The Oxford English Dictionary defines lying as telling an intentional falsehood, which indicates a manipulation. None of this 'white lie' business, a lie is an intentional deception and, in general, our basic morality tells us deception is wrong. However, the world of deception isn't always straightforward. Lies can evolve from the relatively innocent ones with harmless intent, to the potentially earth-shattering sort that even break the law and - at worst - cause death and destruction. In some rare cases - a surprise party, or a magic trick - we can probably let lies slide. And sure, you could argue that if we lived in a world where lies didn't exist, we'd all be a lot less peaceful: Does my butt look big in this? Or, where did you learn that?! Some truths are, perhaps, best left unsaid...
But too often, a story is fabricated with selfish, dangerous intent. What's often even more treacherous, is when a lie is fabricated to guard the teller against discovery of his or her heinous actions; as you'll soon read, this sort of nasty lie usually renders an evil act even more damaging. But the fact remains - no matter how often history has demonstrated that lies equal destruction - that from young, innocent children to manipulative, powerful politicians, it's simple human nature to lie. A lie can serve any number of purposes - from ego and self-elevation, to gaining the upper hand in war and world politics. A lie's motivation, execution and consequences undeniably intrigue us - if only so we can avoid making the same mistake. So we've compiled a breakdown of the five biggest lies to which history has ever fallen victim...
5 Trojan Horse
One of the best ruses in literary history, the famous Trojan Horse of Greek mythology is deeply entrenched in our literary culture, and it has its roots in a boiling pot of Greek mythology and history. Bear with us, because this one gets messy. It all started when Paris, Prince of Troy - the most beautiful man alive apparently - decided he wanted to marry the most beautiful girl (you might have heard of her) Helen of Troy. There was just one problem: she was already married to the Spartan king, Menelaus. The Trojan Paris ended up abducting the Greek Helen - along with her husband's wealth. Not above board, necessarily, but no lies so far. This reckless act, though, sparked the famous Trojan War.
After a 10 year war, the Greeks 'made peace' with the Trojans, offering them - bizarrely - an enormous wooden horse. The Trojans accepted it, taking it as a sign that the war was over and they had one. They took this huge, wooden horse into their walled fortress but there was just one little detail that the doomed Trojans didn't know: the insides of the horse were hollowed and a group of Greek warriors were hiding inside. That horrible night, with the Trojans asleep, the Greeks exited the horse and systematically slaughtered the citizens and destroyed the city. A serious ace card, and one of the best tricks in history.
This remains more in the realm of myth than historical fact, but these days the term 'Trojan horse' is a byword for a sneaky way of ensuring entry to the enemy's territory and we now use it to describe an invasive computer virus, too. This lie has gone down in history as a warning that sometimes, you really should look a gift horse in the mouth - if it comes from a foe, at least.
4 Bernie Madoff's Ponzi Scheme
Bernie Madoff has made a name for himself as the man who pulled off the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and managed to defraud thousands of people out of an estimated $65 billion: High-profile victims of his scheme included Steven Spielberg. The scheme - paying back investors with the money of other investors - draws victims in with the promise of high returns with little risk. Named after fraudster Charles Ponzi, who managed to swindle thousands of New Englanders with a postage stamp scheme, this ploy convinces victims that they're making large profits from a legitimate business when really their money is slowly being liquidated.
What made Bernard "Bernie" Madoff so notorious is that he did not just con the wealthy and celebrities; he was a particularly nasty villain, tricking individual investors including the elderly as well as banks and even charities. Madoff was seriously esteemed and even after a tip-offs from suspicious financial analysts, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) failed to follow up for years.
Finally, after his lie had run on for well over a decade, Bernie Madoff confessed to the Ponzi scheme to his sons who turned him in to authorities: In 2009, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
3 Anna Anderson aka Anastasia
The damned Romanov family was the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia. Sharing their origin with twenty four other Russian noble families, the Romanovs rose to power in February of 1547. Ivan the Iv became the first "tsar" of Russia, which, literal translated, means Caesar. Over 400 years later, Tsar Nicholas II of the Romanov family was in power in a Russia demanding change. The Bolsheviks - later known as Communists - called for a revolution and the abdication of the royal family. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the Bolsheviks put the Romanovs under house arrest. On June 17th 1918, the Romanovs were shot and executed, along with four of their servants in the cellar of a merchant house, effectively ending the Romanov dynasty.
But there were rumours of survivors who had escaped. People began to come forward, claiming that they were members of the royal family.
In 1920, the most famous claimant came forward. A young woman, known as Anna Anderson, was admitted to a hospital after attempting suicide and claimed that she was youngest daughter of the royal family, Princess Anastasia. In one of the most convincing lies of all time, Anna bore a striking resemblance to the princess and had a shocking amount of knowledge of the royal family and their life at court.
In 1927, a former room mate of Anderson's revealed that Anderson's name was really Franziska Schanzkowska. But Anna Anderson, undeterred, indulged herself in her ill-gotten celebrity status and even tried to receive inheritance money from the late royal family. She stuck to her story until her death in 1984 but lost the court proceedings that would allow her to cash in on the inheritance. Years later, Anna's DNA was compared to supposed remains of the royal family and she was posthumously revealed as an imposter. In 2009, it was finally confirmed that there had been no survivors of the Romanov execution and that all of their remains were found.
2 Titus Oates and the plot to kill Charles II
In 1678, there was a plot to kill King Charles II, also known as the Popish Plot. However, this plot was in fact the imaginary creation of eccentric revolutionary Titus Oates. Oates joined the Church after leaving Cambridge University but was dismissed for drunken sacrilege. He got a job as chaplain on Royal Navy Ship, the Adventurer, but was dismissed from that on accusations of sodomy. So, to regain his place in society after his hefty fall from grace, Oates cooked up quite a story. After supposedly infiltrating a Jesuit monastery in London, Oates 'learned' of a plot to kill King Charles II, replace him with his Catholic brother, James, and then massacre thousands of Protestants in a blood bath. Oates gained quite a following of believers due to events that corroborated his story.
Catholics were already scapegoats for just about anything after the 1666 Great Fire, which destroyed most of London so people were inclined to believe the plot. Under oath, Oates gave an account of what he heard and soon after, the magistrate who heard the statement was found murdered. Tensions were heightened as Catholics were once again blamed for the murder. Oates continued his false campaign for years after gaining many benefits for his heroism - including a state apartment and an annual grant of £1,200. Finally, in 1681, authorities began to question Oates' story. Judge Scroggs realized that innocent men had been executed almost exclusively on the basis of 'evidence' Oates presented.
After realising that the 'plot' was a lie, playing on public fear and hysteria, Oates was sent to prison for wilful falsehood for 7 years. He was then released, with a weekly allowance of £10. The lasting effect of this lie was that Catholics were banned from standing as members of Parliament or from holding the title of Lords for many years after.
1 Watergate scandal
Now, onto possibly the biggest lie in history and one that destroyed Richard Nixon's reputation with devastating consequences for the U.S.
In 1972, the Vietnam War was raging and the international political stage was a hostile place. In order for the Republican Nixon to be re-elected, some hands would have to be forced - and would get dirty in the process. Specifically, with some illegal espionage. Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) broke into the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, stole copies of highly important documents and bugged the office's phones. When they realized that the wire-taps were defective, the group went in a second time but were caught by a security guard who immediately called the police. After the dust settled, Nixon gave a speech swearing up and down that his White House staff was not involved in the break in. Most of the population believed him - and Richard Nixon was re-elected.
Soon after, Nixon provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the burglars, as well as committing the serious crime of instructing the CIA to interfere in the FBI investigation of the burglary. Now, why would Nixon feel the need to do that if he had nothing to hide? By that time, a handful of people began to suspect a cover up. The evidence demonstrated that Nixon was clearly involved in the break in: Indeed, it was revealed that Nixon had secretly taped every conversation that occurred in the Oval Office and if prosecutors got their hands on those tapes, there was a good chance that they would catch him red-handed. To top it off, the conspirators had begun to start cracking under the pressure of the cover-up.
Although Nixon tried desperately to protect his tapes, even going as far as firing independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, the scandal led to the resignation of several Justice Department officials on the night known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Finally, in July of 1974, Nixon was forced to turn over the tapes to the Supreme Court. The tapes held damning proof that Nixon was directly involved in the Watergate crimes. Rather than be impeached, Nixon resigned the following month.
Nixon's lies left a deep scar on the American political scene. There was a great atmosphere of mistrust and cynicism regarding the government's ability to run and Nixon has gone down in history as one of the biggest - largest-scale - liars history has ever seen.