6. The King Who Married His Sister, Then Murdered Her Son During the Wedding
In the second century BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Egypt, captured Alexandria, and made king Ptolemy VI his puppet ruler. The people of Alexandria rioted, and chose the puppet king’s obese younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon (“Potbelly”) as monarch. After the Seleucids were forced out of Egypt by Roman threats, Ptolemy Potbelly agreed to a three-way joint rule, with his brother Ptolemy VI, and their sister Cleopatra II, who was also Ptolemy VI’s wife.
The arrangement did not work out. Ptolemy Potbelly was away from Egypt when Ptolemy VI died in 145. Their sister Cleopatra II, the deceased king’s wife, promptly declared her son, Ptolemy VII, as king. When Potbelly returned, he convinced his widowed sister to marry him, promising that the sibling-spouses would rule jointly. However, Potbelly double crossed his sister/ new wife, by having her son, Ptolemy VII, murdered during the siblings’ wedding feast. He also reneged on his promise to rule jointly with his sister-wife, and declared himself sole ruler.
5. Peter the Great Hung the Corpse of His Sister’s Lover Outside Her Bedroom Window
Killing his own son was not the only ruthless thing Peter the Great did towards a member of his own family. In 1698, when a young Tsar Peter was still getting a feel for his power, the Streltsy regiments – a sort of medieval Russian Praetorian Guard – rebelled, and made contact with his half sister, Sophia Alkesyevna. Sophia had ruled as regent when Peter was a child, but resisted surrendering her power when Peter grew up and sought to rule in his own right. So he locked her up in a monastery.
Ten years later, in 1698, a lover of Sophia led the Streltsy in a failed uprising while Peter was out of the country. Peter rushed back to Russia, but the rebellion had already collapsed by the time he returned home. Upon reaching Moscow, he brutally suppressed and broke the Streltsy, who were tortured and executed by the thousands. Peter took a hand-on approach, and played an active part in the executions, personally chopping off the heads of rebels with an ax in what is now Moscow’s Red Square. He also strung up the bodies of executed Streltsy outside Sophia’s monastery, and left the corpse of her lover dangling from a rope directly outside her window.
4. The King Who Married His Sister, Then Ditched Her For Her Daughter
When Ptolemy Potbelly murdered the son of his sister Cleopatra II during their wedding, his sibling-wife was, understandably, upset. Even more so, when he reneged on the promise to rule jointly with her. Potbelly then made things worse by seducing and marrying Cleopatra II’s daughter, Cleopatra III – his stepdaughter, as well as double niece, being the daughter of both his sister and his deceased brother, Ptolemy VI. Adding insult to injury, Potbelly did not bother to divorce Cleopatra II, before marrying her daughter.
So Cleopatra II organized a revolt in Alexandria in 132 BC, that forced her brother/ husband/ son-in-law, and his stepdaughter/ niece/ wife, to flee the city. The resultant civil war pitted Cleopatra II, supported by the city of Alexandria, against her daughter and Ptolemy Potbelly, who had the backing of the rest of Egypt. When things turned against Cleopatra II, she offered her throne to the neighboring Seleucids in Syria. However, they were unable to rescue her, and she was forced to flee to Syria in 127 BC.
3. The Emperor Who Forced His Wife to Keep Her Lover’s Head in Her Bedroom
Late in his reign, rumors made the rounds that Peter the Great’s wife, the Empress Catherine, was having an affair with her private secretary, Willem Mons. Gossip had it that the duo were lovers, and that Willem Mons’ sister, Matryona Balk, had played matchmaker. One of the juicier tales held that “Peter had found his wife with Mons one moonlit night in a compromising position in her garden“. Whether or not Peter had actually witnessed his wife getting it on with her secretary, he did get word of the lurid stories about his wife.
So the emperor had Mons arrested and hauled off in chains, on charges of embezzlement and abuse of trust. His sister Matryona, the supposed matchmaker, was also arrested, publicly flogged, and exiled to Siberia. On November 28th, 1724, eight days after his arrest, Willem Mons was publicly beheaded in Saint Petersburg. While that was going on, Catherine put on a public display of indifference towards her secretary’s fate, which probably saved her own head. However, Peter put on a final demonstration of his power, in a bid to test whether his wife’s indifference was genuine. He had Mons’ head preserved in alcohol and put in a glass jar, which he then placed in Catherine’s bedroom.
The depravity that became a hallmark of Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers began when the dynasty’s second king, Ptolemy II, married his own sister. That kicked off a dynastic tradition of incest, with serious negative consequences down the road. However, the depravity of incest was eclipsed during the reign of Ptolemy IV (244 – 204 BC, reigned 221 – 204 BC). He proceeded to add intra-familial murder to the dynasty’s repertoire, by murdering his own mother, Berenice II.
Ptolemy IV had ascended the throne as co-ruler, alongside his mother – a formidable woman, who had once stemmed a battlefield rout by mounting a horse, rallying her surviving troops, and leading them in a successful countercharge. Feeling intimidated and wanting to rule alone, Ptolemy IV inaugurated his reign by murdering his mother. Notwithstanding that act of ruthlessness, he was a weak willed ruler who was dominated by his mistress and court favorites. He also ignored the hard work of ruling, devoting himself instead to religious rituals. With a weak hand at the helm, the kingdom was rocked by serious rebellions, that took decades to suppress.
Nero (37 – 68 AD) was one of history’s oddest rulers. He became emperor as a teenager in 54, and was dominated by his mother, who reportedly controlled him with incest. As one Roman era writer described it: “whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by stains in his clothing“. That kind of upbringing sheds light on how Nero ended up so depraved. When Nero grew older he he tried to assert his independence, but his mother refused to give up her power, and kept meddling in government. So he decided to murder her.
Nero resorted to elaborate schemes to do in his mother, because he wanted to make her death look accidental. He had a roof constructed that was designed to collapse on top of his mother, but she survived. He then gifted her with pleasure barge, that was specially designed to collapse. The barge collapsed in the middle of a lake while Nero watched from his villa, but to his astonishment, his mother made it out of the wreckage, swam like an otter, and made it to shore. Horrified, and dreading the awkwardness of the inevitable confrontation, Nero finally threw in the towel on subtlety. Abandoning all pretense, he sent his henchmen to club his mother to death with oars.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading