Marc G. DeSantis discusses leaders who died not in battle but at the hands of assassins.
Philip II 382–336 BC
The assassination of Macedon’s soldier-king may have been arranged by his own family. His spurned wife, Olympias, and her ambitious 20-year-old son, Alexander—fearful that Alexander would be passed over in favor of another heir by a younger wife—may have approached Philip’s disgruntled bodyguard (and possible lover), Pausanias, and asked him to do the deed. After plunging a sword deep between Philip’s ribs, Pausanias himself was conveniently slain by three of Alexander’s friends—before he could implicate anyone.
Julius Caesar 100–44 BC
Caesar conquered the Gauls and vanquished the Britons and Germans, but he was perhaps too forgiving of his defeated Roman enemies. Though he had extended clemency to them in 45 BC, after a four-year civil war ended, his opponents were not so willing to reconcile with their hated foe. On March 15 the following year, Caesar made the fatal mistake of entering the Theater of Pompey, where the senate was meeting, without a body-guard. The senatorial conspirators were waiting in ambush and stabbed him in turn, a total of 23 times.
Aurelian AD 214–275
The Roman Empire nearly fell in the third century, beset by barbarian invasions and internal rebellions. Emperor Aurelian helped put the empire back together by defeating the Goths and the Palmyrenes and a breakaway regime in Gaul. Then, when Aurelian uncovered transgressions by his personal secretary, Eros—transgressions whose nature has been lost to history—he threatened to discipline him. To forestall this, Eros told several of Aurelian’s senior officers that the emperor intended to execute them. Believing Eros, they killed the emperor.
Flavius Aetius 391–454
The master of soldiers for Rome’s Western Empire may have prevented Attila and his Huns from conquering Europe at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, but this was not enough to save him from the suspicions of his emperor, Valentinian III. At a meeting with his sovereign, Aetius unwisely and continually urged a marriage between his own son and the emperor’s daughter. A paranoid Valentinian erupted in rage and stabbed Aetius, who was then finished off by other courtiers present.
An Lu-shan ca. 703–757
The general had grown immensely strong defending China’s northeastern frontier, with tens of thousands of barbarian soldiers at his command. In 755, he rebelled against Emperor Xuanzong and led his barbarian troops on a campaign of destruction, sacking several cities, including the empire’s capital. Though his war was going well, Lu-shan was by then extremely fat, blind, and suffering from a skin disease. The pained and angry warlord executed many of his own officers for minor offenses, prompting even his son and chief adviser to plot against him. Acting under the direction of the son and other officers, Lu-shan’s eunuch manservant slew the general in his own bed.
Oda Nobunaga 1534–1582
The Japanese daimyo won a great victory at the 1575 Battle of Nagashino, in which his disciplined musketry divisions overcame valiant but old-fashioned samurai cavalry. The victory helped doom the powerful Takeda clan and to set Japan on the road to eventual unification. The end came for Oda at the hands of Akechi Mitsuhide, a traitorous general. He set fire to the Kyoto temple in which Oda had taken refuge, and with no hope of escape, the daimyo took his own life.
Albrecht von Wallenstein 1583–1634
The army of this Bohemian generalissimo of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire during the Thirty Years’ War was composed of plundering mercenaries who despoiled the imperial lands they marched through. That in itself displeased Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand II, but Wallenstein went further, beginning independent peace talks with the Protestant enemies of the emperor with intent to defect to their side. When word spread that he was to be relieved of command, his own officers went to his quarters in the city of Eger and stabbed him to death in his bedroom.