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Deadly Strategies and Ruthless Tactics of the Ancient Assassins

Deadly Strategies and Ruthless Tactics of the Ancient Assassins


Assassinations have existed for a very long time in the history of human civilization. The goal of such covert activities was often to get rid of important characters in the enemy’s camp, be it military or civil personnel. In many ancient societies, assassins occupied the fringes of martial society, as their actions were sometimes deemed as less than honorable. Nevertheless, their value had been recognized, and some military strategists have even written about how a ruler could and should use them. There are also societies in which assassins formed the core of their military might.

Chinese Strategist

Assassins have been used in military operations since ancient times. The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, though he did not write explicitly about the use of assassins, hinted at the utilization of these covert agents. For instance, Chapter 13 of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War deals specifically with espionage and the use of spies. One of the things he wrote was that a general should use his spies to collect information about enemy personnel regardless of whether his objective is “to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual,” Sun Tzu, however, does not go into detail regarding the types of assassins and assassinations, and how they may be used.

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan.

Statue of Sun Tzu in Yurihama, Tottori, in Japan. (CC BY 2.5)

Kautilya Writings

Unlike Sun Tzu, the chief adviser of the Mauryan Empire, Kautilya, wrote more openly about the use of assassins, though these are placed under the rubric of ‘espionage’. Kautilya’s lessons on the use of assassins can be found in his Arthashastra, variously translated as Science of Material Gain, Science of Politics or Science of Political Economy. This is a treatise that deals with various topics of statecraft, economic policy and military strategy.

Artistic depiction of Kautilya.

Artistic depiction of Kautilya. (Public Domain)

According to Kautilya, there are various types of spies, some of which are assassins. These assassins may be further divided into smaller groups, each employing a different set of tactics to accomplish their mission. For example, one group of assassins are known as poisoners, and include figures such as cooks, sauce-makers, and procurers of bathing water. These assassins are characterized as having “no trace of filial affection left in them and who are very cruel and indolent”. As their name suggests, these assassins would use poison to kill their targets.  

Additionally, Kautilya also wrote that different strategies may be applied when using strategies. Apart from directly killing a target, assassins could also be used to get rid of troublesome ministers or to sow discord in the court of an enemy. Kautilya illustrates this with the case of the ‘seditious minister’. In this example, Kautilya supposes that the king has a seditious minister he wishes to get rid of. This minister might have a brother, who, instigated by the assassin, puts forward his claim for inheritance. This claimant is then assassinated, and the crime placed on the head of the seditious minister, thus giving the king an excuse to punish / get rid of him. A variation of this tactic may be used to sow discord in a rival court.

The Hashshashins

The Hashshashins are perhaps the best known assassins in history. The Hashshashins were members of the Nizari Ismailis, a branch of Shia Islam, and succeeded in carving out a state in the Middle East during the Medieval period. During that time, the region was dominated by much more powerful states, such as the Sunni Seljuk Empire, and the Catholic Crusader states. In an open field battle, the Hashshashins were likely to have been no match for their enemies due to their small number. Hence, a difference approach to combat was adopted. The Hashshashins controlled fortress in the Middle East, and from there, sent men out to assassinate enemy leaders.

A Thracesian woman kills a Varangian.

A Thracesian woman kills a Varangian. (Public Domain)

Despite being a small state, the Hashshashins were highly efficient killers, and struck fear in the hearts of their enemies. Notable victims of the Hashshashin include the crusaders Raymond II of Tripoli and Conrad of Montferrat, as well as the Seljuk vizier, Nizam al-Mulk. Even the great Muslim leader, Saladin, was a target of the Hashshashins, though he managed to survive their attacks. One of the tactics that the Hashshashins favored was to murder their targets in public. By this means, the Hashshashins were able to kill off opponents, and instill fear in the hearts of their enemies.

A 14th century painting depicting the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk.

A 14 th century painting depicting the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk. (Public Domain)

The fearsome reputation of the Hashshashins was heightened by numerous stories that were told about their ruthlessness, whether true or not. It was perhaps this reputation which prevented their enemies from launching direct assaults on their strongholds. In the end, however, the myth of invincibility that the Hashshashins built around themselves was shattered as a result of the Mongol invasion of the Middle East during the 13 th century. It has been said that 40 Hashshashin fortresses, including the famed Alamut Castle, were captured and razed by the invaders from the east. This marked the end of the Hashshashins as an organized force.

Top image: An artist’s depiction of a hashshashin. (Image source)

By Wu Mingren


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There has been some suggestion that the Hashshashin survivors of the Mongol invasion migrated into India and reconstituted as the Thugee, co-opting Hindu mythology whereby Shiva replaced Mohamed's daughter Fatimah as an object of veneration.

very nice

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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