“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History

William McLaughlin - June 12, 2017

It’s okay to criticize your country/state, that’s how concepts such as democracy began, but people should have some loyalty to their native nations, especially in periods of war. Few things in periods of crisis are as gut-wrenching and terrible as having a traitor abandon the cause and help the enemy.

In this list, we have some of the worst cases of people betraying their fellow countrymen, sometimes knowing that their decision caused thousands of their former comrades to die. It’s important to note that history and those who write it decide who is a traitor, as a quote from author Nihad Sirees explains “You can call anyone you want a traitor as long as you’re the one holding the pen.”

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
If not for Ephialties, who knows how long the Greeks could have held the pass. an Immortal is pictured on the right, with this likely representing the final stand of the Spartans. Pinterest

Ephialties

Where most of the Christian world uses Judas as a synonym for traitor, many Greeks still use Ephialties to call out traitors. People are quite familiar with the Battle of Thermopylae with Leonidas and the 300 Spartans (and 7,000 Greek allies). The few Greeks stood against the might of the Royal Persian army, as many as 200,000 men.

In the narrow pass of Thermopylae, the Greek hoplite formation easily chewed through waves of Persians who had no way to flank the wall of shifting armor, shields, and spears in front of them. The lightly armored Persians (even the famed immortals had less armor than the Greeks) had no answer. After two days, the Greeks had lost a few hundred men compared to perhaps 15,000 Persian losses. Some sources even say the Greeks were brave enough to launch a night raid on the Persian camp.

Then Ephialties stepped onto the scene. A Greek native to the area, his home, and nearby city were likely to be sacked if the Persians won, but the Persians were immensely wealthy, and no one was paying Ephialties to stay loyal, so he went to the Persians and told them about a goat path around the Greek position.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
The pass at Thermopylae was so narrow that the Greeks could have held it for as long as their allies at sea were able to hold of the Persian fleet. Wikipedia

The next day the Greeks were surrounded, with a several thousand being able to get away and Leonidas and about 1,000 Greeks stayed to fight to the death. The final day of battle was a slaughter, but the Greeks gave as good as they got until the end, killing five or more Persians for every Greek slain on the last day. They did this despite having most of their spears and swords broke or lost, ripping and grabbing weapons from the Persians.

Had the goat path been left undiscovered, the Persians still likely would have won, but the Greek defense could have lasted several more days at least. Xerxes could have lost upwards of 50,000 men while the Greeks could have had a more orderly retreat. This alternate history could have even made Xerxes give up on his invasion with such heavy losses so early, but Ephialties erased that history. Despite his treachery, the stand did inspire unity and a fighting spirit into the rest of Greece that allowed them to eventually defeat the Persians.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Alcibiades had Socrates as a teacher, but had trouble with unruly behavior and promiscuity. Here is Socrates dragging his student away from a brothel. Wikipedia

Alcibiades

One of the greatest flip-floppers in all military history, Alcibiades was an ultimate example of serving his own interests above all else. He might be one of the least known of this list, but he absolutely deserves a spot for betraying his city three different times. During the great Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the born and raised Athenian Alcibiades commanded armies for the Athenians before defecting to the Spartans, then he defected to the Persians, and finally back to Athens.

Alcibiades was a brilliant general, both with his tactical ability and with trickery and diplomacy to take control of countless strategic towns in Greece during the war. He had a masterful grasp of strategy as well.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
A simple, but accurate overview of how the Peloponneseian war played out. Wikipedia

A planned Sicilian expedition was Alcibiades’ idea, and it could have led to a powerful Athenian base in Syracuse, but Alcibiades’ politic enemies kept that from happening. When he was accused of sacrilege, a serious crime in Greece, ships were sent to the fleet to bring back Alcibiades to stand trial.

Instead of following them back, Alcibiades set sail for Sparta, the sworn enemy of Athens. Many historians believe that the Sicilian expedition might have been a success if Alcibiades led it; without him, it was a failure that directly contributed to Athens eventual defeat in the war.

In Sparta, Alcibiades served in an advisory role. He told the Spartans to build a permanent fort near Athens instead of having a yearly campaign. The plan was genius. It kept the Athenians from harvesting their fields and prevented access to their immensely profitable mines while making them reliant on sea shipments for supplies.

Soon, however, Alcibiades found himself in trouble at the Spartan court. The King Agis’ new child was widely rumored to have actually been Alcibiades’ child after an affair with the Queen Timaia. Obviously, Alcibiades couldn’t hope to stay alive with such rumors floated around and so he fled Sparta just before men were sent by the king to capture him. This time he fled to Persia of all places.

Here though Alcibiades seems to have just focused on his return to Athens. After long negotiations, Alcibiades was able to get his original charges of sacrilege dropped and finally returned to his native land. Political strife struck once again, but Alcibiades was just removed from command instead of fleeing.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Before the naval/land battle of Aegospotami, Alcibiades did warn his Athenian comrades that their fleet was in the wrong position, but he had been releived of command. the Spartans would win the battle and soon, the war. Pinterest

Alcibiades did have reasons for his betrayals, even if he did cause a lot of his own problems, such as in Sparta. His spot on this list, however, comes mainly from how much damage he did to Athens when serving Sparta. Athens would eventually lose the war, and a large portion of momentum was due to the strategies Alcibiades devised for the Spartans. According to the sources, he approached the Spartans and “promised to render them aid and service greater than all the harm he had previously done them as an enemy”. Certainly, the words of a traitor.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini. Wikipedia

Brutus

“Et Tu, Brute (You too, Brutus)?” the classic words said by those betrayed by someone they considered close, and reportedly uttered by Caesar as he was stabbed to death by senators led by Brutus. Alternatively, he may have said, “you too, my child” showing that he either loved Brutus as a son or may have even been Brutus’ true father.

Julius Caesar had an astounding military career, first conquering Gaul, then conquering Romans who opposed his rule or plans for Rome. Through the civil war, Caesar would eventually find himself as the dictator of Rome. Not your average dictator, Caesar did quite a bit of good for Rome in general and especially for many of the lower classes. He had even made plans to set out to conquer Parthia, one of Rome’s most deadly and defiant enemies in the east.

Brutus had initially fought against Caesar in the civil war but decided to change sides after the Battle of Pharsalus. Caesar was famous for giving second chances and Brutus was happily welcomed back by the eventual dictator. Eventually, Caesar won the war but remained as a dictator. Brutus saw himself as a champion of the Republic and resented Caesar’s seizure of absolute power; after all, Brutus’ ancestor was the man who led the overthrow of the last Roman king and established the Republic.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Dante, in his Inferno, has Brutus in the 9th circle of hell. His fate was to be chewed by one of the three mouths of the Devil along with Cassius and Judas. Pinterest

On the Ides (15th) of March, 44 BCE, Caesar was attacked by about 30 Senators. Daggers flew from folds in their elegant togas and the unarmed Caesar had no hope against the onslaught. After sustaining dozens of wounds, Caesar succumbed, pulling his toga up to hide his face.

After this, Brutus and the conspirators had a brief window as “liberators of the Republic” but were soon hunted down by Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian and Marc Antony. Brutus was killed or more likely committed suicide during or just after the Battle of Philippi. Antony and Octavian had their own war after that that would leave Octavian the last winner of a seemingly endless string of civil wars. Octavian became Augustus, the first official Emperor of Rome.

Again, we have another what if alternate history of Caesar campaigning against the Parthians, an enemy his predecessors and successors would fail to conquer. An early and lasting hold on Mesopotamia and beyond could have drastically altered the development of Rome and brought it massive amounts of wealth. We will never know, however, as Brutus thanked Caesar’s mercy and amnesty with a literal stab in the back.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Judas sitting 5th from the left, without a faint halo. he is holding a bag, perhaps of his payment of silver. he is also lower than everyone else in the scene, has spilled the salt and has his elbow on the table. symbolism everywhere. Wikipedia.

Judas

We won’t get too much into scripture here, but we all know that Judas is one of the all-time ultimate traitors. To get the biggest possible question out of the way, most historians agree that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a real historical person. Judas as well is a true historical person.

Jesus was immensely influential in the Judea province during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The Romans were apprehensive at best towards the Jewish population, but the growth of popularity and general intensity surrounding Jesus started getting more attention. The breaking point, however, was when Jesus began to be considered something of a king among the Jews.

The Romans had a complex when it came to kings, ironic because their emperors were basically kings, but the fears went all the way back to the earliest days of Rome. So, when Jesus achieved king status, not that Jesus thought of himself as a king, he was sought for a trial and possible execution.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Wikipedia

Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus’ disciples and stuck with his teachings for years. When the Romans began searching for Jesus more intently, Judas decided to make a deal with the Roman governor to hand over Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The last supper came and went with Judas present and fully planning on betraying Jesus. After the dinner, Judas identified Jesus to the waiting Romans who arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

We all know what happened to Jesus afterwards. Judas reportedly returned his silver, feeling so ashamed of what he had done. The most likely account of Judas after the crucifixion of Jesus is that he hung himself. There are a lot of different interpretations of what happened and how, but most historians agree on most of the events listed here. One could argue that Judas was an essential piece of the puzzle that launched Christianity, but even so, he was no less of a traitor for his actions.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Benedict Arnold even had a signed Oath of Allegiance, making his treachery all the more bitter. Wikipedia

Benedict Arnold

A lot of people are familiar with Benedict Arnold, though many might be surprised to learn that he was a famous hero of the revolutionary war before he decided to become a traitor. Arnold was a true patriot at the beginning of the American War of Independence.

Right at the outset of the war, Arnold headed north to establish bases of control and hopefully sway the Canadians to the rebel cause. In one of the first major actions of the War, Arnold snuck over to the poorly defended Fort Ticonderoga and captured it and all its artillery. Arnold’s idea was genius; though Ticonderoga was a small garrison, its capture hampered communication and inland logistics for the British. The captured cannons also played a role when they were brought to Boston and fired into the British-held town until they forced a retreat.

Arnold then had the idea to attack Quebec City, again a strategically sound choice. Arnold led a winter assault in 1775 that saw hundreds die just from the elements. At the battle, Arnold suffered a terrible injury to his leg. Later he oversaw the construction of a quick fleet to block an advancing British fleet at Lake Champlain. The battle was a tactical defeat for Benedict, but a heroic delaying action that held back British operations for almost a year.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
A monument to Arnold’s foot that he badly re-injured at the Battle of Saratoga. his name is nowhere to be found on the monument, however. Wikipedia

Benedict Arnold thought that he didn’t get enough credit for his actions, and when he saw junior officers being promoted all around him he resigned. He was eventually persuaded to rejoin again but had to serve under General Horatio Gates. The two men despised each other, and when Arnold attacked without orders and secured an impressive victory, in was reportedly Gates who took the credit.

Finally fed up, Arnold took a military governor position in Philadelphia where he married the daughter of a British loyalist. Soon, crippling debt and lingering resentment of his treatment by the American forces led to him offering to turn over the fort at West Point for a substantial fee. Ultimately, the Americans discovered this plot and the whole plan backfired, with Benedict Arnold just escaping to British protection.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Benedict Arnold welcoming Confederate President Jefferson Davis to Hell in a Civil War era political cartoon. Wikipedia

Benedict Arnold is remembered as a bitter traitor, seeking personal glory over fighting for his country. He fought in a few minor engagements before heading Britain. His betrayal actually relit the revolutionary fire in America after strings of grim campaigns and battlefield defeats the Americans had something to rally against. Arnold would live out the rest of his life in Britain, getting much less than the agreed upon sum for West Point as the plan was comprised. He could never return to America and he was treated with indifference in Britain as he never really gained much for them before the war’s end.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
Wikipedia

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

One of the largest cases of treachery on modern times, the tale of the Rosenberg’s is sad and terrible, and still controversial. The second Red Scare of Communism framed the circus-show of a trial for the Rosenbergs, and though there is controversy, we do know for sure that Julius was a traitor.

Julius and Ethel both grew up in New York. Julius went to college for electrical engineering, where he joined the Young Communist League. Ethel had been an aspiring actress before getting involved in labor groups and eventually into the same Young Communist League.

Julius got a job as an engineer at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey in 1940. The fort developed guided missiles, radar, and other advanced technology. Two years later he was recruited by a Russian spy handler Alexander Feklisov through communist party connections.

For years, Julius passed classified information to his Soviet spy handler, including plans for the U.S.’s first jet fighter. Ethel’s brother David Greenglass just happened to be working on the Manhattan project during this period as well. He was soon recruited by Julius and began supplying information on Atomic bomb research, while Ethel typed up the reports.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
A sketch of an implosion type atomic bomb that was passed to Russia through Julius. Wikipedia

When the Rosenbergs were finally caught and arrested, a group of government officials met in private to discuss the largest and most serious case of espionage in recent history. They decided that they Rosenberg’s spy ring was much larger than it seemed and hoped that they could pressure the two into talking.

Despite not having much evidence against Ethel, the prosecution fought for the death sentence on her as well as for Julius. The fact that the two were/had been members of a communist group fueled the fires for their conviction during a fearful time of the Cold War, but the fact that the Rosenbergs had two young children and Ethel’s guilt was in doubt stirred public sympathies.

The judge, Irving Kaufman, extrapolated the treason into a “crime worse than murder”. The implication was that Russia gained knowledge of the atomic bomb early enough to be aggressive on the world stage, causing the Korean war and thousands of American lives. The treason led to the constant fear of nuclear holocaust as the two rival superpowers seemed a phone call away from launching new and terrifying nuclear bombs.

Through the trial, both Julius and Ethel pled the 5th and refused to talk. Public outcries for clemency failed and both were sentenced to death. It was a sad and only partially just case as the proposed death penalty for Ethel was supposed to be a bluff for more information, and the Rosenbergs called the bluff. Foreign governments, the Pope, and others pleaded for at least Ethel’s life to be spared, but to no avail.

“Et Tu, Brute?” 6 of the Most Notorious Traitors in History
The trial and executions had worldwide coverage and many sympathized with the Rosenbergs. Pinterest

On June 19, 1953, the Rosenberg’s were put to death by electric chair. The fall of the U.S.S.R. brought out more proof that Julius was indeed guilty of serious espionage, and that Ethel was certainly guilty as well, but likely did not deserve the death penalty.

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