The Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt might have been history’s most depraved and dysfunctional ruling family, but for all that, they managed to hang on to power for nearly three centuries. The dynasty’s rot and track record of depravity arguably began when Ptolemy II married his own sister. The consequences of introducing that tradition of incest into the dynasty were long lasting, ultimately producing a long line of unfit rulers, and transforming the Ptolemies into objects of ridicule among Hellenistic and Roman contemporaries. Incest was arguably eclipsed, however, by Ptolemy IV (reigned 221 – 204 BC), who added intra-familial murder to the Ptolemaic dynasty’s repertoire, by murdering his mother, Berenice II.
Ptolemy IV had ascended the throne in 221 BC as co-ruler with his mother. Berenice II was a formidable woman, who had once stemmed a battlefield rout by mounting a horse, rallying her side’s surviving troops, and leading them in a countercharge that seized victory from the jaws of defeat. 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, and an airhead who devoted himself to religious rituals. While Ptolemy IV devoted himself to fluff, Egypt was torn apart by serious rebellions that took decades to suppress. Since incest by then was a Ptolemaic tradition, Ptolemy IV also married his own sister, Arsinoe III, who gave birth to his heir, Ptolemy V.
20. Augustus Ordered the Death of His Infant Grandchild
A Roman patriarch’s power of life and death over his family members was particularly evident when it came to his authority over the women of the family. Although the ancient Romans had a reputation for licentiousness and debauchery and wild orgies, they managed to indulge in such carnal excesses with abandon, even as they viewed adultery as a serious matter. Not just on moral grounds, but also because adultery introduced the possibility of illegitimate heirs to a Roman male’s estate. When Augustus became emperor, he sought to restore traditional values by enacting morality laws aimed at combating adultery – defined as a woman having sex with a man who was not her husband. However, males having sex with female slaves and prostitutes did not count.
One of Augustus’ morality laws, enacted in 18 BC, codified a father’s traditional rights if he caught somebody engaged in adultery with his daughter. The father could legally kill the lover, as well as his daughter, whether in his own house or in the house of his son in law. Ironically, his own daughter, Julia the Elder, ran afoul of those anti-adultery laws. Augustus did not kill her, but to save face, he had her exiled in 2 BC, first to a small island, then to a tiny village in the toe of Italy. She remained in exile for the rest of her life. In 8 AD, Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, also got caught up in an adultery scandal with a Roman Senator. He had her exiled to a remote island, where she gave birth to a love child. Augustus ordered the infant, his grandchild, exposed.
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545 – 1567) was the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587), and king consort of Scotland from 1565 until his death two years later. Darnley had accomplished little of note in his brief life before his violent death at age 22. His single legacy was to impregnate his wife with the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England, thus giving rise to the Stuart Dynasty. Mary had inherited the throne while an infant, and was raised in France while Scotland was ruled by regents. In 1558, she married the French Crown Prince, who became King Francis II in 1559, only to die within a year. Mary returned to Scotland, where she met her first cousin, Lord Darnley, a handsome and well proportioned young man who swept her off her feet. A marriage was swiftly arranged, and Darnley became king consort.
Soon after the wedding, however, Mary discovered that Darnley had an excessive sense of entitlement. He grew enraged when she refused to grant him the Crown Matrimonial, which would have allowed him to continue ruling after her death. When his wife got pregnant, instead of being pleased, he fretted that any heir would push him that much further from the throne. In March of 1566, Darnley and some sidekicks burst into the queen’s dining room. There, in the presence of his horrified and heavily pregnant wife, Darnley proceeded to stab to death her private secretary, whom he accused of cuckolding him. As payback, Mary connived in an assassination plot that set off explosives beneath Darnley’s bedroom on February 19th, 1567. He survived the blast, but upon staggering out of the wreckage, he was seized and strangled to death. Mary married his murderer, the Earl of Bothwell, three months later.
18. Temujin Killed His Brother In a Quarrel Over a Squirrel
The great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan was born Temujin, the son of a minor tribal chieftain. When Temujin was nine, his father was murdered, and tribal rivals then banished his widow and her family of five children to fend for themselves on the harsh Mongolian Steppe. For the next several years, the family survived on wild fruits, carcasses, squirrels, and other small game that Temujin and his brothers were able to hunt. It was supposed to be a death sentence, but Temujin’s mother managed to keep her children alive. Or at least managed to keep most of them alive: the family endured such dire want and poverty, and things got so bad, that Temujin killed an older brother for refusing to share a marmot – a type of big squirrel native to the Mongolian Steppe.
The ruthless Temujin grew into a tough but charismatic man, and as a youth, he began gathering a small and devoted following around himself. He had an instinct for tribal politics, and he parlayed his steadily growing band of followers into bringing the disparate Mongol clans under his sway, one after another, until he unified the entire tribe under his leadership. Temujin then implemented sweeping reforms, aimed at erasing intra-tribal distinctions. He accomplished that by the extreme but effective expedient of exterminating the Mongols’ fractious tribal aristocracy. He then combined the commoners into a unified tribe, bound by their personal allegiance to Temujin.
17. Ptolemy Potbelly Married His Sister, and Killed 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”) to rule them instead. 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 two of them would rule jointly. However, Potbelly double crossed his sister and 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.
16. The Mother Who Plotted to Depose Her Son In Favor of Her Lover’s Children
Qin Shi Huangdi (259 – 210 BC), China’s first emperor, was reportedly not the biological son of his royal “father”, but that of an adventurer named Lu Buwei. The story goes that Lu Buwei’s mistress had caught the eye of a royal prince, who fell passionately in love with her. To keep on his good side, Lu Buwei agreed to pass his mistress on to the prince. The latter married her, and she became known thereafter as Lady Zhao. However, the prince got more than what he had bargained for: Lady Zhao was already pregnant by Lu Buwei, and she eventually gave birth to the future emperor. Her husband eventually ascended the throne, but died soon thereafter, leaving the crown to his “son”, with Lu Buwei, the prime minister, and Lady Zhao, the dowager queen, acting as regents.
The duo resumed their affair, but by 241 BC, Lu Buwei figured that he needed to end his affair with the dowager queen. It had been manageable while the future Qin Shi Huangdi was a child, but the king was now nearing adulthood. If he found out that his prime minister was getting it on with his mother, things could get ugly. However, Lady Zhao did not see things that way, and figured that Lu Buwei had simply fallen out of love with her. To get her mind off him, the enterprising adventurer decided to find the dowager queen a substitute lover. He succeeded way more than he had ever imagined, as Lady Zhao fell so hard for her new lover, that she eventually plotted with him against her own son.
15. Qin Shi Huangdi Chopped Off His Brothers’ Heads
To take his mistress’ mind off him, and focus her affections on another, Lu Buwei searched for just the right replacement lover who would appeal to Qin Shi Huangdi’s mother, the Lady Zhao. He found what he was looking for in a certain Lao Ai, an extremely well hung young man, whom he presented to the king’s mother. One look at Lao Ai’s big bat, and Lady Zhao fell for him, hard. As in, head over heels out of her mind besotted. So Lu Buwei had all of Lao Ai’s hair plucked out to disguise him as a eunuch, and moved him into the dowager queen’s palace. It was a passionate love affair. The queen was soon pregnant by Lao Ai, and she moved to the countryside to have his babies. She also gifted him with a palace, complete with hundreds of attendants.
It went to Lao Ai’s head, however, and he eventually began conspiring with the besotted dowager queen to have their son ascend the Qin throne, by deposing her elder son and current king. Word got back to Shi Huangdi, who so far had turned a blind eye to his mother’s affair. However, the threat to his throne spurred him into action, and he ordered Lao Ai’s arrest. The latter responded by launching a rebellion, but it was easily crushed. When the dust settled, Lao Ai’s head, and that of his children – Shi Huangdi’s half brothers – were displayed in public as a warning to other would-be rebels. As to the king’s mother, Lady Zhao was placed under house arrest for the rest of her life.
14. Peter The Great Forced His Son to Flee the Country
The reformist Emperor Peter the Great is often credited with dragging Russia from its medieval ways and into the modern world. His achievements included revamping the government, weakening the Orthodox Church, modernizing and strengthening the military, and expanding Russia’s borders. He also moved the capital from Moscow to a new city that he built on the Baltic and named after himself, Saint Petersburg. As with any major reforms, those of Peter faced significant resistance from the old order, but the Emperor ruthlessly enforced his will, steamrolling over all opposition. Tragically, those steamrolled included his own son and heir, Prince Alexei Petrovich.
The prince, as kids often do, sought to stake out his individuality by contrasting himself with his father. To that end, Alexei Petrovich became conservative and religious, and attracted admirers from amongst the traditionalists pining for the old days. Unfortunately for the prince, the kinds of kids who get away with that kind of stuff are the kinds of kids who don’t have Peter the Great for a father. The reformist Emperor, determined to protect his reforms from the threat of getting overturned by a reactionary successor down the road, sought to force his son into seeing things his way. The pressure eventually got too much for Alexei. In desperation, he escaped to Vienna, where he sought political asylum from the ruling Habsburgs. That was bad enough, but it was about to get far worse.
13. Prince Alexei Petrovich Was Flogged to Death By His Father
Prince Alexei Petrovich’s mother had been pious and conservative, so Peter the Great forced her into a convent when Alexei was eight. Understandably, that scarred Alexei. The father-son relationship cracked for good in 1715, when Peter, hoping to correct Alexei’s perceived weakness and other shortcomings, threatened to deprive him of the succession. To his astonishment, the prince agreed to relinquish his claim to the throne, and volunteered to enter a monastery. At the last moment, however, Alexei had a change of heart, and fled to Vienna, where he secured asylum.
The embarrassment enraged Peter, who sent agents to track down his son. In 1717, they handed him a letter in which the Emperor berated Alexei, but promised not to punish him if he returned to Russia. Ignoring warnings that it was a trick, the prince returned to Russia in 1718, where he begged forgiveness during a public spectacle in which he was disinherited. The Emperor forced him to name those who had aided his flight, which resulted in the torture and execution of dozens of Alexei’s associates. That done, Peter ordered his son jailed. On June 19th, 1718, Peter had Alexei flogged for days, until he confessed to conspiring to murder his father. The flogging was so severe that Peter’s son died of his wounds within a week.
12. To Demonstrate Their Loyalty to Hitler, Joseph and Magda Goebbels Decided to Murder Their Children
Magda Ritschel joined the Nazi party as a volunteer in 1930. After a stint at her local branch, she was moved to party headquarters in Berlin, where she was tasked with overseeing Joseph Goebbels private papers. It did not take long before the smooth talking Goebbels made his move, and by early 1931, he and Magda were dating. They were married later that year, with Hitler acting as best man. When the Nazis secured power, Magda’s husband became one of Germany’s most powerful men, and one of Hitler’s most trusted and devoted advisers.
Magda and Joseph Goebbels had six children, who became Hitler’s favorites. However, when the Third Reich finally came crashing down in 1945, with Red Army soldiers storming into the German capital, Hitler chose to end his life rather than surrender. Magda and Joseph Goebbels decided to demonstrate their devotion to the Fuhrer by following him into death. However, Magda was not content with just her own death and that of her husband: she decided to also kill her six children, ranging in age from four to twelve.
Once Magda Goebbels had convinced herself of the need, and even the desirability, of killing her kids, there was no turning back, and she turned a deaf ear to all offers to smuggle her children to safety. As to how she would go about killing her children, Magda decided upon knocking them out with morphine, then finishing them off by crushing cyanide capsules between their teeth. On May 1st, 1945, one day after Hitler’s suicide in his Berlin bunker, Magda, with the help of an SS doctor, administered morphine to her kids, then killed them with cyanide. A few hours later, she and Joseph Goebbels committed suicide.
The most horrific of the Goebbels children’s death was that of Hitler’s favorite girl, Helga. It seems that the morphine had not kept her under for long. At some point, she came to, became aware that her siblings were being murdered by having poisonous capsules crushed between their teeth, and resisted having the same done to her. Helga’s last moments were spent in a ferocious fight, as her mother and an SS man forced poison into her mouth. An autopsy, and photographs taken of her face, showed heavy bruising. Her jaw also seems to have been broken during the struggle to force cyanide into her mouth.
10. Isabella Of France Overthrew Her Husband, Then Had Him Killed With a Hot Iron Up the Rear
King Edward II of England grew too fond of his favorite Hugh Despenser, who was rumored to be his lover. That humiliated and alienated Edward’s queen, Isabella, also known as “The She Wolf of France” (1295 – 1358). While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled opponent of the king. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers, and deposed Edward II. The king was replaced with his 14 year old son, who was crowned Edward III, with Mortimer governing the realm as regent.
The deposed Edward II was imprisoned, but there were numerous plots to free him. Eventually, Isabella and Mortimer decided to eliminate the threat by eliminating their prisoner. Not wishing to leave marks of murder on the body, and contemptuous of Edward, his killers did him in by holding him down and shoving a red hot poker up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, then a red hot metal bolt was dropped down it and into his bowels.
9. Edward IV’s Generosity Towards His Younger Brother Was Repaid With Ingratitude
The 1st Duke of Clarence, George Plantagenet (1449 – 1478), was the younger son of Richard, Duke of York. His father’s attempts to secure power kicked of the Wars of the Roses between the royal Plantagenet Dynasty’s houses of York and Lancaster. The Duke of York was killed in the war, but the Yorkists eventually won when George’s elder brother, Edward, broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461. He then deposed the Lancastrian king Henry VI, and crowned himself Edward IV. George was made Duke of Clarence, and the following year, although only thirteen years old, he was also made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
As he grew into early manhood, George idolized Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, AKA “The Kingmaker”, who had played a key role in the Yorkist victory. George married Neville’s daughter in defiance of his brother’s plans to marry him into a European royal family to secure a dynastic alliance. The Kingmaker eventually fell out with king Edward, and deserted to the Lancastrians. George rewarded his brother’s earlier generosity with betrayal. Despite being a member of the York family, George took his father-in-law’s side, and joined the Lancastrians as well. With the Kingmaker’s machinations, Edward IV was deposed and forced to flee England in 1470, and the once-deposed Lancastrian king Henry VI was restored to the throne.
8. George Plantagenet Kept Testing His Older Brother
George Plantagenet eventually came to mistrust his father-in-law, the Kingmaker, and returned to his brother’s side. Edward IV returned to England in 1471, and defeated the Lancastrians in a battle during which the Kingmaker was killed. Restored to the throne, Edward ensured that the twice deposed Henry VI would trouble him no more by having him murdered, after having already executed Henry’s son and sole heir. Edward pardoned his younger brother George, and restored him to royal favor.
George was incorrigible, however. In 1478, he was caught once again plotting against the king. Finally fed up with his wayward sibling, Edward IV had George arrested and jailed in the Tower of London, and tried him for treason. Personally conducting the prosecution before Parliament, Edward secured a conviction and Bill of Attainder against his brother, who was condemned to death. On February 18th, 1478, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was executed by getting dunked into a big barrel of Malmsey wine, and forcibly held under until he drowned.
The Ptolemaic Dynasty’s most famous ruler, Cleopatra VII, carried on the family’s tradition of incest by marrying her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. Also carrying on another family tradition, this one of infighting, the siblings fell out, and Cleopatra was forced to flee Egypt to Syria. She soon returned with an army, and waged a civil war that tore the kingdom apart. The conflict seesawed between brother and sister/ husband and wife, until Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in 48 BC, and sided with Cleopatra, who became his mistress.
Cleopatra’s brother refused to accept the Roman dictator’s decision, however, and sought to contest the issue militarily. It did not work out well for him, and in the Battle of the Nile in December of 48 BC, Ptolemy XIII’s army was routed by Caesar. Cleopatra’s brother/ husband drowned in the aftermath, either accidentally or at the hands of his sister’s agents. Cleopatra then married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, while continuing her affair with Caesar. She bore the Roman dictator a son, Caesarion, the future Ptolemy XV – the dynasty’s last nominal ruler.
6. Fredegonde Tossed Out Her Baby To Avoid Catching an Illness From Him
Any list of history’s meanest parents has to include Fredegonde (circa 545 – 597), as cartoonishly evil a mother as they come. She began her career as a servant of Audovera, the wife of Frankish king Chilperic I of Soissons, and eventually seduced the king. She convinced Chilperic to divorce Audovera and dump her into a convent, then became the royal mistress. At some point, Chilperic tired of Fredegonde and set her aside to marry a noblewoman, Galswintha. Fredegonde took care of that by personally strangling Galswintha to death.
Chilperic got the message, and Fredegonde resumed her place at his side as his official mistress and queen consort. In 580, the kingdom was swept by a dysentery epidemic, which struck king Chilperic and two of his sons with Fredegonde. She took that as a sign of divine displeasure for her sins, and for a while, she made some efforts to mend her ways. That did not last long, and she soon went back to being cartoonishly evil. While besieged in a city, another of her sons, this one an infant, came down with a serious illness. Fredegonde was not exactly the doting mother type: worried that she might catch whatever her baby had, she ordered the baby cast away, and let him die.
While Fredegonde’s casting out of her baby to die could not be justified, it could at least be understood as being driven by an animal instinct for survival and the desire, ignoble as it might be, to save herself. Not so what she did to her own daughter, Rigunth. A chip off the old block, Rigunth was just as scheming as her mother, but not nearly as wily and ruthless. As she grew into a beautiful young woman, Rigunth took to bragging that she would soon take her mother’s place as the king’s mistress and queen consort. She should have recalled what her mother had done to other rivals, before running off the mouth like that. A jealous Fredegonde responded by trying to crush her daughter’s head.
As described by a medieval chronicler: “Fredegonde was jealous of her own daughter, Rigunth, who continually declared that she should be mistress in her place. she waited her opportunity and under the pretense of magnanimity took her to the treasure-room and showed her the King’s jewels in a large chest. Feigning fatigue, she exclaimed “I am weary; put thou in thy hand, and take out what thou mayest find.” The mother thereupon forced down the lid on her neck and would have killed her had not the servants finally rushed to her aid“.
4. Ivan the Terrible Killed His Son With His Own Hands
Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547, after which he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias”, which became the title of Russian monarchs from then on. He created a centralized government and was a grand conqueror who finally overthrew the last remnants of Mongol subjugation beneath which Russia had groaned for centuries. He also subjugated the neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanding Russia’s borders. On the other hand, Ivan was an insanely cruel despot who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror.
Ivan the Terrible’s own family were not spared his fits of uncontrollable rage. In 1581, he saw his pregnant daughter-in-law, the wife of his son and heir, the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich (1554 – 1581), wearing light summer clothes that the conservative and prudish Tsar thought were too revealing. So he violently assaulted her, viciously enough to cause her to miscarry. When Ivan Ivanovich angrily berated him for attacking his wife, his psycho father smashed his head in with his scepter, causing a fatal wound from which he died a few days later. Ivan the Terrible followed him 3 years later, dying from a stroke while playing chess.
In 334 BC, Alexander the Great kicked off his conquest of the Persian Empire by defeating the Persian governor of Asia Minor at the Battle of the Granicus River. That got the attention of Persia’s king Darius III, so he set out at the head of a huge army to settle Alexander’s hash in person. They met at the Battle of Isus in 333 BC, another Persian defeat, that ended with Darius fleeing the field. He left behind not only his defeated men, as well as his baggage and supplies, but also his family and harem.
Persian kings traditionally took their womenfolk with them on campaign, so when Darius ran away at Isus, he left behind his wife, two daughters, and his mother, Sisygambus. Alexander treated them with respect, but Darius’ flight left Sisygambis seething with contempt for her son, who ran away and left her behind. The Persian king was beaten by Alexander once more at the Battle of Gaugamela, which also ended with Darius fleeing the field. When Darius was eventually killed, Alexander sent his body to Sisygambis, to mourn for and bury him. Instead, she coldly said: “I have but one son [meaning Alexander] and he is king of all Persia“. By contrast, when Alexander died a decade later, Sisygambis went into paroxysms of mourning, refusing to leave her room or eat, and died of grief a few days later.
2. Ptolemy X Was Favored by His Mother Over His Brother – So He Murdered Her
Queen Cleopatra III of Egypt made no bones about the fact that she had a favorite son, Alexander. However, when her husband died, it was Cleopatra’s less favored son who ended up succeeding him on the throne as Ptolemy IX. Thing was, Cleopatra really wanted Alexander to rule instead of his brother. So in 107 BC, she falsely accused the unfortunate Ptolemy IX of having tried to murder her, and engineered a coup that overthrew and deposed him. His place was taken by her favorite, Alexander, who mounted the throne as Ptolemy X.
Having placed her favorite son on the throne, Cleopatra set out to enjoy her twilight years, ruling as co-regent with Ptolemy X. Unfortunately for her, that enjoyment did not last long as she might have hoped, because the favorite son whom she had made king demonstrated his ingratitude in the most visceral way possible. In 101 BC, six years into their joint rule, Ptolemy X tired of his mother, and had her murdered. A popular uprising overthrew him in 88 BC, and forced him to flee to Syria. He returned with a mercenary army, which he paid by looting and melting down the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. That infuriated the Alexandrians, who deposed and chased him out of Egypt again. He was killed during his flight, and was succeeded by his brother, the previous king Ptolemy IX, who had been deposed by their mother, the murdered Cleopatra III.
1. Constantine VI Might Have Had History’s Meanest Mommy
Byzantine emperor Constantine VI (771 – died before 805) ascended the throne as a child, following the death of his father Leo IV in 780. Since Constantine was only nine years when he was crowned, his mother, the empress Irene, ruled in his place as regent. At the time, the empire was roiled by nasty conflict known as Iconoclasm, between those who viewed the veneration of religious icons as idolatry (Iconoclasts), and those who were OK with icons (Iconodules). In the preceding decades, Iconoclasts had held the upper hand, and, icons were banned throughout the Empire. Irene was an Iconodule, however, and after consolidating her power, she set about undoing the preceding decades of Iconoclasm with all the tenacity and enthusiasm of a religious zealot. In her determination to let nothing stand in the way of her religious mission, Irene rode roughshod over the Iconclasts – including her own son.
Irene began by calling a called a church council in 786, and packed it with opponents of Iconoclasm. Unsurprisingly, they council concluded that Iconoclasm had been a huge mistake. That kicked off a Byzantine counter reformation against the Iconoclasts, who resisted the return of religious imagery just as vehemently as their opponents had resisted the destruction of icons. When Constantine VI finally came of age, he declared himself an Iconoclast. Irene demonstrated the strength of her faith by overthrowing him, and in 797, she staged a coup that deposed Constantine, and put her on the throne in his place. She then ordered her son’s mutilation by gouging out his eyes. Constantine was maimed so severely, that he died of his wounds soon thereafter. Irene then proclaimed herself empress, and continued her quest to undo Iconoclasm and reintroduce religious imagery.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading