We remember the titans of the ancient world because of their legendary accomplishments; Alexander conquered Persia, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Boudicca fought the invaders. Their names live on through the ages. Yet their contemporaries had stories worth telling, too: rulers of the ancient world whose stories were powerful and compelling, yet almost forgotten. Read on to learn about 10 such ancient kings—the ones who were simply too dramatic for your history books.
1. Mursili of the Hittites (1620–1590 BCE)
Hattusa was the ancient capital of the Hittite Empire. Its ruins lie in present-day Turkey. Today, the drive from Hattusa to Babylon would take you about 20 hours in a Toyota, provided you didn’t mind crossing over some fairly strife-ridden territory. For Mursili I, king of the Hittites, the roughly 1050-mile march would have taken much longer (especially because he stopped to conquer the city of Aleppo on the way).
Mursili’s sack of Babylon was an impressive feat. It brought down the famed descendants of Hammurabi and guaranteed Mursili’s legacy among the people of Babylon. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really a fruitful conquest for Mursili himself. Babylon was too far away for the Hittites to actually rule, and the glamor of the conquest did little to boost Mursili’s support at home. Instead, when Mursili returned to his palace, his raid was decried as an act of hubris and his brother-in-law staged a coup, abruptly ending his reign via assassination. The Hittites continued to feel rather embarrassed about the whole affair, giving it “scant attention” in their own history books.
2. Wu Yi of the Shang (1147–1114 BCE)
In the long recorded arc of Chinese history, the Xia dynasty comes first. The Xia may have truly existed, or they may have been mythical; history isn’t quite sure. But the second great Chinese dynasty was almost certainly real, as was one of its more colorful emperors. Emperor Wu Yi of the Shang Dynasty reigned (probably) from 1147 to 1112 BCE. Wu Yi wanted to move China away from a theocratic form of government and toward a more monarchical ruling structure.
Unfortunately, his methods for achieving this were perceived as a bit mad. Wu Yi tried to show his power over the Heavenly Spirit by beating it in fake games. Most notoriously, he had a leather pouch crafted and filled up with blood. Then, he strung the object up high, and in a particularly blasphemous form of pre-modern skeet shooting, shot arrows at it. According to the Shang Dynasty’s Annals, the emperor called this game “Shooting at Heaven.” Apparently Heaven didn’t appreciate the Emperor’s game very much. Wu Yi died some time after this on a hunting trip, supposedly shaken to death by a thunderclap [PDF]. The Emperor who was quite literally smote down lives on in infamy.
3. Sargon II of Assyria (721–705 BCE)
By Assyrian standards, Sargon II was a very successful king. He pillaged huge amounts of silver and gold by raiding foreign cities, annexed lands from the Philistines and the neo-Hittites, and to top it all off, captured the throne of Babylon. And yet, after his death, his legacy was nearly erased. His son, Sennacherib (of Old Testament fame) never spoke his father’s name. He instead encouraged the people of Assyria to forget their old king. This erasure was so effective that for centuries, historians believed Sargon to be a myth—a Biblical misnomer, at best. It took the discovery of Sargon II’s palace at Dur-Sharukkin in the late 19th century for historians to begin reassessing this pivotal king’s legacy.
So why was Sennacherib, by all accounts a loving son to Sargon II, so determined to efface his father’s name? Sargon II died in battle, becoming the only Assyrian monarch not to receive a royal burial. His body was lost to the enemy. Because he was not rightly interred, his spirit was thought to have been cursed. The Assyrians believed the old king must have committed some great, blasphemous sin for his gods to have so fully abandoned him. Sennacherib was so deeply shaken by his father’s unlucky death that he moved his palace to Nineveh and never spoke his name again. Sargon II’s death was dramatic enough to literally erase him from the history books for a time; a terrible fate for the once-towering king.
4. Gyges of Lydia (680–652 BCE)
The land of Lydia was fabulously wealthy, blessed with natural deposits of gold washed down through the River Pactolus. Even today, when we say someone is “rich as Croesus,” we are referring to the last Lydian King. Croesus was the great-grandson of the Lydian King Gyges, who, per Herodotus, overthrew the dynasty of Hercules. Questions remain about how Gyges came to power, and the answers seem no less fantastical than the legends of Hercules himself. The best version of Gyges’s story is found in Plato. The story goes that Gyges, wandering about the mountains as a shepherd, came across a golden ring. He put the ring on, and lo! He vanished! With this Tolkienesque power, Gyges seduced the sitting queen and murdered her husband, taking the throne for himself.
As king, Gyges was famed both for his military prowess and his savvy use of wealth. The gifts he lavished on the Oracle at Delphi garnered him favorable prophecies, which in turn eased his conquests and discouraged Greek allies from liberating the Greek towns Gyges sought to conquer. From Gyges to Croesus, the Lydians certainly knew how to make their gold work for them.
5. Archelaus I (413–399 BCE)
Alexander the Great of Macedon is surely the nation’s most famous king, and yet, in drama, his ancestor Archelaus I may have outdone him. Archelaus was the illegitimate son of his father and an enslaved woman. He should not have become king, but after murdering his uncle, cousins, and brother (the actual heir to the throne), he found his path to the succession suddenly cleared. Despite this potentially inauspicious start, Archelaus became a famed king. His court attracted artists from across the Hellenic world, including the great dramatist Euripides.
Euripides, by this time already quite elderly, nonetheless retained a great appetite for the pleasures of the world. He made what appears to have been an unwanted advance upon a young courtier. The courtier retaliated by spreading the rumor that Euripides had horribly bad breath. For this, King Archelaus permitted Euripides to flog the young man for his supposed rudeness. Archelaus’s fondness for the dramatic arts clearly outweighed his sense of justice in this case. For this, he paid the price. The young courtier, along with two of his friends, conspired against Archelaus, took him on a Royal Hunt, and murdered him. Let he who aspires to court drama take note of this fate.
6. Demetrius the Fair of Cyrene (249–245 BCE)
Demetrius the Fair was originally from Macedon. He became the king of Cyrene, a Greek colony in modern-day Libya, in 249 BCE. Cyrene’s princess, Berenice, was engaged to her cousin Ptolemy, the king of Egypt. It was a match that would have united their two empires. However, Berenice’s mother, Queen Apame, was opposed to the alliance, so after Berenice’s father died, Apame married Berenice off to Demetrius (the queen’s uncle) instead.
Queen Apame may have had ulterior motives for arranging this particular marriage, as she appeared to enjoy Demetrius’s company a good deal more than her daughter did. Berenice ended up killing her husband while he was in her mother’s bed; whether the Mrs. Robinson-ian behavior triggered or simply sweetened the murder, we’ll never know. Berenice, however, was now free to marry her once-betrothed, Ptolemy, while Demetrius never had to age out of his legendary fairness. If it’s any consolation to Demetrius, Berenice ended up dying at her own son’s hands, so, while they may not have been the closest of partners in life, they did at least share similar ends.
7. Qin Er Shi of the Qin (209–206 BCE)
You’ve likely heard of the Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, famed despot and creator of the Terracotta Army. You’re much less likely to have heard of his successor, the Emperor Qin Er Shi. When Qin Shi Huangdi died, his ministers fretted that his eldest son and heir would have them sidelined. So ministers Li Siu and Zhao Gao seized on another candidate: the emperor’s younger son, Hu Hai. Hu Hai was easily manipulated, cruel, and weak—everything the ministers could have hoped for, if not necessarily ideal for the people of China.
Hu Hai was convinced to forge his father’s will and sway his elder brother to die by suicide by drinking poison. He then got down to his actual work. As emperor Qin Er Shi, he eliminated every other threat to the throne. He had his male siblings publicly executed or forced them to poison themselves; his sisters, too, suffered gruesome deaths under his orders.
But Qin Er Shi’s grasp on the empire rapidly weakened. Ultimately, he only ruled China for three years before being forced to swallow his own cup of poison, and the Qin dynasty would collapse shortly thereafter.
8. Jugurtha of Numidia (118–104 BCE)
Contemporaries described Jugurtha of Numidia as the sort of character who would steal your last loaf of bread, then sell it back to you for double the price. His country, Numidia, was a Roman ally in Northern Africa during the time of the Roman Republic. Jugurtha was the illegitimate son of a Numidian prince, but his brilliance in battle made him so beloved by his own people that he was awarded one third of the kingdom.
But Jugurtha wanted more. He killed one brother and soundly beat the other one in battle, sending him fleeing to Rome for protection. Jugurtha handled the situation adroitly: by bribing the Senators of Rome. This convinced the Senate to appoint a commission for the purpose of dividing Numidia. Jugurtha then promptly bribed the commission. Eventually, Jugurtha’s questionable ethics turned the Roman people against him, and Rome and Numidia went to war. Once again, Jugurtha’s loose relationship with the rules served him well. During his war with Rome, Jugurtha often bribed soldiers on the enemy lines, easing his path to military victory. Jugurtha ultimately lost his fight with Rome, but not through lack of cunning. Instead, his own father-in-law betrayed him to the Roman consul. Treachery, it seems, does breed treachery.
9. Phraates IV of Parthia (38–2 BCE)
Soon after young Phraates of Parthia was named his father’s successor, he decided that he’d very much like to speed up the process of succession by murdering his father. Phraates then went on and killed 30 of his brothers, just for good measure. His father may have chosen his successor poorly.
For a time being, the great rivals of Parthia, the Romans, fared no better against Phraates IV than his kinsmen had done. Phraates defeated Mark Antony in battle, then maneuvered the emperor Augustus into making peace with Parthia. Augustus returned Phraates’s hostage son to him, and as a sign of further goodwill, sent Phraates a concubine named Musa as a gift.
This was not as benevolent a gesture as it may have seemed on the surface. Phraates and Musa had a son, and Phraates thought so highly of him that he named this child his successor, evidently having learnt nothing from his own father’s mistakes. Musa then had Phraates IV killed, and she and her own son, Phraates V, took the throne of Parthia. Phraates V perhaps outdid his father in scandal. It’s commonly reported that he marryed Musa, thereby making her his queen and queen mother in one.
10. Ezana of Axum (320–356 CE)
King Ezana of Aksum does not appear to have been particularly licentious, cruel, or mad. Instead, Ezana is notable in history for his exceptional benevolence as a ruler. The motto inscribed on the coins distributed throughout his kingdom was “May This Please The Country,” seemingly the words of a true public servant. Ezana was born a pagan, but his father had him educated by a trusted enslaved person, Frumentius. Frumentius was a Syrian Christian who had shipwrecked as a youth in the Red Sea. He must have been quite the educator, because he is credited not only with converting Ezana to Christianity, but also serving as the first Christian Bishop in Ethiopia, after the entire country had been declared a Christian nation.
Ezana strengthened and expanded his borders and led the conquest of Meroe, the capital city of Kush, one of the most legendary ancient African civilizations. Yet Ezana did not butcher his way through his campaigns. Instead, he would give his new subjects fertile lands in Aksum, encouraging them to integrate and prosper under his reign. Long after Ezana’s reign, Aksum retained a reputation as a just society, welcoming to refugees and fair to all.