12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends

Khalid Elhassan - December 17, 2017

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Roman capture and sack of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Hindsight in Foresight

The Great Jewish Revolt

The Great Jewish Revolt was the first of three wars between Jews and their Roman conquerors. It began in 66 AD with protests against heavy Roman taxation, to which the Roman governor of Judea responded by arresting prominent Jews and looting Jerusalem’s Temple. That escalated the protests into a full blown rebellion, and forced the Romans and their pet Jewish king to flee Judea.

Early on, a radical Jewish sect known as the Sicarii attacked and seized the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea. They then descended upon nearby Roman enclaves to massacre whomever they could find, and slaughtered hundreds of Roman women and children. That ensured that there would be no turning back, and thus solidified the Sicarii’s ranks. It also confronted other Judeans with the prospect of massive retaliation and collective punishment of the innocent and guilty alike should the Romans win.

The Sicarii then joined another Jewish faction known as the Zealots, plus other rebels, to attack Jerusalem, which they liberated in 66 AD. Once in control of the city, the Sicarii began killing known and suspected collaborators en masse. They also killed any opponents, suspected opponents, and those who failed to express the requisite enthusiasm for the Sicarii’s cause.

That extremism led to a backlash and uprising by the city’s population, and a falling out with the other rebels. It culminated in Sicarii defeat, the capture, torture, and execution of their leader, and the group’s expulsion from Jerusalem. The survivors retreated to the fortress of Masada, and contented themselves with plundering the surrounding countryside.

In the meantime, the Zealots and other radicals retained control of Jerusalem until it was besieged, conquered, and razed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Romans then began mopping up operations, and eventually reached the last holdouts, the Sicarii in Masada, whom they besieged. Realizing that all was lost and that their fate would be grim if they were captured, the Sicarii resorted to mass suicide, killing their families and then themselves.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Forced conversion to Christianity of Spanish Muslims. Wikimedia, (c) Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Morisco Revolt

The Moriscos were the nominally Catholic descendants of Spanish Muslims, who had been forcibly converted to Christianity in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Angered by official mistreatment and oppression, they rose against the Spanish in the The Morisco Revolt (1568 – 1571). The uprising was also known as the Rebellion of the Alpujarras, after the insurrectionists’ stronghold in the mountainous Alpujarra region in the Sierra Nevada, between Granada and the Mediterranean coast.

In 1492, the last Muslim state in Spain, Granada, surrendered to the Spanish crown in accordance with a treaty granting the inhabitants freedom of worship. Within a decade, however, the Spanish authorities reneged, and forced the Grandans to choose between conversion to Christianity or exile. That led to a short-lived revolt, that was speedily crushed. Thereafter, most Granadans converted to Christianity and became known as Moriscos.

The converts exhibited little enthusiasm for Spanish culture, kept on dressing in their usual traditional Arab garb, and continued with shockingly alien practices such as bathing regularly. As such, the Moriscos and their descendants were mistrusted by Spain’s Castilian authorities, who doubted the sincerity of their conversions and their loyalty to the Spanish crown.

Spanish authorities began insisting on conformity, and cracked down on Mosrisco cultural practices as manifestations and indicia of heresy. Arabic language, clothing, public baths, and other displays of the old Granadan culture were prohibited. Morisco houses could be inspected regularly to ensure compliance, and Morisco heads of households were closely watched.

Morisco resentment simmered, and finally boiled over on Christmas Eve, 1568. That night, rebels from the regions surrounding Granada, led by a Hernando de Cordoba y Valor, who renamed himself Aben Humeya, infiltrated the city. They tried rousing Granada’s Moriscos into rebellion, but met with little success. Retreating to the countryside, their call for rebellion was met with more enthusiasm, and they began a guerrilla war.

The mountainous terrain benefitted the rebels, and the Spanish authorities faced great difficulties. Superior numbers, resources, and organization, eventually told, however, and after three years of bitter fighting, the Morisco Revolt was stamped out. That done, tens of thousands of Moriscos were forcibly relocated and dispersed to other parts of Spain, and were replace with non-Morisco Christians from elsewhere.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
‘The Rape of Lucretia, by Boticelli, depicting the assault and its aftermath. Wikimedia

The Roman Revolution

In 509 BC, Rome underwent a revolution that overthrew its monarchy, and replaced it with a representative form of government. The uprising was led by Lucius Junius Brutus (flourished 6th century BC), who is credited as the founder of the Roman Republic. He was also the ancestor of Marcus Junius Brutus, who assassinated Julius Caesar, the dictator who ended that Republic.

Rome was a monarchy until 509 BC, when one of king Lucius Tarquinus Superbus’ sons raped a noblewoman, Lucretia. Lucretia told her relatives and other gathered Romans, and then, to preserve family honor, stabbed herself to death. Brutus, whose name means “Dimwit” in Latin, was a nephew of the king, and had shown no signs of potential greatness until then. He had his own grievances against the king, who had executed Brutus’ brother, and it is possible that Brutus had played the dummy to appear nonthreatening to his royal uncle. That day, Brutus removed the dimwit mask and donned that of a leader: pulling the knife out of Lucretia’s breast, he vowed revenge and led a popular revolt.

Brutus had Lucretia’s corpse taken to Rome’s central square, where it was publicly displayed. Seizing the moment while passions were high, Brutus whipped the public into joining him in avenging Lucretia by expelling the royals from Rome, and replacing the monarchy with a republic. The king was off campaigning at the time, but when the Roman army heard of the events back home, they sided with the rebels.

The king and his family were forced to flee into exile, and Rome became a Republic, with Brutus its first chief magistrate. From early on, the new republic’s founding fathers were big on duty and self sacrificing service to the state. Brutus himself epitomized the ideal of devotion to duty and severe impartiality in its fulfillment: he condemned his own sons to death when they joined a conspiracy to restore the kings.

From exile, the king mounted intermittent efforts to regain his throne. The first attempt was via a conspiracy with leading Roman nobles, but it was discovered and the conspirators were executed. The overthrown king then tried force, raising an army from neighboring city states that had their own grievances against Rome. The new republic defeated those attempts as well, and went on to flourish for nearly five centuries before it was overthrown and replaced by the Roman Empire.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Captured Russian officials and aristocrats being tried by the rebels. Russia’s Periphery

The Cossack Rebellion

During the reign of Tsarina Catherine II, Russia’s elites adopted western culture, technologies, fashions, and foods. However, the new western way of living was expensive, and to pay for it, Russia’s landed elites squeezed their serfs dry. That led to mounting resentment, serfs fleeing their landlords’ lands, and rebellions, with over 160 localized uprisings in the Russian Empire between 1762 and 1772. The accumulating grievances finally erupted into a massive uprising, The Cossack Rebellion of 1773 to 1775. It was a major popular revolt that terrorized Russia’s elites and shook the state to its foundations.

The rebellion was sparked by a rumor that Tsar Peter III, who had been murdered in 1763, was still alive. He was said to be hiding amongst the Cossacks from his former wife, Tsarina Catherine, who sought to prevent him from abolishing serfdom. In reality, the person claiming to be “Tsar Peter III” was Yemelyan Pugachev, a Cossack and former Russian army officer.

Pugachev had fought in the Seven Years War before deserting the Russian army to wander southern Russia among Orthodox religious fundamentalists. With them, he hatched a plan to pose as the deceased Peter III, and in that guise he became popular with Cossacks and peasants. He also won a large following of non-Russians, who resented official discrimination and pressures to convert to Orthodox Christianity.

Promising a repeal of an unpopular poll tax and forced labor, “Tsar Peter” gathered a large army of Cossacks, peasants, and non-Russians. In their first battle in 1773, the rebels defeated a Tsarist army sent to disperse them. They then advanced into Russia’s heartland, promising the masses an end to oppression. The rebels formed an alternate government that emphasized freedom from the nobility, and Pugachev, as “Tsar Peter”, held court to punish abusive landlords and officials who fell into rebel hands.

The Cossack Rebellion gathered momentum and grew, and at its height, the rebels controlled vast Russian lands. However, in April of 1774, the rebels suffered a defeat, and their leader fled to the southern Urals. There, Pugachev revived the revolt by raising a new army and returning to the fight. The rebels fought a series of battles on the Steppe, particularly around the city of Kazan, which was put to the torch. After further defeats, the rebels were forced back to the Volga river, where they were decisively defeated. Pugachev was then betrayed to the authorities, and the Cossack Rebellion ended with the capture of its leader, who was executed in January of 1775.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Roman chariot racing. The Burn Pit

The Nika Riots

The Nika Riots of 532 AD were an urban rebellion in Constantinople, against Emperor Justinian. They began as sports riots by fans of competing chariot racing teams, but took on political overtones and became an outlet for expressing class and political resentments. By the time they were over, tens of thousands had been killed, and half of Constantinople had been burned to the ground.

Chariot racing was the biggest sporting spectacle in the Roman world, and in Constantinople, the biggest chariot racing teams were the Blues and the Greens. Rooting for a particular team often went beyond simple sporting preference, and became a stand in for expressing class and political identity. Emperor Justinian was a fan of the Blues, so opponents rooted for the Greens.

The teams had associations, or fan clubs, which often became vessels for airing political and social issues for which no other outlet existed. The fan clubs became a combination of sports hooligans, street gangs, and political parties. They frequently sought to influence policy by shouting their views during chariot races, letting the emperor know the popular mood.

In early 532, the Byzantine Empire was seething with resentment over high taxes. Amidst that tension, two members of the Blues and Greens, arrested for murders in a previous riot, escaped and sought sanctuary in a church, where they were protected by a mob. Seeking to diffuse the situation, Emperor Justinian commuted their sentences to imprisonment, but the restive mob demanded an outright pardon.

At the next races held in the 100,000 seat capacity Hippodrome, next to the imperial palace, the crowd began hurling insults at Justinian. Halfway through the race, their cheers changed from the competing “GREENS!“, or “BLUES!” to a unified “NIKA!” – Greek for “victory”, hence the uprising’s name. The crowd then broke out and attacked the imperial palace, besieging it for the next five days.

The rioters went on a rampage in which hundreds were killed, and started fires that grew out of control, and coalesced into a conflagration that burned half the city. Political elites opposed to the emperor steered the rioters into demanding an abdication. Amidst the anarchy, Emperor Justinian prepared to abdicate, but was shamed by his strong-willed wife, Theodora, into manning up, and a plan was hatched to restore the situation.

A eunuch employed by the emperor braved the crowds to enter the Hippodrome, epicenter of the uprising, with a bag of gold. There, he met the leaders of the Blues, reminded them that Justinian was a Blues fan, and bribed them. The Greens were soon stunned when, at a signal from their leaders, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome. Before the Greens realized what was happening, thousands of soldiers stormed into the Hippodrome, and began massacring its occupants. By the time they were done, over 30,000 had been killed, and the flames of riot were doused with a river of blood.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Battle of London Bridge, between Londoners and rebels. Once Upon a Time

The 1450 English Rebellion

In 1450, most people in England were fed up with extremely high taxes, and a recent huge hike in the cost of living. That came on the heels of a recent loss of most English territory in France, due to a disastrous royal marriage negotiation to wed England’s hapless king Henry VI to a French princess. The preceding, combined with widespread corruption and abuse of power by royal advisors and officials, brought things to a boil. Jack Cade, an Irishman residing in Kent, England, of unknown occupation or background, organized and led an uprising of peasants and small proprietors. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt that shook England and terrorized its government and aristocracy.

Cade had been living in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent. By June, he had emerged as the ringleader of an uprising. Calling himself John Mortimer, Cade aligned his rebellion and identified it with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family.

The rebels issued a manifesto listing their grievances, in which they demanded the removal of several royal ministers, and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he was a virtual exile. A royal army was dispatched to snuff out the uprising, but it was crushed by the rebels in Kent. After that victory, the rebels’ numbers ballooned, and their rapidly increasing host marched on London, which they captured on July 3rd, 1450. They also captured the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, whom the rebels blamed for most of their grievances. After a summary trial, he was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed.

Cade, however, failed to maintain discipline among his followers, and once they entered London, many rebels began looting. That lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, and after a battle at London Bridge on July 6th, expelled them from the city. To end the uprising, officials convinced most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. With his host melting away, Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later. After a brief skirmish with his pursuers, he was wounded and captured. He was to be taken to London, but died of his wounds en route, his death marking the end of the rebellion.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
‘Sicilian Vespers’, by Erulo Eroli. Wikimedia

The Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers, 1282, was a massacre of thousands of French in Sicily, which inaugurated a rebellion against French rule. It began in Palermo, and from there, spread like wildfire throughout the island. By the time it ended six weeks later, three thousand French men and women had been killed, and French control of Sicily had come to an end.

In 1266, Charles of Anjou, a member of the French royal family, invaded and conquered Sicily, and crowned himself its king. The new king brought to Sicily a vast retinue of French courtiers, bureaucrats, officials, and nobles, who treated the locals contemptuously. Sicily was taxed heavily to fund Charles’ endeavors elsewhere, while Sicilians nobles were shut out of any role in ruling their own island. The Sicilians, understandably, resented the exploitation and disrespect.

Things finally came to a head on Easter Monday, March 30th, 1282. Sicilians were celebrating outside a Palermo church, when they were joined by a group of drunk Frenchmen. One of them dragged a married woman from the crowd and crudely propositioned her, and ended up stabbed to death by her enraged husband. When the other Frenchmen tried to avenge their comrade, the Sicilian crowd fell upon and killed them.

Just then, Palermo’s churches began ringing their bells for Vespers, and amidst their clanging, messengers raced throughout the city calling on the public to rise against the foreign oppressors. Soon, the streets were filled with angry Sicilian mobs crying “Death to the French!” They killed any French man, woman, or child, whom they came across, then began breaking into French houses and butchering the inhabitants.

They then broke into convents and monasteries to kill any French nuns or monks they could find. Those claiming not to be French were made to say “ciciri” – a word which French tongues had difficulty pronouncing. Those failing the test were put to death. By the following days, the rebels were in control of Palermo, and over two thousand French had been killed.

As word spread to the rest of Sicily, the rest of the island joined the revolt, and more massacres took place. The uprising swept away French control of the island within six weeks. As described by a Medieval author: “By the time the furious anger at [French] insolence had drunk its fill of blood, the French had surrendered to the Sicilians not only their ill-gotten riches, but their lives as well “.

12 Historic Little Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends
Map of the Chimei Rebellion and other major uprisings. Wikimedia

The Chimei Rebellion

The Chimei Rebellion was a 1st century AD major agrarian rebellion in China. It began after the Yellow River changed its course between 2 and 11 AD – a natural disaster whose consequences included floods, famines, and extensive dislocation and hardship. Amidst the turmoil, civil war broke out when an imperial government official, Wang Mang, overthrew the Han Dynasty which had reigned over China for two centuries. In its place, Wang Mang founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty in 8 AD.

The political instability, natural disasters, hunger and hardship, took place against a backdrop of agrarian unrest. China’s peasant population was angered by a rise in debt slavery, and a trend of steady consolidation of land into large tracts in the hands of powerful magnates. The small farmers who had once owned their own plots were turned into serfs, working what had once been their own land on behalf of others. Otherwise, they were evicted altogether and forced into a life of migrant laborers.

Secret societies began forming to protect the interests of the peasants. One of them, led by a mystic who spoke through mediums, organized armed bands known as the Chimei, or Red Eyebrows. They took their name from the red paint used by members to make their faces look like demons, and in 15 AD, they began armed resistance. The Chimei’s popularity grew, and by 17 AD, their insurrection had become a widespread popular uprising, led by a Fan Chong.

Back in the capital, Wang Man turned out to be inept and out of his depth. He responded to the Chimei rebellion and other popular revolts by hiking taxes. That provoked more rebellions, as the new tax burdens fueled the popular discontent. The various rebellions soon consolidated into a major uprising, as disparate rebel bands united under the banner of the Chimei and the leadership of Fan Chong.

The Chimei played a key role in defeating Wang Man and destroying his Xin Dynasty in 23 AD. Into the vacuum stepped Liu Xuan, a member of the Han royal family, who reestablished the Han Dynasty and declared himself emperor. The Chimei disliked his policies, however, so they overthrew him, and placed an imperial Han child descendant on the throne as a puppet emperor, and ruled China in his name.

The Chimei, however, turned out to be as bad at governance as they had been good at fighting, and their misrule soon led to widespread counter revolts. Their puppet emperor was overthrown and replaced by another Han descendant, who forced the surrender of the Chimei and ended their movement. He then went on to found the Later Han Dynasty, which ruled China for another two centuries.