Incredible Tales Of The Most Unhinged Kings In History.

I've got a great idea. Let's put a small group of oligarchs in charge of everything. Then we'll have them intermarry for centuries, and leave the world to their children. No checks. No balances. No problem!

Commodus is perhaps best-known as the antagonist of the Russell Crowe film Gladiator. His Hollywood portrayal isnt historically accurate, but the real Commodus was definitely a villain in his own right.  

Commodus became Roman Emperor in 180, upon the death of his father. The historian Cassius Dio, a contemporary, describes him as stupid by nature rather than evil. 

His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he… was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.

Commodus was convinced that he was the reincarnation of the legendary Greek hero Hercules, and commissioned many statues portraying himself as such. 

He was obsessed with gladiatorial combat to the extent that he personally participated in it. Although the Romans loved gladiator fights, it was considered extremely distasteful for the Emperor to enter the Colosseum and pick up a sword himself; a modern analogy might be a President who worked nights as an exotic dancer. 

Commodus compounded his inappropriate behavior by having disabled people - even his own wounded soldiers - brought in so that he could slay them for the crowd. For each of these sadistic performances, he charged his own treasury a million sesterces (the Roman dollar). 

He was also an incalculable narcissist. When part of the the city of Rome burned down, he re-founded the city and named it after himself. He also renamed the months of the year after his 12 names.

In 192 AD, Commodus was strangled to death in the bath by his own personal trainer, who was acting on the instruction of dissatisfied Senators.


If you were wondering why Egypt doesnt have a monarchy anymore (and I think we all were!) King Farouk shoulders much of the blame. 

Ascending to the throne at the age of 16, Farouk became enamored of the the trappings of power. Unsatiated by his suite of palaces and fleet of expensive cars, Farouk raised eyebrows with a string European shopping-spree holidays. 

He collected many precious artefacts, including the Star of the East diamond (valued in excess of $11,000,000 in 2017 terms), and an extremely rare coin that the Egyptian government sold for $7,000,000 after he was deposed.

More shockingly, Farouk took to stealing whatever he couldnt buy. When a  Yemeni Imam visited Cairo, the King stole a priceless dagger from the cleric. On another occasion, he reportedly tried to rob no less a figure than British Prime Minister and World War II hero Winston Churchill. (continued…)

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While sitting next to Farouk at a dinner, Churchill noticed that his pocket watch, a generations-old family relic, had gone missing. After feigning concern, Farouk magically found the heirloom, and returned it to Churchill. He was so interested in thievery that he allegedly took lessons from a professional pickpocket. Some have gone so far as to call him a closet kleptomaniac. 

On another occasion, Farouk awoke from a terrible nightmare in which he had been chased by a lion. Perturbed, he sought the advice of a Muslim cleric, who told him he must kill the lion. So the King went to the Cairo zoo and shot the lions in their cages. When he informed the cleric what he had done, the cleric drily replied that his advice had been metaphorical. 

Farouk was also fantastically gluttonous. He reportedly ate as many as 600 oysters a week, slurped caviar out of the can, and guzzled up to 30 sodas a day.

Eventually, a group of Egyptian army officers reached the conclusion that Farouk was a corrupt, debauched puppet of Britain and the US. They rose up and forced him into exile in Italy where he died in 1965, at the age of 45, after a characteristically hearty meal.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Bad King John has been portrayed as an evil despot for centuries in retellings of the Robin Hood legends. Sometimes, a mans reputation is unfairly dragged through the dirt after his death, but in Johns case, the dragging is justified. 

John was the youngest son of King Henry II. When his elder brother Richard I (the Lionheart) assumed the throne King and joined the (ridiculous) Third Crusade, John attempted to overthrow him.

Richard the Lionheart died after a relatively brief reign, the majority of which he spent adventuring on foreign soil. Richards rightful heir was his son, Arthur. Instead, John had himself proclaimed King, and promptly murdered his nephew to ensure that claim would stand. 

At the beginning of his reign, John controlled much of northern France - a country that was far richer than England at this time. But mistreatment of his Norman nobles resulted in the French taking the territory back in 1204. 

Ten years later, John resolved to reconquer his lost domain. In order to accomplish this, he levied heavy taxes against his own barons, who were forced either to fight or pay a sort of draft-dodger tax called scutage. He levied this tax eleven times, enraging his own supporters. 

When John returned from France after his disastrous campaign, he faced revolt from his barons, who eventually cornered him and forced him to sign Magna Carta in 1215. 

Magna Carta declared that the King was subject to the rule of law, and that his vassals were endowed with certain rights - namely the right not to have their property seized just because the King wanted it. It also stipulated that a council of barons had the right to hold the King in judgement, and that they could legally wage war against him if he violated the treaty. 

Of course, he immediately violated the treaty. (continued…)

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He went to war with his barons almost immediately, this time achieving more success. But this recklessness also prompted a foreign invasion of England. 

Exasperated and desperate for assistance, the English nobles turned to Louis, the King of France. Louis brought reinforcements to London, probably in the hope of winning the English crown for himself. 

John would not be killed be any of his enemies, however. He died of dysentery, which he contracted while campaigning around the country, fighting to preserve the authority which he had so often abused. The invasion of England had stirred up anti-French sentiment, so Louis was rebuffed and forced to return to France empty-handed. 

John was succeeded by his 9-year-old son, Henry III.

Sources: 1, 2

Charles VI suffered from severe mental illness, which was not at all uncommon for medieval European monarchs. 

Not only was their gene pool notoriously shallow, but they also lived their entire lives as prisoners of a contradiction. On the one hand, they enjoyed tremendous power and privilege; on the other, they were often surrounded by schemers who would benefit from disposing of them. Born into such a position, you might become paranoid too, even if you werent genetically predisposed. 

I dont want to harp on rulers who were mentally ill, but  Charles VI is fascinating because he suffered from a disorder that is virtually extinct in the modern world. Its called the glass delusion

Pope Pius II noted that Charles became convinced that he was made of glass, and that he was therefore liable to shatter. He subsequently began wearing thick, reinforced clothing to protect himself, and forbade anyone from touching him. 

This particular delusion was concentrated among the wealthy and educated, and was famous enough to inspire numerous works of fiction in the 17th century. Today, there is only one documented case in the world.

Sources: 1, 2

The past is in the past. Lets turn our attention to one unhinged monarch who is still alive and on his throne: King Mswati III, the absolute ruler of the small south African nation of Swaziland. He is best known for his practice of polygamy, with 15 current wives on his roster. 

The story of how he came by one of those wives will give you a sense of his methods. (continued…)

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In October of 2002, 18-year old Zena Mahlangu disappeared from her school in Swaziland. Zenas mother learned the names of the women who had snatched her daughter. She reported the matter to the police, only to discover that Zena had been taken to the Kings palace, where she was being groomed to serve as his newest bride. 

Despite protests from her mother and Amnesty International accusing Mswati III of kidnapping, Zena was officially married to him in 2010. 

When hes not busy abducting women, the King leads a life of disgusting extravagance. 40% of Swazis are unemployed, and almost two-thirds live on less than $1.25US a day, but that doesnt stop Mswati from driving around in a $500,000 Maybach, or flying around in a $3M private jet. 

The fact that hes amassed a personal fortune estimated at $200M also doesnt stop him from petitioning the government (which he controls) to shell out millions of dollars of public money to renovate his palaces or build him new ones. 

All told, Mswati III is a pretty convincing modern-day reminder of why monarchy is such a bad idea.

Sources: 1, 2, 3.

Ivan Vassilyevitch, the Prince of Moscow, was raised in terror, a virtual prisoner in his own palace. His father had died when he was only three years old. His mother, his only protector, died just five years later - probably murdered.  

For the rest of his childhood, Ivan was at the mercy of the boyars (nobles), who squabbled over which of them should control the young prince. Ivan felt that he was badly mistreated and abused by those who were supposed to have served him; this resentment would fester and come to define him later in life. 

Despite his hardships, Ivan was crowned Tsar of All the Russias at age 16, and took as his bride Anastasia Romanova. 

(No. Not that Anastasia.) 

Despite the brutality of his later reign, Ivan actually began as a peaceful and effective ruler. He rewrote the law code, created a standing army to protect Russia, and even created the countrys first parliament. 

Then, in 1560, Anastasia died, apparently poisoned. Ivan was overcome with grief. Tragedies began to pile up. Drought and famine ravaged the land at the same time as Russia was also losing a war against Poland and Lithuania. Then Andrei Kurbsky, one of Ivans closest associates, defected to the Lithuanians and launched an invasion.

By 1564, Ivan had had it. He packed all of his most valued possessions, and fled from Moscow. Nobody knew where he had gone until two letters arrived. (continued...)

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The letters explained that Ivan had resigned as Tsar because of the corruption and treason of the boyars. If they wanted to rule the country so badly, they could go ahead. 

As it happened, they didnt want that. The boyars had proven incapable of governing without the Tsar; they were terrified that the people of Moscow, blaming them for Ivans departure, would rise up and tear them apart. 

So they sent the Tsar an emissary, begging him to return and lead his people. Ivan agreed on one condition: absolute authority. No more complaining. No more overruling him. No more scheming. He would do as he liked, and they would live with the consequences. The boyars agreed. 

This was the beginning of Ivans reign of terror. Invested with absolute power, he carved off a large portion of Russia and took it for his own. He turned loose an army of secret police called the oprichniki. In exchange for loyalty, these thugs were given enormous estates where they could literally do whatever they wanted.

The oprichniki pilfered everything from the common people. Huge numbers of peasants fled from the oprichniks, leading to a reduced food supply and even more starvation. 

Now extremely paranoid, Ivan also used his secret police to attack the boyars who had made his life miserable. When he bored of that, he set his wrath upon the city of Novgorod, which he suspected was about to defect to Lithuania. Despite the absence of any evidence to this effect, he ordered the oprichniki to sack the city. 

Men, women, and children were tied to sleighs and drowned in the river on Ivans orders. The archbishop of the city was sewn into a bearskin and then hunted down by wolves. Estimates of the death toll range as high as 60,000, and  Novgorod never fully recovered from the sacking.

But the Tsars most infamous crime was the murder of his own son, Ivan Ivanovich. Ivan had struck his sons pregnant wife some days before, causing her to miscarry. When Ivanovich tried to confront his father, he was accused of insubordination. In the ensuing scuffle, Ivan struck his son in the head with his sceptre, causing him to lose consciousness and bleed from his temple. He died some days later. 

Ivan himself died of a stroke while playing chess three years later.

Sources: 1, 2, 3.

Its worth pointing out the impossibility of confirming stories about Caligula, or any of the other supposedly weird and wicked Roman Emperors. History is written by the victors, and its always tempting to cast your opponents as even more horrid than they really were - especially if theyre no longer around to defend themselves. 

But if half of the things that written about Caligula were true… (continued…)

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For the first six months of his reign, Caligula seems to have been rational and statesmanlike. But then he fell gravely ill. Although he survived, he seemed to be a changed man after making his recovery. He promptly murdered his cousin and adopted son, drove his grandmother to suicide, and purged much of his remaining family. 

Caligula also outdid all profligates ever. Within one year of taking power, he had blown through the 2.7 billion sesterces (dollars) that had been left to him. For reference, the average annual salary for a soldier at that time was 900 sesterces. 

Finding himself in financial straits, Caligula took refuge in absurdity. He began taxing lawsuits and weddings. When that proved insufficient, he took to arresting or even murdering people so that he could seize their property. 

One of his gravest offences against public decency was his claim to personal divinity. Roman Emperors were often deified and worshipped after their deaths, but Caligula presented himself to the public as a living, breathing god. He apparently referred to himself as news helios (the new sun).

Many people have heard the (possibly apocryphal) story that Caligula tried to make his horse a consul, but he actually did something even nuttier.

He supposedly declared war on Neptune, the God of the Sea, ordering his soldiers to stab at the waves with their swords, and wade into the surf to collect spoils of war (seashells) for him.  

Whether it was his spending, his megalomania, or his war with the sea that served at the final straw, Caligula was murdered by his own guards in 41 AD.

Sources: 1, 2

In 1848, a wealthy Englishman named Joshua Abraham Norton immigrated to the United States. He wound up in San Francisco, where he lost all his money investing in Peruvian rice. 

As a means of compensating for his newfound poverty, Norton became a grandiose eccentric. In 1859, he declared himself the Emperor of America. Instead of locking him up as a madman, the locals made him into a kind of cult celebrity. They dutifully provided him with regal attire, and addressed him as your highness whenever they saw him. 

Despite the fact that Norton was destitute, he was always guaranteed a table at San Franciscos most exclusive restaurants, or at the theatre. Nortons authority was paid deference in more serious ways as well; he actually issued his own currency, which many local establishments accepted. 

When Norton died, 30,000 people poured into the streets for his funeral. 

If you think Norton was just a silly old man, youre wrong. He actually showed extraordinary prescience, proposing the formation of a League of Nations decades before the idea gained traction. He also ordered the construction of a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. That order wasnt carried out until 1936, but it was carried out.


Thank you for reading!

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