18. The Most Famous Assassin in the Ancient World’s Most Famous Assassination
Marcus Junius Brutus (85 – 42 BC) is perhaps best known as the addressee of Julius Caesar’s final words and lines, “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play. Brutus was the Roman dictator’s friend, the son of his longtime mistress, and the most famous of his assassins. Remarkably, Brutus’ father had been betrayed and murdered by Caesar’s rival, Pompey the Great. That did not stop Brutus from fighting Caesar under Pompey’s command.
Brutus was raised by his maternal uncle Cato the Younger, a conservative reactionary and Caesar’s avowed enemy. Brutus had initially supported Caesar, but turned against him when he started viewing him as a would-be king. When Caesar marched into Italy in 49 BC, Brutus went against him and joined the ranks of his enemies, fighting under Pompey. However, Cesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Brutus surrendered, and was pardoned and restored to favor. That did not stop him from continuing to resent Caesar, and he eventually joined an assassination plot to do away with him.
When a faction of Roman Senators, styling themselves “The Liberators”, formed to plot the assassination of Julius Caesar, Brutus eagerly accepted the invitation to join them. He was a great symbolic catch, because he was a descendant of Lucius Licinius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who had chased the last king out of Rome. On the Ides of March, 44 BC, dozens of Senators suddenly fell upon Caesar during a meeting of the Senate.
Brutus stabbed the dictator in the groin, which contemporaries interpreted as a statement against his mother’s former lover, as well as against the rumors that Caesar might have actually been Brutus’ biological father. The assassins were pardoned by the Senate, but a riot soon thereafter forced them to flee Rome. The following year, Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavius, got that pardon revoked, and had the Senate declare the dictator’s assassins murderers. Civil war erupted again, and ended with the assassins defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Brutus committed suicide, to avoid falling into Octavius’ clutches.
16. Americans Might Do Political Assassinations, but We Have Never Gone to the Dutch Extremes of Political Assassination
Around the world, Americans have a reputation for violence – some of it deserved, some of it overblown. However, bad as tempers have gotten in American politics – and one need only look at the news for the latest examples – things have usually, if not always, stayed within reasonable. Every now and then, tempers might get high enough in the US for political violence to erupt. Even on a massive scale, such as that time in the nineteenth century when Americans killed each other by the hundreds of thousands during the Civil War.
Still, bad as tempers have gotten in America, they never got so bad that American soldiers carried out an assassination of the head of government in the street, after which a frenzied mob seized the carcass, mutilated it, then proceeded to cook and eat it. On that, the Dutch have us beat. Notwithstanding the Dutch reputation for orderliness and politeness, there was a time in 1672 when a Dutch mob went wild on their Prime Minister Johan de Witt (1625 – 1672).
15. The Public Assassination, Mutilation, and Cannibalization of the Dutch Prime Minister
Johan de Witt’s chief political goal was to decentralize and shift power from the national government to local ones. He focused on that so much, however, that he ended up neglecting the Dutch army and navy. When the Third Anglo-Dutch War erupted, the result was a series of military disasters in 1672. Disasters were so bad that 1672 is known to this day in Dutch history as rampjaar – “the disaster year”.
On August 20th, 1672, de Witt, who by then had dominated Dutch politics for twenty years, went to visit his brother Cornelis, who had recently been sentenced to exile. Out of the blue, the brothers were attacked by members of the Hague city militia, who shot them and left them on the street to the tender mercies of a Dutch mob. The mob was neither tender nor merciful. If the de Witts were not already dead from the soldiers’ bullets, they were quite dead by the time the mob was done stabbing and beating them. The mob then strung up the corpses upside down from a gibbet, disemboweled them, ripped off their genitalia, and roasted and ate chunks of them in a cannibalistic frenzy.
14. The American President Who Foiled an Assassination Attempt by Beating Up His Would-Be Assassin
Long before he was elected president, Andrew Jackson, also known as Old Hickory, had been a prickly cuss. He was a cranky man who readily took offense, and would just as soon kill you as look at you. When not leading men into combat, slaughtering Redcoats by the hundreds, or hanging his own men for giving offense, Andrew Jackson could often be found out back dueling with somebody who had said the wrong thing in his presence.
Dueling, as in ritually facing off against somebody with loaded pistols, taking aim, and opening fire at a given signal. And not once, or twice, but many, many times. The total number of Jackson’s duels is unknown, but estimates range from a low of 13, to over 100. It is perhaps unsurprising that Jackson not only became the first American president to face and survive an assassination attempt, but that he survived it by pummeling his would-be assassin to a pulp.
Andrew Jackson’s most famous duel occurred in 1806, when he got into a tiff with a man named Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was reputed to be the best pistol shot in the country, but that did not stop Jackson from calling him out. At the duel, Jackson stood stock still, and allowed Dickinson to take the first shot. Dickinson took aim, and put a bullet in Jackson’s chest, wounding but not killing him.
Jackson recovered, took aim, and pulled the trigger. His pistol stopped at half cock. By the rules, that did not count as a shot. So as a horrified Dickinson waited, Jackson cleared the pistol, then took deliberate aim once more, and fired a shot that mortally wounded his adversary. As to Jackson, he recovered and went on to greater things, but Dickinson’s bullet remained in his chest for another 19 years.
12. The Crank Behind the First Assassination Attempt on a US President
By the time he made it to the White House, Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a very dangerous man to rile had been well established. So well established, in fact, that only a nutjob would try to assault him. However, America never had a shortage of nutjobs, and one of them became the first to attempt a presidential assassination by taking a shot at Jackson.
Richard Lawrence, a house painter, was in the habit of angrily muttering to himself about Andrew Jackson. On January 30th, 1835, he was seen sitting in his shop, cackling to himself, before suddenly getting up and exiting, with the exclamation: “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!” “It” was killing Jackson, which Lawrence tried to do by ambushing the president outside the Capitol building.
11. Assassination Attempt Ends With Bystanders Rescuing the Assassin from Getting Beat to Death by His Target
To carry out his assassination, Richard Lawrence waited behind one of the US Capitol’s pillars. When Andrew Jackson passed by, he took a shot at the president’s back. The pistol misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and tried another shot, only to get another misfire. By then, Jackson had noticed what Lawrence was up to, and was understandably pissed off. That was bad news for Lawrence.
Although 67-years-old at the time – quite old and long in the tooth by the standards of the day – an enraged Jackson fell upon the much younger Lawrence, and proceeded to bludgeon him with his cane. The would-be assassin was lucky in that people in the vicinity intervened to stop a riled-up Old Hickory from beating him to death. Bystanders stepped in to restrain the president, and hustled Lawrence off to the safety of prison.
10. The Medieval Assassination With a Legacy That Lasts to This Day
The death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was followed by a bitter succession dispute. On the one hand, were those who believed that leadership of the Islamic community should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline. On the other, were those who thought that leadership should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose.
The former were a minority, and they coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. They became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis. The factions’ dispute, while heated, could well have ended within a generation or two after the participants shuffled off the mortal coil. However, an assassination worsened the dispute, and led to a lasting and at times violent division that rifts Islam to this day.
9. The Momentous Assassination of One Caliph Sets the Stage for an Even More Momentous Assassination of Another Caliph
Muslims elected the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, from outside Muhammad’s family, bypassing Ali each time. Finally, following the assassination of the third Caliph, Ali was elected. However, his predecessor’s relatives accused Ali of being implicated in the assassination and engineered the election of a rival Caliph, Muawiyah I.
The competing Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali accepted arbitration. That led some of Ali’s supporters, known thereafter as the Khawarij, or “Outsiders”, to abandon him because they opposed arbitration. Viewing the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, they reasoned that Ali lacked the authority to make any decision regarding who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process for bestowing the Caliphate, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. By accepting arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, Ali was overstepping his boundaries and usurping a power of decision that was not his.
8. The Assassination of Ali Transformed a Limited Power Dispute Into a Permanent Rift Within Islam
Ali went ahead with the arbitration to settle his dispute with the rival Caliph Muawiyah. However, the arbitration turned into a fiasco without settling the dispute, and only served to weaken him politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both, and hatched an assassination plot to kill the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers.
Ali’s assassins succeeded in stabbing him to death in the Great Mosque in Kufa, Iraq, but those sent after his rival only wounded him. Muawiyah survived, emerged as sole Caliph, and went on to found the Umayyad Dynasty. The Khawarij rose in rebellion against Muawiyah, who eventually crushed them. Embers remained, however, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries. Rejecting the Caliph’s authority, they engaged in a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low-level insurgency that flared up every generation or two into a major rebellion. They became the model for modern Islamist terrorists, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
7. The Man Who Created the Military Machine That Made Alexander the Great a Great Conqueror
In the first half of the 4th century BC, Thebes and Sparta vied for the dominance of Greece. While they fought each other, a new power was rising in the north that would soon eclipse both. In 359 BC, 23-year-old Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon. Within two decades, he would change the face of Greece, and warfare would never be the same again.
Greeks viewed Macedon as a barely civilized kingdom that spoke a barely intelligible Greek dialect. The kingdom had a lot of potential, both in manpower and resources that far exceeded those of any Greek city state, but had yet to realize its potential. Philip unified Macedon’s fractious tribes, and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine.
6. Philip II Revolutionized Warfare Before an Assassination Cut His Career Short
Philip II of Macedon made soldiering a full-time, paid, and highly professional occupation. That enabled him to drill his men regularly, ensuring discipline and unit cohesion. He built upon earlier Greek phalanx innovations and improved upon them by arming his men with a long spear, the sarissa. He also increased mobility by reducing his men’s armor, and furnishing them with smaller and lighter shields. That gave them a marching speed that few other armies could match.
Philip also made Macedon’s horsemen the world’s best, by recruiting the sons of the nobility into what came to be known as the Companion Cavalry. He equipped them with long lances that gave them greater reach than their opponents, and trained them in shock tactics. To break enemy lines, Philip taught the Companion Cavalry to ride in wedge formations well suited to penetrate enemy lines, in addition to being more maneuverable than riding abreast. Another innovation was Philip’s creation of a corps of engineers to design and build new instruments of war. Philip further revolutionized warfare by perfecting the coordination of different types of troops in a battlefield synergy that enabled them to support each other – the birth of combined arms tactics.
5. The Assassination of Philip II Had Far-Reaching Historic Consequences
In Philip II’s army, heavy infantry, light infantry skirmishers, archers, slingers, cavalry, and engineers, all worked together. Their mutual support made their collective whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. Philip’s signature combined arms tactic came to be known as the “hammer and anvil”, with the phalanx fixing an enemy in place (anvil), and the cavalry closing in with shock tactics, acting as a hammer to shatter the foe.
Philip’s military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, he had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: invading the Persian Empire. However, his ambitions and life were cut short by an assassination stemming from sordid court dispute. One of his bodyguards quarreled with one of Philip’s in-laws. It ended with the in-law getting the bodyguard drunk, and having his attendants’ gang rape him. When the bodyguard turned to Philip for justice, the king failed to offer him redress. So the bodyguard assassinated Philip during the king’s wedding to a new bride. It would be his son, Alexander the Great, who would use Philip’s military machine and tactics to become the Ancient World’s greatest conqueror.
4. A Terrorist’s Group Assassination Plot that Changed the World
Serbia’s Black Hand was a secret society that employed terrorism in a bid to free Serbs from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule and unify them in a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group sent terrorists across the border on operations to stir up trouble. Their greatest feat was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914. The result was World War I.
The Black Hand’s founders first came together in 1903, when junior officers, led by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, better known as Apis, launched a coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen. Following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, an act the Serbs resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization. It aimed to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a coordinated campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means. A furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to back off.
3. When Serbia Was a Full-Blown State Sponsor of Terrorism
The Black Hand was established in 1911 to resume the Serb campaign against Austria-Hungary, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into Austria-Hungary to destabilize it, and stir up nationalist resentment among its Serbian subjects.
Serbia became a full-blown state sponsor of terrorism. The Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high-ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the crown prince. The Serbian government was kept well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. By 1914, Apis was a colonel in charge of Serbia’s military intelligence and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker. That year, he hatched a plot for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
2. Serbia’s Black Hand Pulled Off History’s Most Impactful Assassination
The Serbian Black Hand’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, was the culmination of a comedy of errors entailing various failed attempts. The parade of follies included a terrorist who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted suicide by swallowing expired cyanide, and tried drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep. One of the terrorists, Gavrilo Princip, gave up and went to grab a bite at a cafe. To his astonishment, the Archduke’s convertible, whose chauffeur had taken a wrong turn, suddenly came to a stop just a few feet away.
As the driver attempted to reverse, Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots, killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife. A Rube Goldberg chain of events ensued, leading to a global conflagration. Austria declared war on Serbia. That dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. That brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany. That prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. German violation of Belgian territory brought in Britain, a guarantor of Belgian sovereignty.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to a war in which over 70 million men were mobilized, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. An age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a fervent and fast-paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism, took its place.
Serbia suffered greatly for its sponsorship of terrorism. It stood off an initial Austrian attack, but was overrun in 1915. A fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest percentage suffered during the conflict. Serbia’s government finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders were arrested and tried on trumped-up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading