“Traitor” is a heavy word laden with ugly connotations of deception and dishonesty – the kind of disreputable and disgusting person who turns against his own to betray their trust and confidence on behalf of an outsider. In a legal sense, traitors can be broadly defined as citizens who help a foreign government war against or injure their parent nation.
The description that can be extended beyond the nation when nationhood does not obtain, to include acts against a community or group to which one belongs, and belonging, is afforded a standing that enables him or her to betray said group or community to its opponents.
Treason can sometimes be noble, depending on the cause and who it is being perpetrated against – think courageous Germans in WWII working from within to bring down the monstrous Nazi regime, or those risking their lives behind the Iron Curtain to free their countries and people from the Soviet yoke.
More often than not, however, traitors are icky and probably despicable people, acting not out of any sense of righteousness and decency, but from more base motives such as simple greed or bruised egos smarting from perceived personal slights, whether real or imagined.
Following are twelve of history’s most remarkable and/or reviled traitors.
Ephialtes of Trachis
Ephialtes son of Eurydemos, also known as Ephialtes of Trachis, was a member of the Greek Malian tribe, after whom the Malian Gulf in the northwestern Aegean is named. When the Persians invaded Greece in the 5th century BC, Ephialtes betrayed the resisting Greeks by showing the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan-led blocking force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae.
The Persians invaded after decades of mounting tensions following Athens’ support of a failed rebellion by the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor against their Persian rulers, which included an abortive Persian punitive expedition against Athens that met with defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In 480 BC, Persia’s King Xerxes gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue Greece once and for all.
The Malians, at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans, were among the many Greeks in the Persian army’s path who chose discretion over valor and “Medised” – that is, submitted to and collaborated with the Persians against their fellow Greeks. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or “hot gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north.
A small Spartan-led Greek force, under the command of Sparta’s king Leonidas, occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, forced to attack directly up the pass on a narrow front, were unable to make use of their advantages in numbers and cavalry and were bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge.
The Persians were stuck until Ephialtes informed king Xerxes that he knew of a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position. In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. Alerted that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent the rest of the Greeks away but stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out.
Ephialtes was reviled, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward because the Persians were defeated at Salamis later that year, and at Platea, the following year and their invasion of Greece collapsed. Ephialtes fled, with a reward on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.