Personal History Column: (Just) 3 Historical Instances of Impossible Stupidity

Of the thousands upon thousands of lessons history has given us, undoubtedly the most important are as follows:

  1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.[efn_note] Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride, Act III Communications, 1987.[/efn_note]
  2. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.[efn_note]Shawn, The Princess.[/efn_note]

However, were we to add a third to that illustrious list, it would be the following:

  1. Never underestimate mankind’s capacity for unfathomable, almost inspiring stupidity.

In that vein, here are just three hilariously painful and painfully hilarious examples of humanity’s unadulterated idiocy.

1. Honorius: the Roman Emperor who loved his chicken way more than Rome

John William Waterhouse – The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius – 1883

Rome, much like Tom Brady, had a nasty habit of getting sacked. If I had a nickel for every time Rome has been sacked, I would have six nickels, which would not be a lot of money, but six is still an alarming number of times for an imperial capital to be lit on fire. 

The most infamous of these was the Visigothic sack in 410 B.C.E., during the reign of Emperor Honorius.[efn_note]Encyclopædia Britannica, “Honorius,” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified September 5, 2019, accessed April 11, 2020,[/efn_note] Honorius has the unwelcome distinction of being widely considered one of the worst Roman emperors in history, which is like being the Denny’s with the most health code violations. That’s really saying something, since the emperor Nero was accused of burning Rome, himself, after all, and Caligula made his own horse a senator.

According to the historian Procopius, when a messenger arrived in Ravenna with the news that “Rome had perished,” Emperor Honorius wailed, “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!”[efn_note]Procopius, “History of the Wars,” 545, accessed April 11, 2020,[/efn_note] The messenger stared at him, absolutely dumbfounded, until he realised that Honorius’ favourite chicken was also named Rome. 

So he specified, “Uh, no, your chicken is fine, but Rome has just been sacked by barbarians,” to which Honorius allegedly breathed a huge sigh of relief. “But I, my good fellow,” he said, “thought that my fowl Rome had perished.” 

A certified frutex.

2. The Death of General José Sanjurjo via Suitcases

General José Sanjurjo

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, General José Sanjurjo planned to return from exile in Portugal on July 20, 1936 to take command of the Nationalist Army. For his return flight, Sanjurjo was to fly back in a biplane flown by a “daring aviator” friend.[efn_note]Stanley G. Payne, Politics and the Military in Modern Spain (1967), 352.[/efn_note] When the pilot saw the frankly unnecessary number of suitcases Sanjurjo was bringing, he warned him that they would be too heavy for the plane. Sanjurjo responded by saying, “I need to wear proper clothes as the new caudillo of Spain.”[efn_note]Nicholas Whitlam, Four Weeks One Summer (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017), 10.[/efn_note]

Upon takeoff, the biplane immediately crashed from all of the luggage weight, killing Sanjurjo. Nice going, José. You could’ve died with a lot less fuss if you had climbed to the top of your vanity (full, no doubt, of clothes) and jumped off.

Nationalist leadership was taken up by another general named Emilio Mola, who, by sheer coincidence, died in another plane crash. This placed command into the hands of one Francisco Franco, who proceeded to win the war, take power in 1939, and rule Spain as a fascist dictator until 1975.[efn_note]John Simkin, “Emilio Mola,” Spartacus Educational, last modified September 1997, accessed April 10, 2020,[/efn_note] Sanjurjo had been offered the very same twin-engined passenger plane that had flown Franco back from his campaign in Morocco, but the offer was declined.

3. The Monkey Executed as a Frenchman

During the Napoleonic Wars, a monkey in a French army uniform swam onto the beach of an English fishing city called Hartlepool. The monkey was the only survivor of a French ship wrecked off the coast and had been dressed for the crew’s entertainment.

The townsfolk, having never seen a monkey (or a Frenchman) before, dragged the monkey to their courthouse and put it on trial for being a French spy. The monkey neither confirmed nor denied the accusation in between its bouts of screeching and poo-throwing. This rejected Monty Python skit of a story was put to bed when the townsfolk summarily hanged the monkey on the beach.[efn_note]Ben Johnson, “The Hanging of the Hartlepool Monkey,” Historic UK, accessed April 11, 2020,[/efn_note]

To this day, the British people justify the execution, arguing that, under English law, a dwarfish, incredibly hairy, incoherently screaming, dung-hurling ape is legally a Frenchman.