Top 10 Crazy Monarchs of the Ancient World
Who doesn’t love a story about a crazy monarch. The world is full of people who just do not like to fit in with the social conventions of their time. These days, of course, we recognize that much of this is down to mental health disorders or family problems and arrange for people to get the counselling, psychotherapy and medication they need.
In ancient times, however, that support was just not available and so many people just ‘went mad’. This was tragic enough for people from ordinary families but consider what happens when the person who has ‘gone mad’ is the ruler of an empire with vassals and servants sworn to obey their every command and with unlimited wealth and resources to make their every dream possible.
Here is our top 10 list of the craziest monarchs of the ancient world.
10. Justin II of Byzantium – the Cannibal Emperor
Justin II was the emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 565-78 AD. His rule was disastrous on the military front seeing the borders of the empire collapse.
It is known that he had his key rival for the throne (also called Justin) murdered and it is rumored that he ordered the head of the corpse to be brought to him so that he and his wife could play football with it. He was known to love being pulled along on a wheeled throne from which he would lean over to bite members of his court even, it is rumored eating a few of them. His mind was very troubled and he ordered organ music to be played at all times as he thought that it helped to soothe him. His wife, Sophia persuaded him to abdicate and he wisely adopted a well-known general as his son and had him crowned as Tiberius II Constantine.
9. Qin Shi Huang of China – Megalomaniac Extraordinaire
Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of China. He ruled the unified nation from 246-210 BC. It was rumored at the time that he was not the son of his father, a prince of the Qin, but a cuckoo in the nest, his mother being pregnant by a merchant at the time his father took her for his concubine.
Qin Shi Huang acceded to the throne when he was only 18 years old and his biological father ruled as his regent for 8 years before trying to depose him in favor of his half-brother. These early events caused Qin Shi Huang to become, understandably, paranoid about plots against him. He was, however, a formidable warrior and had defeated all other smaller states to unify China in 221BC. Following this he created a unified Chinese script, standardized weights and built the Great Wall of China, work which caused the death of thousands of slaves used in the construction.
Hi paranoia not slated Qin Shi Huang ordered all books not directly related to him to be burned, buried 460 scholars and stoned 700 more to death for daring to disagree with him. He was desperate to live forever and employed legions of alchemists to find the elixir of life. He also built a gigantic tomb for himself, just in case. This was protected with the most advanced booby traps available at the time and guarded by 8000 terracotta soldiers together with horses and chariots.
Shortly before he died a meteor was seen to fall and an anonymous prophecy relating to his death was circulated. Qin Shi Huang had everyone nearby executed and destroyed the meteor. None of these actions were sufficient, however, to prevent the death of this megalomaniac of the first order.
8. Quianfei of China – Bloodthirsty Sex Addict
Emperor Quanfei of Liu Song reigned from 449-65BC. He had a troubled relationship with his father and did not mourn him when he became Emperor, indeed he went so far as to order that his father’s posthumous portrait be redrawn to emphasize the size of his nose. He was so petrified of illness that he refused to visit his mother on her death bed, so offending her that she called for a sword so she could be cut open ‘to see how it is this animal came out of me’. Nice!
Quanfei’s short reign was bloodthirsty in the extreme. He ordered his chief advisors to commit suicide and, on hearing of a plot to replace him he had the conspirators killed in the most inventive of ways. One had his limbs removed one by one, his entrails extracted and his eyes removed and pickled in honey.
He had troubled relationships with his family, he allowed his sister to take a harem of male concubines as her lovers but had a half brother, his mother and siblings put to a gruesome death. He tortured his uncles by placing them in cages and weighing them as though they were pigs, sometimes he even went as far as trussing them up in the same way a butcher would a pig and having them sent to the palace kitchens.
Sex was a popular hobby of the Emperor who enjoyed sleeping with his aunt and keeping her as his concubine. He had the imperial princesses participate in orgies on pain of having their children killed. Ladies in waiting were often ordered to participate in games of naked ‘kiss chase’. His behavior was so excessive that he dreamed that a ghost told he would be killed. He ordered a ghost killing ceremony but the joke was on him – the participants murdered him on the spot and reign of this bloodthirsty sex addict was over.
7. Leonidas of Sparta – Warrior King
Leonidas is revered as an excellent general who led his 300 Spartans to death in their final, glorious stand at Thermopylae. This may have been heroic and glorious and even what was expected from Spartan society but then the Sparta over which Leonidas ruled was, by modern standards, a country full of fruitcakes; one of the most frighteningly militaristic societies that ever existed.
Sparta was, at the time, one of the key Greek City States and was run as a completely military society which was viewed as extreme by other countries even then. Children were allowed to live with their families only until the age of 7 when they were sent to the agoge, a cross between boarding school and boot camp where they were trained to be soldiers (the only occupation permitted a Spartan male). They left age 20 and were expected to render military service to the state until their 60th birthday. Men lived communally in dorms long into adulthood, despite this they were expected to father as many children as possible. Women shaved their hair on marriage and were expected to raise warrior sons. All children who appeared weak at birth were left alone on a hillside to die. Sparta only functioned as a society because they were able to rely on the support of helots, slaves that they abused, humiliated and relied on for almost everything not pertaining to government and the military.
6. Herod of Israel – Child Murderer
Everyone has heard of Herod of Israel, the king who hosted the three wise men on their journey to meet Jesus. Herod was so incensed that someone could possibly think to replace him as king of the Jews that he tried to get the three wise men to reveal where Jesus was in order that he could kill him. When they avoided giving this information away he ordered the massacre of the innocents sending his men out to kill all baby boys under the age of 2. Luckily Jesus escaped as the holy family fled into Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath but many other innocent little children were not so lucky.
Herod was a Jewish convert rather than a Jew from birth and therefore was unpopular in Israel. He was so paranoid that he had a bodyguard of over 2,000 men. In order to curry favor with the Roman emperor he engaged in huge building projects which cost so much that he had to institute very heavy and unpopular taxes. He had his brother in law, the high priest, drowned and killed his wife Mariamne to appease the jealousy of his wicked sister Salome.
5. Tiberius of Rome – Reluctant Emperor, Rapist and Reclusive Pedophile
Tiberius was the second of the Roman Emperors and son in law and adopted son of Augustus, he reigned from 14-37 AD. In his early years Tiberius was a much admired and extremely talented military leader. He himself never truly aspired to be Emperor but had the post thrust upon him. He suffered great sadness in his life when he was forced by his mother and step-father to divorce his much loved first wife to marry the daughter of his stepfather the Emperor. He suffered further personal loss when his only son died in 26AD.
A few years after the death of his son Tiberius, now an emperor with no interest in his empire, retired to the island of Capreae (Capri) leaving trusted slaves and freedmen to govern the empire in his place.
Tiberius’ time in Capreae gave rise to rumors of sexual excesses extreme even for the licentious Roman upper classes. He was known as the ‘Old Goat of Capreae’ and was said to arrange for young boys to be sent to him so they could be raped and molested, those who displeased him were thrown from the cliffs of the palace to their deaths. He is reputed to have a taste for threesomes as well, employing ‘experts’ he called analists to act out various fantasies and kept a large stock of extreme pornography to inspire him. He had extreme pedophilic desires and trained toddlers to swim between his legs and nibble him and babies whom he persuaded to suckle his penis as though it were a woman’s nipple. When not debauching young children he enjoyed debasing women of high rank by forcing them to submit to his warped sexual desires.
4. Nero of Rome – Religious Zealot and Wife Beater
Nero became emperor on the death of his adopted father and great-uncle Claudius. He reigned from 54-68 AD and his actions during his reign qualify him as a lunatic of the first order. Nero’s reign started in blood when his mother poisoned the emperor Claudius to make way for his accession.
Things only got worse: Nero arranged the murder of his stepbrother and heir Bitannicus and then, having fallen out with his mother over her desire to control the empire and his sex life (she was also rumored to be his lover as his clothing showed suspicious stains after they had been alone together) he had her murdered and called it a suicide. He then divorced his first wife before having her killed in a boiling hot bath and was said to have kicked his second to death. He took a third wife after arranging for her existing husband to be killed and then, not satisfied with her attentions ordered a young man to be castrated and subsequently married him too. This was not enough, however, to sate his extensive sexual appetite, worried that he might need to engage in lustful activities at short notice he arranged for ‘rest stops’ to be set up along the route of his journeys complete with prostitutes waiting to cater to his every whim. When he got really bored he would dress up in animal skins and rape young boys and girls tied to stakes.
Nero is credited with arranging for huge parts of Rome to be burned in 64AD to clear the way for a huge new palace and then, it is rumored, watching the fire while playing his lyre (although to be fair other sources credit him with arranging a well-run relief effort). Nero blamed the fire on the Christians (a growing religious minority at that time) and became the first person to be held responsible for widespread persecution of followers of the new religion. He threw huge numbers of worshipers to the lions for the entertainment of the Roman mob and had others burned as candles to provide light for his evening entertainments. He is rumored to have been responsible for the murders of the apostles Peter and Paul and certain religious texts identify Nero as the antichrist.
He became so hated by the upper classes (although conversely he was very popular with the poor) that he was forced to commit suicide. He left no legal heir and was, therefore, the last of his line.
3. Elagabalus of Rome – Transvestite Sun God
Elagabalus, a priest of the Syrian god Elagabal was proclaimed emperor at the age of 14 in 217 AD and reined for a period of only 4 years. His short reign was noted for extreme sexual scandal and religious persecution his life was said, by commentators, to be ‘unspeakably disgusting’ a true achievement given the unpleasant habits of some of the other rulers on this list.
Elagabalus was unwilling to comply with traditional Roman religious practice and usurped Jupiter as chief god, replacing him with the deity he himself worshiped, Elagabal building a lavish new temple where Romans were required to worship a holy meteorite. Elagabalus then married a Vestal Virgin (Roman tradition required that the Vestal Virgins remain virgins).
Not satisfied with his marriage and deflowering of a Vestal Virgin Elagabalus was married (and divorced) to five women over the course of his short reign. He also took at least two ‘husbands’. Elagabalus loved to wear makeup and would regularly frequent local taverns as a prostitute, he was desperate to undergo a sex change and charged his doctors with researching whether this was medically possible.
2. Commodus of Rome – Naked Gladiator and Supreme Megalomaniac
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Commodus is famous, these days, as the anti-hero in the film Gladiator. He was the son of the well regarded emperor Marcus Aurelius and reigned from 180-192 AD and was just 18 years old when he succeeded the throne.
Much like in the film Commodus was popular with the ordinary Roman people because he laid on lavish entertainments and gladiatorial contests. Again, like the film, he often took part as a gladiator himself, he fought naked and of course he always won as his opponents did not dare defeat him. He used this hobby as a revenue generating activity charging the city of Rome for each appearance. He was not, however, popular with the senatorial class who disliked the fact that he ruled through freedmen and spent most of his time at his country estates perfecting his sporting prowess.
Commodus felt that he was a source of ‘god like power and liked particularly to be portrayed as the demi-god Hercules in statues which he ordered erected across the empire. As time wore on he started to distance himself from his relationship with Marcus Aurelius and claimed to be Hercules reborn, son of Jupiter the supreme god. In order to reinforce this belief he arranged for amputees to be herded to the arena where Commodus, dressed as Hercules would club them to death. When he tired of killing people he had endless streams of exotic animals such as lions, elephants, ostriches and giraffes run through the arena so that he could enjoy killing them.
As if this were not sufficient megalomania for one lifetime he proceeded to go even further. After a disastrous fire gutted much of Rome he declared he was a new Romulus, rebuilt the city and renamed it Commodiana. He gave himself 12 names and renamed the months of the year to match them. Other important institutions such as the Senate, senators, Romans etc were all renamed in his image. He also adopted the titles ‘Pacifier of the World’ and ‘Our Lord’.
1. Caligula of Rome – Living God and Imperial Pimp
The Roman Empire has contributed the majority of the rulers on this list but Caligula is arguably the worst of the lot. He acceded to the throne on Tiberius’ death in 37 AD and ruled for 4 years before being assassinated by his own guards who could no longer stand his excesses.
Caligula bankrupted the empire with his extravagant spending on bribes to bolster his supporters leading him to try to raise funds by killing wealthy Romans and declaring their estates forfeit to the emperor and imposing taxes on marriage and prostitution. He also used his own sisters as a revenue raising tool, acting as their pimp and turning the palace into a brothel. Roman citizens were persuaded to use their services and pay well for them. When his sisters were not being prostituted Caligula would sleep with them himself. They were not, however, enough for him and he regularly exhausted his male favorites with his sexual antics and often took the wives of his dinner guests off to the bedroom before coming back to the meal and commenting on her performance in bed.
Caligula had delusions of living divinity and declared that he was the ‘one lord, one king’ and regularly appeared in public as one of the Roman Pantheon, sometimes even dressed as Jupiter. He had temples dedicated to his worship inaugurated across the empire and the heads on the statues of many gods were removed and replaced with Caligula’s likeness. Roman emperors were frequently worshiped after their death but most of the saner ones shied away from allowing themselves to be worshiped as gods while alive. As a living god Caligula felt that there should be no limits to his power, even going so far as to order one section of the audience at some games to be pushed down into the arena to be eaten by animals because he was ‘bored’.
Caligula’s relationships with people were stormy but he was truly fond of his horse Incitatus. He arranged for him to be married to a pretty mare, Penelope, and had him appointed as Consul, a senator and possibly as a priest.
This list of some of the craziest rulers of the ancient world makes scary reading, while some of the worse traits and habits are probably the result of anti ruler propaganda there is more than likely to be a kernel of truth in them. If it is frightening enough to read of these people imagine what it was like to be ruled by them. At any moment you might be eaten, castrated, prostituted, forced to worship a human as a god or sent to military boarding school age 7 and given one career option – fight and die for your country.
This list serves to show what a heady combination mental health problems, unstable personalities, unlimited wealth and power can be. Don’t be tricked into thinking these problems are all in the past, however. As this list has shown us crazy rulers have been around from the earliest of times but history tells us that this keeps on happening.