History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

20 November: On this day in history

What events happened on 20 November in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: November 20, 2021 at 6:05 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

20 November 284: Diocletian puts Aper to the sword 

Commander avenges the death of the emperor Numerian 


It was the autumn of AD 284, and the Roman army was marching home. After a successful campaign against the Persians, during which the emperor Carus had unfortunately died (reportedly, after being struck by lightning), the Romans were returning west. The forces were led by Carus’s son, Numerian. 

But something strange was going on. Numerian had not been seen since they had left Emesa (now called Homs, in Syria). When the soldiers asked where he was, his attendants claimed that he had an eye infection and “must protect his weakened eyes from the wind and the sun”. And the soldiers could not help noticing that, from the coach where Numerian was supposedly recovering, there drifted an increasingly disgusting stench. 

Eventually, when they reached Nicomedia (in what is now Turkey) on 20 November, the truth was discovered. Numerian was dead: murdered, some said, by his own father-in-law, Aper.

“Then all fell upon Aper, whose treachery could no longer be hidden, and they dragged him before the standards in front of the general’s tent,” records the Historia Augusta. “Then a huge assembly was held and a tribunal, too, was constructed.” The question was simple: “Who would be the most lawful avenger of Numerian and who could be given to the commonwealth as a good emperor?” 


The answer, it turned out, was a 40-year-old officer from Dalmatia, Diocletian, who commanded Numerian’s household troops. Diocletian duly stepped forward and drew his sword. Pointing to Aper, he said loudly: “It is he who contrived Numerian’s death” – and then buried his blade in Aper’s chest. It was, by any standards, a dramatic beginning for a Roman emperor. 

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…

20 November 1591
Death of Sir Christopher Hatton, lord chancellor of England and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Francis Drake renamed his ship Golden Hind in honour of Hatton, whose arms featured such an animal.
20 November 1230
Nicola de La Haye died in Lincolnshire. A staunch supporter of King John during the Barons' Wars, Nicola had successfully defended Lincoln Castle against a rebel army under the leadership of Prince Louis of France.
20 November 1759
Admiral Sir Edward Hawke decisively defeated a French fleet under the Comte de Conflans in Quiberon Bay near St Nazaire.
20 November 1518
Four times High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Sir Marmaduke Constable, dies at Flamborough. He became an associate of the influential Howards and fought alongside the Earl of Surrey, the head of that family, at the battle of Flodden in 1513.
20 November 1947
Princess Elizabeth marries Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Westminster.

Browse more On this day in history


Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine


Sponsored content