico in ways that astonished his men. It became apparent that their god was visibly nervous, even frightened by the approach of the professional soldiers toward the mountains. Suddenly the person who harbored the spirit of Jupiter seemed like an ordinary mortal—and not even a very brave one at that. When word reached the camps of the Decided Ones that the mercenaries were well-equipped and exceedingly experienced men of war, thousands of them deserted within hours. Within a few days, Annunchiarico had only a few hundred of his most loyal disciples remaining out of what had been a fearsome band of 20,000.
Annunchiarico and his remaining Decided Ones retreated to the small village of Santa Marzano, choosing its location because of the wall that encircled the town. Hoping that members of the local populace would join in their defense, Annunchiarico prepared for siege. But the citizens of Santa Marzano could also see that the mighty Jupiter the Thunderer was, after all, just another bandit, and nothing about his person convinced any of them to risk their lives defending him against the Swiss and German soldiers. Within a few days of siege, General Church's mercenaries entered the village and killed those Decided Ones who offered resistance and arrested the others. Annunchiarico and three of his lieutenants managed to escape but were captured four days later.
Even as he was being led to the firing squad, Annunchiarico boasted that he had killed 60 or 70 men with his own hands, and he mocked the priest who came to administer the last rites. Many of the common people who had gathered on the day of execution murmured that the Thunderer would call down one of Jupiter's thunderbolts and escape from the mercenaries who had captured him. Incredibly, after the command was given to the 21-member firing squad to fire a volley at Ciro Annunchiarico, he remained alive, and somehow managed to get to his knees to begin a prayer to Jupiter. The astonished General Church ordered that the Thunderer's own musket be loaded with a silver bullet and that a soldier discharge the weapon directly into Annunchiarico's head, making certain that the legendary leader of the secret society was truly dead.
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Lefebure, Charles. The Blood Cults. New York: Ace Books, 1969.