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