Most of us have heard the phrase “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer“. King Ferdinand I of Naples (1424 – 1494), who ruled from 1458 until his death, took that, and ran with it to irrational extremes. By all accounts, Ferdinand was a capable ruler who brought peace and prosperity to his realm. Through diplomacy and strategic marriages, he created a dense network of friendships and alliances with other sovereigns. It made him so influential, that he was nicknamed “The Judge of Italy”. He was also a generous patron of the arts, and was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance. That was the good side of Ferdinand.
The bad side was rooted in the fact that Italian politics back then were not for the squeamish. The Italian Peninsula was a jumble of various small states and independent cities, that teetered on the brink of anarchy as rival aristocratic families fiercely competed for power and prestige. Betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, murders, and wars were commonplace. Ferdinand had a brutal side that allowed him to thrive in such an environment. As seen below, after he killed his enemies, Ferdinand kept their remains on exhibit in what came to be known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
4. This King Never Tired of Coming Up With Ways to Ruin His Enemies
King Ferdinand I of Naples was not a turn-the-other-cheek type, but a man who really liked to ruin his enemies. As one historian put it: “his pleasures were of two kinds: he liked to have his opponents near him, either alive in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime“. In 1465, he defeated a rebellion by his barons. In the guise of forgiveness, he invited several former foes and their families to a celebration, then arrested them when they showed up. Some were locked up for decades, and others were killed.
One of his captives fell to his death after Ferdinand pushed him out of a window. One would assume that afterwards, nobody who had ever angered Ferdinand would accept an invitation from him. If so, one would be wrong. On another occasion, some who had offended Ferdinand attended a wedding celebration at the king’s residence, the Castel Nuovo. At the height of the merriment, they were suddenly arrested, and whisked to the dungeons for torture, a death sentence at a quick trial, and execution. As seen below, Ferdinand liked to put his dead enemies on display.
3. King Ferdinand I Kept His Enemies’ Remains in a Museum
Ferdinand I of Naples did not want to simply kill his enemies. He wanted to turn them and their fates into public examples and cautionary lessons to deter others from even thinking about betrayal. After he had them murdered, Ferdinand had the bodies of his enemies mummified. He then put them on display in an exhibit hall in the Castel Nuovo, which he referred to as his “Black Museum”, and which came to be commonly known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
As a contemporary historian described the exhibit: “these dried cadavers were displayed, pickled with herbs, a frightful sight, in the dress they wore when alive and with the same ornaments, so that by this terrible example of tyranny, those who did not wish to be similarly served might be properly afraid“. Ferdinand liked to conduct personal tours of his macabre museum, which often served as an effective deterrent to those contemplating treason. To mix things up and keep them interesting, the king’s mummified enemies were sometimes propped up in mock banquets.
2. The Warrior Queen Who Told a Great Conqueror to Stick it Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine
Queen Tomyris (flourished 500s BC) was ruler of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from China’s borders to east of the Caspian Sea. A formidable warrior queen, she defeated King Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty that ruled the first Persian Empire. Tomyris brought the illustrious career of the King of Kings, as Cyrus came to be known, and his brilliant career of uninterrupted conquests to a screeching halt in 530 BC.
The Massagetae were nomads who led a hardy pastoral life on the Eurasian Steppe. To make ends meet, they tended their herds, and from time to time, raided the settled lands that bordered the Steppe. Their predation eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus, who had recently founded the Persian Empire. His realm now encompassed many of the territories victimized by Massagetae raids. So he led an army into the Steppe to bring the nomads to heel. He little knew that his expedition would end in disaster, and that the nomads would ruin him big time.
1. This Queen Certainly Kept Her Promise to Ruin Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great won an initial victory against nomads commanded by the son of Queen Tomyris, after a ruse in which he “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to it, royally drunk. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the inebriated nomads. Among the many killed was Tomyris’ son. She sent Cyrus a message, in which she called him out and challenged him to a second battle. The overconfident Cyrus accepted. She personally led her army this time, and as described by Herodoutus: “Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been….
They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too“. The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Tomyris, who really wanted to humiliate Cyrus, even after his death, had him beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading