Emperor Valerian ruled the Roman Empire from 253 to 260 AD, during a period known as the Crisis of the Third Century. He appointed his son to command the western half of the empire and led his army east to confront the newly established Sassanid Persian Empire. However, his invasion ended in a decisive defeat in the Battle of Edessa, and he was captured by Persian King Shapur I. Valerian was subjected to a humiliating captivity and death, including being used as a footstool and forced to drink molten gold, while his skin was dyed and displayed at a temple.
Valerian was born into a patrician family and was a military man who rose through the ranks to become emperor. However, his reign ended in disgrace due to his failed military campaign against the Persians. His capture and subsequent treatment by Shapur I were seen as a symbol of Rome’s weakness, and his death marked the first time a Roman emperor was captured in battle.
Emperor Zhongzong of Tang had two stints in power, with his first brief reign coming to an end in 684 when his mother, Wu Zetian, kicked him off the throne. Wu Zetian went on to unofficially run the country, and eventually became the sole officially recognized empress in China’s imperial rule. A strong, intelligent, and ruthless woman, she had an affair with Emperor Taizong’s son and eventual successor, and eliminated opponents and potential threats to steadily grow her power. She framed the emperor’s first wife for the death of her own infant daughter, and ultimately proclaimed herself empress regnant, ruling until she was overthrown in 705.
Zhongzong was reinstated as emperor in 705, but he died just five years later. Wu’s tale of rise to power and how she held onto it could have taught Machiavelli some new tricks. Born into a wealthy family, her father encouraged her to develop her mind and she grew up well-versed in literature, music, history, politics, and governmental affairs. Her beauty and brains served her well, and she eventually became Emperor Gaozong’s official consort, with her power steadily growing as she eliminated opponents. She became empress dowager and regent after Gaozong’s death, and ruled the empire in the name of her son before overthrowing him and proclaiming herself empress regnant.
Nineteenth century Russia was marked by great discontent and political turmoil. It groaned under the heavy handed – and incompetent – absolutist rule of the Tsars. Reforms were attempted, but reformers often ran into the tsarist government’s oppressive instincts. Without political freedom, and with free expression severely restricted, many reformers grew disgusted with the system, and turned into revolutionaries dedicated to its overthrow. One such group formed a secret organization, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), which sought to overthrow the autocratic government by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt.
People’s Will was a terrorist organization, in short. It saw terrorism as a proactive tool to overthrow the tsarist regime. It called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government’s power, and decreed a death sentence against Tsar Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began to publish underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.
The Dramatic End of Tsar Alexander II’s Days in Power
People’s Will tried to kill Tsar Alexander II in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway, but missed his train. They tried again two months later, and planted a bomb in his palace. However, the tsar was not in the room when the explosives went off. The unsurprisingly frightened tsar declared a state of emergency, and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression mounted, and People’s Will activists caught with illegal leaflets were hanged. Undaunted, the group doggedly persisted in its relentless efforts to assassinate Alexander.
They finally succeeded on March 1st, 1881. A People’s Will member waited in ambush along a route taken by the Tsar every week, and threw a bomb under his carriage when it passed by. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, and Alexander was unhurt. A shaken Tsar emerged from the carriage, and crossed himself as he surveyed the damage. His relief was premature, as there was a second assassin concealed in the crowd that gathered in the explosion’s aftermath. Shouting at Alexander “it is too early to thank God!“, the second assassin threw another bomb, which landed and went off directly beneath the Tsar’s feet. Mangled by the explosion, Alexander died soon thereafter.
The Byzantine Emperor Stripped of Power by His Mother
In the eighth century, theological debates about Christian doctrine often sparked violent reactions from ordinary Christians. One such debate was over the use of religious images, or icons. Some Christians believed that the worship of icons was a violation of the Second Commandment and therefore equivalent to idol worship. This belief, combined with the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and Africa, led to a backlash against icons known as Iconoclasm. Emperors Leo III and Constantine V enforced Iconoclasm, but it was eventually undone by Irene of Athens, who called a church council in 786 to denounce the policy.
When her son Constantine VI became an Iconoclast, Irene had him overthrown and mutilated, and she continued her mission to reintroduce religious imagery until she was exiled and died in 803. Irene then proclaimed herself empress. She continued her quest to undo Iconoclasm and reintroduce religious imagery, until she fell from power in 802 in the aftermath of a revolt. She was exiled to the Isle of Lesbos, and died there a year later. In conclusion, the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century was rife with religious turmoil, with debates over Christian doctrine leading to violence and political upheaval.
A Medieval Hungarian Royal Family’s Infighting Over Power
King Bela I of Hungary (circa 1020 – 1063) reigned from 1060 until his death. In his years in power, he suppressed a pagan rebellion, and thus solidified Hungary’s Christian identity. He also fought a successful war against Holy Roman Emperor Henry III to defend Hungary’s independence. Bela accomplished much in his relatively brief tenure on the throne. Unfortunately for him, it was his very throne that doomed him. Born into Hungarian royalty, Bela’s father, Prince Vazul, had been a nephew of the childless Hungarian King Stephen I.
When the king bypassed Bela’s father to name another nephew heir, Vazul rebelled, but was captured and blinded as punishment in 1031. Bela and his siblings fled Hungary, but returned in 1046 and seized power when Bela’s eldest brother successfully deposed the king and seized the crown. Per Hungarian royal custom, whereby the crown passed from brother to brother by seniority, Bela was made a duke and named heir. However, while Bela was away from Hungary, his brother changed the rules and named his four year old son his heir.
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.
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.
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.
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