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History’s Greatest Deceptions

and Confidence Scams

Steven Lazaroff & Mark Rodger

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Lazaroff and Mark Rodger

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

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Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data
Steven Lazaroff and Mark Rodger.
History’s greatest deceptions and confidence scams / Mark Rodger and Steven Lazaroff.
p. cm.
1. The main category of the book —History —
Other category. 2. Confidence tricks and scams.

First Edition

14 13 12 11 10 / 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


Steven Lazaroff - Dedicated to my wife, Natasha, the love of my life.

Mark Rodger - Dedicated to all the swindlers, con men and smooth-talking salesmen out there that dream big and think fast.

Also dedicated to the neighbour kid that lived next door to me when I was 9. He was only 12 or 13, but he was the best 3 Card Monte trickster I have ever seen. He took more of my allowance money from me than I ever could have spent at the corner store; I know he was always cheating, but he was so good at it I’ve never held a grudge. I have always wondered what happened to him.


We would like to acknowledge several people.

First, that eternal rascal the con artist. May they continue to dream up a method to part a fool from his or her money.

To Clive Armstrong, our high school English teacher. He didn't really teach us anything useful in the writing of this book, but he did help us understand how to get away with pranks like crazy gluing his classroom locks and how to bullshit our way into sales jobs. The Drama 101 course he taught helped us with Adlib, an essential part of our early careers.

To R.J. Lynch, our editor and an author in his own right, a true gentlemen and a perfectionist.

To the people instrumental with the production of this book. Natasha, who spent hours on formatting. Our collaborators Charles Hill and Nicky Hoseck, and the wonderful background research done by Jeffrey R Coffey. You all have our eternal gratitude.

To our family and friends who read what we were putting out, and for all their feedback.


− Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince


• Be a patient listener

• Never look bored

Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, and then agree with them

• Let the other person reveal religious views, and then have the same ones.

• Hint at sex talk, but don't follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.

• Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.

• Never pry into a person's personal circumstances; they'll tell you all eventually.

• Never boast - just let your importance be quietly obvious.

• Never be untidy.

• Never get drunk.


The term “scam” is really a new word in the English lexicon and has come to supersede its older and more distinguished original cousin, “the confidence game” or “con game”, as it became popularly known at the time. One constant in human history is the tendency to want to shorten and simplify some of the most descriptive concepts we have, to anything that can be mumbled as a single syllable mouthful.

Throughout history, there have always been fraudsters and tricksters ready and willing to part people from their money with smooth talking and tall tales, but the first formally recorded “confidence trick” was uniquely American in its origins and set the bar for both simplicity and sheer guts, both hallmarks of the most successful frauds ever perpetrated.

In the late 1840’s the east coast of the United States was awash with the nouveau riche, and men wearing top hats to look important. Good manners and polite society were everything unless you were a slave in which case the top hat was entirely optional. It was the age of Jane Austen, white gloves, carriages and over-the-top manners. It was also the time of pocket watches, dangling from gold chains. Victorian sensibilities dictated that the bigger and shinier the watch, the bigger and shinier the man.

Enter one William Thompson, arguably the originator of the term “confidence man”, a genius operator and a personal hero to the career grifter. Little is known about where he came from, but what is certain is that he had his finger on the pulse of well-heeled suckers strolling the walkways and avenues of Manhattan in the mid-nineteenth century.

Meeting someone was a rigid, formal affair with protocol and procedures; the handshake, tip of the hat and bow were rigidly choreographed. Failure to introduce oneself properly or be introduced according to accepted custom was seen as an embarrassment to both parties – and embarrassment was worse than a bleeding head wound, to be avoided at all costs. Operating in New York in the 1840s, William was a keen observer of human behaviour. He realized that, with such pomp and ceremony surrounding every introduction, it was considered the ultimate in bad manners not to remember people that one might have been acquainted with – he calculated that when confronted with a stranger that said he was a friend, most men would likely act as though they remembered a meeting that had never happened.

William thought he might be able to leverage this, and so would often stroll along the city streets, until he spotted an upper-class sucker, at which time he would approach and pretend to know them and be a past acquaintance, someone that they had met before. Rather than be embarrassed, the mark would usually smile, nod and pretend that he knew who William was – better that than risk dishonour, or a pistol duel – which was how some matters of honour were settled at the time.

After some friendly chatting, and a little trust-gaining, Thompson would throw out his hook, asking “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” He wasn’t all about watches – sometimes he would ask for money. It’s good to diversify. More often than not, the mark would part with the watch or the money (or sometimes both) and William would depart, promising to meet the next day to return the property. Naturally, he didn’t keep the next day’s appointment and would often stroll away, laughing to himself.

He repeated this game dozens of times until he had the bad luck to happen across a former victim, who promptly summoned a roving policeman who gave chase. After a frantic foot pursuit through Manhattan and a dramatic struggle, William was bodily subdued and arrested. Perhaps he was slowed down by the weight of all those pocket watches; it was reported that he had several on him at the time he was caught.

His arrest and the subsequent article in the New York Herald called “Arrest of the Confidence Man” made headlines across the country; he was headed to trial in 1849. The press noted his specific appeals to victims’ “confidence” and thereafter he was known in the press as “The Confidence Man”. And so the term was born, and “confidence game” or “con” became part of our vocabulary, and spawned an endless series of quick-buck fraudster copycats that said, “me too”!

This is the story of some of the greatest.

Egyptian Animal Mummy Fakery

The culture of the ancient Egyptians is fascinating for many reasons, and one wonders if they knew how much their pyramids would contribute to the tourism industry centuries later. They loved building, making mummies and decorating everything with hieroglyphs, particularly of dogs, birds, the occasional eye symbol and lots and lots of cats. The Egyptians viewed animals as sacred beings and affiliated them to the gods; two out of every five hieroglyphs discovered contain some sort of animal artwork and writing.

Central to daily life in Egypt was the worship of many, many gods in a complex religious system where deities and demigods controlled the forces of nature, impacted all aspects of the day and loomed large when it came to the afterlife. A people eager to gain favour with their gods evolved complex rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices; even the most primitive human culture has always appreciated that it’s better to have a god happy with you than unhappy.

Egyptian art offers splendid examples of how the ancients understood their gods’ mythological roles and manifestations, and how they imagined they might look like person; animal/human hybrids were common. The god Horus was often represented by falcons, a mongoose or a shrew, Anubis by jackals or dogs, and cats were closely associated with the goddess Bastet, particularly important to childbearing women. Often several animals represented the same god, or several gods could be incarnated as the same animal. The god Thoth was often pictured as a baboon, at other times as an ibis bird; the gods Mat, Hathor and Bastet could be all be a lioness, the god Atum could be a lizard, a snake or an eel. Even after the country was eventually unified, there was generally no real standard for a uniting gospel or centralized church dogma – giving birth to many different variations. Certainly, to the ancient tourist, it must have been a pretty confusing system, but to the ancient Egyptians, it was serious business. Before 3000 B.C., animals were not themselves worshipped as gods, but they were seen as possible ambassadors of them and best to be respected and honoured; you never knew when your local god would send a blessing or favour through a neighbourhood pet, and any beast might be the incarnation of a powerful god, just hanging around; it was better to be safe than sorry when it came to respecting the Divine or their agents. In fact, a general theme in religious teachings at the time dictated that, once a person's life ended, they would have to go through a series of judgment questions and their acceptance into or banishment from the afterlife would depend on how well or how poorly they treated animals. Yes, it was a good time to be a house cat.

During this time, the wanton killing of animals was a capital offence. One Greek historian wrote that he once witnessed the lynching of a Roman merchant who accidentally killed a cat while visiting Egypt. No doubt slaves at the time wished they had that kind of respect.

When one thinks of ancient Egypt, the images of pyramids and mummies are invariably intertwined. The practice of Egyptian mummification has been a fascinating one for generations around the world with archaeologists, scientists, historians, and gifted amateur Egyptologists delving deep into Egyptian culture to demystify and decode it for the rest of the world.

While many theories and hypotheses have come and gone, one thing has been consistent and clear - the Egyptians believed that animals were sacred. And this is why they slaughtered and mummified them in huge numbers.

Before wholesale animal mummification became a national industry, religious pilgrims and the believers seeking to pay homage at the local sacred temple would offer animal statuettes made of bronze to seek favour from or appease their gods – and they were ready to pay good coin for them.

As a finishing flourish, black paint was used to draw on life-like features and a popular eye adornment was coloured glass, rock crystals or obsidian. Hand-crafted or moulded, these took significant time to create and complete expertly. A cheaper and faster alternative would be found – like making a mummy of the real animal instead.

Particularly popular, cat mummies were in high demand. The mummy makers would usually strangle the cats or break their necks to end their lives, afterwards drying out the organs and filling the bodies with soil; their limbs would be wrapped and positioned in such a way that they were either in a sitting position or close to their bodies. Pieces of fabric were then tied around the cats using intricate geometric patterns. The finished felines were then placed for eternity in either wooden or bronze sarcophagi, usually highly decorated and still expensive, but certainly a lot easier than commissioning a metal one.

As large-scale production became more necessary, the process became more simplified and faster. Human mummification ensured that all body parts were dried but present, unlike animal mummies that were filled with either sand or clothing or whatever happened to be on hand at the back of the store. Producers dipped the animals in resin, tied them with coarse linen and called it a day; human mummy creators treated their charges with an exotic variety of products - petroleum bitumen, coniferous cedar resin, sugar gum, beeswax, special oils and fats to name a few. Faster and cheaper – that was the way to do it when it came to sending the beloved animal into the afterlife.

Adapting to the sacrifice and preservation of the real thing, the Egyptians came to believe that they were honouring not just the animal, but also the god the animal represented by having animal totems ritually killed and then mummifying the remains either to leave as an offering or to place in a catacomb alongside their own mummy when their time came. Arguably the Kardashians of their time, the Theban queen Makare and her half-sister Sekhmet were entombed with a green pet monkey and pet gazelle respectively; Princes Tuthmosis and Hapymen were found to be accompanied into the afterlife by mummified pet cats and dogs. Ibis birds had a particularly rough time and were rendered near extinct along with many other species. A 2015 research project using radiocarbon dating demonstrated a dramatic increase in bird mummies entombed during the Ptolemaic period, notable for being the time of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great. Pet mummification was big business, practised by both the affluent and ordinary Egyptians alike, and –just like today – if the rich and powerful were doing it, everyone else wanted to do it too. The industry became so lucrative that it attracted professional craftspeople including embalmers, animal keepers, priests and catacomb and cemetery builders.

Different cults across Egypt worshipped animals as a vessel for their gods, further fuelling demand. The followers would choose a particular animal as a totem and care for it lavishly until it died of natural causes after which they would mummify the "chosen" animal and then choose another as a successor and continue the cycle.

The cult of the Apis Bull is a particularly good example and started operating as early as 800 B.C. Representing gods such as Osiris and Ptah, a chosen bull would spend its life in the comfort of a lavish temple, pampered with hand massages, choice foodstuffs and lots and lots of chanting and praise. Reportedly devotees would observe the bull’s movements, moods and even excrement trying to interpret what message was being sent by the Divine concerned. The bull was allowed to die naturally; unless it reached the age of 28 years old at which time it was killed, the cultists probably having run out of patience by then. After it died, there would follow elaborate mourning ceremonies and a splendid funeral procession. Bull mummification would follow, and extra-large, purpose-built tables complete with drainage channels for fluids were used for the embalming, such as have been found in the city of Memphis. After the preservation process was completed, bull mummy makers would wrap the animal in linen and then add artificial eyes to complete the “natural” look.

Similar was the cult of the crocodile, commonly representing gods of fertility and the sun. At the Shedet temple also known as Crocodilopolis, crocodile mummies were lined up in the temple, and Egyptians often carried them in precession during ceremonies. Pampered throughout most of their lifetimes, the crocodiles were often mummified using gold and other precious metals. With time, mummy creators became so busy with orders that they stopped giving crocodiles the lavish treatments and settled for faster, more practical ways.

Beast mummification went beyond the vagaries of the religious; household pets and beloved animals were preserved and mummified to keep the animals close to their masters even after death, preserving the animal's immortality. Animals like gazelles, birds, dogs, mongoose mongooses, monkeys, and cats were among the favourites, and it was common practice to inscribe the master's favourite pet on his tomb upon demise. Archaeologists have discovered a multitude of mummy inscriptions depicting over 70 unique pet names. Oddly, pigs and hippos do not appear in the archaeological record. It appears that there wasn’t any interest in mummifying them or perhaps they weren’t really a popular choice as “household companion”.

Over 30 burial sites for mummified animals have been identified, and some historians believe that more than 70 million animals were entombed in Saqqara, Beni Hassan, Bubastis, and Thebes; sites are estimated to hold millions of specimens. At Tune-el-Gebel, excavations have revealed more than 4 million ibis bird mummies, and it is estimated that the Saqqara burial site alone saw an estimated 10,000 ibis bird offerings each year according to the best data available.

All this demand for animal murder and ritualistic preservation drastically impacted the candidates available for mummification, and there is clear evidence that falcons, baboons, ibis birds, hawks, cats, dogs and many other species were pushed to the brink of extinction. Animal breeding programmes sprouted in temples and small villages near the temples to keep up with demand. Sacrificial demand had become so rampant that there was simply no more readily and easily obtainable supply of animals anymore. The more exotic and powerful the god one was looking to sacrifice to, the rarer and exotic the animal had to be, and this led to a rise in mummy forgeries.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the British Government shipped over 19 tonnes of mummified cats discovered at Saqqara out of the country, much of it to be used as fertilizer by farmers while the balance was sent to the British Museum of Natural Sciences. The Museum director, a one Dr Morrison-Scott started a meticulous examination of the remains and discovered that the cat mummification was not as expert as Egyptologists had first thought, but rather a haphazard stuffing of the cats with random body parts. In some of the cat mummies he found no animal parts at all, but an assortment of twigs, rocks and in some cases scraps of clothing.

Recent research in the UK has revealed that the entire industry was rife with slapdash animal mummies that might indicate large scale, industrial fraud. Using cutting-edge medical imaging technology, they found that a significant number contained either partial or no animal remains at all. A collaborative team of researchers from the University of Manchester and the Manchester Museum examined and analysed over 800 animal specimens found in mummies in the largest study ever conducted into the subject, comprising Egyptologists, radiographers and researchers using X-ray and CT scanning equipment to scan through the protective wrappings of animals preservations that originated from Egypt in the 19th and 20th century. Hoping to shed some light on the condition of the remains and gather a better understanding of the mummification process, the researchers scanned an assortment of mummies expecting to find animals like cats, birds, shrews and a Nile crocodile that was five feet long. The findings baffled many - the mummy that supposedly contained a five-foot crocodile had eight baby crocodiles; a cat mummy consisted only of cat bones, which was unexpected because the mummy itself had been crafted to show all the external features of a cat such as a nose, paws and even tiny ears. Only a third of the mummies examined contained complete animal remains. The other third contained partial remains, while the final percentage batch contained no animal remains at all - the mummy creators had stuffed the mummies only with linen, mud, sticks and other material . After all, who would bother unwrapping the finished product? Sacrilege!

The findings have caused hot debate, with experts around the world wondering if ancient embalmers took advantage of unsuspecting victims and sold fraudulent mummies, but charged top prices as if for the real, crafted product. Some experts believe it was probably known at the time that embalmers were taking shortcuts, or only providing part of the animal within the mummy in the belief that in the afterlife a part would magically become the whole; what may have mattered most to the Egyptians was the mummy's exterior rather than the interior. It must have been known at the time that forgeries were common in the ancient Egyptian marketplace, given that stock of the real article became harder and harder to procure.

This could certainly have been a plausible explanation, given that the sample size of “fake” animal mummies discovered was small in comparison to the number of complete specimens that were found, but recent studies have suggested a booming industry in animal mummies where forgeries far outnumbered the genuine article – some would call it a fraud of epic proportions.

Recent excavations at Saqquara by Selima Ikram, a distinguished Egyptology professor, and a team of international researchers uncovered roughly eight million mummified animals in a catacomb dedicated to Anubis – God of the Underworld and Death represented almost exclusively by dogs or dog-life figures. However, the vast sample of animal remains present were not exclusively canine at all, but an assortment of dogs, mongooses, and cats and even some birds, most wrapped to represent a dog mummy.

On a different excavation, in a catacomb in Southern Cairo next to the Temple of Anubis, the magnitude of the catacombs was shocking – supposed dog mummies were stacked between 1.2 and 1.5 meters high. More than 2500 years old, archaeologists estimate that it contains roughly 7.8 million mummified animal remains. Even with breeding programs functioning like ancient puppy mills it would be impossible to provide so vast a quantity of dogs for sacrificial purposes.

Far more probable is that, as demand increased for animals to be sent on that eternal journey, supply probably shrank, despite any attempt by enterprising ancient breeding programs, especially for the more exotic candidates like baboons and crocodiles. The shortfall was likely made up by making economies – parts of the whole animal rather than the whole, the better to stretch the supply. It would be doubtful that any discounts were offered to reflect that only a percentage of the expected animals were actually in the final package. What naturally follows is that, since no one was unwrapping the merchandise to inspect the finished product anyway, a steady stream of forgeries made their way into temples, shrines and catacombs while the makers continued to make as much money as they could get away with – just as happens today. Greed has always has been consistent, and the manufacture and sale of the vast amount of fraudulent animal mummies that must be still out there, represented and then sold as the real thing, must rank as one of the biggest scams in human history.

Constantine the Great

The phrase “if you can’t beat them, join them” comes to mind when considering the illustrious career of Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus – or Constantine the Great as history came to know him. Raised a pagan, and practiced in the art of murder, fraud and the age old Roman tradition of killing your own family members, Constantine succeeded in reinventing himself as a great Christian and patron of the church; so much so that this 57th Emperor of the Roman Empire was eventually canonized as a Saint by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and some branches of the Lutheran Churches. History it seems can actually have a very short memory.

Constantine the Great had a remarkable reign of 31 years, second in length only to the very first Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus. He is remembered for one specific aspect that changed the course of the spiritual world, and world history for that matter; Constantine, in his late night visions and wildest self-aggrandizing fantasies couldn’t predict what he would achieve - he was the first Roman Emperor to accept the Christian faith. Or did he?

Granting Christians the right to practice their religion openly, he stopped their persecutions and exterminations and returned confiscated properties (or those not already in the hands of his friends and supporters) to their former Christian owners. The official establishment of Christianity as the state religion would have to wait for another emperor, Theodosius, in 380 A.D.

He who would be the Roman Emperor Constantine came into the world around 272 A.D. and was the son of a military officer and a woman of low social standing named Helen. It is uncertain if Constantine was legitimate, as there is no evidence that his father and Helen were actually married. In all likelihood, she was his concubine or a prostitute who had achieved a little legitimacy. Born Flavius Valerius Constantinus, it is reported that even as a child he was destined for a greater purpose than his peers, having that “special something”; considering that Constantine himself practically wrote his own biographies this isn’t really surprising. It’s amazing how good you can make yourself look when you’re writing your own version of history.

Constantine’s father was Flavius Constantius who hailed from Illyricum, a province located in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. When another Illyrian became the new Emperor Aurelian, he took all his drinking buddies along for the Imperial ride, and Flavius achieved some success as one of the new Emperor’s bodyguards. Roman rulers were notoriously short-lived, and after a brief time at the top, the unfortunate Aurelian was murdered by his own elite Praetorian guards.

Romans had a time-honoured tradition of military service as a stepping stone to eventual political office, and when another Illyrian companion of Aurelian’s named Diocletian was elevated to the office of Emperor, he appointed Flavius as Governor of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Diocletian thought that the empire was too vast for any one man to rule effectively, so in 285 A.D. he made reforms in the Imperial system and appointed another Illyrian comrade named Maximian as his co-Emperor in the Western half of the empire, the better to share duties. Each Emperor would have his own court, military and administrative faculties and also a deputy emperor to assist in holding it all together. In 293 A.D. Constantine’s father was promoted by Maximian as the deputy emperor in the west, while young Constantine was sent east where he could gain an education in Diocletian’s court and live as his father’s heir presumptive – it was expected that he would take over from Constantinus when the time came. Actually, he was more of a hostage to ensure Flavius stayed on his best behaviour. Although they liked to flock together, it seems that Illyrians preferred not to trust each other too much if there was an alternative.

The ambitious young Constantine rose through the ranks of the legions until he reached the rank of tribune, a senior military officer with a distinguished service record battling barbarians and Persians until the year 303 A.D. when he returned west to the Imperial court just in time to witness the last great recorded persecution of early Christians – aptly named “The Great Persecution”. A series of edicts or Imperial orders followed against those of the Christian faith, designed to officially curtail rights, freedoms and lives. Constantine was there to see it all.

Christians would describe Diocletian’s campaign as a bloodbath, and although they probably exaggerated, they claimed as many as 17,000 believers were ritually executed in just thirty days. An illegal religion in the eyes of the Roman state, Christianity and its practitioners were seen as a secretive cult, communicating in secret codes and strange, unfamiliar rituals with an irrational belief in just one god. To traditional Romans, these early Christians were difficult to understand, rejecting pagan public festivals and loudly critical of ancient, established traditions that went back for generations. Denounced as subversive to the government and the very fabric of Roman society, it was rumoured that they practised cannibalism, incest and black demonic magic as they sought to spread their religion and convert the pagan majority of the Empire. As with all social reformers, they were met with resistance by defenders of the old order who tried to hold back change, usually with a measure of violence.

Emperor Diocletian himself wanted his edicts persecuting Christians to be “without bloodshed”. He ordered that they be banned from assembling in groups for worship, that their private property be confiscated, their scriptures destroyed, and their newly built Christian church at Nicomedia burned. Across the Empire, and notably in the East, the houses of Christian worship were systematically razed. Deprived of their legal rights in courts, Christians could now be legally tortured, and any believers who had achieved political or military rank lost it. For good measure, Christians who had been freed from slavery were stripped of their free status and re-enslaved. Free to enforce capital punishment when it suited them, local judges and officials began commonly ordering that Christians be publically burned alive in something like a carnival atmosphere that was fun for the whole pagan family. Later edicts during the Persecution saw the wholesale arrest of bishops, priests, deacons and lectors; prisons swelled to bursting, with many common criminals released to make room.

During the first fifteen years of his rule, Diocletian was surrounded by virulent, public opponents of Christianity, an anti-Christian clique of counsellors that urged and supported a series of edicts against Christianity that was progressively restrictive, oppressive and brutal. Well into the 21st century, he is remembered in the Eastern Christian church as “the adversary of God”.

As a close member of the Imperial court, Constantine was present for the worst excesses and most likely saw it all and participated, particularly when he accompanied Diocletian on his travels through the East Empire, where the persecutions were more vicious than in the western half of the Roman world. As Diocletian grew more suspicious and paranoid, he ordered all members of his court to make sacrifices to the old gods and directed the military to do likewise publically or lose all rank and pension and face immediate discharge. Constantine would have sworn loyalty to Jupiter, Mars and the rest of the old Roman pantheon, most likely enthusiastically, rather than earn the displeasure or wrath of the Emperor and his close supporters. As a virtual hostage, he was well-aware of his delicate position as leverage against his distant father and would have taken every opportunity to ingratiate himself and be on his best behaviour. All that would change two years after he returned to Diocletian’s side. The year was 305 A.D.

Sick and weakening during the winter, Diocletian publicly announced his resignation as Emperor in the east, the first in Roman history to step down voluntarily rather than being helped along the way by assassination. Strangely, his co-Emperor Maximian also resigned in the west at the same time. It was rumoured that Diocletian’s deputy Galerius was really behind the push for a change in leadership in an effort to manipulate events to elevate himself to a higher position. It was commonly believed that the current deputies Galerius and Constantine’s father Constantius would move up as senior Emperors and that Constantine and Maxentius (Maximian's son) would be appointed as the new deputies – family bloodlines were still expected to count for something, after all. However, Maxentius and Constantine were completely ignored and left out in the cold. Instead, two close supporters of Galerius were proclaimed as the junior emperors – Valerius Severus (another Illyrian, and old drinking companion of Galerius) and Galerius’s nephew, Maximinus Daia. Perhaps family blood wasn’t completely inconsequential after all.

At the court of Galerius (reportedly a vicious, rabid anti-Christian brute often referred to “the great Christian persecutor”) Constantine knew he was in deep trouble and ancient sources report several attempts that the new senior emperor made on his life in the months following Diocletian’s abdication. Recognizing that his days were numbered, Constantine fled the Imperial court after a night of heavy drinking with Galerius, convincing him to allow Constantine to go west to join his father in Gaul (present-day France). Later in life, Constantine’s self-proclaiming propaganda would make a minor legend of the event, detailing a dramatic escape and flight across the empire before Galerius could sober up and stop him.

Constantius didn’t live long after his son joined him, dying on campaign in 306 A.D, but not before proclaiming Constantine as his heir and the new senior Emperor in the western empire, as did the soldiers of his father’s army, which was certainly wonderful for him. In Imperial Roman politics, it was always better to have your endorsement for public office backed up by thousands of trained professional killers on your payroll; naturally, Constantine enthusiastically accepted. Galerius was furious, but offered a compromise promotion to deputy Emperor in the West and the elevation of Valerius Severus to the senior Emperor position. Realizing that this was a route to legitimacy, Constantine accepted the offer and began the process of paving the way to take over the whole empire, both east and west. Christianity and their followers provided him with a unique opportunity to forge a path to the throne.

Along with the usual civic improvements, building new monuments, and defeating aggressive barbarian tribes along the frontiers, the new deputy Caesar saw an immediate opportunity to distinguish and separate himself from Galerius “the great persecutor” and his Illyrian cohorts. He declared a formal end to the Christian persecution and all the property that had been confiscated to be returned to demonstrate his compassion, mercy and understanding. At the same time, he ordered that two captured barbarian kings and their soldiers be “fed to beasts” in the arena as part of the public celebration. Compassion, it seemed, didn’t apply to everyone and Constantine began to portray himself as the possible liberator of oppressed Christians everywhere.

Almost immediately there were challenges to his position in the west from the champions of the old order, and beginning in 306 A.D. Constantine managed to isolate politically and ignore both Maximian and his son Maxentius when they took turns declaring themselves as the western Emperor and resisted his authority. In 310 A.D. Maximian went too far when while leading a portion of the western army – declaring Constantine dead and himself as the new Emperor and offering a sizable bribe to soldiers who would support him. It didn’t work. He was eventually captured by Constantine’s supporters where he was rebuked, stripped of his titles and offered clemency and forgiveness. Privately, he encouraged the former Emperor to commit suicide in order to avoid paying for his murder. In July of that year, Maximian obliged and hanged himself.

At first, Constantine portrayed the death as an unfortunate family tragedy – a troubled end for a troubled, dispossessed retired Emperor. Within the year, he had changed the narrative to suit another version. The new story that he spread was that after pardoning him so graciously, Maximian plotted to murder him in his bed. Caught, he was offered the option of suicide and accepted. The new version allowed him to condemn and erase Maximian from history; Constantine ordered that all public inscriptions bearing Maximian’s name and all statues bearing his likeness be destroyed. It was another example of the new western Emperor rewriting history to suit his tastes.

Understandably, Maxentius wasn’t happy with his father’s fate. Forgetting earlier father and son conflicts, he portrayed himself as a devoted son and proclaimed that he would seek revenge. The stage was set for a showdown in Italy and Constantine’s “great transformation” into The World’s Greatest Christian. Perhaps.

In the year 312 A.D., the forces of Maxentius and Constantine fought a decisive battle at the Milvian Bridge, just over the Tiber from the Eternal City of Rome itself. The evening before the battle, Constantine sensed that this would be the final, winner-take-all fight for supremacy in the west. The opposing army was twice the size of his own and in a good defensive position. He knew he needed an edge – something that would inspire and motivate his troops. There are two versions of what happened next, both supposedly recounted by Constantine himself. In one, he was inspired by a divine dream, in which he saw an early Christian symbol and was promised “by this sign, you will conquer.” In a later version, the Emperor adjusted the story slightly. In the new telling, he had the vision along with his soldiers on the march after looking at the sun. In any case, the next morning he commanded that the shields of his troops be painted with the Christian symbol, to inspire and motivate them to crush the opposition. It worked. His army defeated the army of Maxentius, and the former Emperor was drowned in the river during the fighting.

Having defeated his rival by projecting the power of the Christian faith, Constantine proceeded to demonstrate his new state of grace by fishing Maxentius’s body out of the Tiber and having it decapitated. The head was stuck on a pike and paraded at the head of his army so that everyone could see what Christian mercy looked like. Later, he sent the head on tour to Carthage in North Africa to remind local authorities what they might expect if they defied him.

History doesn’t record the reaction of Constantine’s wife Fausta to all of this, but the defeated, headless Maxentius was actually her brother. In 307 A.D., Constantine had made a bargain with her father Maximian to marry her in an effort to forge an alliance. Clearly, family get-togethers at Constantine’s house were going to continue to be a little strained.

Following his victory, Constantine followed his established pattern of erasing his rival from history – Maxentius’s name and face were erased from monuments, and a systematic programme of propaganda followed to declare the former Emperor a “tyrant” and an enemy of the state while Constantine was elevated as “the liberator of the people”. For good measure, any structures erected by Maxentius were re-dedicated to Constantine. Master now of the western empire, all that remained was to gain control of the east. What was needed was a unifying force, a binding element to pull it all together. Christianity was the very thing he needed.

The wave of change and shift in the religious climate between the old and new orders was certainly sensed by other sovereigns before Constantine, but the simplicity of his strategy to leverage the forces of change to promote his own agenda was powerful and inspired – he would pretend to be a believer himself; he would gain the admiration of the masses by becoming one of them. If the Roman Empire had been a democracy, Constantine was going after the Christian vote.

The central principle of the Christian faith was belief in only one God. This concept must have appealed to Constantine, who had come to believe that the Roman world should have only one Caesar and one throne, with himself on it as The Anointed Divine Representative. It was a perfect match. The old Roman belief system seemed lack the power and strength to unite the disparate parts of the empire, so he not only accepted the usual standards but injected new blood into them, creating his own narrative out of faith, myth, and the need for celestial endorsement. He would build and shape his own storyline, and be both the director and the star of the entire production as he went.

The year after he captured Rome and dominance in the Western Empire, Constantine met with his last remaining rival – the Emperor Gaius Valerius Licianianus. Another childhood friend of Galerius, Licianianus was elevated to the senior position after Galerius had died and in 313 A.D. the last two Emperors standing decided to divide the Roman world among themselves. To seal the deal, a political marriage was arranged and Constantine’s half-sister Flavia Julia Constantia became Mrs Licianianus; the occasion and celebrations generated the "Edict of Milan" proclamation, issued jointly by the two Emperors. This landmark edict officially ended all persecution of Christians across all territories in the empire, restored confiscated properties to Christian owners and congregations, and exempted Christian clergy from municipal civic duties. Christianity was now legal, and Constantine was in a position to shape and mould it as he wanted as its champion, advocate and defender. New churches began to be constructed all over the empire in response to the new climate and the Emperor fostered a new and powerful ally – the Christian church. Although not formally founded as it exists today, Constantine provided the facilities, the stage, and the authority for the church to evolve and branch out, reaching every corner of the state while building a compact base for his supremacy under the wing of the Holy Church, confirming himself as the earthly representative of the new God. It isn’t difficult to imagine that both parties were delighted with the arrangement.

Over the next few years, Constantine and Licianianus ruled their respective halves of the civilized world. Constantine consolidated his power in the west, built more churches, encouraged the growth of the Christian movement and quietly assassinated anyone who looked likely to get in the way. Licianianus fought a series of wars, both internal and external, and came more and more to resent his fellow Emperor in the west, eventually sponsoring an attempt on Constantine’s life. It failed. Unsatisfied, he contented himself with ordering statues of Constantine destroyed and defaced. By the year 320 A.D., Licianianus had come to appreciate and sense the great support his rival had built among the Christians. Constantine’s benevolent cultivation of the blossoming religion had grown into a direct threat to his authority; the Church as a force was more loyal to Constantine that to Licianianus’s Imperial system. He reacted by reneging on the Edict of Milan; the confiscation of property and dismissal of Christian office-holders began again. The final showdown arrived in 324 A.D.

The civil war that followed was brief. Constantine quickly went on the offensive, advertising that he needed to act due to his Imperial colleague’s “advanced age and unpopular vices” . This could loosely be translated as suggesting that Licianianus was too old and nasty a person to remain in power. It was another case of Constantine to the rescue of the downtrodden, and after a series of one-sided battles, Licianianus and his deputy Martius Martinianus finally surrendered. Constantine had publicly promised them that their lives would be spared and that they would enjoy quiet retirements as private citizens. Six months later, he accused them of plotting against the state and had them executed by hanging. Just in case, he killed Licianianus’s son, too – who was also Constantine’s nephew. At the end of 324 A.D. Constantine was the supreme and sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire, and to demonstrate his piety and thanks to God, he immediately renamed a city after himself. The city of Byzantium thus became Constantinople.

Now the great sponsor and champion of the Christian movement, Constantine moved to consolidate and unify the growing numbers of believers in an effort to unite in working off the same standardized script. In 325 A.D. he convened the First Council of Nicaea, a gathering of 1800 bishops and other church delegates from all over his Empire to establish standard beliefs throughout Christendom. The result was a universal playbook, settling a myriad issues, such as the exact relationship between God and Jesus, the best time to celebrate Easter, and the prohibition of self-castration. It was not difficult to get universal agreement on the latter. He organized the council along the lines of the Roman senate, with himself presiding over deliberations. This was an inspired strategy, forever linking Constantine to the fortunes of the Christian church as the great and merciful patron. Naturally, he proclaimed that delegates who didn’t endorse the new rules or who supported alternate Christian belief systems should be exiled and excommunicated, declaring them “enemies of Christianity”. Their doctrines, scriptures and writings were declared heretical and burned in ceremonial bonfires.

Intertwining his Imperial legacy and legitimacy with that of the church, Constantine decreed that any attempt to undermine the new “standards” for the Christian faith could bring God’s divine wrath upon the Empire, threatening the very state and weakening the Emperor. Anyone who dared question the new unity of the faith could be considered under the influence of Satan, and likely to suffer eternal damnation. Questioning the rule of the Emperor now became akin to questioning God, and this was unthinkable to the believer. Constantine had assured his position and power, and as the council concluded he gave his farewell address, announcing that they had achieved unity of practice and affirming how he wanted the Church to live in harmony and peace, vowing to exemplify the best of Christian principles.

He followed up on these promised virtues the next summer by ordering the murder of his eldest son Crispus by poison and then had his wife Fausta drowned in her own bath. His reasons for doing so are still debated but he certainly demonstrated to all his perspective heirs that he had an iron grip on the Empire and would not hesitate to eliminate his own relatives when it served his purpose. Naturally, all inscriptions and statues to their memories were amended and destroyed, as if they had never existed. Constantine was consistent in his methods, even as he portrayed himself as a paragon of virtue and the embodiment of kinder, gentler Christian values. By casting himself as the great patron of the Christians, he ensured their wide support. Ever the politician, he played both sides of the field by allowing the pagans in the Empire to continue the old rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies. Christians were allowed to enjoy the illusion of greater opportunity to participate in the affairs of state and government, and many believers were to advance to high office, which was certainly impossible before his public support. Interesting to note, however, that men from leading Roman families who declined to convert to Christianity still received appointments; at the time of his death, two-thirds of Constantine’s top government officials were non-Christian pagans.

Constantine’s manipulation of the new faith was masterful and complete, cementing his hold on power and changing forever the priorities of the ruling classes that came after him. The approval and endorsement of the Christian church became a necessity for legitimacy. The church would often declare the ruler as ordained and authorized by God himself; well into the 17th century, the support of the church was a requirement for the political order across Christendom. His eclectic convictions had fundamentally changed the relationship between church and state. Constantine’s double game served both his own and the new clergy’s ambitions equally.

Constantine’s occupation moulded him to be an exceptional example of moral and religious flexibility. Only when on his deathbed did he summon a high-ranking priest to give him the absolution of the Baptismal rights. Some scholars say that it was due to a sincere belief that he could wash away all of his lifetime sins and be made penitent and pure at the end of his life. Others said he put it off as long as possible, the better to be absolved of as much sin as he could. He certainly needed this kind of deep cleansing, so his desire to prolong this ultimate dramatic moment with an actor’s flair was no surprise to those close to him (or, at least, those who were left). It would be for biographers to consider if this was truly an effort to embrace the mantle of the faithful or simply the setting up of a memorable finale by an eminent illusionist.

On his deathbed, after receiving baptism, the dying Emperor Constantine was solemnly undressed. The imperial purple robes that dignified his illustrious position and noble descent were respectfully removed and he was redressed in simple white linen – the simple wrappings of the novices of the faith, implying the spotless soul of the newly born. When he had breathed his last, his body was taken to his simple tomb in his church of the Apostles, led not by a procession of Roman dignitaries, but by a weeping column of priests and the faithful, with everything scripted by the Emperor in specific detail. He was laid to eternal rest among twelve evangelical figures carved of marble, signifying the twelve Apostles; the last act of his Great Show was to cast himself as a Christ-figure.

As a final bow for the great pretender it was a virtuoso performance, and Constantine deserves to take his place as one of the greatest deceivers of all time.

The Sleeping Dragon

Zhuge Liang is probably the greatest master of deception who ever lived. Known as “the Sleeping Dragon,” he served as an advisor to emperor Liu Bei of the Shu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period when China, as we know it now, was split between three warring groups, Shu, Wei, and Wu, each with its own claim to the seat of the Emperor. It was pretty much Game of Thrones, except that the dragons were metaphorical.

He had a meteoric rise to fame, but Zhuge Liang was not some silver spoon aristocrat who swanned into his career because of who his father was. Liang was an orphan who lived as a hermit for many years. He was a hippy, notorious for his talents at singing folk music and telling fortunes, and nothing like the tactical general he became.

Well, we all have to sell out eventually.

For Zhuge Liang, the moment came when Liu Bei showed up at the front door of his hovel, having heard of Liang’s considerable powers of prediction. Any normal person would bend over backwards to accommodate the arrival of an emperor, but Liang slammed the door in Bei’s face. It took the emperor two more visits before Liang calmly answered the door with his bags packed and a fully formed plan to conquer the whole of China.

In his first battle as an advisor, the battle of Bowang, Liang toyed with the expectations of his opponents. In a move of astounding boldness, he sent forward his new boss and Emperor Liu Bei to challenge the opposing army personally, only to have him retreat the moment the battle had begun. Liang did this twice more, dangling the emperor as bait, to the point that his enemies were certain an ambush was coming. “But,” their commander said, defying his advisors, “if their forces are so weak that they have to keep retreating then we can take any ambush they might have for us”. And he was right.

The ambush came at a predictable place and they were able to repel it easily, although the emperor was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing left for them to do but push deeper into Liu Bei’s territory. It wasn’t until they had entered a narrow pass, miles down the road, still singing their victory chants, that Liang sprung his trap. In a flash, they were surrounded by a ring of fire and slaughtered one by one as they broke through the flames. Liang claimed he was able to predict their reactions to his attacks so well due to his skills at reading the I Ching: an ancient Chinese fortune-telling method that involves reading the alignment of sticks thrown in the air.

Despite his powers of quasi-clairvoyance, Zhuge Liang still had a hard time in his new role. Liu Bei’s army was vastly outnumbered by the forces of his rival emperor Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom. As much as he might sound like a sweet drink to be enjoyed on a cold day, Cao Cao was a fierce and belligerent man. He had an army of almost a million men and not a single marshmallow amongst them.

On top of this, many of Liu Bei’s other advisors were jealous of the hermit Liang’s grand appointment and after Zhuge Liang humiliated him in a poetry contest, a precursor to today’s rap battles, the advisor Zhou Yu swore to have Liang assassinated. To do this, he set Liang the challenge of producing 100,000 arrows in 10 days - a feat that would be absolutely impossible with their resources. As it was a decree from a superior military officer, Yu was well within his rights to have Liang executed if he failed. Liang, with his typical dramatical flair, flicked his beard over his shoulder and declared he would have the arrows within three days.

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