Saturday, May 7, 2011

Villain Week: Day Six

Welcome to day six of Villain Week! Today's topic is:

Going Down in History: Villains in Real Life

I was one of those crazy people who decided to get a Bachelor's degree in something I like rather than something that would get me paid. History has been a love of mine since I was a kid and so it made sense to major in it. Just like in fiction, film, and television, I seem to have an affinity for history's bad boys. Not the Polpots, Lenins, or Hitlers, but the ones who are, shall we say, less psychotic and genocidal. Today we're going to take a look at three of these people: Alcibiades, Judas, and Rasputin.

1) Alcibiades 

I love ancient Greek history. I would eventually like to get a Ph.D. in Classics and teach Greek history at the college level but because so many colleges are eliminating their Classics programs, I might never get to do so. Instead, I'm going to bore educate you all on one of the coolest people who ever lived.

Alcibiades is the guy in the middle. 

The Background Information (a.k.a. "the boring bits")

In 431 BCE, Sparta and Athens, two Greek city-states (or poleis) went to war with each other, backed up by their allies, who just happened to be other Greek poleis. This was the Peloponnesian War and was, for all intents and purposes, the ancient Greek version of the American Civil War. This war, however, wasn't fought over slavery or states' rights. Instead, the Greeks were fighting over trade/political power. Sparta thought that Athens had too much of both and wanted to make sure that its politicians didn't turn Greece into an Athenian empire. The war lasted until 404 BCE, when Athens finally got its a** kicked.

Why Is Alcibiades Interesting? (a.k.a. "the cool stuff")

Alcibiades was a Greek strategoi, or general, and was also a friend and student of Socrates, the Greek philosopher. He was insanely charming and handsome and had a slight speech impediment that made him even more lovable. He was also a bit of a boozer. He was chosen as one of three generals who were to lead a group of Athenian soldiers into Sicily to try and conquer them (for reasons way too complex to get into). Right before the troops were supposed to leave, a bunch of statues of the Greek god Hermes were defaced. Or, really, they were de-penised.

These statues obviously survived the
mysterious emasculation. 

This was a huge deal to the Athenians because one of Hermes jobs as a god was to look after travelers. They saw this as a bad omen but they were war-mongering jerks so they decided to go to Sicily anyways.

The real issue here was that there were some people in Athens who thought that Alcibiades was a political threat (probably because he got invited to all the cool parties and they were jealous) so they decided to try to pin the destruction of the statues on him and his no-good, booze-loving, hooligan friends. Instead of bringing him to trial immediately, they told him to go to Sicily and that they would call him back for a trial at a later date. Alcibiades knew that that meant they were trying to find more evidence against him and that when they came for him they'd probably have a built a pretty convincing treason case against him. If convicted, he would have faced the death penalty. Not really something that he was all that keen on.

His enemies built their case and recalled him back to Athens. While he was on the ship going back from Sicily Alcibiades made a decision. While we don't know what he actually said, I'm going to guess it went a little something like this: "Screw this, I'm getting the hell out of here." And he did. He jumped ship without anyone knowing and somehow made it to, of all places, Sparta. No one's sure how he got there, but it probably wasn't by swimming.

"Sea turtles?" "Aye, sea turtles."

So let's pretend that you're an Athenian general who's going to be tried for treason. You've just escaped from the ship that was taking you to almost-certain death and you find yourself in enemy territory. What are you going to do? Alcibiades decided to play it smart: he gave up all of Athens secrets. Yup, he was a regular old Benedict Arnold. In fact, he makes Benedict Arnold look like a patriotic citizen. Alcibiades got chummy with one of Sparta's two kings and started feeding him information. Quite a lot of it was old news and some of it was probably lies, but the king liked him and found him useful enough to keep around so Alcibiades was safe...for a time.

After a little while the king who liked him died. The second Spartan king, however, hated him and it wasn't because he was a sneaky little weasel. Alcibiades had slept with his wife...and gotten her pregnant. Now he had two city-states who wanted to string him up. Being a big fan of self-preservation, Alcibiades did what any man in his position would do. He ran Persia.

Anyone who has studied Greek history (or, at least, watched The 300) will have learned about the Persian War. The Persian king was spreading his empire all throughout the region and wanted to snatch up Greece as well. The Greek city-states were like, "You've gotta be kidding me, right?" and they banded together to fight off the Persian onslaught. Although the Persian War had been over for fifty-some years by the time the Peloponnesian War broke out, it was still a pretty touchy subject in Greece. So for a Greek general to willing go to Persia was bad enough. To make friends with a Persian satrap (kind of like a governor) and feed him information was even worse. Alcibiades cranked the volume up to eleven, however, and fed the satrap information about two city-states, Athens and Sparta. That's right, he betrayed two countries with one stone.

To make a long story short (and believe me, I could talk forever about this guy), Alcibiades finally wore out his welcome in Persia. By that time there had been a coup in Athens and the leaders reinstated him as a general. They didn't know that he no longer held any sway with the Persians and thought that he could help persuade them to join with Athens in the the fight against Sparta. Alcibiades did what he did best and lied through his teeth, saying that he could do it. And they believed him. So, let's review here: he betrays Athens to Sparta and then he betrays Athens and Sparta to Persia and then he's given his job back. Because that makes sense.

Alcibiades didn't remain a general for very long, however. He won a lot of battles because in addition to being a lying, cheating jerk he was also a brilliant leader. The battle of Notium, however, spelled the end of his career. He left someone else in charge of a fleet of ships with strict orders not to engage in battle with the Spartans. The guy blatantly ignored those orders and lost spectacularly. Alcibiades got the blame for something he didn't even do and was promptly fired. The one time this guy isn't involved in disaster and he takes the fall for it. The even funnier part of this whole story is that after he was fired he tried to tell the Athenians about a huge mistake that they were making in their strategy and they wouldn't listen to him, leading to defeat in battle and, ultimately, the war. In other words they believed him when they shouldn't have and they didn't believe him when they should have. Classic case of boy cries wolf.

Alcibiades died shortly after this but it wasn't from heartbreak or anything romantic like that. He was, in fact, murdered. The circumstances surrounding his death aren't fully known but by that time he'd made enemies all over the Mediterranean so I guess I can understand why it would be hard to narrow down the list of suspects.

2) Judas Iscariot

I've talked before about how I'm not Christian (or, really, any religion) but as a historian I don't doubt that someone named Jesus bar Joseph lived anymore than I doubt that Mohammed or Buddha were real people. It would follow, then, that people like Judas Iscariot were also real. I may not believe in the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text but historically speaking it would seem that people with these names walked the earth at one time.

Judas as portrayed by Luca Lionello in
The Passion of the Christ.

Background Information (a.k.a. "the boring bits")

Judas Iscariot was, according to the Bible, one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He was also Jesus' betrayer. The story goes that Judas was bribed with thirty pieces of silver by priests who wanted to arrest Jesus. In the garden of Gethsemane the night before a feast, Judas approached Jesus while he was praying and identified him to the men who had come to arrest Jesus by kissing him. Jesus was arrested and was eventually crucified. Judas is said to have either died by hanging himself or by bursting open in the middle of a field that he had purchased with his "blood money." How's that for karma?

Why Is Judas Interesting? (a.k.a. "the cool bits")

Judas' name has become synonymous with the word betrayer. This goes for secular as well as religious culture. Even non-Christians use the name in that way, showing the extent to which the story of Judas has transcended boundaries. His name pops up in film, literature, and music all the time. Judas left behind him a legacy of betrayal that many Christians still hate him for. There are even some (although probably not very many) who use his traitorous act as an excuse for anti-Semitism.

A newly(ish) discovered Gnostic text, the Gospel of Judas, offers a different explanation. It proposes that Judas was actually one of Jesus' most loyal apostles and was asked by Christ to betray him just as Peter was asked to deny him. While the veracity of the text is, obviously, in dispute, there are other scholars and laymen who have suggested this same theory. Without someone to betray him, Jesus would never have been crucified. For Christians this means that he would not have sacrificed himself in order to forgive the sins of the world. It seems logical that there would have been some forward planning just to make sure that things went off without a hitch but of course there's no way to know that for sure.

The existence of the Gnostic text is interesting although by no means definitive. If it isn't a fake, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Roman Empire at the time of the Council of Nicea (which, among other things, set down the books that would be considered canon) could explain why it was left out of the Bible. This is all conjecture on my part, of course, but what good is life if you can't think about things and theorize? Later on this summer I'm planning on reading a biography of Judas which, given the paltry number of times he's mentioned in the Bible, isn't actually a biography of his life but is, instead, a biography of his portrayals in media and society and the impact he has had on the world at large throughout history.

3) Grigorii Rasputin

I had mentioned a few days ago that I really liked the character of Rasputin in the animated film Anastasia. I had also mentioned that the film contained blatant historical inaccuracies. For one thing, Rasputin never sold his soul. For another thing his actions did not directly lead to the Bolshevik Revolution (although he can be considered an impetus). After seeing the movie as a kid I became obsessed with the Romanov family and finding out everything that I could about them. In the end I found Rasputin to be a far more interesting individual than all of the Romanovs combined. My fascination with him continues to this day; in fact, I even did a research paper on him for a course I took in college about 20th century Russia.

Background Information (a.k.a. "the boring bits")

The Romanov family ruled Russia for a little over 300 years. Some well-known Romanovs include Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas the II (and not so great). Czarism in Russia lasted for much longer than that but it was the Romanov family, Czar Nicholas in particular, who brought it crashing to a halt, inadvertently ushering in the era of Communism and the Soviet Union. Nicholas the II had no real leadership qualities and was a rather indecisive man who relied on others, including his wife Alexandra, to tell him what to do. Under his rule, conditions in Russia worsened, leading to more poverty, starvation, and misery. He also, against all reason, took charge of his own military during World War I, which led to the deaths of scores of Russians and several lost battles. The anger that people felt towards him fanned the flames of revolution in Russia and gave Lenin, Trotsky, and the other Bolsheviks a reason to incite people to violence against their government.

Why Is Rasputin Interesting? (a.k.a. "the cool bits")

Rasputin was a Christian mystic about whom much is known but little is understood. This is because there are myths surrounding him that go back as far as his childhood. Some say he had magic powers, others believe him to be a hypnotist. Regardless of the real story, Rasputin wiggled his way into the Romanov family by way of Alexandra and the Romanov's only son, Alexei. Born with hemophilia, Alexei was prone to accidents and fits and doctors weren't having much of an effect. Rasputin discovered a way to calm him down and, Alexandra believed, heal him. She quickly made him Alexei's primary caregiver and he was given almost free reign of the imperial palace.

A boozing womanizer, Rasputin was believed to have been involved in orgies and other sexual deviances. These stories may be true or they may stem from the fact that he belonged to a misunderstood sect of Christianity called the khlysty, around which swirled many rumors. He was also, although this has never been proven, allegedly Alexandra's lover. This is most likely a lie created by enemies of the Romanovs who wished to discredit the family in order to eventually overthrow them. Cartoons were circulated around Russia of the "Mad Monk" and the Czar's wife in a compromising position, causing an uproar and leading to further distrust of both the Romanov family and of Rasputin.

While the full extent of his influence isn't known, most scholars agree that he held some sort of political power. He never held an office himself, but it is almost certain that he did convince the Czar to appoint people of his choosing to political positions. Alexandra acted as the middle man, dropping hints to her husband based on what Rasputin told her. He also may have influenced policy decisions and other important aspects of Russian government.

A cartoon depicting Nicholas and his
wife sitting in Rasputin's lap.

The coolest thing about Rasputin, however, is his death. Many people have heard the story of Rasputin's "prophecy," the one that stated that if he was going to die before the new year and that if someone from Nicholas II's family had anything to do with it that the Romanov family would die soon after. I'm not talking about that part of the story because I think it's a bunch of malarkey and that the letter he supposedly left was probably a fake. What I'm talking about is how he actually died.

A friend of mine told me once that Rasputin probably had horcruxes because this guy was insanely difficult to kill. A distant relation of the Czar had a beef with Rasputin so he and some friends invited him over for a "party." They told him to meet them in the lower level of the house for what amounted to some early 20th century pregaming while someone upstairs played music and made noise to pretend that there was a crowd of people up there. In the basement, Rasputin was given some booze and some poisoned food, which he downed like it was the first time he'd eaten in decades. But he didn't die. So they tried a different tactic: they shot him three or four times. And he still didn't die. In fact, he tried to run away and was chased and beaten. Hoping to make sure he was dead this time, they wrapped his body in a carpet and threw him off a bridge into an icy river. Instead of drowning, Rasputin broke out of the carpet but was overtaken by hypothermia and subsequently died in the river that night. Yep, you read that right. He was poisoned, shot, beaten, and thrown off a bridge but he died from exposure. Rasputin was a fracking BAMF.

Sorry this was so late in coming. I haven't slept much in the last week and I've only been near a computer for the last two days.

Tomorrow marks the end of Villain Week and the return of my regularly-scheduled reviews and other bookish posts. I hope that you enjoyed my little detour into the world of the delightfully evil. I'd love to hear what you guys thought of it.

Look forward to reviews of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, The Complaints by Ian Rankin, and Numb by Sean Ferrell (as well as other books) next week.



  1. Extremely interesting post! I've always been interested in Russian history, but I've never read into it too deeply. Have you got any books about Rasputin, the Romanovs or general Russian history that you'd recommend that isn't just a dense history book?

  2. What a great idea to do a Villain week! Characters that we love to hate!

    Btw, thank you for your honest comment on my review of The Alchemist :)...I've been meaning to tell you that. I really did like it, and after re-reading my review, I realized I was more critical of it than I meant or wanted to be. It was a very lyrical, unique and interesting book.

  3. Kayleigh: Thanks! I was hoping that it wasn't too bogged down with dry history. I'm a huge nerd when it comes to the subject and sometimes get carried away. :)

    I would suggest Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. I read it when I was in middle school and was able to understand it and it wasn't boring. I think he also has a book about Rasputin but I've never read it. As for the Mad Monk, the books I have read about him haven't left me all that impressed. They're either WAY too critical or not critical enough of Rasputin. I haven't read enough books on Russian history in general to give you any good recommendations on that subject, but if you want a really great Russian novel, I'd try Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. It's one of my absolute favorites and it deals with the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

    Rebecca: I'm glad you like the idea. I needed something to fill this blog up while I went on vacation and I decided that this would be a great idea since I can blabber on and on about villains for ages. :)

    You're very welcome. I don't think you were overly critical. I think you were just being honest. I read this book less for the characters and more for the message behind it, I think. I didn't realize that I was doing it at the time but now that I look back at it I realized that I don't remember everything about Santiago or the other characters but I remember the feeling I was left with after I read it. If I were to review this book, I think I'd say some of the same things you did.

    By the way, your blog is great and your reviews are well-written. Such a beautiful layout as well.

  4. Thanks Gabe I'll give search them out and give them a read and let you know how I go!

  5. Kayleigh: Good luck! Hope you enjoy whatever you find.

    Sidne: Thanks. I had fun writing it. It's not often that I get to put on my history nerd hat on this blog.