7 Famous Deadly Assassins From History and What Drove Them
In the annals of history, there exist shadowy figures and clandestine groups whose lethal skills and cunning tactics have left an indelible mark on the world. These ancient assassins and covert organizations were not mere killers; they were master strategists and agents of political change, their actions resonating through the ages. Some killed for money, some for their religious beliefs, and some out of loyalty to their nations. From poisoners to zealots, from revolutionaries to outcasts, here are seven of history’s greatest assassins. Or at least the ones we know about.
1.Locusta the Official Poisoner of Rome
Locusta the Poisoner is certainly one of the more famous assassins on this list. Born in the 1st century AD, Locusta would become infamous for her role as a poisoner responsible for several high-profile assassinations, shaping a sinister legacy in the heart of the Roman Empire.
Locusta is said to have come from Gaul but to have made her way to Rome where she made a living as a professional poisoner. By 54 AD her notoriety had already ended her up in prison, where she caught the attention of Empress Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Agrippina tasked Locusta with supplying a poison that could discretely get rid of her husband. Supposedly Locusta gave Agrippina Atropa belladonna, which was sprinkled on mushroom and given to the emperor via his food-taster, Halotus.
Sketch of Locusta testing poison on a slave in Nero's presence. The poison prepared for Britannicus. (Public Domain)
Their plan was exceedingly clever. To avoid suspicion the amount of poison put in the food was just enough to make Claudius ill, making him rush to the bathroom in agony. His doctor, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, then poisoned him a second time, by pushing a feather soaked in poison down his throat, ostensibly to help him vomit.
With Claudius dead, Agrippina put her son, Nero on the throne. The following year in 55 AD, Nero went to Locusta to demand another poison, this time for Claudius’ son Britannicus. Locusta agreed and provided Nero with a poison but when it failed to kill Britannicus Nero had Locusta flogged and threatened to kill her. Suffice to say the second poison she provided did the job.
Nero is said to have rewarded his poisoner by giving her a full pardon and large estates in the country. From that point onwards she became his personal poisoner and pupils were sent to learn her craft. When Nero fled Rome in 68 AD, he asked Locusta for a special dose just for him (although he never used it).
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2.Brutus, History’s Favorite Backstabber
Not all of history’s deadliest assassins were professional killers. Nor were they all villains. Marcus Junius Brutus, born in 85 BC, is remembered for the pivotal role he played in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Hailing from a noble Roman family with a strong republican tradition, Brutus’ commitment to the ideals of the Roman Republic would shape his destiny.
By 44 BC, Julius Caesar had accumulated immense power, culminating in his appointment as "dictator perpetuo," effectively making him a perpetual dictator. This consolidation of authority deeply concerned those who cherished the republican system of checks and balances.
Brutus, guided by his philosophical and political convictions, was one such person. He became a central conspirator in a group of senators determined to preserve the Roman Republic. On the infamous Ides of March (March 15), 44 BC, in the Roman Senate House, Brutus and his co-conspirators ambushed Caesar, delivering countless fatal blows.
While numbers vary it’s commonly accepted around 60 conspirators launched the brutal attack on Caesar, but it's Brutus whose names tends to stand out. This is due to the fact that Brutus's involvement in the assassination was marked by a profound internal struggle, Caesar had once been his mentor and the two were close. His famous declaration, "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more," encapsulated his inner turmoil and his belief that Caesar's death was necessary to safeguard the republican principles of Rome.
The uber-famous Assassination of Julius Caesar. (Public Domain)
3.Bagoas the Eunuch Killed a Dynasty
In 338 BC, Bagoas, the influential eunuch, orchestrated a ruthless plot that reshaped the course of the Achaemenid Empire. During this pivotal year, he masterminded the assassination of King Artaxerxes III, eliminating not only the reigning monarch but also all of the king's sons, save one – Arses. Bagoas placed Arses on the throne as the new ruler of Persia.
Rock relief of Artaxerxes III, assassinated by Bagoas, his eunuch. (AR VLD/CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, Bagoas' ambitions knew no bounds, and just two years later, in 336 BC, he carried out yet another regicidal act. He murdered Arses, the monarch he had previously installed, and subsequently elevated a collateral heir, Darius III, to the position of king.
This audacious sequence of events highlights Bagoas' extraordinary political acumen and unscrupulous methods in maneuvering the Persian court. His ability to manipulate the succession of kings and maintain his influence in the power corridors of the empire demonstrates the intrigue and complexity of the Achaemenid court during this turbulent period.
4.Hassan-i Sabbah Created His Own Order of Assassins
You can’t talk about assassins without mentioning Hassan-i Sabbah and his followers (from whom we get the word assassin). Hassan-is-Sabbah was a philosopher, preacher, scholar, and formidable military leader. He also founded his own group of assassins, the Hashshashin, also known as the Order of Assassins.
Hassan-i Sabbah's path to prominence began when he became a devoted follower of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, a sect that believed in the hidden imam's spiritual leadership. His charisma and determination led him to win over a significant following among the Ismaili community. In 1090 AD, he seized the mountain fortress of Alamut, which became the stronghold of the Nizari Ismaili state.
Under the moniker the Old Man of the Mountain Hasan taught his followers that there was nothing honorable about leaders who lived in splendor while their people suffered. His most loyal followers were trained to remove heads of state and military whom they saw as corrupt (or followed Sunni, rather than Shi doctrine).
The group’s first recorded assassination was in 1092 AD, but the group kept going long after Hassan’s death in 1124. Over time their ranks grew outwards from their base at Alamut Castle until they occupied 70 locations across modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
True assassins, the Hashshashin studied the language and culture of their targets before striking. Much like modern-day spies some Hashshashin would lie in wait for years, waiting for the perfect time to strike. As religious fundamentalists they had no problem dying for their cause, success guaranteed them a place in heaven.
Eventually, the cloak-and-dagger methods of the Hashshashin would prove to be their undoing. By 1237 Persia had fallen to the Mongol hoards, an enemy the assassins had no hope of picking off one by one. The Hashshashin initially sided with the Mongols but when Mongke Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) invaded Bagdad the Hashshashin decided the Mongols had gone too far.
They sent one of their operatives to kill Mongke, but he was discovered. The Mongols retaliated by laying siege to Alamut. The Hashshashin were no army and on November 19, 1256, their leader surrendered in the hopes of saving his brotherhood. The Mongols destroyed Alamut before parading the defeated leader through every remaining Hashshashin stronghold. The group was well and truly defeated.
An agent of the Assassins (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092 AD. (14th-century AD manuscript) Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul (Public Domain)
5.The Sicarii, Deadly Jewish Assassins
The Hashshashin may be where the word assassin comes from, but they weren’t the first group of assassins. That honor might just go to the Sicarii, a group of Jews dedicated to driving the Romans and those who collaborated with them from Judea during the 1st century AD.
The origins of their name are pretty impressive, Sicarii is the plural of the Latin word Sicarius which translates to “dagger man.” The Sicarii were fervent nationalists who vehemently opposed Roman occupation and sought to expel the foreign rulers from their homeland. They conducted a campaign of guerrilla warfare and terror, targeting Roman officials and collaborators with a preference for concealed daggers in crowded places.
Much like the Hashshashin, the Sicarii were ultimately fated to fall, their violent tactics and extreme beliefs ultimately betrayed them. During the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 AD, the Sicarii contributed by capturing the Roman fortress at Masada and slaughtering every Roman inside. They then marched on Jerusalem to join Eleazar ben Simon, a zealot leader who was leading the Jewish rebellion.
Unfortunately, the two Jewish factions couldn’t play nicely together. The people of Jerusalem found the Sicarii’s methods too extreme (especially when the Sicarii suggested destroying food stores to force everyone into joining the fighting) and the Sicarii leader, Menahem, alienated the Jewish rebels by claiming to be the Messiah. A claim that got him executed.
Ultimately the Romans retook Jerusalem in 70 AD and three years later marched on Masada fortress. After a long siege, the Romans finally entered the fortress only to find hundreds of dead Sicarii. The group had chosen mass suicide over surrender (which, to be fair, would have probably meant crucifixion or enslavement).
Painting of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Hayez. (Public Domain)
6.The Vishkanya, India’s Poison Maidens
The Vishkanya were a group of female assassins so skilled that they became the stuff of myth and legend, successfully blending with local folklore until it became almost impossible for modern historians to work out if they were real or not.
This means we have to take everything with a pinch of salt when talking about the Vishkanya. Their name comes from the Sanskrit for “poison girl” or “poison damsel” which should give you a good idea of how they operated.
It’s believed the group was set up at some point between 340 and 293 BC by the first Indian Maurya Emperor, Chandragupta. Much of what we know about them comes from the Arthashastra, a manual on governance and statecraft written by Chandragupta’s Prime Minister, Chanakya.
Chanakya believed that to maintain power the emperor needed a network of spies who could watch and manipulate his enemies. When manipulation didn’t work, these agents would turn to assassination. Since the emperor's enemies tended to be men, it was decided that beautiful women would make the best agents.
The Vishkanya began their training as children. After being recruited the young girls were fed tiny amounts of poison until they built up a natural immunity to it. This meant they eventually became immune to the very weapon they used against their targets. This allowed them to maintain their cover, for example by sampling any good they poisoned, diverting suspicion.
While this tactic may sound fantastical it actually has historical precedent. Known as mithridatism it takes its name from Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus, who regularly dosed himself with poisons so that if an enemy ever poisoned him, he would survive.
Sadly, mithridatism has never been an exact science and most girls didn’t survive the training process. Those who did were shipped out as “courtesans” on behalf of the king. The tactic seems to have worked. Their craft became so legendary that people began to believe poison ran through the veins of the Vishkanya. According to the folklore, one kiss was all it took for a Vishkanya to take a life.
Painting from the Ajanta Caves, India. ( Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/CC BY 2.0)
7.Harmodius & Aristogiton Became the Tyrannicides
Harmodius and Aristogiton are proof that assassins don’t have to succeed to make a difference or be remembered. They are remembered primarily for their pivotal role in the overthrow of the tyrant Hippias and the establishment of democracy in the 6th century BC. Which is no small claim to fame.
In 514 BC the two lovers, along with a handful of conspirators, hatched a plot to kill the tyrant Hippias and his brother during the Panathenaic festival. However, nerves got the better of the would-be assassins and Harmodius and Aristogiton ended up striking early. They killed the brother of Hippias, Hipparchus, but never managed to reach Hippias himself.
Death of the tyrant Hipparchus, by painter Syriskos, 475-470 BC. (Public Domain)
Harmodius was killed by the tyrant’s spearmen on the spot while Aristogiton was captured and later tortured to death. Their actions ignited a spark of resistance among the Athenian populace, leading to the eventual expulsion of the tyrant in 510 BC, marking the end of the Peisistratid tyranny.
The Athenians hailed Harmodius and Aristogiton as heroes of democracy and dubbed the couple the Tyrannicides, erecting statues in their honor and celebrating them as symbols of liberty. Their heroics also inspired the Tyrannicide law of the classical period, which allowed the killing of anyone seeking to become a tyrant.
At least that’s the traditional story. In reality, Harmodius and Aristogiton have a more complicated legacy. The reign of Hippias continued for three more years after the assassination attempt and his eventual downfall had as much to do with the Spartans getting involved than the Athenians rebelling against him.
It’s thought likely that the Athenian democrats chose to celebrate the Tyrannicides to distract from the fact the Spartans had played such a key role in the founding of democracy. Moreover, the historian Herodotus questioned the traditional narrative even further.
According to him, the original plot had nothing to do with politics, Harmodius and Aristogiton had been responding to an insult from Hippias. Moreover, while the Tyrannicide rule sounds great on paper, in reality, it was mostly used as an excuse to get rid of political rivals.
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Assassins have played a significant role throughout history. While it’s easy to label them all murderers, the argument can be made that they often saved lives. How often has a ruler avoided war, or mass slaughter, by having an opponent quietly killed?
On the other hand, we should be careful not to romanticize them. Whether it be the likes of Locusta or Vishkanya, the truth is more often than not these famous assassins were used to further the goals of the already rich and powerful. Locusta was used to swap one dictator for another, while the Vishkanya were used to kill the emperor’s rivals.
Even the most romanticized assassins like the Hashshashin or Sicarii have complicated legacies. It’s easy to hold them up as rebels taking on evil tyrants and forget that they were also religious zealots responsible for some less-than-honorable killings. At the end of the day if history has taught us anything it’s that humans too often turn to killing when it should be used as a last resort.
Top image: A famous assassin from history, an agent of the Assassins (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092 AD. (14th-century AD manuscript) Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul. Source: Public Domain
Blakemore, E. 2020. “Was the medieval order of Assassins a real thing?” Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/medieval-order-assassins-islam
Dasgupta. P. 2022. Visha Kanyas: The Deadly Cult of Poisonous Female Assassins. Available at: https://medium.com/teatime-history/visha-kanyas-the-deadly-cult-of-poisonous-female-assassins-3d38c7e0d3a9#:~:text=Visha%20Kanyas%20were%20mentored%20from,were%20not%20eligible%20for%20marriage
Editors. 2023. Tyrannicide. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/tyrannicide
Lundin. E. 2023. Knives in the Dark: The Sicarii. Available at: https://historythings.com/knives-in-the-dark-the-sicarii/
Scheinman. T. 2020. The Hunt for Julius Caesar’s Assassins Marked the Last Days of the Roman Republic. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/hunt-julius-caesars-assassins-marked-last-days-roman-republic-1-180976185/