Peter the Great did not brook defiance, as he exhibited when his son and heir, Crown Prince Alexius Petrovich, tried to buck him. Peter dragged Russia – often kicking and screaming – 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, St. Petersburg.
Peter’s reforms 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, Alexius, who had sought to stake out his individuality by contrasting himself with his father.
Alexius Petrovich’s mother had been pious and conservative, so Peter the Great forced her into a convent when Alexius was eight. Understandably, that scarred Alexius. In contrast to his modernizing father, Alexius became conservative and religious and attracted admirers from amongst the traditionalists pining for the old days. Unfortunately for Alexius, the kinds of kids who get away with that are the kinds of kids who don’t have Peter the Great for a father.
The reformist Emperor, determined to protect his legacy from the threat of repeal by a successor down the road, sought to force his son into seeing things his way. The father-son relationship cracked for good in 1715, when Peter threatened to deprive Alexius of the succession. To his astonishment, the Crown Prince agreed to relinquish his claim to the throne, and volunteered to enter a monastery. At the last moment, however, Alexius had a change of heart and fled to Vienna, where he secured asylum from the Habsburgs.
The embarrassment of his son’s flight to the Habsburgs enraged Peter, who sent agents to track down Alexius. In 1717, they handed him a letter in which the Emperor berated Alexius, but promised not to punish him if he returned to Russia. Ignoring warnings that it was a trick, the Crown 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 Alexius associates. That done, Peter ordered his son jailed. In June, 1718, Peter ordered Alexius whipped for days, until he confessed to conspiring to murder his father. The whipping was so severe that Peter’s son died of his wounds within a week.
Cleopatra VII, of Caesar and Marc Antony fame, carried on Ptolemaic 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 returned with an army, and fought a civil war that devastated the realm. The conflict seesawed, until Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in 48 BC, and sided with Cleopatra, who became his mistress.
Her brother refused to accept the Roman dictator’s decision, and it ended badly for him. 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.
16. The King Whose Mother Made Clear He Was Not Her Favorite Child
Caesar’s Cleopatra was not her dynasty’s first scandalous Cleopatra. A century earlier, when Ptolemy VIII Potbelly died in 116 BC, his wife and reigning queen, Cleopatra III, made her son Ptolemy IX, nicknamed Chickpea, her co-regent. However, Ptolemy IX had not been her favorite son, and she had been forced to choose him because of public pressure.
She worked out some of her resentment by forcing Chickpea to divorce his sister-wife Cleopatra IV, and replace her with his mother’s sister and Ptolemy IX’s aunt, Cleopatra Selene I. The ditched sister and ex-wife fled to Syria. There, she married into the royal family and reigned as queen until she was murdered. As to Ptolemy IX Chickpea, Cleopatra III accused him of having tried to murder her and deposed him in 107 BC. In his place, Cleopatra III installed her favorite son, Alexander, who ascended the throne as Ptolemy X.
15. Cleopatra III Got Little Gratitude From Her Favorite Son
After deposing her son Ptolemy IX Chickpea in favor of her favorite son, Ptolemy X, Cleopatra III settled in to enjoy her twilight years as queen and co-regent. Her enjoyment did not last long, however. In 101 BC, Ptolemy X tired of ruling jointly with his mother, decided to go solo, and had her murdered.
Ptolemy X then made his wife, Cleopatra Bernice III, queen and co-regent. Bernice III was also his niece – the daughter of his brother, the Ptolemy IX Chickpea who had been deposed by their mother Cleopatra III. A popular uprising in 88 BC overthrew Ptolemy X, who fled to Syria. He returned with a mercenary army, whom 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. Ptolemy X was killed while trying to flee to Cyprus, and was succeeded by his brother and father-in-law, the previous king Ptolemy IX Chickpea.
14. There’s Ruthless, and There’s Murdering Your Baby to Frame a Rival Ruthless
According to Confucian tenets, women are unfit to rule. Wu Zhao (624 – 705) did not care much for that bit of Confucian conventional wisdom and became the sole officially recognized empress during China’s two millennia of imperial rule. Her rise began at age 14, when she was taken into Emperor Taizong’s harem as a concubine. The emperor was not into intelligent women, and thus did not favor Wu, who had brains as well as beauty.
Being an intelligent woman, and looking ahead, Wu had an affair with the emperor’s son and eventual successor, who was not intimidated by smart women. When her lover became Emperor Gaozong after his father’s death, he made Wu his favorite concubine, and eventually elevated her to his second wife – a huge jump in the imperial harem’s rankings. Wu was not content to remain second fiddle, however. So she reportedly strangled her own infant daughter, and framed the emperor’s first wife for the death.
13. Wu Zhao Steps to the Throne Over Her Daughter’s Corpse
Framing her rival for the murder of her infant daughter worked great for Wu Zhao, who was elevated in the imperial palace’s ranks to become the emperor’s official consort. Upon the emperor’s death, he was succeeded by Wu’s child, with Wu acting as regent.
When her son came of age, he tried to assert himself and rule independently. So Wu deposed and exiled him, replacing him with a younger son. Six years later, tiring of the pretense about who really ran China, she deposed that son as well, and officially proclaimed herself empress.
12. The King Who Married His Sister – and Murdered Her Kid on Their Wedding Night
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 Potbelly as monarch. 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 BC. Cleopatra II, the deceased king’s sister-wife, and Potbelly’s sibling as well, promptly declared her son, Ptolemy VII, as king. When Potbelly returned, he convinced his widowed sister to marry him, promising that the sibling spouses would rule jointly. However, he doubled crossed his sister/ new wife, by having her son, Ptolemy VII, murdered during the wedding feast. He also reneged on his promise to rule jointly with his sister-wife and declared himself sole ruler.
It is hard to find a more cartoonishly evil mother than Fredegonde (circa 545 – 597). She started off as a servant of Audovera, wife of Frankish king Chilperic I of Soissons, and caught the king’s eye. She convinced him to divorce Audovera and dump her into a convent, then became Chilperic’s mistress. Chilperic eventually ditched Fredegunda to marry a noblewoman, Galswintha. So Fredegonde personally strangled Galswintha to death.
Fredegonde then resumed her place at Chilperic’s side, as his official mistress and queen consort. In 580, a dysentery epidemic afflicted king Chilperic, as well as two of his sons with Fredegonde. She took that as a sign of divine displeasure for her sins, and made some efforts to mend her ways, but soon reverted to being cartoonishly evil. While besieged in a city, another of her sons, a baby, became seriously ill. Worried that she might catch whatever her kid had, Fredegonde ordered him cast away, and let him die.
10. Fredegonde’s Daughter Discovers the Risks of Challenging Her Mother
Abandoning her baby to die was at least driven by Fredegonde’s 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. That worthy, a chip off the old block, was just as scheming as her mother, but not as wily and ruthless.
As she grew into 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. As seen below, a jealous Fredegonde responded by trying to crush her daughter’s head.
Infuriated by her daughter’s attempts to replace her as royal mistress, Fredegonde decided to do her in a most dramatic way. 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“.
When Byzantine Emperor Leo IV died, he left the empire to his son, the child Emperor Constantine VI, with the kid’s mother, Irene (circa 753 – 803), as regent. After consolidating her power, Irene set about undoing the preceding decades of Iconoclasm – a religious movement that had banned icons and religious imagery.
She went about it with all the tenacity and enthusiasm of a religious zealot. In her determination to let nothing stand in the way of her mission, Irene rode roughshod over opponents, including her own son, whom she killed in a particularly cruel way.
Empress Irene began the process of rolling back Iconoclasm by calling a church council in 786, and packing it with her supporters. Unsurprisingly, the council concluded that Iconoclasm had been a huge mistake. That kicked off a Byzantine counter-reformation against the Iconoclasts – supporters of Iconoclasm – who resisted the return of religious imagery just as vehemently as their opponents had resisted the destruction of icons.
When Irene’s son Constantine VI came of age, he declared himself an Iconoclast. Irene demonstrated the strength of her faith by overthrowing him, and in 797, had him mutilated by gouging out his eyes. He 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.
Alexander the Great kicked off his conquest of the Persian Empire by defeating the Persian governor of Asia Minor in the Battle of the Granicus River, 334 BC. That got the attention of Persia’s King Darius III, so he set out at the head of a huge 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 army, as well as his baggage and supplies, but also his family and harem, including his mother, Sisigambis. Getting ditched and left behind by her fleeing son soured Sisigambis on Darius, and left her with a lifelong sense of loathing towards her offspring.
When Alexander captured Darius’ female relatives, he treated them with respect. However, the Persian king’s flight left his mother, Sisigambis, seething with contempt for her son, who had 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 Sisigambis, 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.
Nero (37 – 68 AD) became emperor as a teenager in 54, and was dominated by his mother, who reportedly controlled him with incest. As one contemporary 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 light on how Nero ended up so 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.
3. Who Knew Murdering One’s Mother Could Be Such a Hassle?
Nero resorted to elaborate schemes to get rid of his mother, because he wanted to make her death look accidental. He had a roof specially constructed to collapse on top of his mother, but she survived. He then gifted her with pleasure barge that was specially designed to collapse. The barge collapsed 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. Abandoning all pretense, he sent his henchmen to club his mother to death with oars.
2. Cuckolding an Emperor Proved Bad For a Courtier’s Health
Peter the Great’s sister and son were not the only relatives to feel his wrath: his wife got a taste of it, too. 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. It ended badly for her lover.
1. Making His Wife Keep Her Lover’s Head in Her Bedroom
Peter the Great had his wife’s lover, Willem Mons, arrested and hauled off in chains on charges of embezzlement and abuse of trust. Mons’ sister Matryona, the supposed matchmaker, was also arrested, publicly whipped, and exiled to Siberia. On November 28th, 1724, eight days after his arrest, Willem Mons was publicly beheaded in St. 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading