13. The Brilliant Athenian Who Jumped From One Scandal to Another
The entire life of Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) seemingly consisted of one scandal after another. A brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general, Alcibiades was the most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler, and he was raised without firm guidance. He grew into a self-indulgent man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery.
Early in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alcibiades won a reputation for courage and military talent. By 420 BC he had become one of Athens’ generals, and in 415 BC, he persuaded Athens to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. Soon before departure, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated. Suspicion immediately fell upon Alcibiades, whose immoral clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. The expedition sailed to Sicily, with a cloud hanging over its leader. When Alcibiades was eventually summoned to face trial before the Athenian Assembly, he fled and defected to Sparta.
12. Alcibiades Wore Out His Welcome In Sparta by Sleeping With the King’s Wife
Once in Sparta, Alcibiades turned traitor and advised Athens’ enemy to adopt a strategy that annihilated the Sicilian expedition. The very force that he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, whose men he once led. The result was the most catastrophic defeat that was suffered by Athens during the war. Out of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful survived: the remainder were either killed outright, or enslaved and worked to death.
Alcibiades also persuaded the Spartans to alter their strategy of marching into Athens’ Attica region each year, burning and looting, then withdrawing and repeating the process the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent base in Attica, from which they could pressure Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred Athens’ allies and client states into revolting. However, Alcibiades wore out his welcome in Sparta with another scandal: he was forced to flee for his life after getting caught in bed with Spartan King Agis II’s wife.
11. Incredibly, Athens Welcomed Alcibiades Back After He Had Betrayed Her So Disastrously
Alcibiades fled from Sparta to the Persians. He convinced them to opportunistically intervene in the Peloponnesian War in order to prolong it, and keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests. In the meantime, Athens fell into chaos that culminated in an oligarchic coup. However, Athens’ fleet, composed predominately of the lower classes, remained pro-democracy, and in the turmoil, Alcibiades managed to persuade the fleet to take him back.
Between 411 – 408 BC, Alcibiades led the Athenian navy to a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Athens, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat during his absence from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, took refuge in Phrygia. There, a Spartan delegation persuaded Phrygia’s Persian governor to murder Alcibiades in 404 BC.
10. An Emperor Who Got a Kick Out of Scandalizing His Subjects
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), Roman emperor from 218 until his assassination four years later, enjoyed scandalizing his subjects. His religious practices, which would have weirded-out contemporary Romans if performed by a private citizen, were shocking coming from an emperor. He had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. After ascending the throne as a teenager, he took the god’s name as his own and brought his worship to Rome.
There, he built Elagabalus a lavish temple, whose inauguration astonished everybody. Senators, high-ranking officials, and the public, were astonished on opening day to witness the unprecedented sight of a Roman emperor dancing around the deity’s altar, to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums. Elagabalus further offended sensibilities by attempting to incorporate his religion into the Roman pantheon. He made the sun god Elagabalus a supreme deity, above Jupiter, and transferred the most sacred relics of the Roman religion to his new temple. He also ordered that adherents of other religions, including Jews and the nascent Christians, transfer their rites to Elagabalus’ temple.
9. Elagabalus Could Not Get Enough of Trolling the Romans
At times it seemed as if Emperor Elagabalus was simply acting out in the most outrageous fashion possible in order to shock people and get a reaction. Which is perhaps not that surprising, considering that he was a teenager, and he would not have been the first teenager to go out of his or her way to act outrageously in order to get attention. Unfortunately, there was one key difference that set Elagabalus apart from all other teenagers: he was the Roman emperor.
In an act that seems to have been deliberately intended to troll his Roman subjects, the teenage emperor ramped up the shocking conduct by marrying a Vestal Virgin – one of Rome’s most sacred priestesses. It was an exceptionally flagrant breach of customs and laws. For centuries, Romans had been so uptight when it came to the Vestals’ virginity that they were punished with getting buried alive if they ever engaged in sexual behavior. Elagabalus justified the scandal by claiming that the marriage would produce “godlike children”.
8. The Teenage Emperor’s Trolling Finally Got Him Killed
In the eyes of contemporary Romans, the greatest scandal of Elagabalus’ reign was probably his flamboyant homosexuality. He openly went about in women’s clothing, and publicly fawned upon male lovers, whom he elevated to high positions. They included an athlete who was given a powerful position at court, and a charioteer whom he sought to declare as Caesar. He also reportedly prostituted himself in the imperial palace. Respected emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male sexual partners, and Hadrian had even created a religious cult for a youthful male lover who had accidentally drowned.
However, Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in homosexual acts: a Roman emperor who was a top was acceptable, but a bottom was not. It all came to a head on March 11, 222, when soldiers in a military parade showed their contempt by cheering Elagabalus’ cousin, while ignoring the emperor. He ordered the arrest and execution of the insubordinate soldiers. Instead, his bodyguards turned around and attacked him and his mother, hacking them to pieces. Their heads were chopped off, and Elagabalus’ corpse was dragged around Rome, before it was unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber River.
7. The Communist Spy Who Rose to the Heights of Israel’s Government
Yisrael Bar (1912 – 1966) was at the heart of a scandal that rocked Israel’s government in the 1960s. An Austrian-born Israeli officer, Bar rose to prominence as an expert on Israeli military history. That secured him a high-ranking position in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which commissioned him to write a book on the Israeli War of Independence. It also won him a place within the inner circle of Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, whose trusted confidant and advisor he became.
Bar arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s with an impressive martial resume, having graduated from the Austrian military academy, and served as a commissioned officer in the Austrian army. He then went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades, where he was known by the nom de guerre “Colonel Jose Gregorio”. Between his martial exploits, Bar found the time to get a doctorate in literature from the University of Vienna. That CV was all bunk: the real Yisrael Bar had died years earlier.
6. It Was Not Until Yisrael Bar Was Caught Red-Handed That His Deception Came to Light
Yisrael Bar’s rapid rise to prominence highlighted the difficulty Israeli intelligence had during a period of mass immigration in spotting infiltrators. In reality, Bar was a Soviet spy, and was not even a Jew. A man of the sword and letters, urbane and Hollywood handsome to boot, Bar cut a swath through Israeli society and Tel Aviv’s nightlife as a ladies’ man. It took a surprisingly long time before the fact that he was uncircumcised raised suspicions.
In the meantime, Bar took advantage of his access to Israeli secrets and Israel’s prime minister, whose diary he raided to not only photocopy, but to tear out entire pages from and pass on to his handlers. It was not until 1961, when he was caught delivering a briefcase stuffed with sensitive materials to the KGB, that the deception fell apart. Bar never revealed his true identity during interrogations following his arrest. Tried and convicted of espionage, he was sentenced to jail, where he died in 1966, taking the secret of his identity to his grave.
5. The Scandal of the Great Poet Who Was Into His Sister – Literally
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement. A poet, satirist, politician and peer, his poems and personality captured Europe’s imagination. Byron is one of Britain’s best poets, known and acclaimed for his brilliant use of the English language. However, he gained further fame, or infamy, by living his life as a walking scandal. He became even better-known during his lifetime for his flamboyance, amorous lifestyle, and the notoriety of his scandalous escapades with both men and women.
His most infamous scandal was a years-long incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh. Byron had seen little of her during childhood, but made up for it in spades in adulthood. The scandal bore fruit in 1814, when he fathered a daughter upon his sister, making Byron the child’s uncle, as well as father. He also liked to keep mementos of his lovers. The norm was a lock of hair from one’s object of affection. For Britain’s most flamboyant poet, eccentric aristocrat, and all-around creep, a simple lock of hair would not do. Instead, Byron liked to snip clumps of hair from his lovers’ crotches, and kept them, cataloged and labeled, in envelopes.
Byron’s most famous affair was with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. She rejected him at first, describing him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know“. She changed her mind, however, and had a torrid affair with the poet that became the scandal of Britain. When Byron dumped her, Lamb turned stalker, and pursued him relentlessly. She stopped at his house one time too many, and scribbled in a book on his desk “Remember me”. The exasperated Byron responded with a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee!: “Remember thee! remember thee! – Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream – Remorse and shame shall cling to thee, – And haunt thee like a feverish dream! – Remember thee! Aye, doubt it not. – Thy husband too shall think of thee: – By neither shalt thou be forgot, – Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!’
Scandal eventually forced Byron to flee Britain, so he roamed Europe for years at a stretch, including a seven-year stint in Italy. Restlessness eventually led him to join the Greeks in their war of independence from the Ottoman Turks. However, he was disappointed with the Greeks of his day, because they differed greatly from the heroic Hellenes described by Homer. While moping about that discrepancy, he caught a fever and died in a Greek backwater at the age of 36.
3. The Scandal of the US Navy’s Poorly Tested WWII Torpedoes
Designed in 1931, the Mark 14 Torpedo was the standard weapon of the United States Navy’s Navy submarines when America joined World War II in 1941. When first introduced, it was heralded as a vast improvement and a technological leap forward. The Mark 14 differed from earlier torpedoes that detonated on impact with a target ship’s hull. Instead, the Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.
Theoretically, a single Mark 14 was enough to sink an enemy ship, regardless of size, unlike its predecessors which usually required multiple torpedoes holing the enemy in various spots on the hull. However, secrecy and frugality led to the live testing of only two torpedoes – and one of the two failed. In a scandal that only got worse with the passage of time, a 50% failure rate did not give the US Navy pause and prompt it to conduct further testing. In 1938, the Mark 14 was approved and issued to the US submarine fleet as its standard torpedo.
2. The US Navy Sent American Submariners Into Harm’s Way With Defective Torpedoes
It was not until after the United States joined WWII and the US Navy’s submariners found themselves in life and death encounters with the Japanese that the Mark 14 Torpedo’s flaws became apparent. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had multiple serious problems. It had trouble maintaining accurate depth so as to pass within the correct distance beneath an enemy ship’s keel. Its magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely or failed to detonate at all.
The Mark 14’s backup contact detonator failed to set off the torpedo even when it struck an enemy’s hull at a perfect angle with a loud clang that was clearly audible in the firing submarine. Worst of all, the Mark 14 tended to boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and hit the firing submarine. At least two American submarines were destroyed by their own torpedoes, which circled around to come back and strike them.
1. The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal Was Made Worse by the US Navy Ignoring Reports of Its Flaws
The Mark 14 Torpedo scandal was made worse when the US Navy ignored multiple reports about its serious shortcomings, including reports from submariners. In one incident, a submarine commander fired two spreads totaling a dozen Mark 14s at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so that his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, then fired off nine more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.
It took the US Navy two years from the start of hostilities to even acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist with the Mark 14 Torpedo. Only then did higher-ups design to allow live-fire tests to be conducted in order to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about all along. Remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun – two years later than should have been the case.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading