Although the ‘art’ of assassination only got its name in the Middle Ages, assassinations have been performed from the beginning of recorded history. Even the Christian Bible’s Old Testament speaks of assassinations, in the story of Judith, who freed the Israelites by assassinating the Assyrian warlord, Holofernes. Assyria’s King Sennacherib’s sons assassinated him, King David’s son was assassinated by Joab, and there’s also the biblical story of Judah’s King Joash, who was supposedly assassinated by his servants.
Politics isn’t always the reason for assassinations, but it had always been one of the main reasons. Some famous ancient assassination victims include Julius Caesar (44 BC) and Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father (336 BC). Historical kings assassinated include the Netherlands’ King William the Silent (1584), France’s King Henry III (1589) and King Henry IV (1610), and Poland’s King Przemysł II (1296).
In Western Europe in the Middle Ages, the assassination of a ruler was rare, but it happened frequently in parts of the Roman Empire. During the Renaissance, political assassinations in Western Europe became more common, however.
As already mentioned, the name ‘assassin’ was coined in the Middle Ages, based on a rumour started by Marco Polo two centuries after the Order of Assassins was founded in 1090 by Ismaili Hassan-i-Sabah. (You can read about the Order of Assassins in more detail here.) According to Marco Polo, the Order of Assassins’ leaders ensured their assassins’ loyalty by drugging them, then taking them to a garden in which they were given all sorts of pleasures – the same pleasures that supposedly waited for them in the afterlife if they died in battle. The drug used was called hashish, and ‘hashishin’ meant ‘user of hashish’ in Arabic. Thus came about the name ‘assassin’, according to many. However, modern Islamic sources make no mention of this garden. In all probability, the word’s true origins had something to do with it being used as an insult to the Nizari Ismailis when they separated from the Mustali Ismailis.
In modern history, the assassination of VIPs became more than just a power struggle between rulers, and began to be used to make political statements. Many US Presidents have been assassinated, and there have been at least 20 known attempts on US Presidents’ lives.
It seems assassination as a tool has been around for as long as humans have, and it’s doubtful the ‘art’ will die any time soon.