Wars can start for all sorts of reasons: to secure trade routes, to capture resources, to eliminate a dangerous rival … but the most interesting wars flare up because of personal insults that lead to family feuds. After all, when a king’s starting his speech with a “yo momma” joke, you know trouble’s on its way.
1. The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships
Homer tells the story brilliantly: thousands killed, cities burned and pillaged, and giant equines built out of wood in a country that had barely any trees. And the root cause of the entire affair, as the ancients told it, was a woman: Helen [wiki], queen of Sparta. For reasons totally outside her comprehension, she was abducted by Paris, the wimpy prince of Troy.
Once thought to be a myth, the story of the Trojan War is being reevaluated by scholars. In the centuries since, documents discovered in Hittite cities in Asia Minor make references to some of Homer’s characters and the places he mentions.
Did the war really start over the theft of Menelaus’ wife? We will probably never know; though control over the lucrative trade routes to the Black Sea probably didn’t hurt the cause.
2. Sister Pact
After the death of Gaius Julius Caesar, the most important men in Rome were two of his kinsmen, Gaius Octavianus (his great-nephew and adopted heir) and Marcus Antonius (aka Mark Antony). Realizing they could be even stronger with their powers combined, the two united with their good pal Lepidus, and formed a triumvirate that would determine the fate of all Roman territories.
But the two needed something to seal the deal, and what better than a couple of marriage vows to do the trick? Octavianus wedded Antony’s stepdaughter, and Antony took Octavianus’ sister, Octavia, for better or for worse.
Once old Mark caught sight of Cleopatra, he wanted a divorce. Meanwhile, this didn’t really help matters between Octavianus and Antony, as the two men had remained rivals through their dealings. But news of the Antony’s divorce helped Octavianus decide he’d had enough.
The civil war between the two lasted from 33 to 30 BCE. By the end of it, Octavianus was the undisputed ruler of the Roman world; he changed his name to Augustus and became the first Roman Emperor. Antony, on the other hand, had committed suicide to avoid capture, having learned the hard way that you just don’t mess with a man’s sister.
3. How a Little Bullying Went a Long, Long Way
Tan Shi Huai was the illegitimate son of a Xianbei (Mongol) mercenary serving the Han dynasty of China. As a result of his low birth, he was considered little better than a slave by his fellow tribesmen. The insults served his way must have stuck in his young craw, particularly given his (as yet unrevealed) ambition, intelligence, and strategic skill.
His injured pride may have spurred him on as he gathered a following of malcontents, somehow finagled his way into the supreme overlordship of all Xianbei tribes around 170 CE, and organized a powerful empire north of the Great Wall, even defeating the Huns who had previously ruled the region. Then, in 177, he defeated the Chinese army and threatened the imperial court, though an attack on the capital never materialized because of supply problems.
Sadly, however, his empire, which had been held together largely through his own force of will, didn’t survive his death. Still, the guy defeated both the mighty Hans and Huns. All because he was picked on as a kid? Makes you wonder how much more effective our politicians could be if we started insulting their families a little more.
4. The Great Islamic Schism
Politics in the sixth- and early seventh-century Mecca were dominated by a feud between two clans, the Hashemites and the Umayyads. And though the feud continued into the mid-600s, a generation after Muhammad’s rise to power, things really came to ahead in 656, when the caliph Uthman (an Umayyad) was murdered.
The new caliph, Ali (a Hashemite cousin and a son-in-law of Muhammad), didn’t really help smooth things over when he failed (or refused) to track down and punish the assassins.
It’s little wonder then, that the Umayyads saw this as somewhat suspicious, and even worse, kind of insulting to their clan. A five-year war broke out, and eventually ended in a truce, but Ali’s subsequent murder (not exactly truceful) and replacement by the Umayyad leader Muawiyya (whose kinsmen would rule the Islamic world for a century to come) exacerbated the conflict.
Ali’s followers, however, have remained faithful to the end. Driven underground, they called themselves Shiat Ali, or “The Party of Ali,” and their spiritual descendents are known today as the Shiites. The rift caused by the fiasco survives to the modern day in Islam’s two largest sects.
5. The Princess Bride (and a Decidedly Less Happy Ending)
In 758 CE, Caliph Abdullah al-Mansur, the titular ruler of all Islam, decided to order one of his nobles to take a royal Khazar bride and bring about some peace (the Khazars had fought two brutal wars to stop Islamic expansion into the Caucasus Mountains and Eastern Europe).
To carry out this seemingly easy task, al-Mansur piced the military governor of Armenia, Yazid ibn Usayd al-Sulami, for the great marriage mission. Of course, Yazid was happy to comply, and took home a daughter of Khagan Baghatur, the Khazar leader.
Things were going very well when the girl somehow died, possibly in childbirth, though the details are vague. Her attendants, however, didn’t need details. They returned home convinced that some Arab faction had poisoned her (not unreasonable, all things considered).
Needless to say, Pops got angry, and took his revenge on the Abbasid Caliphate. The Khazars quickly invaded what is now northwestern Iran, plundering and raiding as only nomads can.
From mental_floss' book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits, published in Neatorama with permission.
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