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Insane or Inspired: Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Scalding
Scorned ex-girlfriends may daydream about revenge, but they could learn a thing or two from women in ancient history’s most epic revenge plots.
Revenge is often still associated with that justice, despite the myriad warnings around its pitfalls.
“[It’s] about retribution,” says Rosalind Miles, an award-winning journalist, author, and historian. “Somebody has been wronged. And all too often we see the law letting off villains or they get away. People get away with murder, literally.”
Revenge and stories of revenge seem to hold so much appeal because, in the absence of state-meted justice, they harken back to a time when stabbing was an acceptable form of problem-solving—especially when the person deserved it.
“We like to feel that wrong does not go unpunished,” Miles says. “It satisfies a really deep, savage moral idea of an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth.”
It also seems that the larger the scale, the greater the satisfaction. Take the tale of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, who led a rebellion against Rome in AD 61. After the death of Boudicca’s husband, Rome forcibly took over their kingdom despite a previous alliance. They confiscated territory and wealth and enslaved the nobles. They also raped Boudicca’s daughters and publicly flogged her, even though she was queen.
“She absolutely wiped out the whole of Londinium,” Miles says, “hauled off the women to the sacred grove and had them tortured to death.”
Boudicca gathered a volunteer army and burned three cities to the ground, including Londinium, which would eventually be rebuilt into modern-day London. Though she was eventually defeated, she left an estimated body count on the Romans’ side of around 60,000 to 70,000. Bloody hell.
Boudicca is described by Greek historian Cassius Dio to be "possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women,” but her story is hardly the only one where a woman has rained fury down on those who wronged her.
Miles explains that so many of these stories of vengeance center around women “because women are far more frequently wronged than men are.”
“The powerful person inflicts the injury and the less than powerful person tries to get revenge,” says Miles. “So, it’s about power, power politics, and that’s why women are involved in it very much."
The idea of power and the struggle to reclaim or maintain power can also be seen in another famous instance of vengeance wrought by a woman: St. Olga of Kiev.
Before Olga became a saint, she was a princess married to Igor of Kiev, the ruler of Kievan Rus. And after her husband’s death, Olga became effectively a queen regent and arbiter of her own brutal brand of justice. According to the Primary Chronicle, the primary historical account of Kievan Rus and its tribes, Igor was ambushed and killed by men from the Drevlian tribe.
After widowing Olga, the Drevlians tried to get her to marry their leader, Prince Mal. Olga was unimpressed and apparently didn’t believe in not shooting the messenger; the Drevlians sent 20 men with the marriage proposal, and she buried them alive in a ditch.
Then, taking a page out of The Odyssey, she sent word that she accepted Prince Mal’s proposal and invited him and his best men to visit Kiev. When they arrived, she waited for them to get comfortable in a bathhouse before locking the doors and burning it down. 5,000 more Drevlians would meet a similar fate when they arrived to attend Igor’s funeral feast. Olga plied them with wine, then had her army slay them. Cheers to that.
To really drive the point home, Olga then invaded their capital and burned it to the ground.
Olga’s revenge was certainly complete and total, but what of justice?
“We certainly have changed,” Miles says. “… Now people still take satisfaction from it, but then what has changed is that we feel it ought to be farmed out to other authorities like the law or to the elders in traditional societies."
Still, the vengeance that Boudicca and St. Olga served up could be a considered a kind of justice, even if modern society is hesitant to conflate the two.
Miles quotes the English philosopher Francis Bacon, saying, “‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice.’ So you can break that down: It is a form of justice, but it’s wild, it’s uncontrolled, and in a civilized society, we rather feel we should control these things. [But] in fact there’s a secret satisfaction when people do go wild and take the law into their own hands.”
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