Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12 – 41 AD) was one of Rome’s most depraved emperors. He earned the nickname by which he is better known to history, 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. He was raised by his uncle, the Roman emperor Tiberius, a paranoid odd fish in his own right, who spent much of his reign as a recluse in a pedophilic pleasure palace in Capri.
Tiberius did surface on occasion to order the execution of relatives accused of treason. They included Caligula’s mother and two brothers. He had 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 named him heir and quipped: “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people“. Life with Tiberius left its mark on Caligula. Once freed of the ever-present threat of execution by his paranoid uncle, the combination of sudden freedom and sudden unlimited power went to his head. He cut loose and spent lavishly to gratify all his hedonistic whims.
Caligula kicked off the weirdness early. A soothsayer had predicted that he had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae. So 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. Other examples include the time when he began to cackle uncontrollably at a party. When asked what was funny, Caligula replied that he found it hilarious that with a mere gesture of his finger, he could have the throat of anybody present slit, right then and there. Another example is the time he was annoyed by an unruly crowd at the Circus Maximus. So he pointed out a section of the stands to his guards, pointed out two bald guys, and ordered them to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead“.
On another occasion, he got bored at an arena when he was told that there were no more criminals to throw to the beasts – a common form of execution at the time. So 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, and after he had his way with them, returned to the party to rate the quality of their performance, and berated the cuckolded husbands for any of their wives’ shortcomings in bed. He also turned the imperial palace into a whorehouse, staffed with the wives of prominent senators and other dignitaries. As seen below, karma eventually caught up with Little Boots.
To show his contempt for the Roman 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 him who was boss. He eventually declared himself a god, removed the heads from various deities’ statues, and replaced them with his own. However, when karma finally caught up with Caligula, it was not because of the craziness, above. Instead, it was because he offended his own bodyguards.
Caligula’s Praetorian Guard security detail was under the command of a tribune named Cassius Chaera. He had a high-pitched voice, and Caligula liked to mimic it and mock him as effeminate. The emperor also thought it was the height of hilarity 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. Caligula finally got a dose of lethal karma when his own bodyguards ambushed and hacked him up.
Chin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), “First Emperor of Chin”, started off as ruler of the Chinese state of Chin – one of several rival kingdoms in China’s Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). He ascended the throne as a child, and in his teens, he wrested power from the regents and courtiers who had governed during his minority. To consolidate his power, the young monarch massacred palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, defeated and conquered all other Chinese states by 221 BC, and consolidated them under his rule.
Once he accomplished all that, he declared himself the First Emperor of a united China. Shi Huang’s upside was that he was the first to unify the core of China into a single realm. His downside was that he was a megalomaniacal monster. It was a downside that invited karma to pay him an unwelcome visit. To consolidate his newly conquered empire, he standardized the currency, weights and measures, and introduced a system of government known as Legalism, based on strict laws and harsh punishments. He ended feudalism, which had produced centuries of warfare, and replaced it with a centralized, bureaucratic and meritocratic government.
To keep the nobility in check, Chin Shi Huang kept those he favored in the capital. He controlled them with pensions and fancy titles, and thus transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. He then abolished all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him, and had the rest of the nobility killed or put to work. As a matter of fact, Shi Huang put everybody to work. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, he grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as his tomb, whose construction required the toil of 700,000 laborers for 30 years.
The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourists with its thousands of life-size statues, is but a fraction of Shi Huang’s gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China. It did double duty: kept the northern barbarians out, and the Chinese who sought to flee Shi Huang’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule, in.
10. Karma Causes a Great Emperor to Suffer an Ironic Death
Another manifestation of Chin Shi Huang’s megalomania – which eventually invited karma to do him in – was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever. That included an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to perfecting the Life Elixir – if only they had more funds to speed up their R&D. Lack of funds for research was a problem that Shi Huang generously put to rights.
One of the charlatans who flocked to the emperor’s court gave him daily mercury pills. He claimed that they were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs, which should tidy Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. The emperor swallowed mercury every day. As a result, he gradually poisoned himself, and gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. In a twist of karma, rather than prolong his life, Shi Huang shortened it in his pursuit of immortality. He died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.
Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was one of the most prominent figures of the late Roman Republic, and its richest citizen. Crassus was a shrewd and avaricious businessman. An ally of the dictator Sulla in the 80s BC, he got his start on wealth by bidding on the confiscated properties of those executed as enemies of the state, and bought them in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even arranged for the names of those whose properties he coveted to be added to the lists of enemies of the state, slated for execution and confiscation of property.
He used his wealth to sponsor politicians. They included Julius Caesar, whose political rise he bankrolled. Through them, Crassus amassed considerable power. He leveraged his wealth and power to create the First Triumvirate: a power-sharing agreement by which he, Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar, divided the Roman Republic amongst themselves. Crassus thus seemed to have it all, but there was one thing that he lacked and that he desperately craved: military glory. His pursuit of such glory would invite karma to pay him an unwelcome visit, and lead to catastrophe.
Military glory was one thing that Crassus lacked, but that his partners in the First Triumvirate had in abundance. Unlike Pompey’s and Caesar’s brilliant military records, Crassus’ only military accomplishment had been to crush Spartacus’ slave uprising. To defeat mere slaves did not count for much in Roman eyes. It gnawed at Crassus, so he decided to invade Parthia, a wealthy kingdom comprised of today’s Iraq and Iran, which he assumed would be a pushover. A decade earlier, Pompey had invaded and easily defeated other kingdoms in the east, so how hard could Parthia be?
Crassus assembled an army of 50,000 men, and in 53 BC, marched off to what he assumed would be an easy conquest. He trusted a local chieftain to guide him. Unbeknownst to Crassus, the guide was in Parthian pay. He took the Romans along an arid route until, hot and thirsty, they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, they encountered a Parthian force of 9000 horse archers and 1000 armored cataphract heavy cavalry. Although they outnumbered the Parthians five to one, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ lackluster leadership.
The Parthian mounted archers shot up the Romans from a distance and retreated whenever Crassus’ men advanced. As casualties mounted, morale plummeted. Crassus, unable to think of a plan, hoped that the Parthians would eventually run out of arrows. The Parthians however had a baggage train of thousands of camels loaded with arrows, that kept them well supplied. Finally, Crassus ordered his son to take the Roman cavalry and some infantry, and drive off the horse archers. The Parthians feigned a retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians rode back to Roman army and taunted Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear.
Shaken, Crassus retreated to Carrhae, and abandoned thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to negotiate and offered to let his army go in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant to meet the Parthians, but his men threatened to mutiny if he did not, so he went. Things did not go well. Violence broke out, and ended with Crassus and his generals killed. Karma had a particularly ironic – and cruel end – in store for the notoriously greedy plutocrat. To mock his avarice, the Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat. Those Romans still alive fled, but most were hunted down and killed or captured. Out of Crassus’ 50,000, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.
6. It Was Unwise to Deliberately Insult History’s Scariest Conqueror
Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227) was not somebody a rational person would deliberately seek to insult. He once stated: “Life’s greatest joy is to rout and scatter your enemies, and drive them before you. To see their cities reduced to ashes. To see their loved ones shrouded and in tears, and to gather to your bosom their wives and daughters“. Somebody who says stuff like that is probably not somebody a wise ruler should go out of his way to offend. Yet that is precisely what Shah Muhammad II, ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire from 1200 to 1220, did.
As if to double down on the stupid, Shah Muhammad then dared Genghis Khan to do something about it. Needless to say, it backfired and invited a serious dose of bad karma. Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, the world’s largest contiguous empire, and was one of history’s scariest figures. His conquests were often accompanied by widespread massacres and genocide. As a percentage of global population, the estimated 40 million deaths of the Mongol conquests he initiated would be equivalent to 278 million deaths in the twentieth century: more than double the fatalities of WWI and WWII combined.
5. This Shah’s Execution of Envoys Invited Seriously Bad Karma
The beef between Genghis Khan and the Khwarezmian Empire of Shah Muhammad II began in 1218. At a time when the Mongol conqueror was busy with the conquest of China, he sent an embassy and trade mission to Khwarezmia. In addition to emissaries, the embassy included numerous merchants with valuable trade wares. Genghis had hoped to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Khwarezmian Empire, which encompassed most of Central Asia, and whose borders stretched from present day Afghanistan to Georgia.
The Khwarezmian ruler, however, was suspicious of Genghis’ intentions. So when one of his governors halted the Mongol embassy at the border, accused it of espionage, arrested its members, and seized its goods, he approved. Genghis tried to keep things diplomatic. He sent three envoys to Shah Muhammad with a request that he disavow the governor’s actions, and hand him over to the Mongols for punishment. Muhammad executed Genghis’ envoys and followed that up with the execution of all members of the earlier embassy and trade mission. The bad karma reaped by that poorly thought-out decision was horrific.
In hindsight, Shah Muhammad II’s abuse and execution of Genghis Khan’s envoys, coupled with his refusal to make amends, turned out to be bad decisions. It invited bad karma and backfired on him and his realm in horrible ways that he probably could not have begun to imagine at the time. An incensed Genghis interrupted his campaign of conquest in China and concentrated a force of over 100,000 men against the Khwarezmian Empire. It was smaller than Muhammad’s forces, but the Mongols struck in 1218 with a whirlwind campaign that caught the Shah wrong-footed.
Amidst the Mongol onslaught, the Khwarezmian ruler and his army never got an opportunity to regain their balance or catch their breath. The Mongol invasion was a military masterpiece that overwhelmed Muhammad’s empire, and extinguished it by 1221. As to Shah Muhammad, he fled and was denied any opportunity to recover and try a comeback. Genghis put two of his best generals, Subutai and Jebe, in charge of hunting the Khwarezmian ruler. Muhammad was chased and hounded across his domain to his death, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as his relentless pursuers closed in.
3. A Ruler’s Rash Decision That Invited Terrible Karma Upon Himself and His Realm
The bad karma invited by Shah Muhammad II’s execution of the Mongol envoys was visited not only upon himself, but upon his subjects as well. It was in their invasion of the Khwarezmian Empire that the Mongols cemented their infamous reputation for savagery. Millions died, as Genghis ordered the massacre of entire cities that offered the least resistance, and sent thousands of captives ahead of his armies as human shields. By the time Genghis was done, Khwarezm had been reduced from a prosperous empire to an impoverished and depopulated wasteland.
At the grand mosque in the once-thriving but now smoldering city of Bukhara, Genghis told the survivors that he was the Flail of God. As he saw it: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you“. The fate of Shah Muhammad, who brought catastrophe upon himself when he insulted somebody he assumed was just another upstart barbarian nomad chieftain from the Steppe, was tragic. Even more tragic was the fate visited upon his subjects because of their ruler’s decision to insult one of history’s scariest conquerors.
George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (1449 – 1478) was one of history’s more problematic siblings. He was the younger son of Richard, Duke of York, whose struggle to secure power precipitated the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster. He was also the younger sibling of King Edward IV of England, who by all accounts was the soul of generosity towards his kid brother. George repaid that with a series of ill-advised conspiracies, which invited bad karma and resulted in his doom. After his brother broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461, deposed the Lancastrian king Henry VI, and had himself crowned in his place as Edward IV, George was made Duke of Clarence.
A year later, Edward made the thirteen-year-old George Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As he grew into early manhood, George idolized and came under the influence of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, also known as “The Kingmaker”. He wed Neville’s daughter in defiance of his brother’s plans to marry him into a European royal family to secure a dynastic alliance. Neville had been instrumental in the deposition of the prior Lancastrian King Henry and his replacement with Edward. He eventually fell out with Edward and deserted to the Lancastrians. George rewarded his brother’s earlier generosity with betrayal and took his father-in-law’s side. Although he was a member of the York family, George switched his support to the Lancastrians.
With the Kingmaker’s machinations, George’s brother Edward IV was deposed and forced to flee England in 1470. The once-deposed Lancastrian King Henry VI was restored to the throne. However, George began to mistrust his father-in-law, the Kingmaker, and switched his support back to his brother. Edward IV returned to England in 1471, defeated the Lancastrians in a battle in which the Kingmaker was killed, and was restored to the throne. To ensure that the twice-deposed Henry VI would trouble him no more, he had him murdered after he had already executed Henry’s son and sole heir. Edward pardoned his younger brother George and restored him to royal favor.
George could not keep his nose clean, however. In 1478, he once again betrayed his elder brother and was caught in a plot against the king. Finally fed up with his wayward sibling, Edward IV ordered George arrested and jailed in the Tower of London, and had him put on trial for treason. The king personally conducted the prosecution of his brother before Parliament. He secured a conviction and Bill of Attainder against George, who was condemned to death. On February 18th, 1478, karma finally caught up with George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence. He was executed by being dunked into a butt, or big barrel, of Malmsey wine, and forcibly held under its surface until he was drowned.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading