They Were Nuts! Seven of History’s Craziest Rulers
When one looks at the state of the world today, one could be forgiven for thinking that some, if not all of our leaders are at least a little bit loopy. Rest assured: this feeling is nothing new. People have been putting up with rulers who have lost their minds for millennia. Some of them were amusing, some terrifying. Here are seven rulers who lost their minds.
1.Qin Shi Huang’s Search for Immortality
Qin Shi Huang was a ruler who believed his own hype. At least in his case, it was somewhat earned. Qin Shi Huang rose to power as the first emperor of a unified China in the 3rd century BC.
Once Huang gained power, he rapidly became obsessed with keeping it. He had many enemies, and over the years he faced several assassination attempts. The idea that death was the only thing that could separate him from power caused him to lose his mind. He became obsessed with gaining immortality. He consulted doctors who prescribed him a healthy regimen of sex to maintain his vitality.
When this failed, he began taking pills full of mercury. These had the opposite effect. His health declined, and so did his sanity. As Huang lost more and more of his marbles, he turned to mysticism. His greatest adventurers were sent out to the ‘Islands of the Immortals’ to find a magical elixir that would allow him to live forever. Fearing evil spirits, he had a complex system of tunnels built that connected his 200 palaces.
Huang is best remembered for his magnificent tomb filled with its army of terracotta soldiers. They were meant to be an immortal army that would protect their supposedly immortal emperor. Huang died in 210 BC.
- How the Search for Immortality Killed the First Emperor of China
- Seeking Life but Finding Death: Deadly Chinese Elixirs of Immortality
If you thought the man who had a terracotta army built for him was insane, you were right! Qin Shi Huang’s search for immortality resulted in his own death. (画中的日记 / CC BY SA 4.0)
2.Nero the Mother Killer
To be honest, you could write an entire list just of crazy rulers of Rome. The most famous of them is probably Nero. Nero appears to have begun his reign relatively sane, but increasingly fell into a paranoia that left him a little crazy.
Much has been made of Nero’s violent tendencies, but Nero had a softer side (which was also crazy). By the time Nero became the emperor of Rome at the age of seventeen, he had been trained in the arts and was a talented singer, musician, and reciter of poetry.
In Roman culture, professional actors and musicians were, socially speaking, barely higher than whores or slaves. But Nero loved to perform. As emperor, he hosted a range of events and competitions to play in public. He even went as far as entering the Olympic Games and forcing the organizers to include artistic competitions. Unsurprisingly, he won every event he entered.
He loved performing so much and played for so long that audience members came up with inventive means of escape. Old men would feign death and women would fake going into labor just to escape. When Nero died he stated, “What an artist dies in me.”
Also, he had a habit of killing the people close to him. It all began with his mother, whom he had killed. His reasons for having his mother killed are unclear, but it seems after her death Nero began to suffer from paranoia. If his own mother could turn on him, anyone could.
It is widely believed Nero had his first wife killed and killed his second wife himself. After his second wife, Poppaea, died, he had a young commoner who resembled his deceased wife castrated. He then dressed the young man as his wife and married him - truly the actions of a crazy ruler.
- Lost History of a Mad Man? Revealing the Surprisingly Compassionate Side of Nero, One of the “Worst” Ancient Roman Emperors
- Mad, Bad, and Deadly: Power in the Hands of Infamous Roman Emperors
A bored Roman emperor (Nero) has let himself be carried in a palanquin into the prison of an arena and looks at the prisoners (captive Christians). Above them are the lions they will soon be thrown to. Painting by Henri-Paul Motte, 1880 (Public Domain)
3.Charles VI of France Believed He Was Made of Glass
Charles VI of France is remembered for two things: his crushing defeat at Agincourt against the British and the fact that he was really quite mad.
Charles’s bouts of psychosis are numerous and well-documented. In 1393, he forgot his name and the fact that he was king. When his wife came to visit in an attempt to help, he had no idea who she was either. He ordered his servants to look after her but also get rid of her.
Then from 1395-96, he began claiming he was Saint George. He recognized his servants and officers, but could not remember his wife or children. Around the same time, he took to running wildly around the corridors of his residence, Hotel Saint-Pol. It became such a problem that to keep him inside and safe, entrances had to be walled up.
Then in 1405, he refused to bathe or wear clean clothes for five months. After this last bout of madness, records of his mental illness become scarcer. It is believed this is not because he recovered but because his bouts of insanity became so numerous that people gave up keeping track of them.
Thanks to Pope Pius II, we know that at some point Charles began to believe he was made of glass. He became terrified of breaking and would let no one touch him. He would sit still for hours and even went as far as having iron rods sewn into his clothing to protect him. It’s common for powerful men to have fragile egos, but Charles took it one step further.
The Madness of Charles VI: crossing the forest of Le Mans on an expedition against Pierre de Craon, the king, brandishing a sword, mistakes the members of his retinue for enemies and attacks them. (Public Domain)
4.Ivan the Terribly Crazy
So far, most of the leaders on our list lived lives of luxury. Their madness was either the result of an insatiable ego or in Charles’s case, genetic. But Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he would come to be known, was different. He lost his mind due to the abuse he had suffered as a young man.
Ivan lost both of his parents at a young age. After the loss of his mother at the tender age of seven, Ivan was left defenseless. The elite members of the Russian government tormented and abused him. At an early age, Ivan began torturing small animals as a coping mechanism.
In 1544, at the age of 14, Ivan had had enough. He seized control of his country by having the head of the government fed to a pack of hungry dogs. He was crowned tsar two years later at the age of 16.
At first, it appeared being made ruler cured him of his insanity. He made a public confession and apologized for his various cruel acts. In the beginning, he was a good tsar. For example, he created laws aimed at creating class equality, so that no one would suffer as he had.
But it didn’t last long. He soon began massacring his own people, especially anyone who dared challenge his autocratic tendencies. As he got older, he became more unhinged and the paranoia and rage of his youth reappeared. This culminated in the murder of his eldest son, heir, and favorite, Ivan Ivanovich.
Even Ivan the Terrible realized he’d gone a bit mad after he murdered his own son. Painting by Ilya Repin, 1885 (Public Domain)
5.Emperor Caligula the Sadist
Emperor Caligula of Rome is bound to top any list of crazy rulers. Caligula was a leader whose sadism and depravity seemed to have known no bounds. For a start, Caligula tried to instate his horse, Incitatus, as a consul. He appointed a priest to serve the horse and had a stunning marble stable built, complete with chairs and a sofa. This was more than a little eccentric.
Then there are the multiple tales of his sadism. For example, one day at the Circus Maximus, Caligula was enjoying the spectacle when suddenly it became apparent the organizers had run out of criminals to feed to the lions. Caligula simply had the first five rows of spectators dragged from their seats and thrown into the arena. Hundreds died.
Another time, when someone insulted Caligula to his face, he responded by having the man's family executed in front of a crowd. It began with the man and his wife. Then the children followed, one by one. Eventually, only the youngest daughter, a 12-year-old, was left.
The crowd was outraged but had stayed out of morbid curiosity. Before the young girl could be killed, a spectator cried out that she must be spared as she was a virgin. The girl was crying hysterically, having watched her family dispatched one by one. Caligula responded by ordering the executioner to rape the young girl in front of the crowd before strangling her to death.
Caligula was also said to have been beyond debauched. He publicly had sex with his three sisters at public banquets and games, sometimes on the banquet table itself. It has also been claimed that he prostituted his sisters out to other men for his entertainment and slept with his brother-in-law.
Historically, much has been made of Caligula’s sadism. Some historians have claimed that some of the worst tales about Caligula were exaggerated or made up in an attempt to discredit him after his death. However, enough sources exist to paint a picture of an emperor who was mad, bad, and totally insane.
Caligula wasn’t just a cruel sadist; he was a crazy ruler who made his horse consul. (Public Domain)
6.Tsar Peter III and his Toy Soldiers
Some rulers lose their minds over time, and some never had them in the first place. Tsar Peter III of Russia seems to have suffered from a kind of Peter Pan syndrome; he never grew up! Today, he is mainly remembered as the ruler whose wife, Catherine the Great, deposed him and ruled in his stead. But how did Catherine manage to get rid of her husband?
Well, it was widely believed that Peter was obsessed with toy soldiers. Catherine claimed that on their wedding night she was left disappointed when Peter had plans other than consummating their marriage.
Instead of undressing, Peter pulled a box of toy soldiers out from under his bed and forced his bride to play with them until 2am. Another time, Peter spent a substantial amount of time setting up a toy fort ready for a mock battle. He was left enraged when a rat happened to walk past and knocked over his toys. The rat was soon hung from the wall for ‘breaching military discipline’.
Catherine may indeed have exaggerated the stories of Peter and his toys as a way of discrediting and ultimately deposing him. However, there are enough sources that corroborate her claims to safely say that Peter was a few soldiers short of a full platoon.
Russia’s Tsar Peter III was such a crazy ruler that his wife, Catherine the Great, was able to depose him. (Public Domain)
7.The Latest Crazy Ruler: Turkmenistan’s Niyazov
Our list ends with the most recent ruler on the list. One of the classic calling cards of a crazy ruler is an ego that can’t be kept in check; this is what happened to Saparmurat Niyazov.
Niyazov became president of Turkmenistan after the fall of the USSR, ruling from 1990 until his death in 2006. He soon set to work creating a cult of personality that rivaled even that of the Kim Dynasty in North Korea.
This morphed into an obsession with renaming everything. He had the months of the year, days of the week, and even bread renamed to represent his glory. His ego was such that towns, schools, and even a meteorite were given his name.
Doctors were even ordered to stop reciting the Hippocratic Oath. Instead, they had to swear an oath to Niyazov. Niyazov went as far as turning a book he had written into the equivalent of the country's bible. His book, the Ruhnama, had to be taught in schools, which is pretty standard fare for a dictator. However, Niyazov went one step further. If you wanted any government job, however low level, you had to be tested on the Ruhnama. Even the driving test had questions on it!
Niyazov took the idea of a cult of personality and essentially tried to turn it into a state religion. His ego was such that he saw himself as a god. Those who read his book three times were “guaranteed to go to heaven”. It is unsurprising that soon after his death the people of Turkmenistan rapidly undid the vast majority of his decrees.
Turkenistan’s crazy ruler Niyazov turned his autobiography into a state religion (Hans Birger Nilsen / CC BY SA 2.0)
So there we have it, a selection of crazy rulers who suffered from varying degrees of madness. Some of them were tragic; some of them committed heinous acts, and some were just amusing. What isn’t amusing is the effect these rulers had on the people forced to follow them. Everyone on this list was an autocrat who exerted their whims on the people they ruled.
We like to think that the checks and balances we have in place today protect us from this kind of insanity. However, if recent history has taught us anything, it's that we are not as safe as we think we are.
Top Image: If you think some of today’s world leaders are nuts, you’ll be surprised by some of history’s other crazy rulers. Source: Source: master1305/Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Barrett, A. 1989. Caligula: The Corruption of Power. Yale University. London
Famiglietti, R.C. 1992. Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300–1500). Providence; Picardy Press.
Theroux, P. 2007. The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov's Reign of Insanity. The New Yorker.
Yu-ning, L. 1975. The First Emperor of China. White Plains: International Arts and Sciences Press.