The ancient Greeks and Romans accepted, or at least tolerated, some homosexual relationships between men. However, their tolerance was within limits. Intercourse between men did not carry much of a stigma in of itself – at least not for the top, or the guy who did the penetration. Exclusive bottoms – the ones penetrated – were often reviled, though. Effeminate behavior on the part of men jeopardized their social status. Tough and manly gay warriors were respected. Those perceived as girlie were not.
Many rulers engaged in homosexual relations with other men, without loss of prestige. Take Emperor Hadrian. He was so passionate about his young lover Antinous, that he made him a god after his accidental death. However, emperors like Hadrian were tops, and avoided effeminate behavior. Emperors who broke that taboo, such as the flamboyantly effeminate Heliogabalus, ended badly. So huge was the taboo against effeminacy that to even joke about it could get one killed. One jerk who found that out the hard way was Periander, a seventh century BC Greek tyrant of Ambracia. As seen below, he paid dearly for a gay joke that he cracked at the expense of his lover.
Periander of Ambracia got drunk one day, and joked to his young lover: “aren’t you pregnant by me yet?” As seen above, ancient Greek attitudes towards homosexual acts were complicated. To do it was acceptable, but to talk about it, as in kiss and tell, was not. Especially when it came to other free Greek men, as there was a stigma of effeminacy attached to receptive partners, or bottoms who were penetrated. Ancient Greek culture was a macho one, in which masculinity and martial prowess were highly esteemed, and perceptions of effeminacy could greatly harm a man’s status.
Periander cracked his joke in the presence of others at his court. That transformed things from what could have been handled as a private lovers’ quarrel, and into a public humiliation. Periander thought the crack was hilarious, and so did many of those present. One person who did not think it was funny was the tyrant’s young lover, the butt of the joke. Shamed that his lover had accused him of effeminacy, and enraged that he had done so publicly, he grabbed a knife took Periander’s life then and there.
Charles Edward Stuart (1720 – 1788), commonly known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, has been greatly romanticized. Grandson of Britain’s last Catholic monarch, the exiled King James II, Charles was the last serious Stuart Dynasty claimant to the British throne. Stuart supporters, known as Jacobites, frequently rebelled against Britain’s new ruling dynasty, the Hanoverians. The last such rebellion in 1745-1746, led by Charles himself as a young man in his mid-twenties, culminated in catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. His dramatic escape afterwards cemented Charlie as a romantic figure of heroic failure. However, while thousands eagerly risked and willingly gave their lives for Charles, the Bonnie Prince probably deserved neither their admiration nor sacrifice.
The real life Charles Edward Stuart, as opposed to the romanticized Bonnie Prince Charlie, was a jerk. He was often a pretty seedy and slimy man. He was known for his grace and charm as a youth, but that only masked many dark facets of his personality. Among other things, he liked to beat up women – most notoriously his wife, Princess Louise of Stolberg-Gedden. He married her when she was nineteen and he was fifty one. Obsessively controlling, he strung alarm bells around her bed at night to alert him if she tried to sneak off to see a lover. He beat her up so often, that she begged the pope for help. She was finally freed of his clutches when they separated after twelve years of marriage.
Bonnie Prince Charlie was not just a woman beater, but also an alcoholic. His alcoholism got worse after his defeat at Culloden, transformed him into an even bigger jerk, and wrecked what was left of his prospects. It was right around that time that he seduced and took for his mistress a young and innocent girl, Marie Louise de la Tour d’Auvergne. He got her pregnant, then immediately broke her heart by callously ditching her for another mistress. He went out of his way to rub it in the poor girl’s face. At an opera, he showed up with his new mistress because he knew that Louise would be there. Distraught, she left in tears. She gave birth to a son, who died two years later.
Charlie’s wife was not the only woman he beat up. Before her, there was his mistress Clementina Walkinshaw, who bore him a daughter, Charlotte, in 1753. He beat her up so often that she fled with her daughter in 1760. For years, Charles’ mistress and his daughter sheltered from him in convents, while he lived in palaces and refused to support them. When Charlotte grew up, Charles refused to let her marry. So she took up a secret lover: the Archbishop of Bordeaux, whom she bore three illegitimate children. Despite his poor treatment of Charlotte, Charles expected her loyalty. When he suffered a stroke, he summoned her to Italy to take care of him. She had to leave her children behind in France, and for years, took care of her dying father. She never saw her children again, died at age thirty six, shortly after Charles.
Genghis Khan is one of history’s scariest people, but he was not as lethal as an even deadlier medieval warrior: Timur (1336 – 1405). Byname Timur Link, which means “Timur the Lame” in Turkish, Timur was the last great Eurasian Steppe conqueror who terrified the civilized world with widespread devastation and butchery. He is chiefly remembered for his savagery, and his massive rampage from India to Russia and the Mediterranean and points in between. Timur killed about 17 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s population at the time. That would be equivalent to almost 400 million people in 2023.
A Muslim Turko-Mongol who claimed descent from Genghis Khan, Timur was born in the Chagatai Khanate in today’s Uzbekistan. It was ruled by Genghis’ descendants at the time, and Timur’s rise began in 1360, when he led Turkic tribesmen on behalf of the Chagatai Khan. However, the Khan was murdered by rivals, and that triggered a struggle for power. When the dust settled, Timur had emerged as the power behind a throne occupied by a figurehead Chagatai puppet, through whom Timur ruled.
Timur’s supposed descent from Genghis Khan was dubious. He nonetheless used it to justify his conquests as a restoration of the by then-defunct Mongol Empire. He claimed that he sought to re-impose legitimate Mongol rule over lands that had been wrongfully seized by usurpers. With those justifications, Timur spent 35 years roiling the medieval world. In that stretch, he earned a reputation for brutal savagery as he brought fire and sword to the lands between the Indus and Volga rivers, the Himalayas and the Mediterranean.
Among the cities he left depopulated and wrecked were Damascus and Aleppo in Syria; Baghdad in Iraq; Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde, and Ryazan, both in Russia; India’s Delhi, outside whose walls he massacred over 100,000 captives; and Isfahan in Iran, where he massacred 200,000. Timur also liked to pile up pyramids of severed heads. Additionally, he often cemented live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erected towers of his victims’ skulls as object lessons and to terrorize would-be opponents.
Timur’s most dramatic victory came at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. A rising power in their own right, the Ottomans were as exuberantly confident in their prowess as was Timur. For years, heated letters were exchanged between Timur and Ottoman Sultan Bayezid, until Timur finally showed up with his army in 1402, crushed Bayezid, and imprisoned him. To humiliate his prisoner, Timur kept him in a cage at court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve the victor and his courtiers, naked.
Timur’s decades-long rampage finally ended in 1405. As he prepared to invade China, he took ill, and died before he could launch the campaign. His grave was reportedly cursed. His body was exhumed by Soviet anthropologists on June 19th, 1941. Carved inside his tomb were the words “When I rise from the dead, the word shall tremble“. Two days later, the Nazis launched the largest military operation of all time against the USSR. The Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth. Just to be on the safe side, in November, 1942, shortly before Operation Uranus which led to the first major Soviet victory at Stalingrad, Timur was reburied with full Islamic rituals.
The Real Dracula Liked to Stick Stakes Up People’s Behinds
Vlad III was a medieval ruler of Wallachia, a region of what is now southern Romania. He was born circa 1430 in Transylvania, the son of Vlad II, an exiled aristocrat. Better known to history as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, he terrified his contemporaries, and still sends shivers down spines to the present day. His nickname, Dracula, means “son of Dracul”. It is derived from the Latin draco, or dragon, after his father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to rally Christians against the Ottoman Turks. He was the real life inspiration for Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire, and was a serious jerk at times. Vlad’s other sobriquet, the Impaler, he got from his preferred punishment. The real life Dracula did not suck people’s blood. Instead, he shoved sharpened stakes up their butts.
Vlad III’s father took Wallachia’s throne in 1436, but was kicked out a few years later by rivals. So he switched sides, and allied with the Ottoman Sultan, who restored him to power. To demonstrate his loyalty, he sent two sons, Vlad III and his brother Radu, to the Sultan’s court as hostages. Radu eventually converted to Islam, but not Vlad. He disliked the Ottomans and resented his father for his betrayal of the Order of the Dragon, into which Vlad himself had been inducted when he was five-years-old. Vlad the Impaler’s father was again overthrown in 1447, and this time his enemies killed him. The Ottomans marched in and installed Vlad on Wallachia’s throne, but his rule lasted only a few months before he, too, was overthrown.
Vlad III regained the throne in 1456, this time with help from the Ottomans’ enemies, the Hungarians. To celebrate, he invited two hundred aristocrats and their families to an Easter Sunday feast in 1457. At some point, he asked his guests how old they were. He wanted to know who had been old enough to have participated in his father’s overthrow back in 1447. He then dragged those who fit the bill outside, and had them promptly impaled – a horrific way to die.
Victims had large, sharpened, wooden stakes driven through their bodies, often through their rear end. The stake was then planted vertically into the ground, so that the victim was left to dangle in the air. Vlad impaled people in a manner that avoided damage to vital organs, and thus averted immediate death. Instead, the victims suffered hours or days of agony before they expired. To add an artistic touch to the horror, Vlad impaled aristocrats arranged in rows that came to be known as “The Forrest of the Impaled”.
The Real Dracula Scared an Army Into Turning Away and Going Back Home
The mass impalements did not halt Vlad the Impaler’s Easter Sunday feast, and the party went on. Afterwards, the impaled aristocrats’ wives and children, still dressed in their Easter finery, were taken to the mountains to rebuild a fortress. Vlad worked them hard, until most died of exhaustion. Months later, when the job was finally done, the few survivors, now skeletal figures clad in tattered rags, were impaled. That was just the start of The Impaler’s passion for impalement. To solidify his rule, Vlad systematically exterminated the aristocratic class that had given his family so much trouble. Impalement was his preferred method to deal with them and anybody else who angered him.
Vlad also fought the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, who had seized Constantinople and extinguished the Byzantine Empire a few years earlier, sent a force of 10,000 cavalrymen to deal with him. Vlad ambushed and defeated them, then impaled the survivors, with their leader mounted on the highest stake. In 1462, Mehmed led an army of 90,000 against The Impaler. As they approached Vlad’s capital, the Ottomans met no resistance. Instead, the road was lined with 20,000 impaled Turks and Muslim Bulgarians. The horrific sight spooked the Sultan so badly, that he promptly turned around and went back home.
If You’re Known as “The Terrible”, Odds Are You’re a Jerk
Of Russia’s many brutal rulers, few – with the possible exception of Stalin – were more brutal than Tsar Ivan IV. Better known as Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), he was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547. That year, he declared himself “Tsar of all the Russias”, which became Russia’s monarchs’ title 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. Ivan then subjugated neighboring nomadic Khanates, and greatly expanded Russia’s borders. All of that was laudable from a Russian perspective. However, Ivan was also an insanely cruel despot, who subjected his people to a decades-long reign of terror. He massacred entire cities, and implemented a state policy of mass repression. In a fit of rage, he even personally murdered his own son.
Ivan the Terrible ascended the throne of the Grand Duchy of Moscow when he was three-years-old. His mother governed as regent in his name, but she died when Ivan was seven. A power struggle then erupted between rival boyars, or Russian nobles, in which the child Ivan was left defenseless. He was exploited and tormented by boyars who mistreated and abused him in his own palace. That made him bitter, and bitterness gave way to insanity. Eventually, he began to torture small animals to vent his frustrations. By the time he took personal control of the government, Ivan was a paranoid, resentful, and angry young man. He distrusted people in general, and detested the boyar class in particular. So he instituted a widespread reign of terror known as the oprichnina.
Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina augured the absolute monarchy that marked Russia for centuries to come. With a special police force, the Oprichniki, Ivan kicked off a wave of brutal persecutions that targeted the boyars, and spread from there in ever greater ripples that soon covered all his lands. His most infamous atrocity occurred in Novgorod. In 1570, when that city defied him, he marched on it in the dead of winter, seized it, then indulged in an orgy of violent depravity. He started off with the clergy, whom he rounded up and ordered flogged from dawn until dusk, for days on end, until they each paid a 20 ruble fine. Hundreds died, and afterwards, he ordered the survivors executed. The population fared no better: he ordered the torture of leading citizens along with their families.
Men were executed, and women and children were bound and thrown into a river. There, they were trapped under the ice as soldiers patrolled the area on foot, with hooks and spears to push down any who surfaced. By the time Ivan was finally sated, over 60,000 had perished. Ivan was a violent jerk even to his own family. In 1581, he assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law because he thought her clothes were too skimpy, and caused her to miscarry. When his son and heir angrily berated him for the brutal attack on his wife, Ivan the Terrible smashed his head in with his scepter. The result was a fatal wound from which the Tsar’s son died a few days later. He followed him three years later, and died from a stroke while playing chess.
It’s a Jerk Move to Make Fun of a Woman’s Age, Like This Emperor Did
It is rude in police society to ask a woman her age. A man who jokes about a woman’s age is deemed not only ungentlemanly, but a jerk. To be sure, when examined logically, it is ridiculous to consider one’s age an embarrassment. However, in a society that exalts youth and degrades age, and often (illegally) values youth over experience at the workplace, such hangups are understandable. As The Washington Post’s Miss Manners put it: “that question should not be asked of anyone except children“.
Women have often been judged based on their looks, and the notion that a woman’s beauty, fertility, and desirability, diminish with age was and remains widespread. Such perceptions made many women feel insecure. Those same perceptions were also often seen by some jerk guys as an opportunity to make fun of and crack cruel age-based jokes at women’s expense. Sometimes those jokes backfired. As seen below, an emperor died at the hands of a woman whose age he made fun of, when she failed to see the humor.
Emperor Xiaowu (362 – 396) ascended Jin Dynasty China’s throne when he was ten-years-old. For the first few years of his reign, the realm was governed by a council of regents. When he was thirteen, he wed a sixteen-year-old, who was either a lush or became one after she was married to Xiaowu, and drank heavily until her death five years later. Xiaowu himself was no stranger to the bottle. He liked to party and drink, and left the affairs of state to his advisers. Xiaowu did not remarry after he became a widower, and instead made do with numerous concubines. Of those, his favorite was the Honored Lady Zhang. One time while drunk at a party in 396, Xiaowu cracked a joke about the then-thirty-year-old Zhang’s years: “Based on your age, you should yield your position. I want someone younger“.
It was ungentlemanly, and Lady Zhang was not amused. Her power and status depended on her relationship to the emperor, and if he ditched her, she would lose it all. She was also mad because of the public humiliation, but kept her cool. Later that night, she got her revenge. When the emperor passed out drunk as he often did, Lady Zhang escorted him to his chambers. She bribed his guards to look the other way, then had her maids strangle and suffocate Xiaowu to death. Lady Zhang claimed that the emperor had died in his sleep, but the truth eventually came out. Luckily for her, nobody who mattered cared. Xiaowu had been a dissolute jerk who caused his courtiers more trouble than he was worth. They swiftly appointed a child emperor in his place, and ruled as regents.
China’s First Emperor Was a Real Jerk to His Subjects
Chin Shi Huang Di (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor of Chin”, started off as king of the Chinese state of Chin – one of several rival kingdoms in China’s Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, wrested power from the regents and courtiers who had governed during his minority. To consolidate his power, the young monarch massacred palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives, then went on the warpath. He pushed back the northern barbarians, defeated and conquered all other Chinese states by 221 BC, and consolidated them under his rule. He then declared himself the First Emperor of China. Chin Shi Huang ended the chaotic feudalism that had prevailed in China for over five centuries. In its place was now a unified, peaceful, and efficiently governed centralized state.
Unification, pacification, and efficiency, came at a high price: tyranny and great oppression. Because he was a major jerk to his people, Chin Shi Huang was greatly abhorred by most Chinese despite his key role in China’s foundation. His most trusted and influential official was justice minister Li Ssu. He was not just a bureaucrat, but also a philosopher who followed a school of thought known as “Legalism”. It advocated strict laws and draconian punishments for even petty crimes. As Li Ssu put it: “If light offenses carry heavy punishments, one can imagine what will be done against a serious offense. Thus the people will not dare to break the laws“. That was music to the First Emperor’s ears. Criticism of the law became a capital offense, and cowed citizens were expected to inform on their neighbors.
With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Chin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal, and launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor. One such project had 700,000 laborers toil on the First Emperor’s tomb for thirty years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keep out the northern barbarians, and keep in the Chinese seeking to flee the emperor’s heavy taxation and heavy-handed rule.
What Chin Shi Huang was most interested in was immortality through a “Life Elixir”. However, his quest to live forever backfired. His efforts to find a Life Elixir not only failed, but also did the opposite of what China’s First Emperor wanted, and shortened his life. In pursuit of immortality, Chin Shi Huang solicited advice from numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One adviser gave him mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Chin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready.
Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), birth name Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled Madagascar from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel”, she was a tyrant at best, a certifiably insane madwoman at worst, and a major jerk to her subjects either way. Her 33-year-reign was a complete and utter disaster for Madagascar’s people. Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, about of Madagascar’s population died, either directly per her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.
Ranavlona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they went for ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. To show his appreciation, the king selected the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless and produced no issue. When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she engineered a coup and seized power. She massacred all potential rival claimants to the throne, then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to a bloody reign.
Ranavalona inaugurated her reign by killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she ordered them strangled, or locked in a cell until they starved to death. In lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal: the accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not, and were accordingly executed. Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to European encroachments, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, banned Christianity, isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.
Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – had to perform labor in lieu of high taxes they could not pay. Such de facto slaves built houses and palaces, cleared lands and maintained roads, carried nobles and royal dependents in litters, served in Ranavalona’s army, and performed any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and died in droves. In the meantime, the British and French were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, Ranavalona beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.
Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar that she deemed defiant. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies, and devastated regions resistant to her rule. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements viewed as disloyal. Those spared from mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the queen’s domain, to toil the rest of their lives away on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized, and the percentage of slaves rose to one third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.
Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines caused by Ranavalona’s scorched earth policies and repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. In just a six year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population plummeted from about 750,000 in 1829, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. Such genocide-level figures are comparable to those inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a 33 year reign, she died in her sleep of natural causes, at age 83.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading