Antonia Minor (36 BC – 37 AD) was the younger daughter of Mark Antony and Emperor Augustus’ sister Octavia Minor. In 16 BC, she married the future Emperor Tiberius’ brother, Drusus, and bore him several children, of whom three survived: Germanicus, father of Emperor Caligula and maternal Grandfather of Emperor Nero; the future Emperor Claudius; and a daughter, Livilla. Her husband died in 9 BC from injuries sustained after falling from a horse, and although her uncle Augustus and the rest of the family pressured Antonia to remarry, she never did. She developed a reputation as an old fashioned and straitlaced prude, who embodied the traditional virtues of Roman matrons. So it was unfortunate for all involved that her daughter Livilla became a chief participant in a scandal that rocked Rome to its foundations.
Livilla was married to another Drusus, her cousin and the son of the Emperor Tiberius, when she began an affair with Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. He and Livilla poisoned Drusus, then plotted to kill Tiberius so Sejanus could replace him on the throne. Antonia Minor, however, tipped off Tiberius that Sejanus planned to kill him, so the emperor beat him to the punch and had him executed. In the subsequent investigation, evidence emerged that Livilla had been involved in the plot, and that she had poisoned her husband Drusus. Tiberius spared Livilla’s life, and instead handed her over to her mother. To save face, Antonia Minor locked her daughter in a room, and starved her to death.
37. Ottoman Sultans Routinely Murdered Their Siblings
Throughout history, many kingdoms collapsed into chaos, and many ruling dynasties vanished into the dustbin of history, because of infighting by royal siblings competing for the throne. The early Ottoman Turks tackled that problem head on, with one of the most ruthless solutions possible: as soon as a new Ottoman Sultan ascended the throne, he immediately executed all his brothers. The prospects of deadly rivalries and civil wars were thus eliminated by the simple expedient of eliminating all potential male claimants to the throne.
The early Ottomans had no clear-cut rules of succession. When princes reached puberty, their father the Sultan usually sent them out to govern a province, where they often built up a power base of ambitious followers, eager to prosper by urging their royal governor to make a bid for the throne upon his father’s death. Thus, the death of a Sultan was often followed by a bout of civil war between his sons, and the early reign of a new Sultan was often marked by the revolts of envious brothers seeking to replace him on the throne. Eventually, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror enacted a Law of Governance, stating in relevant part: “Any of my sons who ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people. The majority of the ulema [Muslim scholars] approve this; let action be taken accordingly“.
36. The Ottoman Sultans’ “Humane” Alternative to Murdering Their Brothers
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s successors usually heeded his advice to maintain the stability of the realm by preemptively executing their brothers upon ascending the throne. It was a cruel expedient, but it worked: for the next two centuries, the Ottoman Empire was remarkably stable and free of infighting and civil wars when compared to its contemporaries. However, although the system worked, the consciences of many throughout the realm were bothered by the murder of innocent royal siblings at the start of each reign. Those misgivings reached a peak when Sultan Mehmed III (reigned 1595 – 1603) inaugurated his reign by ordering his 19 brothers, some of them mere infants, strangled to death. It was said that “the Empire wept” as a long line of child-sized coffins exited the palace in a grand procession the next day.
Eventually, a reaction set in against that tradition of fratricide, and a new tradition was developed to take its place: instead of new Sultans outright murdering their siblings upon ascending the throne, they simply locked them up. Thus was born the system of the Ottoman Kafes, or “Cage”, whereby Sultans set up a secluded part of their royal Harem as a detention center for their brothers. There, potential rivals to the throne were kept under house arrest, under surveillance by palace guards and isolated from the outside world to prevent intrigues and plots. As seen below, life in the Kafes could be rough, but for those living in it, the very fact that they were still living at all meant that it (usually) beat the alternative.
35. Sultan Murad IV Got a Kick Out of Playing Deadly Mind Games With His Captive Brothers
Unlike many of his predecessors, Sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623 – 1640) did not murder his siblings upon ascending the throne, and settled instead for locking them up inside his Harem in the Kafes, or “Cage”. While the Kafes system was set up as a more merciful alternative to how prior generations of Ottoman Sultans had dealt with their brothers, it might not have been much of a mercy in Murad’s case. All things considered, many of his imprisoned male siblings might have wished that Murad had simply gotten it over and done with, and gone ahead and executed them at the start of his reign.
Murad IV seems to have combined paranoia with sadism. He constantly suspected his captive brothers of plotting against him, and never tired of trying to entrap them into saying any careless old thing that could remotely be interpreted as validating his suspicions. Murad sent seemingly sympathetic guards or servants to try and draw out this or that imprisoned brother into uttering anything that could be seen as treasonous. Any slip of the tongue could result in an imprisoned sibling getting accused of plotting against the Sultan, who was just itching for an excuse to execute his brothers. That eagerness to shed blood was unsurprising, considering that Murad’s “entertainment” included shooting arrows to kill any unwary fishermen whose boats drifted to close to his seaside palace.
34. Murad IV’s Mind Games Left His Last Surviving Brother a Gibbering Idiot
Ibrahim I, AKA The Mad Sultan (reigned 1640 – 1648), was imprisoned in the Kafes at age 8 when his brother Murad IV ascended the throne in 1623. While in the Kafes, Murad executed his other brothers, one by one, until only Ibrahim was left, quaking in fear that he might be next. He remained in confinement until he was suddenly dragged out of the Kafes to ascend the throne following Murad’s death in 1640. Ibrahim refused at first, and rushed back into the Kafes to barricade himself inside, suspecting it was a cruel trick to entrap him into saying or doing something that his fratricidal brother would take as treasonous. Only after Murad’s dead body was brought to the door for him to examine, and the intercession of his mother “who had to coax him out like a kitten with food“, was Ibrahim convinced to accept the throne.
By then, however, the years of isolation in the Kafes, and the constant terror that he might get executed at any moment, had unhinged Ibrahim and left him unfit to rule. Already known to be mentally unstable, his condition was worsened by depression over the death of his brother the Sultan, whom he apparently loved in a Stockholm Syndrome type of way. An early worrying sign was the new Sultan’s habit of feeding the fish in the palace pool with coins instead of food. As it became clear that Ibrahim was crazy, his mother ruled in his stead. She also encouraged him to spend as much time as possible in the Harem with his nearly 300 concubines – both to keep him out of her hair and out of trouble, and to father male heirs since, by then, Ibrahim was the last surviving male of the Ottoman dynasty.
33. Murad IV Turned His Successor Into “The Mad Sultan”
Murad IV’s sadistic mind games while his brother Ibrahim was locked up in the Kafes drove his sibling insane. After getting coaxed into accepting the throne, Ibrahim I, the Mad Sultan, took to having the run of the Harem with a relish, swiftly fathering three future Sultans, plus a number of daughters. Until he woke up one morning, and in a fit of madness, ordered the roughly 300 women of his Harem tied up in weighted sacks, and drowned in the Bosporus. Ibrahim also engaged in other depravities, such as kidnapping the daughter of the Grand Mufti – the Empire’s highest religious authority – and ravishing her for days, before returning her to her father.
Eventually, Ibrahim exiled his mother, who had been ruling in his stead, and assumed personal control of the government. The results were catastrophic: after ordering the execution of his most capable ministers, he spent profligately until he emptied the treasury, even as he got himself into a series of wars and managed them poorly. By 1647, between heavy taxes to pay for the bungled wars and for Ibrahim’s extravagant lifestyle, and with a Venetian blockade of the Dardanelles that brought the Ottoman capital to the brink of starvation, discontent boiled over. A revolt erupted in 1648, urged on by religious scholars, and the army joined in. An angry mob seized Ibrahim’s Grand Vizier and tore him to pieces, and the Sultan was deposed in favor of his 6 year old son. A fatwa was then issued for Ibrahim’s execution, which was carried out by strangulation on August 18th, 1648.
32. Messalina Was Done in by Her Husband, Claudius
Valeria Messalina (circa 20 – 48 AD) was Emperor Augustus’ great grand-niece, and a cousin of the emperors Caligula and Nero. Along with Augustus’ daughter Julia, who was banished by her father for excessive promiscuity, Messalina is probably one of the most notoriously promiscuous women in Roman history. Her path to becoming Empress began in 37 AD, when the future Emperor Claudius, thirty years her senior, picked her to be his third wife. As with many unions between young women and much older men, the marriage did not work out. Aside from the age difference, Claudius was an exceptionally physically unappealing man: he limped, stuttered, and drooled. Those shortcomings led the imperial family to sideline him as an embarrassment and borderline idiot. He was no idiot – indeed, he was a scholar and the Roman equivalent of a nerd. Still, he was not exactly the type to set pretty girls’ hearts aflutter.
Claudius doted on his younger wife, who used her sexual allure to wrap him around her finger. When he became emperor in 41, Messalina got Claudius to execute or exile anybody who displeased her – and a good many people displeased her. She seems to have despised Claudius, and cheated on him nonstop. Brazenly so: in one instance, salacious contemporary accounts had her winning a competition with a prostitute to see who could sleep with the most people in one night. Her most famous affair was with a senator, Gaius Silius, with whom she plotted to murder Claudius, so Silius could take his place on the throne. Considering the recklessness with which she went about it, she might have been a bit unhinged: while Claudius was out of Rome, Messalina married Silius, and celebrated it with a huge banquet. Claudius rushed back to Rome, confirmed the affair, and had her executed.
31. Claudius Was Done in by His Next Wife, Agrippina
Claudius was very unfortunate when it came to marriage. He divorced his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, for adultery after she became pregnant by one of Claudius’ freedmen, and because she was suspected of murdering her sister-in-law. His second marriage, to Aelia Paetina, also ended in divorce, because she mentally and physically abused him. His first two wives cheated on or abused Claudius, but at least they did not try to murder him. His third wife did. Valeria Messalina seemingly slept with half of Rome, publicly wed another man while still married to Claudius, and plotted with her lover and bigamous husband to murder her imperial hubby and usurp his throne. That marriage ended in Messalina’s execution. An incorrigible optimist, Claudius married for a fourth time, this time wedding his niece Agrippina the Younger (15 – 59 AD), thirty three years his junior. That marriage ended with her poisoning him to death.
Agrippina was the granddaughter of Roman Emperor Augustus, and the younger sister of Emperor Caligula. At age 13, she married a cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and bore him a son, the future Emperor Nero. Ahenobarbus died in 41 AD, and when Claudius executed Messalina in 48 AD, he chose Agrippina as his fourth wife. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and make him his heir and recognized successor in lieu of his biological son with Messalina, Britannicus. By 54 AD, Claudius seemed to repent of marrying Agrippina, and began favoring Britannicus and preparing him for the throne. So Agrippina poisoned Claudius at a banquet with a plate of deadly mushrooms. For the remainder of her life, she jokingly referred to mushrooms as “the food of the gods” (because Roman emperors were deified as gods after their deaths, and by killing Claudius, mushrooms had made him a god).
Having secured the throne for her underage son Nero by poisoning her husband, the Emperor Claudius, Agrippina the Younger set out to rule by dominating Nero. Salacious contemporary accounts report that she controlled her teenaged son 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 might shed some light on how Nero ended up so unhinged and depraved. When Nero grew older 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 plans to do in his mother, because he wanted to make her death look accidental. His schemes were straight out of Looney Tunes. He had a roof constructed that was designed to fall down on top of his mother, but she survived the crash. He then gifted Agrippina with a pleasure barge that was specially designed to collapse. The barge did collapse as designed 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, and abandoning all pretense, he ordered some sailors go and club his mother to death with oars.
Quipping about how Herod the Great of Judea (74 BC – circa 1 AD) treated his offspring, the Roman Emperor Augustus remarked: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son“. The Roman client king built some massive projects during his reign, such as the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the fortress of Masada. However, he is best known from the Christian Gospels as the king who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents when Jesus was born. His reign had started off well, but as it progressed, Herod started getting paranoid about plots against him, some real, others imaginary. Those around Herod manipulated his fears, causing him to often lash out violently. The victims of his wrath included members of his own family.
Herod was born to an Edomite father, from a people who had been forcibly converted to Judaism only a generation or two before Herod’s birth. However, he was raised as a nominal Jew, and he married into the ruling Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty, tying the knot with princess Mariamne, one of the last Hasmonean heirs. He then killed her relatives, removing contenders for the throne of Judea, and got the Romans to make him king of the Jews. Understandably, that gave Mariamne plenty of cause to resent her husband. As seen below, that did not turn out well for Mariamne. It also did not turn out well for two of her sons with Herod, Alexander and Aristobolus, who resented how their father had treated their mother.
Mariamne was a stunning beauty, and Herod was crazy about her – but not in a good way. On the one hand, he was passionately in love with her. On the other hand, he was also crazy jealous. While Herod loved Mariamne, she did not return the feeling. It was probably understandable, considering that Herod had killed her brother and uncle, and that Herod’s father had killed Mariamne’s father, then embalmed him in a tub of honey. Nonetheless, Herod had five children with her – two girls and three boys.
In 29 BC, Herod suspected Mariamne of plotting against him, so he had her executed. Understandably, her children resented that, and grew up with a fractious relationship with their father. Two in particular, Alexander and Aristobolus, did a poor job of hiding their resentment of Herod, which led him to suspect them of plotting against him to avenge the execution of their mother. So Herod imprisoned Alexander in 10 BC, and three years later, had him and his brother Aristobolus charged with treason. Both were convicted, and Herod ordered his sons strangled to death in 7 BC, giving rise to Augustus’ quip that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.
27. Being Herod’s Son Was Still Better Than Being Herod’s Wife
Herod was obsessed with his wife Mariamne, who was said to be drop-dead gorgeous. However, considering how many of her relatives Herod had murdered, Mariamne could not bring herself to love him back. Eventually, after having five children with Herod, Mariamne stopped having sex with him, which fueled his suspicions that she was cheating on him. Herod’s mother and sister fanned those suspicions, and added to them accusations that Mariamne planned to poison him, as well. Eventually, Herod ordered Mariamne executed in 29 BC. That was bad enough, but things soon went from bad to grotesque.
Despite having ordered Mariamne’s execution, Herod exhibited intense grief for her death. He often broke into uncontrollable fits of sobbing, went into a deep depression, and was unable to let her go. That is, Herod was literally unable to let her go. According to the Talmud, Herod had his dead wife’s body preserved, and he kept making love to the corpse for seven whole years. The Talmud described it as Herod “fulfilling his animalistic desires” with the cadaver. It wasn’t just icky, but also sticky: Herod had supposedly preserved Mariamne’s corpse with honey.
26. The Empress Who Smothered Her Daughter and Deposed Her Son
Wu Hou (624 – 705), who combined beauty with brains and utter ruthlessness, was taken into Chinese Emperor Taizong’s harem as a concubine at age 14. However, the aging emperor was not into intelligent women, so he did not favor Wu Hou. Being an intelligent woman, she looked ahead, and had an affair with the emperor’s son and eventual successor. The son was not intimidated by smart women, and when he became Emperor Gaozong after his father’s death, he made Wu Hou his favorite concubine. He eventually elevated her to his second wife – a huge jump in the imperial harem’s rankings. Not content to remain second fiddle, however, Wu Hou reportedly strangled her own infant daughter, and framed the emperor’s first wife for the death. The intrigue worked, and Wu Hou became the emperor’s official consort.
Wu Hou then set out to enhance her power, and methodically went about eliminating her opponents. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, she became empress dowager and regent, running the empire in the name of her son, Emperor Zhongzong. When Zhongzong ascended the throne in his own right in 684, he tried to buck his mother and get out from under her thumb. He lasted only six weeks on the throne, before Wu Hou had him deposed, exiled, and replaced with her youngest son, whom she made Emperor Ruizong. She maintained all power in her own hands, and six years later, she tired of bothering with any pretense about who actually ran China, and made Ruizong relinquish the throne. Wu Hou then officially proclaimed herself empress regnant, and ruled in that capacity until she was overthrown in 705.
25. Geta Was Murdered by His Brother While Cowering in the Arms of Their Mother
Brothers Geta and Caracalla jointly inherited Rome’s imperial throne when their father, the Emperor Septimius Severus, died in Britain in 211. Severus had been a generally capable emperor, who had unified the empire and restored order after a period of chaos following the death of Emperor Commodus (the evil ruler from Gladiator). However, handing the empire over to his sons to rule jointly was not one of Severus’ better ideas. Even during their father’s life, the siblings had been bitter rivals, and things only got worse when they became co-emperors.
During the journey back to Rome with their father’s ashes, Caracalla and Geta quarreled nonstop, and their already tense relationship steadily grew more toxic. At some point, they decided to avert open conflict by splitting the empire between themselves, with Caracalla ruling the western half of the Roman Empire, and Geta ruling the eastern half. However, their mother talked them out of it, and arranged a reconciliation meeting between them for December 26th, 211. When looking back at how the get together went down, she probably kicked herself for not having simply let her sons go their separate ways. Caracalla ordered his henchmen to murder his sibling at the meeting. A grievously wounded Geta fell into his mother’s bosom, and she frantically begged Caracalla to call off his men. He ignored her pleas, and personally finished off his brother with a knife while Geta cowered in their mother’s arms.
24. The Emperor Who Went Out of His Way to Show His Sister Who Was Boss
Peter the Great ascended the throne as a child, and throughout much of his youth, his elder sister Sophia Alekseyevna ran Russia as regent. She got used to power, but as Peter he grew up, he began asserting his independence. When Sophia resisted surrendering her power, he had her locked up in a monastery. In 1698, while Peter was still getting a feel for his power, the Streltsy regiments – a sort of medieval Russian Praetorian Guard – rebelled, and sought to overthrow Peter and replace him on the throne with Sophia.
A lover of Sophia led the Streltsy rebellion while Peter was out of the country, forcing him to rush back to Russia. By the time he got back home, the rebellion had already collapsed. Upon reaching Moscow, he brutally suppressed and broke the Streltsy, who were tortured and executed by the thousands. Peter played an active part in the executions, personally chopping off the heads of rebels with an ax in public, in what is now Moscow’s Red Square. He spared Sophia’s life, but strung up the bodies of executed Streltsy outside her monastery, and left the corpse of her lover dangling from a rope directly outside her window.
23. Peter the Great Forced His Wife to Keep the Pickled Head of Her Lover In Her Bedroom
Peter the Great seems to have had a thing for intimidating the women in his family. Late in his reign, rumors made the rounds that Peter’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.
22. Attila Assumed Sole Rule of the Huns by Murdering his Brother
Attila was born in 406 into the Hun royal family, and inherited the crown jointly with his brother Bleda in 434. The brothers were challenged early on, but crushed the opposition. When their surviving enemies fled to the Roman Empire, the brothers invaded and forced the Romans to surrender the fugitives and agree to an annual tribute of 230 kilograms of gold. Attila and Bleda then turned their attention to the Persian Empire, which they invaded and plundered for years before they were beaten back. They then returned their attention to Europe and the Roman Empire.
Attila and Bleda crossed the Danube in 440, plundered the Balkans, and destroyed two Roman armies. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and the brothers extorted from him a new treaty that paid them 2000 kilograms of gold up front, plus an annual tribute of 700 kilograms of gold. Soon thereafter, Attila tired of the joint kingship, and decided to consolidate power and rule alone. So in 445, during a wild boar hunt, Attila had his brother seized, shot him to death with arrows, then claimed that it had been a hunting accident.
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