17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History

D.G. Hewitt - November 21, 2018

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Ancient Egypt was riven by sibling rivalries, with brothers and sisters fighting to rule alone. World History.

10. Berenice IV forced her parents to flee Egypt in fear for their lives and then murdered her sister Cleopatra VI so that she could rule alone

Being a member of the Ptolemy Dynasty was a dangerous business. While you did get to rule over Ancient Egypt, with your people forced to regard you as gods among men, you also ran the risk of being killed in any number of imaginative ways. And it wasn’t just outsiders who would be after you. The family of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII and his wife, Cleopatra V, was especially messed up. Their in-fighting was like something out of a fantasy TV series. And while Cleopatra VII would go on to be the most famous of the couple’s children, she learned all she knew about plotting, scheming and killing her own siblings from her sister, Bernice IV.

Initially, the Pharaoh and his wife were forced to flee Egypt as they feared their eldest daughter, Cleopatra VI, was becoming too powerful. By around 70BC, she had the backing of several military chiefs and high priests and look set to rule supreme. As such, her parents sailed to Rome to ask the Emperor there for his support in the hope they might win power back. But things didn’t work out quite like Cleopatra VI hoped. As soon as their parents had gone, Berenice took action. After lying low for months, she arranged to have Cleopatra VI, her big sister, killed by poison. At the age of just 20, Berenice IV was the sole ruler of Egypt.

In those days, all Pharaohs were expected to take a spouse and produce an heir. However, the ambitious Berenice wasn’t ready to share her power with anyone. While she did try to placate the religious elite by taking a husband, she had him murdered soon after their wedding. She did eventually take a second husband and ruled with him for three years. By all accounts, while Berenice enjoyed living a life of luxury and decadence, Egypt was a peaceful and stable place under her. Just three years after taking the crown, however, her parents returned from Rome, complete with Roman soldiers. Father and daughter took to the battlefield. The father won the day. Despite their family ties, Ptolemy XII had Berenice beheaded and got back to ruling Egypt himself.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
The Boleyn sisters both fancied King Henry VIII, though it was Anne who married him. Pinterest.

9. Mary and Anne Boleyn both caught the eye of King Henry VIII, but only one of them would go on to become his Queen

By all accounts, Mary was the prettiest of the Boleyn girls. What’s more, according to one of her romantic interests, she was also something of a skilled lover. In the end, however, it was her sister, Anne, who snared the ultimate prize. The younger sibling ended up getting – and accepting – a proposal of marriage from King Henry VIII. She became Queen of England, albeit only for a short while before she met her tragic, and bloody end.

Compared to Anne, relatively little is known about Mary Boleyn. Born in the county of Norfolk in around 1499, she was the eldest daughter of Thomas Boleyn and his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard. As a young lady, she traveled with her father to France, where her beauty and education caught the attention of several notable gentlemen. It’s believed that Mary enjoyed a string of affairs while in Paris, including possibly with King Francis himself. By the time she returned to England in 1519, Mary had gained a reputation as being a skilled – and discrete – lover. It was almost inevitable that she then caught the eye of King Henry VIII of England.

Mary was appointed maid-of-honor to Catherine of Aragon, then the Queen. Despite pledging her loyalty to her mistress, and despite the fact she got married herself, she embarked on an affair with the King. Nobody knows how long Mary and Henry VIII enjoyed sexual relations. There are even claims, still unproven, that the King had two children with his mistress. But Mary would never be anything more than a deniable plaything for the decadent monarch – unlike her younger sister Anne.

Anne Boleyn joined the Royal Court in 1522. Though Mary was more physically attractive, apparently it was Anne who was the more popular. And, unlike her older sister, she rebuked the King’s advances. She decided to play the long game instead, and it worked. By 1527, Henry had made up his mind; he wanted Anne to be his wife. By the time Anne became Queen of England, Mary had moved on to her second husband and was resigned to a life of relative poverty away from the royal court. If there ever was a fierce sibling rivalry – and some historians dispute this, arguing the two ladies were never that close – Anne came out on top, though she paid the ultimate price, being beheaded for adultery and treason in 1536.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Cleopatra not only seduced Emperors, she killed her siblings to gain power. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Cleopatra wasn’t just a beautiful and skilled diplomat, she was also a ruthless autocrat, as her murder of her own brother Ptolemy XIII showed

Cleopatra is famed for her beauty. She is also widely remembered as a skillful and wily diplomat, making strategic alliances, above all with Rome, to maintain her power. At the same time, however, the Queen of the Nile was also a ruthless killer. And it wasn’t just outsiders who fell victim to her bloody ambition. Cleopatra had a direct hand in the deaths of all three of her siblings. Indeed, ‘rivalry’ seems too gentle a word to describe the relationship she had with her brother and sisters.

When the Pharaoh Ptolemy XII died in 51BC, Cleopatra – actually Cleopatra VII – came to power. Sticking to the traditions of their dynasty, Cleopatra, then 18-years-old, was supposed to marry and rule alongside her own 10-year-old-brother Ptolemy XIII. They did indeed do this for a few years. However, the young king’s advisers grew suspicious of his sister’s ambitions. Heeding their advice, Ptolemy exiled her to Alexandria, where, he believed, she would be out of harm’s way. But he hadn’t counted on her ambition, nor on her the strength of her manipulative charms.

Both brother and sister realized that, if they won the backing of Rome, they would be able to crush their sibling rival. Famously, Cleopatra got their first. Hidden in a carpet, she was smuggled inside the palace where Julius Caesar was staying. She emerged to become his lover and his ally. Caesar agreed to help the Queen of the Nile reclaim her throne. He brought in Roman troops from Syria and took the war to Ptolemy. The young king drowned whilst trying to escape, weighed down by all his treasures. Cleopatra could rule on her own at last, not even pausing for a moment to mourn the death of her young sibling.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Genghis Khan was said to have killed his own brother over a scrap of food. Pinterest.

7. Genghis Khan was raised in a tough, unforgiving environment, and his ruthless streak was apparent from a young age as he even killed his own brother on his way to power

Genghis Khan wasn’t always a bloodthirsty warlord and military genius. As a young boy, he was named Temujin. But even then, he was ruthless, ambitious and willing to fight his own family in order to get what he wanted. While in the Mongol culture family always came first, the man who would be Khan was only too willing to fight – and even kill – his own brothers, even if in his early years, this was more a matter of survival than a question of naked ambition.

Born around 1162, Temujin was one of seven children. Their mother was required to raise them all alone after their father was expelled from their tribe. Times were tough and, according to the legend, shaped the young boy into the ruthless warrior he would become. Several accounts state that he murdered his own half-brother, shooting him in the heart with an arrow, in a dispute over food. What’s more, he showed not the slightest bit of remorse for the slaying.

Interestingly, however, the full brother of the murdered boy appeared to have borne no grudge. Indeed, he himself would go on to serve as a general in the vast army of Genghis Khan as it took over the known world. Since an estimated 40 million people were killed during Mongol conquests, whether directly in warfare or indirectly through forced famine, the warlord’s brief but bloody bout of sibling rivalry seems relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
The Dassler brothers started off as business partners but became bitter rivals. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Adolf and Rudolph Dassler’s rivalry was so intense it divided a whole German town, though it did give the world two iconic sports brands

They’ve been called Germany’s own Romulus and Remus. Except the Dassler brothers didn’t find a city. Instead, they established two of the world’s most famous brands, Puma and Adidas. Indeed, the two giant global corporations grew out of single-family business. Quite what caused Adolf and Rudolph to fall out remains the source of much debate. However, once they did fall out, there was no going back. Their rivalry and mutual distrust was like something out of a soap opera. Even though both brothers went on to enjoy great success in the world of business, they never put their differences behind them.

By the time Germany was plunged into the Second World War, the Dassler brothers had been running their family sports shoe business for 25 years. And they’d been enjoying significant success, too. They even managed to persuade legendary US sprinter Jesse Owens to wear their shoes at the Olympic Games. But, by the 1930s, tensions were running high. According to some versions of the tale, the handsome Rudolph had an affair with his plain-looking brother’s wife. Whether this is true or not, by the end of the war, the two men were bitter rivals. Both were determined to stay in their hometown of Herzogenaurach. However, they would not work together. Adolph crossed the river and set up Adidas. Rudolph, meanwhile, established a factory across the river, naming it Puma. The corporate rivalry was born.

For decades, it was said that the whole town of Herzogenaurach was divided in two. If you worked in the Adidas factory, then you had your own pubs, clubs and restaurants, and it was considered taboo to socialize with, let alone date, a Puma worker. This continued for decades, and the two companies only really started to build bridges in 2009, when they held a friendly football match in the town. But, while the town has moved on from the rift, the two brothers never got over it. Even when Rudi lay in his death bed, Adi refused the priest’s call to come and see him one last time. It may have taken a huge personal toll, but the sibling rivals gave the world two huge – and indeed, iconic – sports brands, and few people who wear their products know that they were born out of such unhappiness.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Shah Jahan may have loved his wives, but he hated his siblings. Pinterest.

5. Shah Jahan may have built the Taj Mahal for romantic reasons, but he was also an ambitious ruler who and blinded, imprisoned and killed his siblings

The fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, is best known for his architectural commissions. More specifically, he is remembered as the man who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal, built as a testament to his love for his favorite wife. But he wasn’t just a hopeless romantic. As with almost all rulers of the time, Shah Jahan was also an incredibly ruthless man, especially when it came to keeping rivals at bay. And so, even if one of those rivals was his own brother, he wasn’t afraid of taking the ultimate course of action.

Born Mirza Shahab-ud-din Baig Muhammad Khan Khurram in 1592, he was the third son of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Of the Emperor’s four brothers, he was widely regarded as being the best man to follow his father, including by the man himself. However, his ascension to the throne was by no means guaranteed. Indeed, when Jahangir died at the end of 1627, the four young men all vied for control. In the end, the war of succession was a short one. The third-born emerged victorious and crowned himself Shah Jahan in February 1628. But, of course, his rivals still remained. One of his brothers was blinded and imprisoned for a short while before being executed. The others were simply murdered right away. Several other potential rivals or threats were similarly eliminated.

With his siblings’ taken care of, Shah Jahan was free to rule over the empire for 30 years. Under him, the Mughal Empire enjoyed a period of relative stability and prosperity. While he may have been a murderer and brother-killer, Shah Jahan was also a man of learning and culture and oversaw an architectural revolution, with the Taj Mahal the high point of his reign. In 1657, he fell seriously ill, sparking another war of succession among his own sons. The third eldest, Aurangzeb emerged victorious and put his own father under house arrest. Shah Jahan died, a prisoner in his own palace, just over a year later.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
King Henry defeated his brother in battle and then locked him up for decades. Pinterest.

4. King Henry I of England was so worried about his brother Robert Cuthose that he invaded his brother’s lands and then imprisoned him for more than 40 years

William the Conqueror was a wise and cautious man. After his successful invasion of 1066, he had control of two kingdoms, England and Normandy. He also had several sons and daughters and spent a considerable amount of time wondering who his heir should be. In line with tradition, his eldest son, Robert Curthose, looked the most likely candidate. But the king knew that Robert and his younger brother Henry did not get along at all. Fearful that giving Richard the crown upon his own death would lead to outright war between the two siblings, he chose a third path. So, in 1087, another son, William II – also known a William Rufus – was crowned king.

Just 13 years into his reign, however, William II died suddenly. He was hit by an arrow while out hunting. Some say it was an accident. Other contemporary sources, as well as many historians since, claimed otherwise. Either way, it was Henry who took advantage of the event to lay claim to the crown. He was named King Henry I of England and Normandy in the year 1100. His elder brother Richard retained the title Duke of Normandy. He was far from happy, however, and made no effort to hide his belief that he should be the rightful king.

Surprisingly, the sibling rivalry just bubbled under for a few years. Robert carried on complaining but stayed across the sea in Normandy. By 1105, however, Henry had had enough. What’s more, he was hearing bad things about his brother, above all that he was drunk and lazy and that the people of Normandy no longer respected him. So, he invaded Normandy. The two brothers met at the Battle of Tinchebray in September 1106. Henry came out on top. But rather than having his big brother killed, he took him prisoner and brought him back to Britain. Richard was imprisoned in an English castle and then in Cardiff Castle, spending an incredible 46 years behind bars. He died an old man, still a prisoner, in his Welsh cell, in 1134. His little brother would rule for another year and he died of natural causes.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Artaxerxes II and Cyrus the Younger went to war with each other, despite being brothers. Pinterest.

3. Artaxerxes II and Cyrus the Younger both raised huge armies and, to their mothers’ dismay, the brothers went to war for the Persian crown

Since he was the eldest son of Darius II, Artaxerxes was first in line to take the throne. And, indeed he did, becoming King Artaxerxes II of Persia in 404BC. While expected, the arrangement did not please the new king’s younger brother Cyrus. After all, the boys’ mother had promised Cyrus he was destined for great things. What’s more, most observers agreed that Cyrus was the more intelligent and stronger of the two brothers, plus Cyrus had proven himself after being appointed the Persian Empire’s commander-in-chief in Asia Minor when he was just 15-years-old.

From the very start of his reign, therefore, Artaxerxes was worried that his brother might try to take the throne for himself. Certainly, Cyrus did nothing to change his mind. As such, the King’s generals urged Artaxerxes to take pre-emptive action. He agreed. By 401BC, Cyrus had raised a huge army. Learning of this, Cyrus raised a huge army of his own, ready to meet his brother in battle. Indeed, Cyrus specifically targeted his own brother, realizing his whole army would crumble if their king died in the heat of battle.

When the two young men did meet, Cyrus was slain in battle. Quite who killed him is up for debate. Artaxerxes certainly tried, with Plutarch noting that the King aimed spears at his own brother. However, it’s likely that one of the King’s closest men dealt the fatal blow. Certainly, the brothers’ mother believed this to be the case. She had the man she believed to be responsible put to death. What’s more, the King’s court eunuch had cut off the dead brother’s head and hands. For this, the King’s mother purchased the eunuch in a slave auction and had him flayed alive.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Sultan Mehmed III obeyed the law and killed 19 siblings when he came to power. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Sultan Mehmed III gained control of the Ottoman Empire by killing all 19 of his brothers and step-brothers – and he was perfectly within his rights to do so

Fratricide was only too common among the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. However, even by the standards of 16th century Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed III was particularly ruthless and bloody. When he came to the throne following the death of Murad III, he saw rivals and enemies everywhere – and rightly so. The Sultan was not paranoid, but a realist. In those times, when Sultans had several wives and had numerous children with both legal spouses as well as with their concubines, there were usually several pretenders to the throne. And so, such rivals needed to be taken care of – even if they were your own brothers.

Born in 1566, Mehmed III was named Sultan in January of 1595. His was not an automatic ascension to the throne. During the Ottoman Empire, it was not taken for granted that the eldest son would inherit his father’s wealth or power. Rather, any son – legitimate or illegitimate – could stake a claim. Quite simply, it was survival of the fittest. What’s more, in order to ensure the Empire was run as smoothly and peacefully as possible, it was expected that a new Sultan would kill any potential rivals to death. Indeed, Mehmed’s own father had made this the law. In 1477 he decreed: “For the welfare of the state, one of my sons to whom God grants the sultanate may lawfully put his brothers to death.” Evidently, Mehmed III had no hesitation in putting this into practice.

According to the records of the time, Mehmed had all 19 of his brothers and half-brothers executed. What’s more, he had his own personal bodyguard of deaf-mute soldiers carry out the killings. Over the course of just a few days, all of the potential rivals to the throne were strangled to death, often in their own homes. Brutal and bloody it may have been, but was the policy of legalized fratricide effective? The Ottoman Empire lasted more than 500 years, holding large parts of Asia and Europe right up until 1923. Dynastic wars and power struggles were relatively uncommon, and the Sultan’s power absolute, so maybe there was something to it after all.

17 Brutal Sibling Rivalries in History
Jackie and Lee had it all as young girls, but both wanted more than the other. The Rake.

1. Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill had it all growing up, but the sisters were always determined to out-do one another, so while one married a President, the other bagged a Prince

Numerous biographies have been written on Jackie Kennedy, wife to first JFK and then the billionaire Aristotle Onassis. Several have even looked beyond her relationships with rich and powerful men and instead focused on her relationship with her own sister. While the exact truth of the siblings’ relationship may never be known, many have claimed that theirs was an intense rivalry. According to some scholars, Lee Radziwill grew to be jealous and resentful of her younger sister and may even have committed the ultimate sibling betrayal.

Lee and Jackie Bouvier enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing. But even from the beginning, there was tension between the two. While the father doted on Jackie – even naming her after himself – their mother made no secret of the fact that the younger sister was her favorite. Their mother also instilled in them that the acquisition of wealth and power, rather than anything so sentimental as love or loyalty, was the ultimate goal in life. As a result, both sisters continually tried to outdo one another. So, when Jackie ended up marrying up-and-coming political star John F. Kennedy, Lee herself snagged the Polish Prince Stanislaw Albrecht Radziwill. One sister became First Lady, while the other became a Princess.

According to one recent biography, Lee may even have slept with JFK while the two married couples were on holiday one time. But did Jackie eventually get her own back? By 1964, Lee had moved on and was reputedly having an affair with the Greek shipping magnate Onassis, by far one of the wealthiest individuals in the whole world. Lee may even have been considering leaving her prince and taking Onassis as her second husband. In the end, however, it was Jackie who ended up married to Onassis, coming out on top in the socialite siblings’ rivalry once again.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Business Insider – Kellogg Brother Feud: Kellogg v. Kellogg

NPR – How The ‘Battling’ Kellogg Brothers Revolutionized American Breakfast

“Brothers: What the Van Goghs, Booths, Marxes, Kelloggs–and Colts–Tell Us About How Siblings Shape Our Lives and History” George Howe Colt, May 2014

“How the Feuding Kellogg Brothers Fought their Cereal Wars.” Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, September 2017.

“Did sibling rivalry cause Lincoln’s assassination?” Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Smithsonian Magazine – The Rise and Fall of Tudor England’s Scandalous Boleyn Family

History Extra – Henry VIII’s Mistresses: Who Else Did the Tudor King Sleep With?

History Collection – 40 Awe-Inspiring Facts About Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire

“Historia Augusta: Life of Caracalla.” University of Chicago.

“Berenice IV, Queen of Egypt.” World History.

“Cleopatra: The Beauty of a Killer.” The Manchester Historian, The University of Manchester, December 2014.

Medium – Ten Interesting Facts About Cleopatra Most People Don’t Know

Grunge – The Truth About Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s Relationship

“Warfare between Henry I and Robert Curthose, according to Wace’s The Roman de Rou.” The Society for Medieval Military History, March 2014.

“Deadly Rivals: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.” History Extra, July 2018.

“Cyrus the Younger.” Livius.org.

“Jackie Kennedy ‘got revenge’ on her sister for cheating with JFK” Daily Mail UK. September 2018.

Business Insider – Puma and Adidas’ Rivalry Has Divided a Small German Town For 70 Years

History Collection – 12 Rulers Who Executed Their Relatives

History Collection – Historical Rulers Who Murdered Members of Their Own Family