The 20 Most Dramatic Falls From Grace In History

Image: North Kern State Prison

Nothing in life lasts forever – and for many figures throughout history, that has included their respective grips on power, glory and fortune. At one time or another, all these people had the world at their feet. Yet whether it was thanks to political or military power, celebrity status or even renowned intelligence, those same individuals also had it all to lose. And lose it they did, as they each tumbled from grace in the most dramatic of fashions.

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20. Socrates

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Heralded as among the founding fathers of Western philosophy, Socrates spent most of his life challenging the established beliefs of his fellow Athenians. Yet while this secured him a great many admirers, it also led to his vilification by those who disagreed with him. The unstable sociopolitical climate at the time resulted in people ultimately rejecting Socrates’ forward-thinking views, and in 399 B.C. he stood trial on various charges, including blasphemy. Rather than fleeing Athens, however, as a matter of principle the philosopher accepted the death sentence that was handed down.

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19. Liu He

Liu He may as well have written the book on how not to be a leader. An emperor in the Chinese Han dynasty for just 27 days in 74 B.C., this historical figure was nevertheless said to have committed a whopping 1,127 offenses during that short time. Among his alleged transgressions were partying through the period of mourning for his uncle, whom he’d succeeded as emperor, and promoting his friends to positions of power. Eventually, then, officials apparently got so fed up that they sought permission from his aunt to depose him. Liu He was therefore subsequently removed from power and assigned to the post of marquis of a small province – where he lived until his death at just 33.

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18. Marcus Licinius Crassus

Unimaginably successful in his early life, Marcus Licinius Crassus became one of the richest men in the Roman Empire. Alongside the riches that Crassus reaped from his property interests, his military and political victories, too, scored him untold wealth and favor. When he crushed the Spartacus rebellion in 71 B.C., he became joint consul to Julius Caesar alongside Pompey the Great. But his ambitions to prove himself above and beyond his rival consul led him to an ironic and untimely end. In 53 B.C. he commanded a disastrous attempt to invade Parthia that, legend has it, ended in Crassus’ captors forcing molten gold down his throat.

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17. Valerian

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Valerian hailed from a noble background, so when the Roman armies killed his predecessor and proclaimed him emperor in 253 A.D., the Senate was in no hurry to disagree. However, Valerian assumed the role at a fraught time – when Christianity was on the rise and the regime was facing the threat of the Sasanian Empire. To stem the latter, Valerian therefore advanced on Edessa – yet the battle ended in monumental defeat, and he became the first Roman emperor to be taken as a prisoner of war. Rubbing salt into the wound, while accounts of his time in captivity vary, Valerian is said to have suffered much humiliation before meeting a gruesome end.

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16. Justinian II

Justinian II ruled the Byzantine Empire twice, but he performed so miserably both times that he ended up being the Heraclian Dynasty’s final emperor. Clearly, then, his grand ambitions didn’t translate into great leadership, and he certainly made one too many enemies along the way. In 695 A.D., ten years after he had become emperor, the people revolted and cut off his nose before banishing him to the Crimean peninsula. That being said, a decade later Justinian II took back control and was reinstated. Yet his merciless desire for revenge estranged even those close to him, and a second revolt culminated in him being killed by his own army in 711 A.D.

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15. Peter Abelard

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One of the keenest minds of the 12th century, Peter Abelard was a leading theologian and philosopher. Thousands flocked to hear his teachings – and among the audience’s number was the writer and religious figure Héloïse d’Argenteuil, with whom he promptly fell in love. The couple’s affair ultimately proved disastrous for both parties, though, as Abelard’s career suffered and Héloïse fell pregnant. To placate her religious uncle, the pair married in secret, but Héloïse subsequently refused to acknowledge the union. So, concerned about how his wife’s uncle would react, Abelard decided to send Héloïse to a convent. And yet his plan backfired in spectacular fashion when the uncle, possibly thinking that Abelard wanted rid of his niece, sent a group of men to castrate him. In the end, the once-celebrated teacher lived out his days as a monk, mired in mild controversy over his work and his reputation shattered.

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14. Thomas Wolsey

Under the rule of Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey found fame, power and fortune – first as an archbishop, then as a cardinal and finally as Lord Chancellor. Indeed, he ended up with control over much of England’s state dealings, including its foreign policy. But his lavish lifestyle made him few friends, and his fall from grace came almost as swiftly as his rise to power. Ultimately, Wolsey’s failure to obtain an annulment for Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon signaled the end of his ascendancy. So it was that in 1530 this famous figure was charged with treason, although he died of natural causes en route to his trial.

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13. Galileo Galilei

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Described as “the father of modern science,” Galileo made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics and physics, among others. The famed astronomer also made several cosmological discoveries, including those of Jupiter’s four largest moons. But his advocacy for the Copernican theory – the idea that the planets revolve around the Sun and not the Earth – was considered heresy at the time. Hence, in 1634 he was sentenced to house arrest for publishing a book on the subject. And he remained in that unenviable situation until his death in 1642. Fortunately, at least, Galileo’s fall from grace during his lifetime hasn’t tarnished his lasting legacy in the centuries since.

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12. Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette became Queen of France at just 18 when her husband, Louis XVI, took his place on the throne in 1774. It surely seemed, then, as though her life would solely be one of luxury and glory. But her privilege made her the target of ire among impoverished Parisians. This state of affairs was thanks in part to the queen’s prominent role in the country’s politics and her apparently extravagant spending in a time of financial crisis. She therefore became a figurehead for everything that was wrong with France, and this ultimately led to her arrest and imprisonment in 1792 prior to her execution a year later.

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11. Aaron Burr

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Nowadays, a person doesn’t generally use a duel to settle a rivalry, but that’s exactly what Aaron Burr did in 1804. And the consequences of his mortal wounding of Alexander Hamilton may even be part of the reason why we don’t practice the form of arranged combat anymore. What is certain is that the third vice president of the United States’ decision to engage in an illegal duel left his promising political career in tatters, even if he was never charged with Hamilton’s death. Burr therefore left the political sphere behind and ultimately headed for Europe, where he spent half a decade in self-imposed exile. And while he eventually returned to New York to work as a lawyer, he lived in the city in obscurity.

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10. Napoléon Bonaparte

He may well still be considered among the great military leaders, but Napoléon Bonaparte spent his final days exiled on an island in the middle of the Atlantic. Serving as the Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, “the little corporal” led his country through a series of victories that established the First French Empire. Eventually, though, the combined forces of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Sweden and others managed to overcome Napoléon’s army. Then while trying to flee Paris, he sought asylum with the British, who left him in a dilapidated old house on Saint Helena – a remote island 1,162 miles off Africa’s west coast.

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9. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

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Film history buffs will be familiar with Arbuckle – and with good reason. In 1921 he was the world’s highest-earning movie star, with a $1 million Paramount Pictures deal to his name. At a party in September of that year, however, aspiring actress Virginia Rappe suffered fatal injuries. Moreover, Arbuckle was accused of her rape and manslaughter. And while three different trials eventually culminated in his acquittal, the actor’s reputation was permanently tarnished. Arbuckle never worked in front of a camera again, and he died at just 46, the victim of a heart attack.

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8. Aisin Gioro Puyi

Once upon a time, Aisin Gioro Puyi was at the very top of Chinese society. He became the country’s last emperor when he was just two years old. And over the next few decades, amid revolutions and invasions, Puyi was removed from power and reinstated no less than three times. Then when Mao Zedong took control in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China, he imprisoned Puyi as a war criminal. Admittedly, the former emperor was released a decade later, but he spent his remaining years as a common gardener – a far cry from his previous position.

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7. Richard Nixon

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Richard Nixon was already enjoying the role of 37th president of the United States when his career reached the apex of a second term with a landslide victory in 1972. But a year later, newspapers broke the story that members of Nixon’s administration had burgled the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate complex. And so on August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from office to avoid impeachment. “Tricky Dick” was subsequently granted a pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford, and spent his retirement working to repair the damage to his reputation. However, in the eyes of many Americans his legacy remains that of a criminal.

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6. Bobby Fischer

Considered by many to be the greatest chess player in history, Bobby Fischer took the title of U.S. Chess Champion at just 14 years old. Fischer then spent the next decade smashing records and setting new ones, and he ultimately became World Chess Champion in 1972 after defeating the USSR’s Boris Spassky in a match fueled by Cold War rhetoric. Yet it didn’t end in glory for Fischer: three years later, he forfeited his title and then went into self-imposed exile. What’s more, his later years were plagued by controversy thanks to his anti-Semitic views and controversial statements on the 9/11 attacks.

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5. O.J. Simpson

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At one time, Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson had it all. As a pro footballer, he broke multiple records and became an international superstar. And even when “O.J.” retired from playing football, the fame and fortune didn’t fade, as he found fresh success in Hollywood and as a pundit. But then on June 12, 1994, Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and a friend of hers, Ron Goldman, were discovered dead, having been brutally murdered, at her home in Los Angeles. Following an infamous televised car chase, Simpson was arrested and placed on trial, and his reputation dissolved overnight. Indeed, while he was ultimately acquitted, most Americans still believe he’s guilty.

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4. Phil Spector

A millionaire before he’d even reached the age of 21, Phil Spector found astonishing success in the music industry. Over the course of his career, Spector worked with The Beatles, Tina Turner and The Ronettes, and he was eventually welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. It all came crashing down in 2003, however, when actress Lana Clarkson was found dead in the music guru’s home. Spector’s driver called the emergency services, and Spector was subsequently arrested and charged with second-degree murder. And while the original televised trial concluded with a hung jury, Spector was found guilty at the retrial. He was handed a sentence of 19 years to life in jail.

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3. Joe Paterno

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Joe Paterno may hold the title of most victorious coach in college football’s top division, but his legacy was damaged months before his death in the wake of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. In 2011 Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the Penn State Nittany Lions, was charged with – and the following year convicted of – sexually abusing multiple young boys. Paterno had reportedly been told of at least one of Sandusky’s transgressions at the time but had failed to notify the police. Paterno’s role as head coach of the Lions was therefore terminated, and he died just ten weeks later from lung cancer.

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2. Bill Cosby

Bill Cosby was once the star of the biggest sitcom in America – The Cosby Show – but his fall from grace was infamously drawn out in the public eye during the mid-to-late-2010s. More than 60 different women accused the former stand-up comic of various acts of sexual misconduct, including rape, sexual battery and child sexual abuse. And while the majority of those cases had passed the statute of limitations, Cosby was nevertheless charged with indecent assault for a more recent of the alleged offenses – and a jury found him guilty in April 2018. Hence, various of his honors and titles have been revoked, while re-runs of his shows have been canceled.

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1. Harvey Weinstein

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The co-founder of Miramax with his brother, Bob, Hollywood veteran Harvey Weinstein rose to prominence as a producer on films such as Pulp Fiction and Shakespeare in Love. But on October 5, 2017, The New York Times published a story brimming with allegations of sexual assault against him, and his career unraveled almost overnight. More than 80 women have now come forward with allegations, and the controversy ignited the social media movement #MeToo. Weinstein’s company dismissed him, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled him, and finally, in May 2018, he was arrested – before being let out on bail.

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