The great seducers

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It's not a question of looks, nor even of technique: for a colourful few, seduction just seems to be something that comes naturally . . .

Ah seduction, that noble art. Its roots can be found in the most ancient myths; the alleged nobility is more recent, perhaps originating from mediaeval courtly love, when the beguiling of an innocent virgin (or, if you were really good, a rival's wife) could be accomplished with flattery, favours and a joust or two. But baser motives have never been far below the surface, and, ultimately, the methods that work are the basic ones: get them to notice you in the crowd, make them feel special, win their trust, make their pupils dilate, get them into bed.

Yet seduction is, in its highest form, far more than a one-note, wham-bang-thank-you-ma'am skill: it's a ritual with a complex set of rules. It can't be too aggressive, or the element of beguiling is lost in the relentless advances; but it neither should it be too refined, too unobtrusive because then the interplay between the two protagonists is lost.

So what's the secret? These 10 great seducers may offer some clues. Selected from various eras, from ancient history to the present day, they have a lot in common: success, in spades but also a vast array of techniques, some conscious, some primal, to conquer fair maid (or young man). From wild romantic to mordant wit to eager charmer, these artful inveiglers are the best in the business.

Of course, the real art in seduction is not to take advantage of the seduced but to be more of a to use the mealy-mouthed modern word facilitator, helping the seduced to open up to a whole new world of freedom and satisfaction through sex.

It's a nice trick if you can get away with it.

Casanova

Giacomo Casanova was the seducer by whom all others are measured, the man who gave his name to the charming yet roguish breed. The Venetian adventurer, wit, charlatan, spy and writer had a law degree by the age of 17 always handy for extricating yourself from intrigue a short and of course scandalous career in the church; and was run out of most of Europe's grand cities after drawing the attention of the local constabularies because of his sexual escapades. His technique? Discover a lady in trouble; be attentive; extricate her from her difficulty; bestow small gifts; use alluring words; make hay; get bored; exit stage left.

Catherine the Great

All enlightened despots need a way to relieve the stress, and the Russian empress's outlet was to take lovers. She often gave them important positions in government and was good enough to pension them off after she'd had enough of them (which certainly beats being exiled/executed). Her technique? Employing a former lover to do the work for you: after her affair with Potemkin, he would select a candidate-lover for her who had both the looks and the intelligence to hold Catherine's interest. Bar-room historians still claim (wrongly) that even men, ultimately, failed to fulfill her needs, leading to an unfortunate accident involving a horse.

Cleopatra

The woman with perhaps the most famous nose in history ("Had it been shorter," wrote Pascal, "the whole face of the world would have been changed"), Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt and a great beauty who consolidated her power through affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. When she and Antony's navy were defeated at the Battle of Actium, she killed herself with the bite of an asp. Her technique? Playful, witty and coquettish, requiring access to large quantities of milk for bathing/flirting with Roman generals, and priceless pearl earrings to dissolve in vinegar to astonish onlookers.

Lord Byron

The acme of a Romantic, not just a brooding poet but a revolutionary soldier. And oh! did the ladies fall for that heady mix of searing intellect and man of action. As did the men, although that side of his sexuality was long ago airbrushed from history. Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his lovers, described him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". His most famous poem, "Don Juan", takes the fictional arch seducer and makes the hero susceptible to the seductive powers of women so it was all their idea, after all (always a good line). Byron's technique? Passion, passion, and more passion. And dead by 36.

Errol Flynn

The actor whose buckle swashed on screen like no other of his time also had a notoriously rumbustious life off-stage, with vast amounts of drinking, plenty of brawling, and oodles of womanising. His famously debauched lifestyle caught up with him in 1942 when two underage chorus girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, accused him of statutory rape (they were under 21 at the time). However, he was found not guilty at trial, and his reputation did not suffer any lasting harm. And his seduction method? If the expression "in like Flynn" really does refer to him, then it probably was none too subtle.

Wilt Chamberlain

If sheer quantity is the mark of a successful seducer, there can be no finer exponent than the 7ft 1in basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have slept with 20,000 women. If true, this suggests that he had sex with more than eight different women per week from the age of 16 (who are we kidding?) to the day he died. His technique? Confident but respectful. And being the highest paid basketball star of the time probably didn't hurt his chances either. "I think Wilt hit on everything that moved... [but] he never was bad or rude," said the Swedish high jumper Annette Tannander.

Russell Brand

The rakish, bohemian stand-up comic, TV presenter and "World's Sexiest Vegetarian" is a self-confessed erotomaniac. He even underwent treatment for his affliction in a Philadelphia clinic. As he writes in his autobiography, My Booky Wook: "At one point, I had a harem of about 10 women, whom I would rotate in addition to one-night stands and casual random encounters." And his technique? Verbal dexterity, hyperactive charm and, presumably, that ridiculously over-coiffured barnet: "In Bangkok ... bar girls in Patpong left their posts to follow me down the street, cooing and touching my hair."

Alan Clark

The diarist, MP and deadpan patrician snob (who dismissed Michael Heseltine as "a man who bought his own furniture") was also an incorrigible lech. He was also very sure of his type: "Girls have to be succulent," he pronounced; "and that means under 25." His most infamous escapade was an affair with what he described as his "coven" a judge's wife and two daughters. His technique? Boundless boyish enthusiasm "A plump young woman came into my compartment at Waterloo," he wrote in his diary. "She was not wearing a bra, and her delightful globes bounced prominently... I gave her a huge grin; I couldn't help it."

Jack Nicholson

Like his fellow Hollywood lotharios Warren Beatty and Frank Sinatra, the US acting legend and force of nature isn't a one-woman man. No, sir. "Physical and sexual vitality is one of the reasons that I'm lively," the 71-year-old, who has no fewer than six children by five women, recently claimed. Kim Basinger called him "the most highly sexed individual I have ever met". His technique? The bad-boy glint in his eye, that grin, the charm, the monomaniacal intensity the late Playboy model Karen Mayo-Chandler revealed that he ate peanut butter and jam sandwiches in bed "to keep his strength up".

John Wilkes

John Wilkes is an unlikely candidate. He was a radical MP, journalist and later Lord Mayor of London who wrote pornographic poetry. And he was described as the ugliest man in England. But his charm was extraordinary: "With the start of a quarter of an hour," he said, "I can get the better of any man, however good-looking, in the graces of any lady." (He later amended this to half an hour modestly.) In an exchange with the Earl of Sandwich, who declared "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox," Wilkes replied: "That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." His technique? Unfettered charm.

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