The business of ruling is often a bloody affair. Throughout history, very few leaders have managed to reach the end of their reign without some blood on their hands. Some past rulers were forced to kill by necessity; executing traitors or killing rivals who threaten their regime or their very lives. Others murdered for Machiavellian reasons and some because they enjoy it. Often their victims were strangers, maybe acquaintances or even friends. Sometimes, even family members numbered amongst the body count.
Rulers killed their relatives for a variety of reasons. Some were traitors, who had harmed or planned to hurt them. Others just stood in their way. Some rulers sacrificed family to ambition while others murdered them to seize or consolidate their power. Others killed kin from a sense of self-preservation- or paranoia while others were seeking vengeance. Whatever the motivation, these murders and executions could be carried out with a heavy heart or a blithe lack of care- depending on the circumstances and the personality of the ruler in question. Here are just twelve examples of rulers who killed their relatives.
Herod the Great
Herod the Great is remembered for his wide-scale infanticide as detailed in the Gospel of St Matthew. Whether or not the events described in the gospel represent historical fact is open to debate. However, what is certain is that Herod’s hands were by no means clean of innocent blood. For paranoia over his right to the throne of Judea caused him to murder his brother in law, wife, uncle and two of his sons.
Herod was not a member of the Judean Hasmonean dynasty. Instead, in 37BC, he was appointed to the throne of Judea by the Roman senate. This appointment was made actual in 37BC when Roman legions took Judea and formally installed Herod as ruler. The new King attempted to acquire legitimacy for his reign by sending away his first wife and son and marrying Mariamne, a Hasmonean Princess. However, the ruse did not work. For the people of Judea never quite accepted Herod as King- and neither did his wife’s family.
In 35BC, Herod’s mother in law began to plot to place her son, Aristobulus on the throne. She elicited the help of Queen Cleopatra who invited mother and son to Alexandria. When Herod heard of the proposed visit, he became fearful of Anthony meeting his rival and being won over by him. So he had Aristobulus drowned. When Anthony summoned Herod to Alexandria to give an account of Aristobulus’s death, Herod knew his own life could be over. So he left Mariamne in the care of his uncle, Joseph- along with strict instructions to kill her if he should die.
Joseph, however, felt sorry for his niece in law and confided her husband’s plans to her. When Herod returned home, his mother and sister accused Joseph and Marimane of adultery. Herod did not believe the charge until Mariamne bitterly confronted him about her death sentence. Convinced Joseph could only have betrayed this information because he was Mariamne’s lover, Herod executed him. However, he spared his wife. Over the years, Mariamne grew to hate him openly so when his sister accused her of plotting to poison him, Herod had his wife tried and executed.
Meanwhile, the couple’s sons Alexander and Aristobulus had been brought up in Rome. In 12BC, they returned to Judea both bitterly resenting their father. The feeling was mutual, as Herod knew their mother’s blood gave them a better claim to the throne than him. Herod had recalled his eldest son, Antipater, from exile,- and this son made matters worse. He convinced Herod his royal half-brothers were plotting his death and in 7BC, Herod had them both strangled at Sebaste, the place he married Mariamne.
Herod was not the only king driven to murder by paranoia. Some, however, may have had a medical reason for their actions.