In This Review

Assassins’ Deeds: A History of Assassination From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day
Assassins’ Deeds: A History of Assassination From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day
By John Withington
Reaktion Books, 2020, 368 pp

In this fast-paced survey, Withington catalogs recorded assassinations from ancient times to the present day. He covers all the best-known cases, including the killings of the Roman leader Julius Caesar, the Bohemian duke Wenceslas, the English archbishop Thomas Becket, the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, the American president John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The early motives behind these murders included dynastic succession and fear of tyranny. Later on, the imperatives of religion, ideology, and rebellion spurred many assassinations. Daggers and poisons have been the favored tools of assassins, and they remain popular despite the greater efficiency of bombs and bullets. Withington meticulously describes the background, motivation, and method of each killing, which keeps the book interesting. He raises provocative questions—without quite answering them—about whether assassinations make much of a political difference and about the morality of eliminating leaders as an alternative to wider, bloodier conflicts.