“We need men with moral courage to speak and write their real thoughts, and to stand by their convictions, even to the very death.” — Robert Green Ingersoll
I wonder how literally Robert actually took those words.
Would he have sacrificed his life to follow his own convictions? He died of heart failure himself, so perhaps he didn’t get the chance.
But other famous figures did — and their wish was granted. Although sometimes inadvertently.
Here are five crazy ways historical figures died after sticking to their principles and desires.
The quest for immortality in Sicily
Empedocles was an ancient Greek philosopher who was heavily influenced by Pythagoras and wrote all of his teachings in verse style.
He also thought he was immortal
There are two legends surrounding his death. One is that he fully believed he would live forever as a god — and set out to prove it to his followers.
The other tale describes him as wanting to project the idea that he was immortal to people subscribing to his thoughts at the time.
Either way, he was written as having climbed up the side of an old volcano called Mount Etna in Sicily — and promptly hopping in for a hot bath.¹
One legend says the volcano rejected his immortality — by throwing back his sandal.
Maybe his feet were too foul for the volcano’s tastes?
The Other Theorem of Pythagoras
Does that bowl of beans look scrumptious to you? It wouldn’t to the famous Pythagoras (think back to math class).
One of the tenets of his life was to never eat animals, fish — or beans as he considered them extremely unclean.
Towards the end of his life, Pythagoras ran a school of followers which might be considered a cult in today’s world. And just like many cult leaders, his teachings didn’t quite gel with everyone in society at the time.
His school was founded in the city of Croton and the townspeople generally loved him. That is until they decided they wanted to institute a form of democracy as a new basis of governing.
And Pythy was no fan of that.
The Crotonians turned on all of his followers and proceeded to murder most of them.
Just how Python died, in the end, is disputed. But one of the more interesting stories is that he fled the village and almost escaped with his life.
Until he came across a bean field — oh the terror.
Rather than violating his own teachings and coming in contact with the vile beanstalks, he decided to stop and stand in place. And was promptly murdered.²
To thy own self be true
Another ancient Sicilian went by the name of Charondas. While not a philosopher, he was a famous lawgiver of the period. Mostly noted for instituting a series of laws that were practical as well as being written entirely in verse.
One of his rules was that there should be no weapons allowed in the public assembly areas. Sensible. People could debate without the fear of being killed for their words.
The punishment? A bit extreme. Violators were to be put to death.
The story goes one day there were a group of hoodlums harassing some innocent villagers. He lept to action, grabbed his knife, and went to help them — and found himself on the public assembly grounds.³
He promptly committed suicide to uphold the law and his beliefs. Now that’s conviction.
Ego really is the enemy
If someone offered you the cure for immortality that didn’t involve a volcano, would you take it?
Qin Shi Huang said ‘Yes!’ to that question.
The founding emperor of the famous Qin Dynasty. He was known for incredible feats like joining the Great Wall of China and for building the massive terracotta soldiers’ mausoleum.
He was also thought to have died while chasing his ego.
Like most emperors, he constantly desired immortality. So when his royal alchemists promised him a solution with pills made out of this magical material called mercury — you can guess what happened after.⁴
Scotland was ripe for raiding in the old days of the Vikings. And Sigurd the Mighty was certainly no exception to these forages.
Sigurd was the Earl of Orkney, a small group of islands off of Northern Scotland. For years he raided the mainland and slowly expanded his territory.
When he encountered one particular foe, Máel Brigte the Buck-Toothed, they agreed to a 40 man per side battle rather than an all-out war.
In true Viking treachery, he brought 80 men instead. And promptly won.
During his victory parade, he carried the head of his enemy alongside his saddle — bragging to the subjects of his sneakiness and clever prowess.
But his enemy must’ve forgotten to floss regularly because Máel’s teeth managed to cut into Sigurd’s leg while riding.
A nasty infection ensued, and Sigurd’s proudful boasting ended up being his undoing.⁵
Remember to brush every day!
Head over here for more of my written shenanigans.
- The First Emperor. Oxford University Press. 2007. pp. 82, 150. ISBN 978–0–19–152763–0.
- Simoons, Frederick J. (1998). Plants of Life, Plants of Death. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 225–228. ISBN 978–0–299–15904–7.
- Murray, Alexander (2007). Suicide in the Middle Ages: Volume 2: The Curse on Self-Murder. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 128. ISBN 978–0–19–820731–3.
- Wright, David Curtis (2001). The History of China. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 49. ISBN 978–0–313–30940–3.