In 75 BC, a not-yet-famous Julius Caesar was the scion of an ancient but not particularly powerful patrician family. His gens, the Julii, had roots that stretched back to before Rome had even been founded. That year, sailed across the Aegean Sea to the island of Rhodes to study oratory – a common practice for ambitious young Romans who sought a career in politics. His journey was interrupted when a band of pirates from Cilicia – a region of southern Asia Minor notorious at the time for piracy – captured his ship and held him for ransom. That was unfortunate for Caesar, whose voyage and the start of his oratorical studies was delayed. It was even more unfortunate for the pirates, whom Caesar was about to seek vengeance upon in a horrific way.
From the start, the young Caesar was different than any captive the pirates had ever encountered before. Rather than quake in fear, he became familiar with them. Not familiar enough, though, to abandon the air of superiority that was part and parcel of Roman aristocrats. When the pirates told him that they wanted a ransom of twenty silver talents – roughly 1400 pounds of silver, he scoffed at their ignorance. Instead, he suggested that fifty talents – about 3500 pounds of silver – was more appropriate for a nobleman of his pedigree. Caesar was the first hostage they had ever encountered who negotiated for a higher ransom. As seen below, he continued to amaze them with his sublime confidence as they awaited the ransom.
28. The Pirates Thought Caesar Was Kidding When He Promised Revenge
For weeks, the Cilician pirates indulged their odd and seemingly overconfident captive. If they got too loud when he wanted to sleep, Julius Caesar would demand that they pipe down. He often recited speeches and poems that he had composed, and if they were less than appreciative, he would berate them as uncultured barbarians. He also told them that soon as he was freed, he would come back and crucify them all. They thought he was joking. He was not. After 38 days of captivity, Caesar’s ransom arrived, and he was set free. He immediately headed to Miletus, on the western coast of Asia Minor, and although he possessed no military or official authority whatsoever, raised an ad hoc naval force. He sailed back to the site of his captivity, where he surprised the pirates who had recently held him hostage, and captured them all.
Caesar took the captives to Pergamum, further up the coast of Asia Minor, and locked them up in a prison there. He then headed to Ephesus, the province’s capital, and demanded that the Roman governor do his duty and execute them. The governor however was corrupt, and began to scheme to set the pirates free in exchange for a hefty bribe – they had amassed plenty of booty in their years of piracy. Caesar was not having it. He returned to Pergamum, took the pirates out of the prison where he had thrown them, and on his own authority, had them all crucified. He showed them a bit of leniency, though, for old times’ sake. Rather than crucify them alive and leave them to die in excruciating pain, he had their throats slit first.
In 1941, the Nazis launched a horrific surprise attack against the USSR that almost brought the communist state to an end. In its aftermath, Soviet and Russian leadership, pathologically suspicious of foreigners’ intentions at the best of times, became outright paranoid. The Soviets survived by the skin of their teeth, before they clawed their way back up, and on to eventual victory. The experience left an indelible mark. Ever since, throughout the Cold War and into the present, the powers that be in Moscow have feared that another sudden attack from the West would once again ruin them. A sudden attack that might accomplish what the Germans had almost pulled off in WWII.
From the perspective of Moscow, which habitually assumes that others would naturally do what it would do in their shoes, what made such an attack possible – and thus probable – was the technological gap between the USSR and the West. During the Cold War, the Soviets had pulled off some great scientific and technological accomplishments, such as the first satellite and animal in space, and the first man and woman to orbit the planet. Still, as time went by, it became clear that Soviet technology seriously lagged behind that of the West.
26. The Russians Were Especially Worried About Their Lag in Aerial Radar Tech
Radar technology – specifically, downward-looking radar technology – was a key area in which the USSR lagged behind the West. By the 1970s, America had heavily invested in maneuverable cruise missiles that could fly extremely low to the ground, and thus fly below Soviet radar installations. Likewise, American warplanes were equipped with advanced avionics features that allowed them to fly beneath Soviet radar. The US could take down the Russians with a surprise attack that utilized low flying cruise missiles and warplanes. That would decapitate Moscow’s command and control, and wreck its ability to retaliate, before anybody knew what had happened.
One way to avoid that was to develop downward-looking radars: radars mounted on Soviet aircraft, that could look down and spot objects below as they moved close to the ground. The problem, however, was that Soviet technology in the 1970s could not produce radars that were able to do that. To address that vulnerability thus became a matter of utmost importance to the Soviets. One of the key entities tasked with that was the Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering, which went by its Soviet acronym, NIIR.
25. The Soviet Engineer With a Motive to Rain Cold Justice Upon the USSR
NIIR, which later became known as Phazotron and is now Russia’s largest developer of military radars and avionics, had been formed in 1917 to produce aviation instruments. In the 1950s, an electronics engineer named Adolf Tolkachev joined its ranks, just as it was expanding from simple aviation instruments, and into the research and development of sophisticated military radars and complex guidance systems. By the 1970s, Tolkachev had risen to become one of NIIR’s chief designers. He was an unlikely spy. By the 1970s, when he began to contemplate the betrayal of his country, Tolkachev was a middle-aged, successful, and highly respected engineer. He led what was, by Soviet standards, a comfortable and privileged life.
At about five and a half feet tall, Tolkachev was a quiet figure, who was so reserved that not even his son knew his profession. Yet, beneath the quiet reserve lay a seething resentment of the Soviet government, that he traced back to the persecution suffered by his wife’s family. Tolkachev’s wife’ had been raised in an orphanage because her mother had been executed during Stalin’s purges. Her father had been sent to a gulag, to toil for years as a slave laborer, until he was broken in body and spirit. For years, Tolkachev itched for an opportunity to payback and stick it to the Soviet system that had perpetrated such injustices.
24. This Man Found it Fiendishly Difficult to Cooperation on His Vendetta Against the Soviet Union
Adolf Tolkachev wanted to screw the Soviet regime. To share with its enemies the secrets of his military R&D work would seriously stick it to the USSR. However, while the concept of betrayal of the Soviet Union was simple in theory, the nuts and bolts of just how to go about with that betrayal proved frustratingly difficult. In January, 1977, Tolkachev tried to approach American diplomats in Moscow, in order to betray some of the Soviet Union’s most sensitive military secrets. He got brushed off. He tried again, only to get brushed off again. And again, and again, and again. Tolkachev had not anticipated that treason could be so fiendishly difficult.
He persisted, and doggedly continued to try and get the Americans to pay him attention. Finally, after seven attempts at contact and more than a year later, the CIA assigned a Russian-speaking officer to contact the Soviet engineer. It quickly became clear that US intelligence had been doing its best to throw away a bonanza. Tolkachev provided intelligence data whose value was described as “incalculable” by American experts. Among other things, the US Air Force completely redesigned the electronics of its then premier fighter, the F-15 Eagle, based on information provided by Tolkachev.
Adolf Tolkachev was a creative spy, and consistently managed to get around the stringent security measures at his workplace. Despite strict document access procedures, he routinely checked out top secret documents. He took them home or to other parts of the workplace, where he could examine them at leisure without arousing suspicions. When the spy cameras provided him by the CIA failed, he photographed secret documents with a civilian camera. His production was copious: one time, he gave his handler over 150 rolls of film, and on another occasion, over 200 rolls. All in all, Tolkachev’s information put the US in a position to dominate the skies in case of war. It confirmed that Soviet air defenses were vulnerable to low flying American missiles and warplanes.
Tolkachev refused any payment at first, and insisted that he was acting out of principle. He wanted to undermine his government, which he detested. He also feared that money would be too noticeable and draw suspicion. However, he accepted as gifts for his son some items that were hard to come by in the USSR, such as music records and art supplies. Eventually, he accepted some small payments to bribe any colleagues who might discover what he was up to. He was also extremely careful, and refused to follow the CIA’s standard spycraft, which he deemed counterproductive, and likely to give him away. He declined to use radios, or work through dead drops – intelligence delivered to a secret location for a handler to pick later. He instead insisted on the personal delivery of his goods in face to face meetings.
22. This Spy Avenged the US… Only for an American Spy to Pull One Over on Him on Behalf of the USSR
Unfortunately, Tolkachev’s precautions failed to save him from one risk over which he had no control: the incompetence of those for whom he spied. Tolkachev risked all to infiltrate the Soviet Union, commit treason, and betray his country to gift the CIA with some of the Soviet Union’s most sensitive scientific data. In exchange, the CIA turned a blind eye to evidence of treason and betrayal in its own ranks. Two traitors from within the CIA would eventually doom Tolkachev, betray him, and do him in by fingering him to the KGB.
The end of Tolkachev began with Edward Lee Howard. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Howard went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration, before he got hired by USAID in 1976. He joined the CIA in 1980, but revelations of past drug use derailed his career, and he was eventually fired in 1983. Disgruntled, he contacted the KGB and began to spill secrets, before he finally defected to the Soviets in 1985. Among the secrets he spilled was information that put the KGB on Tolkachev’s trail.
21. The Spook Who Decided to Exploit the CIA for Money
Worse for Tolkachev was Aldrich Ames. The son of a CIA analyst, Ames’ connections got him into the CIA in 1962. Ames was an alcoholic who had drunken run-ins with the police, drunken brawls in public with foreign diplomats, and was so sloppy that he once forgot secret documents in an NYC subway car. None of that stopped his steady rise within the CIA’s ranks. He recruited Soviet spies in Turkey in the 1960s, returned to the US in the 1970s, then was posted to Mexico in the early 1980s. There, he met his second wife, a Colombian whom he had recruited. They wed in 1985, and that same year, the couple began to sell secrets to the KGB.
By the time they were finally unmasked in 1994, Ames and his wife had been paid over $2.7 million by the KGB and its Russian successor. There had been warning signs aplenty, as the couple flouted the proceeds of their treason with conspicuous consumption and extravagant spending. A big $520,000 house paid for in cash, luxury vacations, premium credit cards whose minimum monthly payments exceeded Ames’ salary, and luxury cars that stood out in the CIA’s parking lot. Those were things that no honest public servant could afford on government pay.
20. This Spy Still Found it Easy to Take Advantage of His CIA Bosses
No alarm bells were raised for years, and it was not until 1993 that Aldrich Ames’ employers took a serious look at his finances and activities. In the meantime, Ames had passed two polygraphs while he was spying for the KGB. He needed no high tech means or complicated Oceans Eleven type capers to smuggle out secrets and dupe the CIA. Ames simply stuffed whatever documents he wanted to give his handlers in his briefcase or in trash bags. He then brazenly carried them out of the CIA headquarters at the end of the workday, and nobody questioned him.
By the time Ames was finally unmasked, nearly a decade later, he had revealed to the Soviets and Russians the identity of every CIA spy operating in their country. As a result, at least a dozen CIA spies within the Soviet Union were captured, of whom ten were subsequently executed. They included Adolf Tolkachev, who was arrested by the KGB in 1985. He was tried and convicted, and executed the following year. As to Ames, after his arrest in 1994, he cut a deal with prosecutors that spared him the death penalty, and ensured that his wife got no more than a five year sentence.
Bad doctors and medical mistakes are not exactly rare. Indeed, thanks to negligent or outright incompetent medical professionals, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not as big as it is today in the US. If not, medical malpractice lawyers would have had a field day suing him for that one time he managed to botch and kill three people in a single surgery.
To make it worse, two of Liston’s victims were not even his patients. Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before anesthetics, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessened the odds of patients going into shock, and reduced the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection.
Dr. Robert Liston was famous for his ability to complete operations in a matter of seconds, and amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. Unsurprisingly, the odds of a mistake were pretty high. Dr. Liston played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Surgeries back then were spectator events, and galleries surrounded operating rooms for observers to watch the proceedures. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston would often shout to the audience “time me, gentlemen!“ That became his catchphrase.
In the course of one surgery to amputate a leg, an assistant who held down the patient’s limb lost the fingers of one hand when Dr. Liston accidently severed them. The doctor continued with the job, and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene, and died within a few days. In his frenzied slicing, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. The elderly spectator thought that he had been wounded, panicked, had a heart attack, and died.
17. The Child Bride Who Told Her Husband to Bugger Off, and Became an Outlaw
Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in Utter Pradesh, India, into a lower caste family that ranked barely above the Untouchables. The lot of lower castes – especially of impoverished lower caste girls like Phoolan – was rough, as she learned all too soon. From early on, Phoolan resisted injustices. At age ten, she defied an uncle who wanted to cut a tree on her father’s tiny land plot. She organized her village’s girls to conduct a sit-in, and they resisted efforts to remove them by force. The sit-in only ended when Phoolan was knocked out unconscious with a brick.
When she turned eleven, Phoolan’s family married her to a man in his thirties, who abused her physically and in other unthinkable ways. She fled several times, but her family returned her to her husband each and every time. The marriage finally ended when Phoolan was sixteen. For a wife to leave her husband was a serious taboo in Phoolan’s neck of the woods, and she became a social outcast. Her prospects grim, the teenaged Phoolan fell in with and joined a gang of rural bandits. One of her first acts as an outlaw was to visit vengeance upon her abusive ex.
Phoolan Devi was the only female in her rural bandit gang. The gang leader decided to make her his concubine and began to assault her. Finally, another bandit stepped in, killed him, and took over the gang. He and Phoolan became lovers. Soon thereafter, she swept into her abusive ex-husband’s village at the head of bandits, determined to exact payback. She dragged her ex out of his house, gutted him with a knife, and pinned a note to him, that warned men not to marry little girls. In subsequent months, Phoolan developed a reputation as a Robin-Hoodesque type of bandit queen, who robbed upper castes and shared her loot with the impoverished.
That phase of her life ended when an internal gang struggle ended with the murder of her lover. He was replaced as gang leader by two upper caste bandit brothers. They seized Phoolan and imprisoned her in their out-of-the-way home village, Behmai. There, she was assaulted by many men, and subjected to sundry humiliations such as being paraded naked around the village. She eventually fled, but vowed to come back and wreak vengeance upon her tormentors. As seen below, she fulfilled her vow to eviscerate them, and how.
15. A Bandit Queen’s Decision on How to Deal With Her Tormentors Shocked India
After she fled from Behmai, Phoolan Devi formed a new bandit crew, this one comprised exclusively of lower castes like her. On the evening of February 14th, 1981, several months after her escape, Phoolan returned to Behmai at the head of her gang. She demanded that the villagers produce the bandit brothers who had imprisoned her, but they could not be found. If she couldn’t exterminate her tormentors, others in the village would pay. Phoolan lined up about two dozen of the village’s young men, including some who had assaulted her, and ordered them killed. What came to be known as the Behmai Massacre shocked India. A massive manhunt was ordered, but Phoolan evaded her pursuers, helped by the region’s poor, who saw her as a heroine.
Two years after the massacre, Phoolan tired of life on the lam, and negotiated a surrender for herself and the remnants of her gang. As over 10,000 people watched, she and her followers laid down their rifles, and were taken into custody. A villain to some, a heroine to others, Phoolan was kept in pretrial detention for eleven years, until the charges were finally dismissed and she was released in 1994. She became a women’s rights activist, and in 1995, one year after her release, she was elected to India’s parliament. Her eventful life was cut short in 2001, when a man who sought vengeance for the upper caste men killed by Phoolan assassinated her as she exited her Delhi home.
14. When British Intelligence Decided to Play Domestic Politics and Mess With the Labour Party
On October 25th, 1924, The Daily Mail published a letter from Grigory Zinoviev, Chairman of the Comintern – an organization headed by the USSR to advance global communism – to Britain’s Communist Party. In it, Zinoviev directed British communists to engage in treasonous activities in order to secure the Labour party’s victory in the next election. Headed by Ramsay MacDonald, Labour was deemed friendlier – or at least less hostile – towards the Soviet Union than the conservative Tories. Zinoviev’s directives to the Communist Party of Britain included the subversion of British soldiers and sailors, and preparations for a military insurrection in blue collar areas.
The conservatives had a field day with the revelations, and used them to ruin their Labour opponents. In the final days before the election, the conservative press hammered MacDonald and Labour as tools of communism. On election day, October 29th, 1924, the Labour government was ousted from office, and the Tories romped to victory. The Conservative Party gained 154 new seats in the House of Commons, for a decisive majority of 412 MPs out of 650. It was then discovered – although too late to do MacDonald and the Labour Party any good – that the Zinoviev letter was a forgery.
Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party formed a UK government for the first time in early 1924. However, it was a minority government in a House of Commons split between Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberals. To say that the British establishment was unhappy with a Prime Minister from a socialist-leaning party would be an understatement. So it set out to undermine him and his government at every turn. On October 10th, 1924, MI5 – Britain’s version of the FBI – received a copy of the Zinoviev letter, dated September 15th. It was determined to be a fake, and after it was shown to the Prime Minister, MI5’s chief Vernon Kell agreed that it should remain secret.
However, at the most damaging moment for Ramsay MacDonald, Kell or one of his subordinates leaked the letter in order to incriminate the Prime Minister and damage his electoral prospects. A review by Britain’s Foreign Office concluded that the letter was likely forged by Russian Tsarist exiles. They were angry that the Labour government had signed a treaty with the USSR, and agreed to extend it a loan. They saw to it that the forged letter reached MI5. Between MI5 and MI6 – Britain’s version of the CIA – conservative British intelligence officials ensured that the letter reached the press just in time to shiv and ruin the Labour Party.
12. The Quickest Way to End the US Civil War Was to Hit Dixie Where it Hurt
Union troops led by General William Tecumseh Sherman entered Atlanta on September 2nd, 1864, after a hard fought summer campaign and siege. The conquest of that key Confederate city, known as “the Gateway to the South”, saved President Abraham Lincoln from what seemed like inevitable defeat in that fall’s election. It ensured the continuation of a federal administration committed to fight the Civil War until final victory. Everybody expected that Sherman would garrison the city, then head north to Virginia to help Ulysses S. Grant, who was stalemated against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The victor of Atlanta had other plans, though.
The Union had initially followed a conciliatory policy. It fought a relatively limited war on the assumption that most in the Confederacy had not supported secession, and that their states’ governments were illegal and unrepresentative of the popular will. So Union forces leaned over backwards to gently treat Southern civilians and their property – including those hostile towards the Union. By 1862, attitudes had changed. Pragmatists began to advocate for “hard war” and “directed severity” against secessionists, and Sherman emerged as a key proponent of that hardline. In 1864, he revolutionized modern warfare and transformed “hard war” notions into total war that targeted not only enemy armies, but were also intended to incapacitate the civilians who supported those armies.
As autumn arrived in 1864, the Civil War had dragged on for more than three bloody years, with a horrendous and steadily mounting toll in blood and treasure. Both the Union Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, and his friend General William T. Sherman, realized that the conflict could only end if the Confederacy lost its ability to wage war. So Sherman planned an operation comparable in broad outline to modern scorched earth campaigns. He and his army would strike out from Atlanta and march along a broad front across the heart of Georgia.
The men in blue would live off the land, and destroy all in their path that was useful to the Confederate war effort. 62,000 Union soldiers marched out of Atlanta, which they left a smoldering ruin. They then divided into two columns, abandoned their supply lines and plunged into the Peach State. As Sherman put it, he wanted to “make Georgia howl“, and howl it did. Union forces advanced along a sixty mile front, wrecked military targets along the way, destroyed industry and infrastructure, lived off the land, and – against Sherman’s orders – looted civilian property. It conclusively demonstrated that the Confederacy was a hollow shell, and could not protect its heartland or citizens.
10. This General’s Strategy Birthed Modern Total War
General William T. Sherman was not a cruel man, but he certainly believed in cruel war. As he put it: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over“. He did not coin the phrase “total war” – its first use can be traced to the 1930s. However, he birthed the concept of modern total war. He wrote in a letter dated December 24th, 1864, that the Union found itself in a situation where it was: “not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies“. His destructive march through Georgia was followed by an even more destructive march through South and North Carolina.
Sherman’s marches left a legacy that lasted long after the Civil War. Not only in the memories of aggrieved Southerners, but in modern military science. The morality of the destruction wrought by Sherman has long been debated, but few contest its effectiveness. In subsequent major conflicts such as WWI and WWII, combatants took it for granted that that they faced not only enemy armies, but also the civilian infrastructure and population that supported them. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay updated the concept in 1949, when he defined total war in the nuclear age as an overwhelming atomic strike that could go so far as “killing a nation“.
9. The Plutocrats Whose Luxury Resort Caused a Catastrophe
Industrialist Henry Clay Frick and a group of rich Pittsburgh magnates got together in 1880, and bought the South Fork Dam, which formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Originally built by the Commonwealth to service a canal system, the earthen dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals, and was sold to private interests. Frick and his fellows formed the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, a secretive and private resort for the wealthy based around the dam’s lake and shoreline. The club opened in 1881, and its well-heeled members mingled in its clubhouse and their cottages around the lake as they enjoyed the pleasures of nature.
The plutocrats, indifferent to consequences downstream, modified the dam, and lowered it to accommodate a road. To ensure that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway – a structure that allows controlled release of water from a dam. The screen not only stopped fish from leaving the dam, it also trapped debris that clogged the spillway. That was especially bad because when the dam was built, it had relief pipes and valves to lower water levels in an emergency. They were sold as scrap metal, and never replaced. Between that and the clogged spillway, there was no way to release water in case of an emergency. Such an emergency occurred on May 31st, 1889, and it killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood, after the chief town struck by the disaster.
8. Although Their Decision Killed Thousands, These Rich Folk Walked Away Scot Free – Injustice Was Served this Day
Western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there in late May, 1889, when up to ten inches fell in twenty four hours. As water levels in Lake Conemaugh rose ominously on May 31st, the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s manager led laborers in a frantic attempt to unclog the dam’s spillway. They were unsuccessful, and efforts to dig a new spillway were equally fruitless. Around 2:50 that afternoon, the dam, which contained nearly four billion gallons of water, began to collapse. A wall of water thirty to forty feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of up to forty miles per hour. It destroyed all in its path. The torrent sucked people from their homes, swept trains, and slammed massive piles of debris into bridges and buildings.
Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away, in a catastrophe that killed 2209 people, including 400 children. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage exceeded $4.4 billion in current dollars. It was America’s deadliest non-hurricane flood. As the shock wore off, it was replaced by anger as people’s gazes turned towards those responsible. However, the private resort’s rich owners were never held accountable. They claimed that their modifications of the dam did not hurt anybody and made no difference, because they had only lowered it by one foot. Their lawyers argued that the flood was “an act of God”. Evidence emerged in 2013 that they had actually lowered the dam by three feet, which drastically increased the risk of a breach. That came too late for the victims: they lost every case brought against the resort’s owners, and the plutocrats got away off scot-free.
7. The Romans Mistreated This Queen, So She Decided to Royally Betray Them
Ancient Briton heroine and resistance figure Boudicca (circa 25 – 61 AD) was a warrior queen of the Iceni tribe. She is best known for her leadership of a massive revolt against the Roman Empire’s occupation forces. Boudicca was born into tribal royalty around 25 AD, and as a young woman was married to the king of the Iceni tribe. When her husband died in 60 AD, he left his wealth to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor Nero. In exchange, it was assumed that Nero would return the favor and bestow imperial protection upon his family.
Instead, the Romans decided to sabotage the deceased and his family, seized all the king’s assets, and annexed his kingdom. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged, and her two teenaged daughters were assaulted by Roman soldiers in her presence. Understandably incensed, Boudicca launched a revolt in East Anglia, which quickly spread. Disgruntled Britons rallied to her by the tens of thousands, and she led them in a whirlwind campaign of vengeance. During the uprising, she put London and numerous other Roman towns and settlements to the torch. Her forces killed as many as 70,000 Romans and Briton collaborators.
The incensed Iceni and other Britons unhappy with life under the Romans swept out of East Anglia, with Boudicca at their head on a war chariot. When the Romans sent a legionary detachment to subdue the rebels, it was annihilated. Boudicca and her followers then went on a rampage, in which they burned modern Colchester, Saint Albans, and London. They also massacred tens of thousands of Romans and Romanized British collaborators. They exacted massive vengeance upon the Romans for their abuses. The Britons tortured and executed their captors in a variety of gruesome ways: among other things, they impaled, flayed, burned alive, and crucified them.
Eventually, the Romans rallied, gathered their legions into a powerful force, and marched off to meet Boudicca. When the armies eventually met, the legionaries were greatly outnumbered. Nonetheless, the Romans were a disciplined force of professionals, faced with a poorly trained and badly organized enemy. Boudicca led her forces in person and charged at the Romans in her war chariot, but discipline and professionalism prevailed, and the Romans won. Defeated, Boudicca committed suicide to deny the Romans the satisfaction of parading her in chains in a triumphal parade.
Most of us have heard the phrase “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer“. King Ferdinand I of Naples (1424 – 1494), who ruled from 1458 until his death, took that, and ran with it to irrational extremes. By all accounts, Ferdinand was a capable ruler who brought peace and prosperity to his realm. Through diplomacy and strategic marriages, he created a dense network of friendships and alliances with other sovereigns. It made him so influential, that he was nicknamed “The Judge of Italy”. He was also a generous patron of the arts, and was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance. That was the good side of Ferdinand.
The bad side was rooted in the fact that Italian politics back then were not for the squeamish. The Italian Peninsula was a jumble of various small states and independent cities, that teetered on the brink of anarchy as rival aristocratic families fiercely competed for power and prestige. Betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, murders, and wars were commonplace. Ferdinand had a brutal side that allowed him to thrive in such an environment. As seen below, after he killed his enemies, Ferdinand kept their remains on exhibit in what came to be known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
4. This King Never Tired of Coming Up With Ways to Ruin His Enemies
King Ferdinand I of Naples was not a turn-the-other-cheek type, but a man who really liked to ruin his enemies. As one historian put it: “his pleasures were of two kinds: he liked to have his opponents near him, either alive in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime“. In 1465, he defeated a rebellion by his barons. In the guise of forgiveness, he invited several former foes and their families to a celebration, then arrested them when they showed up. Some were locked up for decades, and others were killed.
One of his captives fell to his death after Ferdinand pushed him out of a window. One would assume that afterwards, nobody who had ever angered Ferdinand would accept an invitation from him. If so, one would be wrong. On another occasion, some who had offended Ferdinand attended a wedding celebration at the king’s residence, the Castel Nuovo. At the height of the merriment, they were suddenly arrested, and whisked to the dungeons for torture, a death sentence at a quick trial, and execution. As seen below, Ferdinand liked to put his dead enemies on display.
3. King Ferdinand I Kept His Enemies’ Remains in a Museum
Ferdinand I of Naples did not want to simply kill his enemies. He wanted to turn them and their fates into public examples and cautionary lessons to deter others from even thinking about betrayal. After he had them murdered, Ferdinand had the bodies of his enemies mummified. He then put them on display in an exhibit hall in the Castel Nuovo, which he referred to as his “Black Museum”, and which came to be commonly known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
As a contemporary historian described the exhibit: “these dried cadavers were displayed, pickled with herbs, a frightful sight, in the dress they wore when alive and with the same ornaments, so that by this terrible example of tyranny, those who did not wish to be similarly served might be properly afraid“. Ferdinand liked to conduct personal tours of his macabre museum, which often served as an effective deterrent to those contemplating treason. To mix things up and keep them interesting, the king’s mummified enemies were sometimes propped up in mock banquets.
2. The Warrior Queen Who Told a Great Conqueror to Stick it Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine
Queen Tomyris (flourished 500s BC) was ruler of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from China’s borders to east of the Caspian Sea. A formidable warrior queen, she defeated King Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty that ruled the first Persian Empire. Tomyris brought the illustrious career of the King of Kings, as Cyrus came to be known, and his brilliant career of uninterrupted conquests to a screeching halt in 530 BC.
The Massagetae were nomads who led a hardy pastoral life on the Eurasian Steppe. To make ends meet, they tended their herds, and from time to time, raided the settled lands that bordered the Steppe. Their predation eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus, who had recently founded the Persian Empire. His realm now encompassed many of the territories victimized by Massagetae raids. So he led an army into the Steppe to bring the nomads to heel. He little knew that his expedition would end in disaster, and that the nomads would ruin him big time.
1. This Queen Certainly Kept Her Promise to Ruin Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great won an initial victory against nomads commanded by the son of Queen Tomyris, after a ruse in which he “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to it, royally drunk. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the inebriated nomads. Among the many killed was Tomyris’ son. She sent Cyrus a message, in which she called him out and challenged him to a second battle. The overconfident Cyrus accepted. She personally led her army this time, and as described by Herodoutus: “Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been….
They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too“. The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Tomyris, who really wanted to humiliate Cyrus, even after his death, had him beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading