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.
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.
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.
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