Voices: Revealed: Three of the biggest arse***** in history

The great thing about history –if you’re writing a book about gigantic arseholes– is that it is crammed full of them, which is a major bummer if you happen to be living through it. Vlad the Impaler, for example, is interesting to read about for anyone who isn’t getting Vlad the Impalered, in the same way I imagine Liz Truss will be very funny to anyone who didn’t have to live under Liz Truss.

Now, I’m of the feeling that if you’re going to learn about the absolute worst people like Hitler, you should probably learn it from a teacher (or at the very least not a book with a big anus on the cover – or in this case a listicle). So I’m sticking to more obscure arseholes you probably haven’t heard of. Here are my top three:


Commodus is somehow much worse than you’d expect of a man named after a toilet.

Born in AD161, Commodus – son of Marcus Aurelius and heir to the Roman Empire – is a classic example of what happens to someone when they’re too powerful to be told to chill. When he took over power in AD180, Commodus initially paid little attention to the matters of governing the Roman Empire, and instead focused on his true passion.

Commodus took the unusual step of taking part directly in gladiatorial combat with animals. This sounds impressive, or at least needlessly showy, until you realise precisely how little danger he was actually in.

“He descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him”, our old friend Cassius Dio, who witnessed the events, wrote of Commodus’s gladiatorial prowess, “and some were led up to him or were brought before him in nets.”

Commodus would also fight larger animals such as hippos and tigers, provided they were restrained and he could pick them off from a distance with a spear. Just like in the wild.

This was pretty small fry compared to his other stunts, however. On one occasion, Commodus wanted to re-enact the Sixth Labour of Hercules, in which Hercules killed some man-eating birds. He did this by shooting spectators – representing the birds – with a bow and arrow (represented by a bow and arrow). I’ll level with you: he essentially shot some spectators and said “Hey Ma, look at me! I’m Hercules!’

Clever Hans, the arsehole horse

In 1900, a four-year-old horse named Hans began to learn maths from his trainer, a mathematician named Wilhelm von Osten. In 1904, the maths horse was ready to show the world that you don’t need fingers to count.

The turn of the century was a strange time, when you could say “my horse does maths” and nobody tells you to f*** off. In fact, they gathered in large audiences for his performances, where the horse would show that he could count, knew what date it was, could read a clock, could recognize playing cards and could even do basic sums.

The horse opted to tap out the answer with its hooves. Then the horse really started taking the p***. By replacing numbers with letters (in which A=1, B=2, etc) the horse began to tap out sentences. While most animals would look at a painting and see only potential food or a place to s***, Hans could identify the name of the painter, showing an ability to distinguish art styles.

Skeptics, of course, believed that the trainer could be signalling the answer to Hans in some way, and so decided to put it to the test. His trainer was kept away for many of the tests, to eliminate the possibility that he was handing out clues.

No matter who asked the question, Hans the horse kept on bashing out correct answers. The commission concluded that the horse’s talents were no hoax. But they never suspected that it was the horse who was conning them all along.

In 1907, biologist and psychologist Professor Oscar Pfungst took on the horse and figured out its trick. He found that when the questioner knew the answer to a question, the horse would return the right answer. If the questioner had no clue what the answer was, the horse would stare at you like, well, a horse, before returning the wrong amount of hoof taps.

He realized that the arsehole hadn’t been putting the work in, but merely noticed the reactions on the questioner’s face. When he had tapped out the correct number, he noticed the tension on their face relax, and knew to stop tapping, convincing everyone from idiots to idiots with degrees that he was some kind of genius.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

America’s worst nuclear disaster may have been caused by a wacky prankster

Any Americans who sat and watched Chernobyl and sneered at the disaster caused by a fear of displeasing Soviet commanders should know this: there was once a nuclear disaster in the US that may have been caused by arse-pinching.

The SL-1 was an experimental low-power nuclear reactor in Idaho, intended to power small, remote military facilities in the early 1960s.

The problem was that during maintenance, control rods – which absorb neutrons in the core of the reactor – needed to be manually pulled up just a few inches before being reconnected. Should the rods be withdrawn too far, it would be – to put it in far too lay layman’s terms – boom-boom time.

And so it was that on 3 January 1961, Richard Legg, one of the operators, pulled out the rod too far, causing the SL-1 to go critical. Three people died in the boom-boom, with Legg himself being impaled through his groin by the rod, which exited through his shoulder and pinned him to the ceiling.

An investigation ordered by the military discovered that the rod had been withdrawn twenty inches, rather than a few centimetres as per the instructions. It’s amazing to me that we can achieve nuclear fusion, something completely unimaginable just a few centuries ago, but it can still get deadly simply by someone yanking the boom-boom stick too hard.

The investigators knew what caused the explosion, but nothing about the circumstances leading up to it. But they had a few theories. Richard Legg, it turns out, had a reputation for being a bit of a prankster – something I would argue should disqualify you from being anywhere near a f***ing nuclear reactor. In my opinion, “This guy’s a bit of a wacky rascal japester” should never be answered with “Hand him this f***ing uranium”.

As such, there was a theory that the 1961 accident was due to “goosing”, the act of sneaking up to someone and pinching them on the bum. This theory needed testing, and in one of the oddest experiments in nuclear history, the investigators got a large group of volunteers to conduct normal operations on a replica rod. They then snuck up on them one by one and pinched them on the arse to see if it made them jump enough to feasibly make everyone in the room die.

The results of the experiment were, disappointingly, inconclusive. Whether Richard was the cause of the accident or not, we may never know. But his pranks definitely led to a big group of volunteers asking “What the f***, I’m trying to help investigate a tragic nuclear disaster here, why are you pinching my arse?”

James Felton’s new book Assholes: The Dead People You Should be Mad At is out now (£12.99, Sphere)