Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette had her head chopped off, and for what?  Being born rich may make you unpleasant, but it isn’t a crime.  Not being able to tell bread from cake isn’t either.  But they chopped her head off anyway, with the guillotine, the most popular means of mass murder at the time.

Antoinette (baptized Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna or Maria Antonia Josephina Johanna) was born in 1755 in Austria to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, being declared “a small, but completely healthy Archduchess”.  Her upbringing was considered relatively liberal at the time, being allowed to play with children slightly less rich than herself.  Her schoolwork was poor, when not completed by her tutors out of fear for their jobs.

When she came of marrying age (twelve) Antoinette was sent to the royal court of her country’s traditional enemy, France, where she was welcomed by the people as “the other bitch”.  She was begrudgingly accepted by the court after three months of painful dental surgery.  Finally, she was married by proxy to the future Louis XVI, with her brother Ferdinand standing in as the groom.

Even after meeting Louis, Antoinette still had a hard time fitting in at court, particularly amongst her husband’s mistresses.  In their correspondences, her mother attributed Louis’ inattention to Antoinette’s failure as a beauty and woman of grace, which helped.

After her implied coronation as Queen of France, any attempts to influence national policy were blocked by anti-Austrian sentiments in the court, including those of the King. Turning to the private extravagances of fashion, gambling, and gardening, she became a matter of some scandal, which lessened slightly after she and her husband consummated their marriage.

In-between children, Antoinette continued her previous hobbies, as well as amateur theatre.  She liked historical novels, balloons, and the Incas, though probably not enough to do homework on.  All the while, the supply of bread kept getting shorter, and the people of France angrier.  However, Antoinette never did say “Let them eat cake,” or anything of the sort, and no one said she did until 1843.

Finally, the people noticed how nice Versailles was in comparison to their own houses, and moved her and her family to a more democratic home.  They lived there, between escape attempts, for five years, until, she was given trial for being a traitor to something or other.  Despite being allowed nearly a day of preparation, she lost, and was sentenced to death by guillotine.  This was carried out just after she apologized to the executioner for stepping on his foot.

The life of Marie Antoinette shows us how great it is to be part of the upper crust, through no merit of your own, until the revolution marks you for death, through no fault of your own.  C’est la vie.

Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia had a lot of fun, on orders from her family. Whether she was the wickedest woman in the world or a perfect innocent in the matter depends on who’s talking. She was born in 1480, Italy and was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI somehow.

As Lucrezia grew up, she went from a useless child to an excellent tool for cementing political alliances. Annulling a previous, less advantageous engagement, the Pope gently decreed that she marry the more well-connected Giovanni Sforza. They were both illegitimate, so it seemed a perfect fit. Eventually, however, the Pope no longer needed the Sforzas, and there was a coincidental execution order.

Giovanni fled, accusing Lucrezia and her brother Cesare of loving each other a bit too much. That may have just been the attempted murder talking. She probably loved him just enough. Giovanni was in turn accused of not consummating the marriage, which raises several questions about where the baby came from. The child may have been the product of a union with a stable hand.  Out of her many special friends, he was the only one found face-down in the Tiber. The Pope, however, declared it to be his by another affair, which was considered less scandalous, and Lucrezia kindly took it in as her half-brother.

Lucrezia’s second marriage to Alfonso of Aragon was briefly interrupted by his murder once Cesare had changed alliances once more.  Her third wedding was to Alfonso d’Est, and this one finally took. That might be due to the Borgias’ fall from their former political heights. Lucrezia and Alfonso had a wonderfully open marriage, which left both parties living happily ever after.

Lucrezia Borgia was probably no better or worse than any other woman of her time and place.  The men making her decisions for her were just meaner.  Once the males of her family had fallen out of power, her husband and lovers were much safer.


Hannibal is famous for two things: elephants, and not winning a war.  Hannibal was born in Carthage in 247 BC.  Carthage and Rome were natural enemies, due to being neighbours with only the Mediterranean to separate them.  Hannibal’s father Hamilcar was a Carthaginian general and undoubtedly the source of Hannibal’s elephant fetish.  Hamilcar thought that a war without elephants wasn’t a war worth winning, and proved it by losing the First Punic War with Rome.  Things were going all right until the conflict shifted to the sea, and it proved difficult to convince elephants to serve in the navy.

After Hamilcar suffered an elephant-related death in 228 BC, Hannibal took up the family tradition.  He decided that if taking elephants across the sea to Rome could lose one war, than taking them across the mountains to Rome could lose another.  Hannibal brought 46 000 men and thirty-seven elephants to the Alps, but lost half of the men and most of the elephants crossing them.  He still had a few of the animals, though, and that kept his spirits up.

Hannibal was quite successful in his early battles in Italy, and kept finding more elephants.  Some argued that he was winning despite the elephants and not because of them.  The elephants tended to panic and trample their own side during battle, and the critics pointed out that he won more often when they weren’t underfoot.  Hannibal would have none of it, though.

Historians say that Hannibal could well have marched into Rome itself and won the Second Punic War right there.  They puzzle over why he marched around the countryside for eleven years instead, knocking over farms and small fortresses.  It’s simple: the inevitable happened, and Hannibal had run out of elephants.  He was lost without them, and was hoping that a few more would turn up somewhere.  Hannibal kept on hoping until the Romans got their wind back and pushed him into the sea in 203 BC.  This is why Hannibal has gone down in Western military history as “the father of strategy.”

After the war, Hannibal mainly drifted around Asia Minor.  He made an act of trying to drum up another war to lose against Rome, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it.  Hannibal committed suicide in 183 BC.  He could lose all the wars in the world, but there was an elephant-shaped hole in his life that he just couldn’t fill.

The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t let elephants determine your self-worth.  You are the same person whether you have elephants or not.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan is known for killing lots of people as he ran about conquering things.  This is a bit unfair.  Plenty of people were killing each other in those days.  Genghis was just better at it.

Genghis was born Temujin, which means “blacksmith” in 1160s Mongolian.  He later changed it to Genghis Khan, which means “true emperor,” just on a whim.  His father, Yesukhei, was a minor tribal chief and vassal who barely killed anybody. Genghis knew he could improve on that.

Yesukhei ended his career by being poisoned by Tartars.  Genghis’ family was forced to survive on marmots, but Genghis never gave up his dream of uniting the Mongolian tribes.  He achieved this through a complex strategy of alliance-building and murdering anyone who wouldn’t build an alliance with him.

Genghis Khan’s armies were distinguished by their discipline.  This came from a desire not to be killed by Genghis Khan.  Genghis would personally lead armies of up to 200 000 Mongols to kill anyone who looked at him funny, as well as their families, neighbours, countrymen, and surrounding flora and fauna.  He would occasionally try to lighten things up by pouring molten silver into the orifices of various heads of state.  Sometimes the old jokes are the best ones.

It was in this way that the Mongols slaughtered their way into the largest empire achieved by man.  (The British claim to have slaughtered themselves into a bigger one.  I’ve yet to see the proof.)   Genghis’ empire stretched across central Asia from China to Georgia.  Europeans weren’t big on central Asia at the time.  They didn’t know about Genghis until he left a horde of Mongols smiling at them from across the Black Sea.

Reports the cause of Genghis Khan’s death in 1227 vary from falling off a horse, to pneumonia, to a booby-trapped princess.  It’s possible he was just all killed out.  I like to think he died happy.

I’m afraid later Khans didn’t measure up to Genghis’ standards.  Ogedei Khan tried to eliminate the population of Europe but failed due to his death.  Guyuk Khan drank and had fun and got no killing done whatsoever.  He had no work ethic.  Toregene spent most of her time being a woman.

The only other Khan of any note was Kublai.  Kublai Khan tried to conquer Japan and Vietnam but didn’t.  He finally realized he didn’t fit the job requirements of a Mongolian Khan and became a Chinese emperor instead.  Kublai Khan is probably only remembered because of a Coleridge poem that wasn’t really about him, and which got his name wrong besides.

Genghis is proof that to be a memorable Khan you have to love a job that largely involves killing untold numbers of human beings.  You are just wasting your time otherwise.