History's most notorious acts of treachery

Medieval poet Dante placed traitors in hell in his epic poem “Divine Comedy” as he considered treachery as the worst sin of all. His reasoning was that traitors have to first earn the trust and friendship of their victims. However, other writers have been less damning in their verdict on traitors. Renaissance historian and philosopher Machiavelli wrote that treachery was a fundamental part of politics and that those who were not prepared to betray others had no place holding positions of power. In this slideshow we will take a look at how the worst traitors in history turned against friends, family and in some cases their country.

\#10 Robert Ford

Jesse James is perhaps the Wild West’s most infamous and charismatic outlaw. He shot to fame as the leader of a gang responsible for a series of outlandish bank and train robberies in the 1860s and 1870s. He always seemed to be one step ahead of the law and was able to evade capture while other outlaws were killed or jailed. However, a US$10,000 bounty placed on the notorious criminal’s head proved too tempting for one of his gang members. Robert Ford killed James by shooting him in the back of the head while he was unarmed. Ford was shot and killed 10 years later by Edward O’Kelley. According to some, O’Kelley had been a fan a James and had wanted to avenge his death.

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\#9 Karel Curda

Reinhard Heydrich, who would become known as the "Butcher of Prague", was placed in control of the Nazi administration in Czechoslovakia in September, 1941. Nine months later, his rule of terror was ended when he was assassinated in the capital by three British-trained commandos. Following the operation the commandos avoided detection for three weeks by hiding in the catacombs of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Church. However, their location was eventually revealed when Czechoslovak soldier Karel Curda supplied the Nazis with vital information. The commandos and four helpers held off 700 Waffen SS troops for several hours before they were killed or took their own lives. Bullet holes can still be seen on the walls of the church to this day. Karel was eventually tracked down after the war and hanged for treason.

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\#8 Ephialtes of Trachis

The despicable character of Ephialtes of Trachis will be well know to fans of the film “300”, directed by Zack Snyder. The film is based on the events of the Battle of Thermopylae between allied Greek forces and a massive invading Persian army in 480 BC. Just as it seemed a small number of Spartan troops were about to defeat the Persians, local man Ephialtes showed the invaders a mountain pass that allowed them to surround the brave warriors and win the battle. Throughout the classical period, the name of Ephialtes was used by writers to exemplify treason and treachery.

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\#7 Benedict Arnold

During the opening years of American Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold was a dedicated soldier who fought for the American Continental Army against the British. However, after being overlooked for promotion and wrongly accused of corruption he grew embittered and decided to betray his homeland. In exchange for a few thousand pounds, he plotted to surrender the now iconic West Point Fort to the enemy. However, he was forced to flee after the Americans got wind of the plot. He later led British forces in battles against his ex-comrades. Following the end of the conflict he moved to London, where he died in exile in 1801.

Related: Why Brits think (and know) they're better than the Yanks

\#6 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

This married couple ended up being executed by electric chair in 1953 following convictions for treason and espionage against the United States. Beyond their mundane and quiet appearance, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were actually spies who passed information about the development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. The information helped the Soviets close the nuclear technology gap with the United States and contributed to the start of the Cold War.

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\#5 Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes aimed to commit the most famous act of treason of all time by blowing up the House of Lords to assassinate King James I. As part of the Gunpowder Plot, Fawkes was given the mission of placing explosives under the building and lighting them during the state opening of Parliament in 1605. The plotters’ goal was to end religious persecution and install a Catholic as head of state. The plot was foiled when Fawkes and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered under the House of Lords. He was eventually hanged with a number of other conspirators. His attempted treason is marked by annual Bonfire Night celebrations throughout the United Kingdom. His image has also been popularised by facial masks used in the comic and film “V for Vendetta”, which have since been utilised by the activist group Anonymous.

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\#4 La Malinche

From the moment that this beautiful and shrewd woman joined forces with the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortés, the Aztec empire's fate was sealed. Her extensive knowledge of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma’s weaknesses and her collaboration as a translator were instrumental in achieving the alliances that led the Spanish to victory. As sometimes happens with traitors, La Malinche has divided opinion. For some, she perpetrated a terrible betrayal which handed power over her own people to a foreign force. However, for others, she was just one of many people waiting for an opportunity to revolt against a system they considered unfair.

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\#3 Napoleon Bonaparte

Following the Treaty of Fontainblue in 1807, Spain allowed Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army safe passage through its territory to fight Portugal, an ally of Britain. However, once Portugal had been conquered, Napoleon decided that Spain was to also be part of his growing empire. His troops seized key military locations and Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, was installed as King of Spain.

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\#2 Marcus Junius Brutus

According to Shakespeare’s play “Julius Cesar”, the legendary Roman emperor’s final words were: “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”). It is debatable whether Cesar uttered the phrase or not, but it expresses the shock that Cesar must have felt at the involvement his friend and political ally Marcus Junius Brutus in the plot to kill him. Brutus and other Roman senators attacked and killed the emperor in an ambush. Some historians have even argued that Brutus was Cesar’s illegitimate son, which would obviously have made the pain of his treachery even harder to take for the emperor.

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\#1 Judas Iscariot

The name of Judas Iscariot is synonymous with betrayal as he is said to have delivered Jesus Christ to his enemies for 30 pieces of silver. Judas is a vilified figure in Western culture and the burning of his effigy is a traditional part of Easter festivities amongst some Christian communities. However, some have tried to offer an alternative view of history’s greatest traitor. For example, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges turned the traditional opinion of Judas on its head in the short story “Three Versions of Judas”. He wrote that if Jesus had to die to atone for the sins of man, then the man that led to Jesus his death was not a traitor but the best disciple of all.

Related: History's most outlandish religious beliefs

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About the Author

Lautaro Berasategui comenzó su carrera como periodista cultural en el 2006 y sus artículos sobre arte y literatura han aparecido en diferentes medios de prensa de Hispanoamérica. Tiene una Licenciatura en Letras y en el 2007 ganó la beca Reina Sofía para cursar un doctorado en la Universidad de Salamanca.