6 Generals Who Switched Sides Hoping for Reward

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Military turncoats come in all shapes and sizes, motivated by all sorts of considerations: power, revenge, disillusionment, and, most often, the sound of a little extra coin. But not every turncoat seems to bear the tarnished rep old Benedict Arnold came away with. The following are some of history's lesser-known traitors, but ones who were pleased with the results.

1. Flavius Josephus (ca. 37"“100)

Revolutionary governments, caught up in the heat of the moment, often make poor decisions. For example, the Jewish rebels fighting against Rome appointed Joseph ben Matthias to be military governor of Galilee. An inveterate coward, however, Joseph surrendered at the first opportunity and became the Roman general Flavius Vespasianus's adviser on Jewish affairs. A nice gig, for sure. And when Flavius became emperor in the year 69, Joseph (or Josephus, as his new pals called him) found himself vaulted to the top of Roman high society. After trying to encourage the surrender of Jerusalem by shouting propaganda at the walls, he retired to Rome and became a famous author. The guilt of his treason may have caught up with old Josephus in his old age; he penned numerous writings lauding Jewish civilization, possibly to try to clear his conscience.

2. Alaric (ca. 370"“410)

A nobleman of the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe living in central Europe, Alaric fought for the Roman emperor Theodosius I against the rebel Eugenius. The brilliant decision to hire Alaric, though, gave the cunning nobleman an insider's view of the empire's weaknesses, and he took careful note. When Theodosius died in 395, the empire was divided into eastern and western halves ruled by his quarreling sons—and Alaric decided opportunity wasn't just knocking, it was practically kicking down his door. Alaric marched on Constantinople and ravaged the Thracian countryside, capturing most of Greece before the Roman general Stilicho forced him to withdraw. Soon after, the eastern emperor Arcadius gave Alaric control of most of Illyria, all of which paved the way for his first invasion of Italy in 401.

Alaric invaded the nation of his former employment several more times, and in 410 he became the first "barbarian" king to sack Rome in over 500 years. Though Alaric died in a plague in his 40s, his descendants carved out an empire of their own in what is now southern France, Spain, and Portugal.

3. Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid, Campeador) (1043"“1099)

Balboa_Park_El_Cid_statue_2.jpgHis very title speaks of a checkered past: El Cid comes from the Arabic al-Sayyid, or "the lord," while Campeador is Spanish for "champion." Back when it all started, El Cid was a commander in the army of Castile. Of course, the cocky commander wasn't all roses to work with, and the Cid was forced to flee in 1080 after angering King Alfonso. What's an out-of-work commander to do, though? El Cid quickly decided to shack up with the enemy, joining forces with the Muslim emir (king) of Zaragosa. Despite the emir's cantankerous relationship with Castile, El Cid fought valiantly with his former foes for several years. That is, until Spain was invaded by Berber fanatics from North Africa. Bathing in schadenfreude, El Cid was summoned back by Alfonso, profusely apologized to, and begged to defeat the seemingly invincible invaders. El Cid accepted, and in the course of the fighting, "the Champion" maneuvered himself into the top spot in Valencia, the gem of Spain's Mediterranean coast. He died in 1099 fighting off a new wave of North African attackers, but even after his death proved useful. The city's defenders strapped the Cid's rapidly-assuming-room-temperature form to the back of his horse and managed to trick the enemies into thinking El Cid, Campeador, was still in charge. [Image courtesy of Stan Shebs.]

4. Francesco Sforza (1401"“1466)

Warfare in 15th-century Italy was dominated by the condottieri, mercenary generals who commanded motley crews of hungry soldiers. Of course, the soldiers for hire weren't exactly loved by everyone, and were seen as particularly uncouth by those gallant few who fought for land instead of money. The son of one of the most successful of the condottieri, Francesco Sforza was known for his great strength: reportedly, he could bend iron bars with his bare hands. Of course, as a mercenary, his loyalties were just as easily bent. After signing on with various feudal lords in their endless wars, he settled down in Milan and joined forces with Filippo Visconti, the local duke. On Visconti's death in 1447, however, Francesco turned on the duke's family and exiled or killed many of them. He also broke up an attempt to establish a Milanese republic, and then made himself duke. It's not nearly as bad as it sounds, though. Francesco went on to usher in nearly two decades of the best rule Milan had ever seen.

5. Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (1583"“1634)

A minor, though well-educated, Czech nobleman, Wallenstein became an officer in the armies of the Holy Roman Empire. He fought numerous battles against Venice and other powers and gained a reputation for military genius. But when his fellow Protestants rebelled against the empire in 1618, ushering in the Thirty Years' War, imperial generals worked themselves into a tizzy fearing that they would face Wallenstein on the field. They needn't have worried, though. A man whose eye was always on the bottom line, Wallenstein calculated that the rewards of serving the Catholic side of the war were greater. He helped crush Protestant armies in his native Bohemia as well as in western and northern Germany. Removed from command in 1630 on suspicion of preparing to switch sides, he was reinstated shortly thereafter on the rationale that a general thought to be disloyal was probably better than generals known to be incompetent. In retrospect, however, the reasoning was questionable, as Wallenstein was killed in 1634 while attempting to defect to the Swedes.

6. Shi Lang (1621"“1696)

An admiral in the navy of China's Ming dynasty, Shi Lang came into conflict with Zheng Chenggong, a rival general. Deciding that the grass looked greener up north, he defected in 1646 to the Manchus, and left his family behind to be slaughtered as traitors. Was it worth the (very literal) sacrifice? Apparently so. Lacking experienced naval officers, the Manchu ruler Shunzhi welcomed Shi Lang with open arms, and the officer happily participated in the Manchu conquest of China. In fact, he became an mental-floss-forbidden-knowledge.jpgofficial of the new Qing dynasty, made up of Shunzhi's descendants. Then, in 1681, he even got to lead the conquest of Taiwan, which culminated in the surrender of his old enemies, the Zheng family. In the end, Shi Lang made out pretty well, and was given the title "General Who Maintains Peace on the Seas" by a very grateful imperial government.

This article was excerpted from "Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits."

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September 6, 2010 - 5:00am
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