8. Overconfidence Backfired Upon Islam’s Last Caliph
Arrogance and overconfidence are bad traits. They are even worse when deployed by somebody in a weak position against an opponent who is overwhelmingly stronger. That was a lesson learned – too late – by Al Musta’sim Billah (1213 -1258), the last ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, and Islam’s last Caliph. Towards the end of his reign – and as it turned out, the end of his dynasty – Al Musta’sim decided to engage in a medieval version of a flame with the Mongols, led by Hulagu, one of history’s most terrifying generals.
It backfired badly upon Al Musta’sim, a weak ruler ruling a weak rump of what had once been a mighty empire. Worse, it backfired upon his subjects, who paid dearly for their ruler’s failure to accurately assess the situation and act accordingly. The last Caliph had the misfortune to be surrounded by ineffectual advisors, who offered him conflicting advice when the Mongols demanded his submission. He rejected some demands, ignored others, and answered others with bluster and empty threats. However, he failed to prepare adequate defenses against what was sure to follow.
7. The Mongols Turn Their Attentions to the Abbasid Caliphate
The Mongols first erupted into the Islamic world in the 1220s. As seen above, that was when Genghis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire and conquered as far west as western Persia up to the edges of Mesopotamia. That outburst was followed by a decades-long lull, as far as the Middle East and the Islamic world were concerned. In the meantime, the Mongols directed their energies elsewhere, against China, Kievan Rus, Eastern Europe, and in internal squabbles amongst themselves. The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis’ grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region.
Hulagu began his campaign of conquest by first destroying the Assassins. A murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain, the Assassins operated from a string of mountain holdfasts, and had had terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half. Hulagu completed their suppression by 1256, then turned his attention to the Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad. He ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute.
6. Defiance Coupled With Weakness Turned Out to be a Deadly Mix
The Abbasids had once been a powerful dynasty that ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and wealthiest empire. In Al Musta’sim’s era, however, they were centuries removed from their heyday. By the 1250s, the Abbasid Caliphate’s writ did not go far beyond Baghdad. As to the Caliph, he had been reduced to a ceremonial figurehead, a puppet of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in his name. What the Caliph still had was some spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit. However, he was not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump that still remained to the Abbasids.
Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. That belief backfired upon the Caliph. Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a twelve-day siege, the city fell. The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they executed him by rolling him in a carpet, over which their army rode when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.
5. An Ancient Athenian Scheme That Backfired Spectacularly
Few plans in history have backfired more spectacularly than that concocted to bring down controversial Ancient Athenian general and politician Alkibiades (450 – 404 BC). He was a relative of Pericles, Ancient Athens’ most prominent politician, and the one who took the city to the pinnacle of its Classical Era glory and prestige. However, Alkibiades did not share his famous kinsman’s probity or commitment to democracy. Instead, he was perhaps the most dynamic, adventurous, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of his era.
With Athens at the height of her power, Alkibiades’ rivals tried to take advantage of a murky scandal to prosecute him while most of his supporters were away at war. However, instead of obeying a summons to stand a trial he was bound to lose, Alkibiades fled. He defected to Athens’ enemy, Sparta, and helped it turn the tide of war against his home city. What followed next was a decade of twists and turns, betrayals and counter-betrayals. As seen below, it all ended with a humiliating Athenian defeat, and a spectacular fall from which the city never recovered.
Alkibiades was born into a wealthy family. His father had made a name for himself during the Persian War – the one in the movie 300 and its less impressive sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire – both as a fighter, and by subsidizing the cost of a trireme. The father was killed when Alkibiades was a toddler, and his relative Pericles became his guardian. However, Pericles was too busy with his duties as a statesman to provide the boy with the necessary guidance. Fortunately for Pericles, he did not live to see how the failure to properly raise his ward backfired so badly that it wrecked Athens.
Alkibiades developed into a dissipated young man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. In his early years growing up, Alkibiades was considered Athens’ most beautiful youth. In an era when pederasty was widespread and acceptable, he was passionately pursued by many, and was showered with gifts and flattery. Even Socrates was among his admirers. That kind of pursuit, admiration, and being the center of attention boosted Alkibiades’ ego through the stratosphere, and solidified his sense of entitlement.
3. A Deft Political Maneuver to Isolate Alkibiades From His Supporters
When the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta began, Alkibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent. That went hand in hand with his rise as a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Athenian Assembly. A hawk, by 420 BC Alkibiades had become one of Athens’ generals, and he strongly opposed reconciliation with Sparta. In 415 BC, he convinced the Assembly to send a massive expedition to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. On the eve of sailing, however, statues of the god Hermes throughout Athens were desecrated. Suspicion immediately fell upon Alkibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for impiety and drunken vandalism.
There was no concrete proof, however. Alkibiades demanded an immediate trial, but his enemies realized that he would acquitted if a trial was held at the time. Instead, they allowed the expedition, whose ranks were disproportionately comprised of Alkibiades’ supporters, to sail, with the charges still hanging over him. Then, after the city had been largely emptied of his partisans, a ship was sent to Sicily, summoning Alkibiades to return to Athens and face trial before an Assembly in which his enemies were now a majority. It seemed like a deft political maneuver, but it backfired spectacularly.
2. The Plan to Isolate Alkibiades Backfired on Athens in a Major Way
Rather than obey the summons to face trial in Athens, Alkibiades fled, and defected to Sparta. He advised the Spartans to adopt a strategy that led to the near complete annihilation of Athens’ Sicilian expedition – the force he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he had once led. It was the most catastrophic defeat suffered by Athens during the war. Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a relative handful ever saw Athens again. Those not killed in combat or massacred afterwards were enslaved, and sent to Sicilian quarries were they were worked to death.
Alkibiades also convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Athens’ home region of Attica each campaigning season, burning in looting, then retreating and repeating the cycle the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica, which allowed them to exert direct pressure on Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred up a revolt against Athens by her allies and subject cities in Asia Minor. However, Alkibiades was notoriously unable to keep it in his pants, and it backfired on him when he was caught in bed with the wife of Sparta’s King Agis II.
1. After Betraying Everybody, Alkibiades Went Down, and Took Athens With Him
Fleeing from Sparta, Alkibiades made a beeline for the Persians. He convinced them to adopt a strategy to prolong the war as long as possible, to keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests. Back in Athens, which was reeling from the string of catastrophes that Alkibiades had helped inflict upon his city, political turmoil led to an oligarchic coup. However, the Athenian fleet remained pro democracy. Alkibiades stepped into the chaos, and used his charisma to persuade the fleet to take him back. From 411 to 408 BC, he led the Athenian fleet in a dramatic recovery, winning a series of stunning victories that turned the war around.
Suddenly, it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. Alkibiades returned to Athens in 407 BC, and received a rapturous welcome. His earlier treasons were forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and he was given supreme command in conducting the war. However, the Athenians turned on him a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace, before fleeing even further away to Phrygia. A Spartan delegation traveled to Phrygia, and convinced its Persian governor to have Alkibiades murdered in 404 BC. That same year Athens finally collapsed beneath the load of disasters heaped upon it by Alkibiades, and surrendered.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading