Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History

Khalid Elhassan - April 5, 2023

Lavish spending has long been a hallmark of the rich and powerful throughout history. Sometimes, however, the profligate spending exceeds even the already lavish norms of the well-heeled. Take the spendthrift ways of Marie Antoinette, that made her widely reviled in France, and set the stage for the French Revolution. Or the magnificent pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, that ruined what had once been a famously wealthy empire. Below are twenty five things about those and other lavish spending bouts from history.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
A young Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Library of Congress

An Austrian Royal’s Bad Time in France

The French never warmed to Marie Antoinette, and reviled her for decades before they chopped off her head in 1793. Even at home, she got little love from her husband, Louis XVI. French kings had reputations for insatiable lust, but not Louis XVI. He married Marie in 1770 when he was fifteen and she was fourteen, but the marriage was not consummated until seven years later. Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Marie Antoinette’s brother, described in a letter what Louis did with his queen. He: “Introduces the member … stays there without moving for about two minutes“, then pulls out without ejaculation, and “bids goodnight“. An angry Joseph II swore that if he had been there, he would have had Louis whipped so that he would have come out of sheer rage like a donkey.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
A teenage Marie Antoinette. Lady Reading Net

Joseph’s frustration was understandable: begetting heirs was important in royal marriages, not just to the royal couple, but to their families as well. Things were not much better outside the marital bed. Many viewed Marie Antoinette as an interloper from a country the French had often warred against. She was deemed frivolous and out of touch. She never said “let them eat cake. However, the tale was widely accepted because she was seen as somebody who probably would say such a thing. Most damningly, as seen below, Marie Antoinette was loathed for her lavish spending at a time when many suffered from hunger and want.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Louis XVI. Google Art Project

Marie Antoinette’s Lavish Ways

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were crowned as teenagers at ages nineteen and eighteen, respectively. It was an economically turbulent time, and neither king nor queen grasped the gravity of the situation. Marie defied convention. The kings of France might be lavish spenders, and so were their mistresses. However, the French expected their queens to be pious and humble, like the wives of Louis XIV and Louis XV. The wife of Louis XVI thought otherwise. From early on, Marie Antoinette accumulated the kind of flamboyant wardrobe more associated with French royal mistresses than with French queens. In one of her costumed balls, she dressed as the mistress of Renaissance-era King Henri IV in a cloud of silver edged gauze, a skirt with golden fringes pinned with diamonds, and diamond-studded corset and girdle.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Marie Antoinette. Poster Lounge

A lover of art and haute couture, she spent profligately on both. She bought about 300 gowns each year, and was accordingly seen as spoiled and vain. She also splurged on real estate. That included the historic Chateau de Saint-Cloud, a Crown asset that was transferred to her name, and the Petite Trianon, built in Versailles for a former king’s mistress. She continued to splurge even when France was plunged into a financial crisis. For example, she spent more than two million francs to renovate the Petit Trianon. Understandably, such profligacy in a time of widespread hardship did not go over well. By the time the French Revolution finally erupted, Marie Antoinette was perhaps the most reviled person in France.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Mansa Musa in an illustration from the 1300s. Galliga Digital Library

A Lavish Trip That Ruined an Empire

The Mali Empire was founded in West Africa circa 1226, and became famous for its wealth. The empire’s riches were derived from huge gold deposits, salt, ivory, and slaves. The first few rulers piled up the gold, until Mansa Musa ascended the throne circa 1312, and began to splurge. His most lavish spree came when he decided to make the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, about 2700 miles away, and do it in style to showcase his magnificence. Musa’s procession included 60,000 men, clad in expensive silk and brocade. Heralds were dressed in even more expensive silks and carried gold staffs, while 12,000 slaves bore 4 pounds of gold each. More wealth was borne on eighty camels, each with about 300 pounds of gold dust. As they trekked across the Sahara and savannah, Musa freely handed out gold to the poor he met along the way.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage. Junior Scholastic

He made generous donations to cities along his route, and reportedly built a mosque every Friday. When he reached Cairo, he was fleeced by merchants exploited his ignorance of prices. His spending there caused prices to skyrocket, and pumped so much gold into the economy that inflation ravaged Egypt for years afterwards. Musa wanted to showcase his wealth, and he succeeded. A contemporary described his pilgrimage as “a lavish display of power, wealth, unprecedented by its size and pageantry“. However, Mansa Musa’s lavish pilgrimage nearly ruined his realm and set it on a steep decline. For generations, the Mali Empire had been known for its wealth. Two decades after Musa’s pilgrimage, medieval traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali, and described it as poor. It fell to the neighboring Songhay Empire a few years later.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Adolf Frederick of Sweden. Sweden National Museum

The Glutton King

Adolf Frederick (1710 – 1771) was king of Sweden from 1751 until his death twenty years later. A weak monarch, he occupied a throne that once seated dynamic giants who shook Europe, such as kings Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII. Little of import to the outside world happened in Adolf Frederick’s reign. He is better known to history for his comically undignified death than for any accomplishment as a ruler, and is remembered as the king who ate himself to death.

He was not a direct heir to the throne, but was elected heir after Sweden failed to reconquer lands lost to Russia a generation earlier. His election was secured by Russian bayonets, after Tsarina Elizabeth demanded Adolf Frederick’s election as a condition for peace. She threatened to annex huge chunks of Swedish territory if her preferred candidate lost. The Swedes gave in, and Adolf Frederick was elected heir in 1743, and ascended the throne in 1751. Then, as seen below, he ate himself to death with lavish meals.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Adolf Frederick overdid it on the semla buns. All Recipes

A Lavish Meal That Doomed a Monarch

Adolf Frederick reigned more than he ruled, and most real power in Sweden rested with its Riksdag, or parliament. He sometimes tried to buck parliament and increase his power and royal prerogatives, but without success. As such, he remained a figurehead monarch. That was not a bad thing, because it marked a shift from absolutist monarchy to a constitutional one. As consolation, Frederick spent the bulk of his reign in pursuit of pleasure. One of his greatest pleasures was food, and he became a glutton.

That gluttony proved a fatal delight, as Frederick discovered on February 12th, 1771. That night, as was his wont, His Highness wolfed down a gluttonously lavish dinner. The meal included large servings of lobster, caviar, sausages, and sauerkraut, washed down with copious champagne. For desert, he had fourteen servings of semla – a sweet roll topped with whipped cream – and hot milk. Soon afterwards, he complained of stomach pains, which steadily worsened until he died a few hours later.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The coronation of Emperor Bokassa. Pinterest

A Grotesquely Lavish Coronation Amidst Widespread Poverty

Jean-Bedel Bokassa, self-proclaimed Bokassa the First (1921 – 1996), was a military dictator of the Central African Republic from 1966 to 1979. He declared the small country an empire, and himself Bokassa I, Emperor of the Central African Empire. His rule was marked by terror, corruption, and bizarre behavior. He was a captain in the French colonial when Central Africa gained its independence from France, and the country’s new president, a distant cousin, invited him to head its armed forces.

Bokassa accepted, and a few years later, staged a coup, seized power, and declared himself president. A worshipper of Napoleon Bonaparte, he emulated his example and crowned himself Emperor of Central Africa. He bankrupted his impoverished country with a lavish coronation that cost about 80 million dollars. It included a diamond-encrusted crown that cost 20 million. His governance was marked by a reign of terror in which Bokassa personally supervised the judicial beating of criminal suspects. Among other things, he decreed that thieves were to lose an ear for the first two offenses, and a hand for the third.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Emperor Bokassa. Rapid City Journal

A Bizarre Imperial Reign in Central Africa

Jean-Bedel Bokassa, or Bokassa the First as he came to style himself, tortured suspected political opponents, then fed their corpses to crocodiles and lions kept in his private zoo. There were also widespread accusations of cannibalism, triggered by photographs in Paris-Match magazine which showed a freezer containing the bodies of children. Among Bokassa’s many atrocities, the most infamous was the arrest of hundreds of schoolchildren in 1979 for refusing to buy school uniforms from a company owned by one of his wives. Bokassa personally supervised the murder of over 100 of them by his imperial guard.

The torture and massacre of children was a final straw, and soon thereafter, French paratroopers deposed Bokassa. He went into exile in France, but within a few years of lavish spending, he wasted the millions he had embezzled. The former emperor was reduced to poverty – which hit the news when one of his children was arrested for shoplifting food. He returned to Central Africa in 1986, where he was tried and convicted of murder and treason, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, however, and in 1993 he was released, and died three years later in 1996.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Cottages at Lake Conemaugh. Square Space

A Lavish Club Resort That Destroyed a Town

In 1880, plutocrat Henry Clay Frick and a group of rich Pittsburghers bought the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam that formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Originally built to service a canal system, the dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals, and was sold to private interests. Frick and his fellows formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a 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 nature.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Henry Clay Frick and his wife. Explore PA History

They modified the dam, and lowered it to accommodate a road. To ensure that that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway that allows controlled release of water from a dam. The screen did more than stop fish from leaving the dam: it also trapped debris that clogged the spillway. That was bad because when the dam was built, it had a system of pipes and valves to lower water levels in an emergency. That system had been 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 killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Imgur

Thousands Died So These Tycoons Would Not Run Out of Fish

In late May, 1889, western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there: 10 inches fell in 24 hours. As water levels in Lake Conemaugh rose ominously on May 31st, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s manager led laborers in a frantic attempt to unclog the dam’s spillway. They failed, 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 forty feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of forty miles per hour, and destroyed all in its path. The torrent sucked people from their homes, swept trains, and slammed massive piles of debris into bridges and buildings.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood. WJAC

2209 people perished, including 400 children. Bodies were washed as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage exceeded $4.5 billion in 2023 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 dam modifications made no difference because they had only lowered it by one foot, and 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 against the resort’s owners, and the tycoons walked off scot-free.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The First Triumvirate, left to right, Crassus, Caesar, Pompey. Haroun Bin

Ancient Rome’s Richest Man

In ancient Greece and Rome, when people wanted to say that somebody was loaded, they said that he was “as rich as Croesus“, after a sixth century BC Lydian king who had been the first to mint coins. In the late Roman Republic, one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) grew so wealthy that people changed the phrase, and punned that somebody was “as rich as Crassus“. Whether or not he was as rich as Croesus, Crassus was Rome’s wealthiest man and one of its key figures. He used his deep pockets to amass power, and was lavish in his sponsorship of politicians. Their numbers included Julius Caesar, whose political rise Crassus financed.

With Caesar and Pompey the Great, Crassus entered into a power sharing agreement known as “The First Triumvirate”, which effectively made the trio the masters of the Roman Republic. Crassus became fabulously rich because he was a shrewd businessman, and a notoriously avaricious one. He started on the road to fabulous wealth through an alliance with the dictator Sulla. Crassus bought the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even had the names of those whose properties he coveted added to the lists of the proscribed, slated for execution and confiscation of property. He made even more money through other unscrupulous methods.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Marcus Licinius Crassus. Imgur

An Unscrupulous Ancient Entrepreneur

Rome in Crassus’ days was full of fire-prone buildings, and fires were a common occurrence. However, the city had no public firefighters, so Crassus formed a private firefighting company manned by his slaves. When a fire broke out, he rushed to the scene with his firefighters, and on the spot, offered to buy the burning building or those nearby that were threatened by the flames at literally fire-sale prices. To get at least something for their property was preferable to nothing if it was reduced to ashes, so the distressed owners often agreed. Through such shady methods, Crassus became Rome’s greatest property owner. By the 70s BC, he was Rome’s richest man. As seen above, he leveraged his wealth into power, and divvied up the Roman Republic with Caesar and Pompey.

However, Crassus wanted to be more than just a rich man. He craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners. Unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment was defeating Spartacus’ slave rebellion. Defeating slaves paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds. To win glory of his own, Crassus decided to invade Parthia, a newly established wealthy kingdom that ruled Persia and Mesopotamia. Parthia did not seem a difficult nut to crack: a decade earlier, Pompey had easily defeated other eastern kingdoms. With an army of 50,000, Crassus invaded Parthia in 53 BC. As seen below, things went wrong from the start.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The Battle of Carrhae. YouTube

Lavish Spending Could Not Buy This Ancient Tycoon What He Craved the Most

Crassus’ guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took the Romans on an arid route that left his army parched and exhausted by the time they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, they encountered a Parthian army of 1000 armored heavy cavalry and 9000 horse archers. It did not go well for Crassus. Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the hard march and by Crassus’ poor leadership. Parthian archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance, and used their super mobility to ride away to safety whenever the Romans advanced on foot. Morale plummeted as casualties mounted. Crassus finally ordered his son to drive off the horse archers with the Roman cavalry and an infantry detachment.

The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians returned, and taunted the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear. Crassus abandoned thousands of his wounded, and retreated. The Parthians invited him to parley, and offered safe retreat in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his army threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. The parley went badly, violence broke out, and Crassus was killed. To mock his greed, the Parthians poured molten gold down the rich Roman’s throat. Out of his 50,000 man army, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Jane Greer, center, models a Women’s Army Corps uniform in 1942. KHOU

The Billionaire Who Went to Lavish Extremes to Wreck an Ex’s Career

Few would be surprised to learn that Howard Hughes (1905 – 1976), the billionaire recluse, eccentric, and all around weirdo, was not a nice guy. It is the lavish extremes to which he went – and the extreme pettiness involved – in order to pull off some of his nastiness that are surprising. Like when he bought a major movie studio to which an ex-girlfriend was contracted, just so he could wreck her career. Hughes’ victim was Jane Greer (1924 – 2001), a film noir actress who made a splash in the 1940s with femme fatale roles in movies such as Dick Tracy, Out of the Past, and The Big Steal. In 1942, when she was eighteen, Greer caught Hughes’ eye when he saw her modeling in Life magazine.

Jane Greer’s mother worked for the War Department, and she saw to it that her daughter was one of three young women chosen to model uniforms for the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1942. When her modeling appeared in the June 8th, 1942, issue of Life magazine, many across the country were smitten, and not least among them was Howard Hughes. Infatuated, he sponsored Greer and sent her to Hollywood to become an actress. When she showed an interest in other men, it enraged Hughes. He figured that he had made her, and that he thus had the right to break her. As seen below, he went to lavish extremes to possess – and then punish – her.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Howard Hughes in the 1940s. Imgur

There’s Lavish Spending, Then There’s Collecting People Level of Lavish Spending

Howard Hughes liked to collect people – especially beautiful women – like normal folk collect stamps. So he signed the teenager to a personal contract. “Personal contract” was as creepy as it sounds: soon after she signed, Hughes told the teenaged model that he never wanted her to marry anyone. At first, that was no problem for Greer, who initially liked Hughes. As she put it years later: “I found him rather endearing, like a child. His idea was to go to the amusement park … He won a large collection of Kewpie dolls for me“. When Greer welcomed the attentions of other men, however, Hughes was furious.

Greer was fine with Howard Hughes taking her out to amusement parks – at least for a while. Things got awkward, however, when she welcomed the attentions of other men who saw her as a woman and not a child, and had more in mind than amusement park trips. Hughes wasn’t the only one smitten by Greer’s 1942 modeling photo. Star crooner Rudy Vallee was also infatuated, and tried to get her address from Life magazine. The magazine refused, but Vallee persisted, and when he eventually found it, things got complicated. Greer might have liked hanging out with Hughes, but a rich man who treated her like a child with trips to amusement parks was no competition to a star singer who romanced her like a woman. Rudy Vallee swept Greer off her feet, and after a whirlwind courtship, they wed in 1943.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, 1947. Encyclopedia Britannica

Going to Lavish Extremes to Mess With an Ex

Howard Hughes seethed with jealousy when Jane Greer got married. Whatever the legality of the “no marriage” clause in the personal contract that Greer had signed, Hughes had meant it, and felt betrayed. So he set out to wreck her career, and his wealth gave him the means to do so. Howard Hughes had brought Jane Greer to Hollywood and got her acting lessons. To punish her interest in other men, he kept her shelved with no screen tests or acting gigs. So she sued to get out of her personal contract to Hughes, bought it back, and joined RKO – one of Classical Hollywood’s Big Five studios.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Howard Hughes bought RKO Pictures just to mess with Jane Greer. Wikimedia

Greer had a run of successful films with RKO – until Hughes bought the studio to wreck her career. He called Greer to his office, and told her he would not use her anymore. “Since I was under exclusive contract to Howard at RKO, that meant I would not be able to work for anybody else, either. I told him directly that this meant that he was ruining my film career. He replied by saying, ‘Yes, that’s right’“. Greer managed a few roles, but only when Hughes could find nobody else. After six years of barely any work, she paid the final installment to buy out her contract. By then, however, Hughes had already cost Greer her best and most lucrative acting years.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The Warring States, before they were united by Qin Shi Huang. Wikimedia

China’s Greatest Emperor Was Also its Weirdest

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), founder of the imperial Qin Dynasty, was king of the Chinese state of Qin in the Warring States Period. He ascended the throne as a child, and when he reached his teens he wrested power from the regents who had governed in. To consolidate his power, he massacred palace plotters who tried to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all adjacent Chinese states and consolidated them under his rule, and declared himself the first emperor of a united China.

Qin Shi Huang set out to unify his newly conquered empire. He standardized the currency, weights, and measures. He also introduced a system of government known as Legalism, based on strict laws and harsh punishments. China’s first emperor ended the feudalism which had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name. He replaced it with a centralized bureaucratic government in which advancement was based on merit. So far, so good – but then came the weird.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Qin Shi Huang. Google Sites

Lavish Mega Projects Across Ancient China

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Expedition sent by Qin Shi Huang in search of the Elixir of Life. Wikimedia

Lavish Extremes in Pursuit of Eternal Life

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans, by Jules Eugene Lenepveu, 1890. Leemage

From Respect and Adulation to Revulsion

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Gilles de Rais. Republicain Lorrain

Lavish Spending Doomed this National Hero

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The trial of Gilles de Rais. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

The Descent of a Hero Into Depravity

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Bluebeard. Pinterest

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Socrates teaching Alcibiades, by Francois Andre Vincent, 1776. Wikimedia

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
Alcibiades. Capitoline Museum

Turning Traitor

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
The Death of Alcibiades, by Philippe Chery. Musee des Beaux-Arts, La Rochelle

The End of the Road for Alcibiades

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
An Ottoman sultana and princess with their slaves. Look and Learn

A Lavish Ottoman Wedding

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.

Insane Indulgences Of The Rich & Powerful From History
An Ottoman style wedding dress. Turkey Famous For

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.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Africa Today, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1978) – The Coronation of Emperor Bokassa

Alpha History – Marie Antoinette

Ancient Origins – Adolf Frederick: The Swedish King Who Ate Himself to Death

Ars Orientalis, Vol. 39, 2010 – Eighteenth Century Ottoman Princesses as Collectors: Chinese and European Porcelains in the Topkapi Palace Museum

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

Delamere Manor – The Five Most Expensive Weddings of All Time

Ehrenberg, Victor – From Solon to Socrates: Greek History and Civilization During the 6th and 5th Centuries BC (2010)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Giles de Rais

Encyclopedia Britannica – Musa I of Mali

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume II (1994)

Guardian, The, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer

Head Stuff – Crassus, the Richest Man in Rome

History Collection – Successful and Unsuccessful Lovers of the Rich and Powerful in History

History Network – How America’s Most Powerful Men Caused America’s Deadliest Flood

Johnstown Pennsylvania Information Source Online – Archived New York Times Coverage of the Johnstown Flood, June 1 – 7, 1889

Library of Congress – Women in the French Revolution Resource Guides: Marie Antoinette

Listverse – 10 Bizarre Tales of The First Emperor of China’s Quest For Immortality

Los Angeles Times, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer, Star of Film Noir ‘Out of the Past’

McCullough, David G. – The Johnstown Flood (2004)

New Yorker, The, September 17th, 2006 – The Fashions and Follies of Marie Antoinette

Nordstjernan – King-Sized Meal: A Cautionary Tale

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Alcibiades

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Crassus

Shaw, Karl – Power Mad! A Book of Deranged Dictators (2004)

Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War

Twitchett, Denis, et alThe Cambridge History of China: The Chin and Han Empires, 221 BC – AD 220, 3rd Edition (1986)

Wolf, Leonard – Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles de Rais (1980)