To keep the nobility in check, Qin Shi Huang kept those he favored in the capital. He controlled them with pensions and fancy titles, and transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. Then he abolished all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him. The rest of the nobility were killed or put to work – and he had everybody working. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Qin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal.
He launched huge projects with lavish amounts of forced labor. 700,000 workers toiled on his tomb for 30 years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourists with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keep the barbarians out, and the Chinese who sought to flee the emperor’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule, in.
Another manifestation of Qin Shi Huang’s megalomania was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He went to lavish extremes to fund searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever. That included a major expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to the Life Elixir, but their R&D was hobbled by a lack of resources. That problem, Qin Shi Huang generously put to rights.
One of those charlatans gave the emperor daily mercury pills, as a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. They would supposedly tidy Qin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. The daily mercury doses gradually poisoned the emperor, and he gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Rather than prolong his life, Qin Shi Huang shortened it in his pursuit of immortality, and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a French aristocrat from Brittany. He was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc’s chief captain and right hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster. De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of France’s oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families. From an early age, Gilles seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan.
By age fifteen, de Rais had distinguished himself in a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself even more in Anjou, where he fought for its duchess against the English in 1427. By the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English, Gilles de Rais was one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans.
Gilles de Rais accompanied Joan of Arc to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII. His Majesty made de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements. De Rais had inherited significant landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more land, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon emerged that he was not as good at money management as he was at managing men in battle.
De Rais dissipated his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king. Within a year of his retirement, he lost most of his lands. His family secured from the king a decree that forbade de Rais from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, he turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.
Gilled de Rais also turned to the serial assault and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he eventually kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, which unearthed some horrific stuff. Apparently, the once celebrated national hero had murdered children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds. He lured kids from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothes. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, then lead them to a bedroom where he and his accomplices seized their victims.
As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais liked to watch their terror, when he explained what was in store. And what was in store was none too good. Suffice it to say that it that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothes were then burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. De Rais and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
The Spoiled Rich Kid Who Turned Ancient Athens Upside Down
Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general. A relative of Pericles, he did not share his famous kinsman’s probity or commitment to democracy, and was the most dynamic, adventurous, and catastrophic leader of Classical Athens. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Pericles became his guardian, but was too busy with his duties as a statesman to provide the boy with the necessary guidance. Alcibiades thus grew into a dissipated man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. Growing up, Alcibiades was considered Athens’ most beautiful youth. Pederasty was widespread and acceptable, and he was passionately pursued by many, and showered with flattery and lavish gifts.
Even Socrates was among his admirers. When the Peloponnesian War began, Alcibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent. He also became known as a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Athenian Assembly. A hawk, by 420 BC he had become one of Athens’ generals, and 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 fell upon Alcibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety.
Alcibiades demanded an immediate trial. Instead, his enemies allowed the expedition, whose ranks were disproportionately comprised of Alcibiades’ supporters, to sail on with the charges still hanging over him. Then, after the city had been largely emptied of Alcibiades’ partisans, a ship was sent to Sicily, summoning him to return home and face trial before an Assembly in which his enemies were now a majority. Rather than obey the summons, Alcibiades fled and defected to Sparta. He reportedly advised the Spartans to adopt the 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 once led. It was the most catastrophic, and bloodiest, defeat suffered by Athens during the war.
Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, precious few ever saw Athens again. Those who were not massacred were enslaved, then sent to Sicilian quarries where they were worked to death. Alcibiades also convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Attica each campaigning season, to burn and loot, then retreat and repeat the cycle the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica. That 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.
Despite the valuable services he rendered Sparta, Alcibiades wore out his welcome after he was caught in bed with the wife of King Agis II. He fled again, this time to the Persians. Alcibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy to prolong the war as long as possible, and keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests. Back home, Athens reeled from the string of military catastrophes that Alcibiades had helped inflict on his city, and political turmoil led to an oligarchic coup. However, the Athenian fleet remained pro-democracy, and in the chaos, Alcibiades 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, and won a series of victories that turned the war around.
Suddenly, it was Sparta that was on the verge of collapse. Alcibiades returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome. His earlier treasons were forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and he was given supreme command to conduct the war. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again. Since he had burned bridges with all sides, he holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace for a while. Then he fled even further away to take refuge in Phrygia. However, a Spartan delegation traveled to Phrygia, and convinced its Persian governor to have Alcibiades murdered in 404 BC.
Hatice Sultan (1660 – 1743) had a lavish wedding for the ages. The daughter of Sultan Mehmed IV, and sister of sultans Mustafa II and Ahmed III, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. In 1675, fourteen-year-old Hatice was married to Musahip Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman Navy’s Admiral of the Fleet. Her imperial family and the groom pulled out all the stops to make sure that the princess would kick off her marriage with celebrations of unrivaled opulence. The wedding, which took place in Edirne, lasted for twenty days, and the city was decorated with artificial trees that featured silver leaves. The biggest one was about sixteen-feet-wide, and was pulled by 200 slaves. To avoid navigating the city’s warren of twisting streets, all buildings in its path, including houses, were razed.
There were parades, fireworks, wrestling, and other athletic contests, in addition to daily banquets and ceremonies. Musicians, artists, and actors were brought in from all across the Ottoman Empire and beyond, to put on concerts, and other performances. The bride’s dowry was carried by eighty-six mules, each covered in expensive fabrics. Their haul included an abundance of diamonds, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and other jewelry and precious stones. That was aside from delicate porcelain, gold candlesticks, pearl-covered stools, and the era’s finest and most expensive shoes, slippers, and boots. Also prominently featured were the priciest Persian rugs, carpets, beds and table cloths. It was the era’s most lavish marriage celebration, bar none.
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