The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History

Khalid Elhassan - February 28, 2023

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Bela I of Hungary. Chronica Hungarorum

A King Removed from Power by His Own Throne

Understandably, Bela was not happy when his brother deprived him of a shot at power. So he raised an army in Poland, and marched into Hungary to reassert his rights. In the struggle that followed, the brother on the throne was killed, and Bela was crowned in his place. Soon after he became king, a revolt erupted. The rebels demanded a return to paganism, and an end to Christianity, which had become the official state religion a few decades earlier. In response, Bela mobilized an army and crushed the pagans. In 1063, he successfully fought off a German invasion under the auspices of the Holy Roman emperor, and asserted Hungarian independence from foreign domination.

Bela’s hold on power came to an undignified end later that year, after his throne tottered and fell. “Throne tottered and fell” is not meant here as a figure of speech, or an allusion to a diminution of his power and authority. It was quite literal. One September day in 1063, Bela held court in his summer palace in Domos. Flanked by his senior advisors, and with his noblemen and officials gathered before him, he regally ascended the steps to his throne and took a seat. Unregally, the heavy wooden throne collapsed once the royal posterior sat down. Bela I was severely injured in front of his horrified court, and died of his wounds soon thereafter.

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Genghis Khan. Orange Smile

A Shah Who Lost His Power – and Life – Because of an Extremely Rash Decision

Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire and one of history’s most feared conquerors, attempted to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Khwarezmian Empire in 1218. However, the Khwarezmian ruler, Shah Muhammad II, insulted the Mongol embassy and trade mission and executed its members. As a result, Genghis launched a whirlwind campaign against the empire and forced Muhammad II to flee. The Mongols pursued him relentlessly until his death on a small Caspian island, and millions died in the process as entire cities were massacred and used as human shields.

Genghis Khan’s invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire cemented his reputation for savagery, and he famously declared himself the Flail of God. The fate of Muhammad II serves as a tragicomic reminder that he challenged history’s greatest conqueror and was out of his league. The empire he once ruled was reduced to an impoverished and depopulated wasteland, while Genghis Khan went on to found the world’s largest contiguous empire.

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Ptolemy IX Chickpea. Pinterest

Ptolemy IX’s Mother Stripped Him of Power

Even if a mother has a favorite kid, she’s expected to at least go through the motions and say that she loves all her kids equally. Not so, with the Ptolemaic Dynasty’s Cleopatra III. The Ptolemies were probably history’s most dysfunctional ruling family, and Ptolemaic family intrigues complicated the reign of Ptolemy IX Soter (“Chickpea”). Among other things, the Ptolemies had an established family tradition of incest, so this Ptolemy married his sister Cleopatra IV. When his father, Ptolemy VIII Potbelly died in 116 BC, Ptolemy IX’s mother and the reigning queen, Cleopatra III, made him co-regent. However, Ptolemy IX was not her favorite son, and she only chose him because of public pressure from the citizens of Alexandria.

To work out her resentment, Cleopatra III forced Ptolemy IX to divorce his sister-wife Cleopatra IV, and replace her with her own sister, and Ptolemy IX’s aunt, Cleopatra Selene I. Ptolemy IX’s sister and ex-wife fled Egypt to the neighboring Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom, where she married Antiochus IX and became queen consort in 114 BC. Her reign proved brief, however, and she was murdered amidst Seleucid dynastic turmoil. As to Ptolemy IX, he fell from power when Cleopatra III accused him of having tried to murder her, and deposed him in 107 BC. His place was taken by his brother and Cleopatra III’s favorite son, Alexander, who ascended the throne as Ptolemy X.

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Cleopatra III. Wikimedia

A Favorite Son’s Ingratitude

After she deposed her son Ptolemy IX and replaced him on the throne with a more favored son, Ptolemy X, Cleopatra III settled in to enjoy her twilight years as queen and co-regent. Unfortunately for her, that enjoyment did not last as long as she might have hoped. The favorite son whom Cleopatra III had made king demonstrated his ingratitude in the most visceral way possible. Six years into their joint rule, Ptolemy X tired of his mother’s interference with his power as ruler, and had her murdered in 101 BC. He then made his wife, Cleopatra Bernice III, queen and co-regent.

An incestuous tie was a Ptolemaic norm by this point. Ptolemy X’s wife Bernice III was also his niece – the daughter of his brother, the Ptolemy IX who had been deposed by their mother Cleopatra III. A popular revolt in 88 BC overthrew Ptolemy X, who fled to Syria. He returned with a mercenary army, and to pay them, he looted and melted down the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. That infuriated the Alexandrians, and he fell from power for a second time when they deposed and chased him out of Egypt once more. Ptolemy X was killed as he tried to flee. Ptolemy IX, his brother and father in law who had been deposed by their mother, Cleopatra III, returned to the throne.

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Caligula. The Telegraph

Rome’s Nuttiest Emperor

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12 – 41 AD) became known as Caligula (“little boots”) because of the miniature legionary outfits he wore as a child while he accompanied his father on military campaigns. He grew to become emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 AD, and is probably the gold standard for crazy rulers. Caligula grew up in the household of his uncle, Emperor Tiberius. That worthy was a paranoid odd fish who spent much of his reign as a recluse in a pedophilic pleasure palace in Capri. He surfaced on occasion to order the execution of relatives accused of treason.

Tiberius’ victims included Caligula’s mother and two brothers. He probably poisoned Caligula’s father as well. A great natural actor, Caligula hid any resentment felt towards his uncle. He thus survived the bitter Tiberius, who remarked as he named him heir: “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people“. Those stressful years left their mark on Caligula. Once freed of the ever present threat of execution by his paranoid uncle, he cut loose. Caligula dove head first into an orgy of lavish spending and hedonistic living, as the combination of sudden freedom and sudden unlimited power went to his head.

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Partying it up, Caligula style. The New York Times

A Mad Man in Power

Caligula kicked off the crazy early on, with a demonstration of his contempt for a soothsayer’s prediction that he had no more chance to become emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae. Caligula ordered a two mile bridge built across the bay, then rode his horse across it while clad in the breastplate and armor of Alexander the Great. On one occasion, he began to cackle uncontrollably at a party. When asked what was funny, he replied that he thought it hilarious that with a mere gesture of his finger, he could have anybody present killed right then and there.

Displeased by an unruly crowd at the Circus Maximus, Caligula pointed out a section to his guards, and ordered them to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead”. On another occasion, bored at an arena when told that there were no more criminals to throw to the beasts, he ordered a section of the crowd thrown to the wild animals. His depravities included incest with his sisters. At dinner parties, he frequently ordered guests’ wives to his bedroom. After he bedded them, he returned to the party to rate the quality of their performance, and berate the cuckolded husbands for any perceived deficiency in their wives’ performance.

The Most Dramatic & Short Lived Reigns of Power in History
Caligula’s reign ended in dramatic and bloody fashion. Imgur

A Dramatic and Sudden Fall from Power

Caligula also turned the imperial palace into a whorehouse, staffed with the wives of prominent senators and other important dignitaries. To further show his contempt for the senatorial class and the Roman Republic for which they pined, Caligula had his beloved horse made consul – the Republic’s highest magistracy. On one occasion, Caligula declared war on the sea god Neptune, marched his legions to the sea, and had them collect seashells to show the deity who was boss. He eventually declared himself a god, removed the heads from various deities’ statues, and replaced them with his own.

It was none of that craziness that doomed Caligula and brought his power to an end. Instead, his fall came because he offended his bodyguards. His security detail’s commander, Cassius Chaerea, had a high pitched voice, and Caligula liked to mock him as effeminate. He thought it hilarious to come up with derogatory daily passwords that had to do with homosexuality. Whenever Chaerea was due to kiss the imperial ring, Caligula made sure it was on his middle finger, and waggled it obscenely. Chaerea finally had enough, and in 41 AD, he hatched an assassination plot with other Praetorian Guards, and hacked Caligula to death.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – What Really Happened to Valerian?

Bak, Janos M. (Editor) – The Illuminated Chronicle: Chronicle of the Deeds of the Hungarians from the Fourteenth Century Illuminated Codex (2018)

Barrett, Anthony A. – Caligula: The Corruption of Power (1998)

Bevan, Edwyn Robert – The House of Ptolemy: A History of Hellenistic Egypt Under the Ptolemaic Dynasty (1927)

Bingen, Jean – Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (2007)

Bowman, Alan – Egypt After the Pharaohs: 332 BC – AD 64, From Alexander to the Arab Conquest (1996)

Cawthorne, Nigel – Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China (2007)

CNN – One JFK Conspiracy Theory That Could be True

Conspectus of History, Volume 1, Number 1, 1974 – The Empress Irene

Cracked – 15 of the Shortest Reigns of Power in History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Bela I, King of Hungary

Encyclopedia Britannica – Siaka Stevens

Garland, Lynda – Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium AD 527 – 1204 (1999)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Grant, Michael A. – Caligula: The Corruption of Power (1989)

Herren, Judith – Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium (2002)

Herrnon, Ian – Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century (2003)

Historic UK – The Shortest War in History

History Collection – The Witch Doctor President and Other Horrific Rulers

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – November 22, 1963: Death of the President

Lampert, Evgenii – Sons Against Fathers: Studies in Russian Radicalism and Revolution (1965)

Medium – Tsar Alexander II: Tsar Liberator and Rise of Terrorism in Russia

Metropolitan Museum of Art – Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium

Military History, May 2006 – Facing the Wrath of Khan

Morgan, David – The Mongols (1986)

Napoleon Foundation – Napoleon II

Ratchnevsky, Paul – Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy (1994)

Rejected Princesses – Wu Zetian: China’s Only Female Emperor

St. Mary’s University Research Scholars, Vasquez, Christopher – The Savior of Rome; Caligula’s Worst Nightmare: Cassius Chaerea

Strange History Net – The Most Dysfunctional Family in History: The Ptolemies

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Caligula

Thompson, James Matthew – Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (1951)

World History Encyclopedia – Valerian

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm – Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1955)