How does history remember traitors? It depends on two factors. The first factor is the winner of the war. This factor determines whether the traitor is seen as hero or… well... a traitor. The second factor is who wrote the book. You won't find a history book in Britain recounting Benedict Arnold as a traitor. Let’s start with traitors so infamous for their deeds that their names have become synonymous with treachery.
No name conjures images of treachery and betrayal like that of Judas Iscariot. For the very few who don’t already know, Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, and his betrayer. Having sold him out to the Roman Sanhedrin for thirty silver coins, Judas’ betrayal of Christ has become rather controversial in recent years with the discovery of a number of Gnostic texts written in ancient Coptic, called the Gospel of Judas. These texts describe a number of conversations between the doomed apostle and Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Judas contrasts with the accepted view of Judas as betrayer. Instead, the gospel describes Judas as the obedient follower who, against his own wishes, was instructed by Jesus Christ to betray him to the Romans.
Regardless of the newly discovered texts, Judas’ legacy is that of the quintessential betrayer. Versions of his death vary from suicide by hanging to his body swelling to the size of a chariot and being crushed underneath one, while his guts spewed all over the road… seriously, that’s how it's described.
Ephialtes of Trachis
Ephialtes of Trachis betrayed his homeland so terribly that his name has become the word for ‘nightmare’ in his native language. Ephialtes was the Greek who betrayed the Three Hundred Spartans (and about 3,900 other Greeks who are left out of history) to the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Greeks had met the Persians at the Trachinian Cliffs, which created a bottleneck with the neighboring Malian Gulf. The plan was for the Greeks to hold off the Persian Army at the bottleneck (aka the Hot Gates) long enough for the Greek Navy to maneuver and defeat the Persian Navy in the Straits of Artemisium.
The Greek plan was promising, except for one gleaming detail - the Greek position blocking the Hot Gates could be outflanked if a little-known goat trail around the pass was utilized. The Greeks were well aware of said goat trail and did what they could to conceal it from the advancing Persians. Ephialtes revealed this flaw to the Persians in hopes of a reward, and the Persians advanced on the Greeks. Faced with certain doom, King Leonidas of Sparta released the Greeks fighting under his command and stayed behind with only his rear guard of three hundred Spartans, an act that would become the most famous last stand in human history.
According to history, in 470 bc, a man named Athenades killed Ephialtes for an unrelated reason and was happily surprised when he discovered the reward placed that had been placed on his head.
There have been a number of traitors in American history, but Benedict Arnold was the first. Benedict Arnold began his military career with the Continental Army in 1775, and distinguished himself early on with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Benedict Arnold was essential to a number of other Colonial victories, but became disheartened at the internal squabbling of the Continental Congress as well as the continual overlooking of his accomplishments and potential for promotion by his superiors.
Benedict Arnold was eventually awarded command of the fort at West Point NY, now the West Point Military Academy. In 1780, Arnold began secret negotiations with the British in which he outlined Colonial troop positions and the locations of various weapons depots. His treachery culminated in negotiations to hand over the fort at West Point to British control. His plans were ultimately foiled, but not before Arnold switched sides entirely and became a Brigadier General for the British Army. To add insult to injury, he then led a British force to capture Richmond Virginia and pillaged the surrounding countryside.
After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Benedict Arnold fled for England to escape retribution for his deeds. Benjamin Franklin compared him to an aforementioned infamous traitor when he said "Judas sold only one man, Arnold three million", cementing Benedict Arnold's treachery into the American psyche forever.
What is worse than betraying your countrymen? Ruling over them in the name of a foreign oppressor is a good place to start. Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian diplomat and former Minister of Defence, launched a coup to seize control of the Norwegian government during the Nazi Invasion of Norway. His coup, though failed, becoming the first radio-broadcasted coup d'etat in history. In 1945, he became the “Minister-President” of the Quisling Regime, the Nazi’s puppet government in Norway.
Hated and reviled by the people of Norway, a country that had relatively few Nazi collaborators, he was arrested and executed for “carrying out Germany's final solution in Norway”. His name has become synonymous with ‘collaborator’ or ‘traitor’ in both Norwegian and English.
Chinese history can be quite confusing. The more than one billion people that share China’s rich and culturally diverse history are united by another factor: they all really hate Wang Jingwei.
Wang Jingwei was a politician of the Chinese Republic (Pre-Communist China) who, after years of squabbling with the famed Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek over ways to deal with the invading Japanese, accepted a Japanese offer to lead their puppet government in Nanking. He gave a radio address from Tokyo, where he conceded Nanking to the Japanese, all while praising them and affirming Chinese submission.
Wang Jingwei died a year before the Japanese surrender and was buried in Nanking. When the War ended and the Chinese regained control of Nanking, they destroyed Wang Jingwei’s tomb and even burned his decayed body. Today, his tomb’s location is commemorated with a pavilion forever labeling him as a traitor. Because of his treachery, his name has become synonymous with ‘traitor’ in both China and Taiwan.
Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus
Two of history's greatest conspirators arrived on the stage on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. covered in the blood of a tyrant. Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus were Roman senators and the leaders of the Assassination of Julius Caesar. In what easily became the most studied political assassination in history, Cassius and Brutus lead a group of like-minded Roman senators in a plot to murder Julius Caesar. The group cornered the emperor in a hallway, stabbed him twenty-three times, and let him bleed to death. The political turmoil that followed the assassination drove the Roman Empire into civil war, culminating in the Battle of Philippi. Cassius and Brutus have, for better or worse, cemented themselves into history as grave traitors, so much so that Dante Alighieri thought Cassius’s treacherous enough to occupy the lowest level of Hell in his Inferno.
Mir Jafar is the most hated man in Indian, Pakistani, and Bengali history. Makes sense, since he sold out his countrymen on a bribe ushering more than two hundred years of British rule. Mir Jafar’s treachery helped the British defeat the current ruler of Bengal (India), Siraj ud-Daulah, and seize control of the continent. His rule is commonly seen as the start of British imperialism in India, and was a main factor in the eventual British domination of the subcontinent. Mir Jafar’s name has become synonymous with “traitor” in the Urdu, Bengali, and Hindi languages. They really don't like this guy.
Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames
Robert Hanssen was a former FBI counterintelligence agent and a current life prisoner at the ADX Florence Supermax Prison in Colorado. He is currently serving fifteen life sentences for betraying US secrets to the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation. His treachery has been described as the “worst intelligence disaster in US History.” Hanssen began selling US secrets only a few years after beginning his career at the FBI. The Soviets paid Hanssen upwards of $1.4 million in cash and diamonds for the information. When the FBI asked his motivation for selling out his country, Hanssen claimed his only motivation was profit.
Along with a litany of other secrets, Hanssen is responsible for selling out another traitor, Dmitri Polyakov, a Soviet general who secretly worked for the USA. Strangely enough, Dmitri Polyakov wasn't arrested by the Soviets until yet another American traitor by the name of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence agent, disclosed the same information to the Soviets years later. Aldrich Ames is also serving a life sentence for the largest intelligence disasters in US History.
While there are plenty of notable traitors throughout history, not many were skilled enough at betrayal that they could actually make a living off of it. Sidney Reilly, better known as the ‘Ace of Spies’, was a British intelligence officer and is the most accomplished spy in human history. His complete exploits may never be fully known, but it was rumored he had worked for more than four different governments during his career. Details as to his heritage are fuzzy. Whether he was Irish, Russian, Ukrainian or English, we may never no. Regardless, Reilly is responsible for more cloak-and-dagger deception than possibly any other spy.
Reilly’s career reads just like a James Bond novel, mainly because James Bond novels are based on Reilly’s career. During his career, he worked for the Soviets while serving as a double agent for the British and the Japanese, sent confidential Russian information back to London during WWI, and sent information to Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War. Reilly was discovered as a double agent for the British during an attempt to assassinate Vladimir Lenin and had to flee to Russia for his life. Depending on who ask, Reilly is either a national hero or conniving double-crosser, but either way, he is definitely the most accomplished traitor on this list. Unfortunately, the Soviets got tired of his meddling and lured him back to Russia, where he was caught, tortured, and executed. Apparently, even during his incarceration in the Soviet Union, he was recording Russian interrogation techniques to sell to the highest bidder. Old habits die hard, even in Soviet gulags.
Robert Ford was a member of the infamous Jesse James gang and obtained further infamy when he shot Jesse in the back of the head, which was generally considered a dick move in the Old West. Robert Ford and his brother had been invited to Jesse James’ home, a typical enough occasion as they were trusted members of his gang. In the hopes of claiming the reward on his head, Ford waited until Jesse was adjusting a picture on the mantle and shot him in the back of the head. When Robert Ford and his brother wired the governor to claim their reward they were surprised to be charged with first degree murder and sentenced to hang. Their sentence was eventually pardoned by the governor.
Ford went on to re-enact the murder on stage for years, collecting money and infamy for his deed, and eventually opened his own saloon. Years later, he was killed in his saloon by a man named Edward Capehart O’Kelley. Ford and O’Kelley had quarrelled previously. O’Kelley walked in to Ford’s saloon with a double barrel shotgun and ended Ford in much the same way Ford had ended Jesse James. Ford would die bearing the title of the “man who killed Jesse James.”, making O’Kelley the “man who killed ‘the man who killed Jesse James.’”
History is filled with betrayal, traitors and backstabbers. Some are driven by cause, while others are motivated by greed. Either way, watch your back, as you never know who may want to drive a knife into it.
Check Out More Articles from Jacob: